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Sustainability: complex, global and more urgent than ever

In 1985, the UN produced a report that identified a range of complex and interrelated threats to people across the globe. “Our Common Future” issued a call for action to address environmental concerns such as deforestation, global warming, and polluted air, soil and water, as well as the patterns of poverty, hunger and wealth inequality to which they are linked. “There has been a growing realization that it is impossible to separate economic development issues from environmental issues,” the report stated. Thirty years later, the report remains relevant. Many of these environmental threats have grown worse, rather than better. And the underlying question remains: how can we ensure the prosperity of people today without endangering the well-being of our neighbours or future generations?

A new approach

Fostering a transition toward sustainability – toward patterns of development that promote human well-being while conserving the life support systems of the planet – is one of the central challenges of the twenty-first century.  But why has progress been so slow? To a large extent, this is because earlier approaches to sustainability failed to appreciate the deep interconnectedness of human and environmental systems.

Complex, multidimensional problems demand sophisticated, cross-disciplinary thinking. True solutions must be holistic, encompassing the environmental, social and economic dimensions necessary to ensure meaningful translation and broad adoption. Advances in science and technology offer unprecedented opportunities to develop products and processes that are both clean and profitable. They are, however, insufficient unless they are framed within a societal context, and consider aspects such as human and environmental health, social and economic well-being, as well as legal and geopolitical implications.

Only by taking into consideration the interrelated yet often poorly understood and shifting relationships between the many aspects of development will the implementation of complex scientific and technological advances succeed.

The McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI)

McGill has risen to the challenge by creating the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (formerly the Sustainability Sciences and Technologies Initiative, SSTI), a hub of expertise and excellence that takes a multi-disciplinary, multi-sector approach to sustainability. The MSSI brings together experts from across McGill’s faculties, providing support and seed funding for transdisciplinary teams to tackle some of the most complex and challenging issues in sustainability. The MSSI will provide support for McGill researchers from both the sciences and humanities to work together to develop significant, impactful and socially acceptable advances that move society towards a sustainable model of existence.

The major research will be centered on a small number of thematic areas in which McGill has robust and demonstrated expertise and can be expected to make tangible and significant impacts. Integral to this response is an emphasis on engaging with stakeholders, including industry, government, non-governmental organizations and civil society.  The MSSI also hosts a variety of other activities designed to build a robust and vibrant community of committed sustainability researchers and external stakeholders.

If you are interested in applied sustainability at McGill - or how our university is transitioning towards becoming a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable institute - you should contact the McGill Office of Sustainability.

See the 2018 - 2019 Annual Report here.

Help shape the MSSI

Researchers from within and outside McGill, as well as external stakeholders, are invited to contribute to this exciting and singular McGill-based initiative. Ways to get involved include participating in - or suggesting new - MSSI  events, expressing interest in participating in Research Themes to theme co-leads (find info in the theme-related pages) and becoming MSSI Members or Associate Members (membership form).

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