WHEN JONATHAN GLENCROSS arrived at McGill University, he had no intention of changing the institution. Yet four years later, this is precisely what he has helped do. Enrolled in the McGill School of Environment, Glencross has become one of the driving forces behind the university’s dramatically increased commitment to sustainability.

“I grew up in the suburbs in a context that was pretty unsustainable in terms of how we organized our lives,” he says. From this beginning, it was really a matter of meeting the right people at the Sustainable McGill Project (SMP). Soon Glencross was on his way to spearheading campaigns for several new sustainability projects on campus. Within the first few months of his arrival, the SMP tried to create a greenhouse gas inventory for McGill. But, he explained, they soon realized it had only been done once before, in 2005. “It boggled my mind that an institution this big didn’t even know what its greenhouse gas footprint was,” Glencrosssays, “so this gave me a lot of inspiration, but also it made me realize how far there was to go.”

His most notable achievement may well be the creation of a new fund for community-based sustainability projects. Students voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to contribute to the fund at a rate of 50 cents per credit per year, which is then matched by the administration. “This has transformed our community,” Glencross says, “as anybody in the McGill community can apply for project funding as long as it works toward building a culture of sustainability on campus.”

The fund has already approved 35 projects from the $800,000 that it receives annually – more than double what is collected by similar green funds from all other Quebec universities combined. Projects funded to date include a volunteer-run urban gardening project, a program that distributes produce by bike, an industrial composter, a student-run bike collective, an on-campus farmers market and more. Glencross also played a leading role in the creation of a new Office of Sustainability at the university, which now employs three full-time staff and 11 student interns. He co-authored McGill’s first Greening Events Guide; helped coordinate a Rethink Your Curriculum Challenge for students; and co-founded the McGill Food Systems Project. “Before we existed,” he says, “no one knew where our food was coming from, let alone if it was being grown sustainably.”

If this wasn’t enough, last year, Glencross wrote a proposal that led to the creation of an annual interdisciplinary field-study semester focused on applied sustainability, all while being a full-time student and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.

“My two biggest obstacles were over-coming the ‘us versus them’ attitude on campus and the lack of agency many students often feel at school.” In fact, it is his ability to bring students and the administration together in common cause that may be his greatest talent. “We have come way farther than I ever could have expected. There are still some major issues we have to face, but we’re doing really well compared to other universities.”

What makes Glencross so passionate about sustainability? “I don’t know what else is more worthy of consideration than the ability of future generations to be able to maintain themselves,” he says. “The more I learn about the challenges we face, the more I realize we have to dedicate our lives to making our interactions more sustainable.”

Although Glencross will soon be graduating and isn’t sure what his next project will be, it is safe to say that his legacy at McGill will be felt for many years to come.

Mark Brooks is a journalist, broadcaster and environmental educator. Follow him on Twitter: @earthgaugeCA.

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