Schedule and Speakers for Mini-Science 2017

Mini-Science logoSustainability: The Science

Wednesday evenings, from February 22 to April 12, 2017. (There is no lecture on March 1.)

About the readings: Some of the readings below are articles in scholarly journals. You may enjoy reading just the abstract, or other portions of the article such as the conclusion or discussion.

To find out more about Mini-Science 2017, please start at our Mini-Science homepage. Register today!

Sustainable food systems for global food security (February 22, 2017)

Prof. Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez, Institute for Global Food Security


The progress of human society greatly depends, among other things, from its ability to generate one of the most essential inputs for development: sufficient and adequate food. As defined by the international community 20 years ago, food security exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient food of adequate nutritional quality in order to meet their dietary requirements for an active and healthy life. Even though the last United Nations' report on food insecurity in the world indicates that roughly 800 million people face hunger, this estimation might reflect only part of the problem, and doesn't show food insecurity related issues faced by vulnerable populations in the industrialized world. In order to achieve a world free from hunger, as established by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the development of food systems that address a wide range of current challenges to food production, distribution, and consumption is absolutely necessary. Given the complexity of the problem and that the determinants, as well as the consequences, of food insecurity and hunger are of very diverse nature, interventions towards sustainable food systems require a holistic approach integrating a wide range of disciplines, such as: plant, animal and food sciences, economics, sociology and anthropology, water management, nutrition and health, and political and environmental sciences. In spite of the complexity of the challenge humanity currently faces in the fight against hunger, sustainable food systems are an achievable goal through the integration of these five programs and interventions: 1) stronger investments in research and development in food security; 2) generation of evidence-based policies supported through adequate investments; 3) improve infrastructure and markets; 4) integration of agriculture and nutrition through women's empowerment; 5) promote locally applicable technologies and services to small farming. The international consensus around the SDG goals represents a historical opportunity for the eradication of hunger on earth.

Readings and links

No lecture. (March 1, 2017)

McGill Reading Week

Biodiversity Change and Sustainability in the Anthropocene (March 8, 2017)

Prof. Andy Gonzalez, Department of Biology


Humanity strongly impacts the biological diversity of Earth's ecosystems. Evidence is mounting that biodiversity change in the form of species extinctions and invasions is altering the sustainability of Earth's ecosystems.

Sustainability refers to the capacity of our linked social and ecological systems to adapt and persist into the future. I will explain this idea and show how biodiversity fits into the picture. We will see that through land use change, pollution and climate change humans are altering the distribution of life on Earth and in turn the sustainability of the ecosystems we rely upon for our social and economic wellbeing.

I will present the results of research showing that biodiversity change affects how ecosystems function, and how biodiversity change can make them less predictable and adaptable. I will then show how these negative effects in turn erode the many benefits society receives from ecosystems, in the form of ecosystem services.

We must maintain and restore biodiversity, especially biodiversity that is both vulnerable to ongoing environmental change and critical for the sustainability of the Earth's ecosystems. I will close with some practical suggestions for achieving this aim.

Readings and links

  • Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Bradley J. Cardinale, J. Emmett Duffy, Andrew Gonzalez, David U. Hooper, Charles Perrings, Patrick Venail, Anita Narwani, Georgina M. Mace, David Tilman, David A. Wardle, Ann P. Kinzig, Gretchen C. Daily, Michel Loreau, James B. Grace, Anne Larigauderie, Diane S. Srivastava & Shahid Naeem. Nature 486, 59-67 (07 June 2012) (Alternative link)
  • Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth's ecosystems. Nick M. Haddad,, Lars A. Brudvig, Jean Clobert, Kendi F. Davies, Andrew Gonzalez, Robert D. Holt, Thomas E. Lovejoy, Joseph O. Sexton, Mike P. Austin, Cathy D. Collins, William M. Cook, Ellen I. Damschen, Robert M. Ewers, Bryan L. Foster, Clinton N. Jenkins, Andrew J. King, William F. Laurance, Douglas J. Levey, Chris R. Margules, Brett A. Melbourne, A. O. Nicholls, John L. Orrock, Dan-Xia Song and John R. Townshend. Science Advances 20 Mar 2015: Vol. 1, no. 2, e1500052 (Alternative link)

Sustainability and development in China: a view from the household level (March 15, 2017)

Prof. Brian Robinson, Department of Geography & Program in Sustainability, Science and Society


We live pretty far from nature. Or, at least, the illusion that we are separate from nature is ubiquitous. In this talk I will start by trying to break down this illusion, and argue that understanding the benefits we get from nature, or ecosystem services, can help us make more informed decisions about how to sustain the resource we depend on most. However, we need a way of measuring what people get from landscapes. To address the challenge of trying to understand the sustainability of our use of the landscape, I will present some of my recent work from a watershed in the mountains just north of Beijing, China. This watershed is home to the most visited parts of the Great Wall of China, and importantly feeds the Miyun Reservoir, Beijing's sole source of surface drinking water. I first discuss a way to measure landscape dependence through households' use of ecosystem services. Second, I map these household measures back onto the landscape, showing which parts of the landscape seem to matter most. Finally, I discuss how ongoing changes in rural regions, like migration and urbanization, have changed dependence in this watershed. We will conclude with what we are still missing to understand whether global reliance on this landscape is sustainable.

Readings and links

Sustainable urban transport: challenges and opportunities (March 22, 2017)

Prof. Kevin Manaugh, Department of Geography & School of Environment


For much of the 20th Century transportation planners in North America focused on the efficient and fast movement of automobiles. This automobile-centric focus has resulted in a 'vicious cycle', one in which the very way we build our cities reinforces automobile dependence. Zoning laws, density limits, and parking requirements, for example, can work together to ensure that a privately-owned automobile is often necessary to meet many daily mobility needs. The environmental impacts of automobile use are well-documented and include green-house gas emissions and local air pollution. In addition, the vast networks of roads, highways, and parking structures disrupt ecosystems, contribute to the urban heat island effect, and create storm water runoff problems. In recent years, however, transportation planners have begun shifting from this focus on cars to situating their visions, goals, and objectives in the wider framework of sustainability. But what, exactly, does it mean for a transportation system to be 'sustainable'?

This talk will examine historical trends in transportation systems, and, using examples in Montreal and throughout the world, highlight the challenges and opportunities inherent in attempting to lessen the environmental impacts of transport. I will also focus on the importance of prioritizing 'active' modes of travel as designing urban areas for walking and cycling has multiple and profound implications for public health, environmental impacts, quality of life, social inclusion, and economic growth.

Readings and links

The sustainability of water in the Andes (March 29, 2017)

Prof. Jeff McKenzie, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences


Globally, it is estimated that almost 400 million people live in watersheds where glaciers provide at least 10% of the runoff. Yet, there are many questions regarding the sustainability of this water resources due to climate change and glacier recession. The Cordillera Blanca, Peru, with the highest density of glaciers in the tropics, provides a unique natural laboratory for investigating glacierized water resources. With ongoing climate change, these glacier 'water-towers' are quickly disappearing, with dire consequences for downstream populations. Dr. McKenzie and his research group have shown that the Cordillera Blanca has crossed a 'peak water' threshold, a result of rapid glacier loss, and is now in a state of diminishing water resources. To adapt, many communities are turning to groundwater extraction at unsustainable rates. While glaciers are the most visible and vulnerable component of the Andean hydroscape, it is also crucial to understand the complete mountain hydrologic cycle, including groundwater storage, to understand the sustainability of water ongoing transitions in a post peak-water regime.


Doing chemistry with less - How chemistry can help a more sustainable economy (April 5, 2017)

Prof. Audrey Moores, Department of Chemistry


Chemistry is often referred to as the central science owing to its role in providing mankind with all the necessary components of its life-style, from materials to cosmetics, from food and fuels to medicines. But many of our natural resources are peaking or will be peaking in the close future and pollution affects us and our environment broadly. Chemistry is a powerful vector to address these two questions and provide meaningful solutions for a sustainable economy. Green Chemistry is an emerging field of research concerned with designing and implementing such solutions. In the lab, we work on catalysts, i.e. additives that enable chemical processes to happen more efficiently and more effectively. We design and synthesize such catalysts that are intrinsically amenable to recovery and reuse, while limiting the use of toxic and non-earth-abundant materials. In this context, we specialized in the use of nano-sized catalysts that are intrinsically very active and provide venues for recycling. We are developing three major axes of research: we use iron nanoparticles as magnetically recoverable catalysts and as seed to afford novel catalysts with limited use of starting materials, we turned to cellulose nanocrystallites to build smart catalyst supports for applications in pharmaceutical chemistry and we are developing a novel solvent-free methodology to access nanomaterials for biomedical and electronic applications.


'Slash-and-Burn' agriculture in Amazonia: the good, the bad and the... sustainable? (April 12, 2017)

Prof. Oliver Coomes, Department of Geography


Shifting cultivation is one of the most extensive, controversial and misunderstood land uses in the tropical world. Millions of farmers depend upon the practice for sustenance and earning income, and yet the list grows of countries that have banned the practice. In this lecture I explore the different forms of 'slash-and-burn' agriculture, and draw upon my research findings from western Amazonia—where communities employ customary swidden-fallow systems—to examine the prospects and challenges for sustainable shifting cultivation.

Readings and links

  • Saving slash-and-burn to save biodiversity. Padoch, C. and M. Pinedo-Vasquez. 2010. Biotropica 42: 550-552. (Alternative link)
  • "What fate for swidden agriculture under land constraint in tropical forests? Lessons from a long-term study in an Amazonian peasant community." Coomes, O.T., Y. Takasaki, and J.M. Rhemtulla. 2016. (Link not yet available.)

To register for the series, or to find out more about Mini-Science 2017, please start at our Mini-Science homepage.