Sustainable Sparks: Cynthia Kallenbach on lifting sustainable voices

Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Natural Resource Sciences and Chair of the Macdonald Campus Sustainability Committee shares her thoughts on the role all McGillians have to play in creating a sustainable campus culture
Cynthia Kallenbach has been instrumental in creating, supporting, and assessing sustainability-related projects across McGill’s campuses. Siddhi Aubeeluck

There are few people more involved with sustainability on campus than Professor Cynthia Kallenbach. Her research integrates soil ecology and biogeochemistry to understand soil carbon and nutrient cycling under land use and global change. When she isn’t working on research or giving a lecture, Kallenbach is creating, supporting, and assessing sustainable initiatives at McGill.

Kallenbach, who has a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences, is a Chair of the Macdonald Campus Sustainability Committee. Comprised of employees and student groups from various parts of the campus, the goal of the committee is to encourage and create sustainability initiatives at Macdonald Campus. She also sits on the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) Governance Council, which manages the Sustainability Projects Fund. The SPF is the largest fund of its kind in Canada, valued at $1 million annually and has the mandate to build a culture of sustainability on McGill’s campuses through the seed funding of interdisciplinary projects.

A humble member of the community whose support for student activism shines through every action, Kallenbach met with the Office of Sustainability to give her perspective on McGill’s sustainable landscape.

You are heavily involved with the sustainability community at McGill. What drew you to become so invested?

I think one of my real motivations is students. I find youth and university students very motivated and passionate about sustainability policy and action. I enjoy supporting and creating resources for students. My goal is to help facilitate this passion so they can carry out sustainable action.

I believe it’s important that as a community, we mirror the efforts and concerns of the student body. The students push faculty and staff and students, and, by themselves, are doing a lot, but they can do even more if they have support from the institution. I hope that my involvement can help this in some way.

You have been instrumental in the Macdonald Campus Sustainability Committee. Tell me a bit about this group.

First and foremost, I want to emphasize the effort and success of the whole group is really a being driven by its members. A lot of what is actually done is led by students and staff.

The committee, initially formed by Dean [Anja Geitmann], tackles sustainability at the Macdonald Campus through three main goals. The first and primary goal is to communicate and act as liaison with downtown sustainable initiatives. The second goal is to act as a hub for ongoing projects at Mac related to sustainability so that groups can come together and connect. The third goal is to create sustainability initiatives which vary in scale, partly based on a survey we sent out to the whole Macdonald campus community.

Can you tell me a bit about some of your favourite initiatives so far from the Committee?

One of my favourites, which is still in the very early stages, is looking at ways Mac Campus can divert and upcycle organic waste. This is really being led by a student, Aynsley Merk, who is looking into  composting waste produced on the Mac farm, [as well as] from campus, along with a technology called anaerobic digestion that would reduce the volume of manure produced. Both the composting and anaerobic digestion of waste would help reduce waste while also creating a source of organic fertilizer that could be used at the farm.

An example of a successful initiative that is nearly finished is the Bicentennial tree planting project, led by Lindsey Flood [an Administrative Officer in the Department of Plant Science]. The goal of the project is to have 200 trees planted by the end of this year, which is both a way to celebrate McGill 200, and make progress towards a goal in McGill’s climate road map. There are a lot of tangible benefits to increasing tree density on campus. We are using a variety of native tree species, and so far, I believe we are on track to finish in time. We have had a lot of student volunteers show up for the tree planting, and hopefully we will continue to have people looking to join for the next few rounds of planting.

You are also a part of the SPF Governance Council. Can you tell me a bit about what you enjoy about your role there?

I joined the Council last year, so this position is still somewhat new to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I joined, but I’ve loved working with everyone on the Council. They are so thoughtful and bright – especially the students. I also love seeing the diversity and creativity of projects people propose, some of which are quite ambitious. Many of them are student led, which is really rewarding to see.

It’s very exciting to see the motivation in the McGill community to create and carry out such thoughtful projects, and I look forward to seeing more.

What makes Macdonald campus so special in terms of sustainability in a university setting?

I think a large part of it is that we are a unique ecological-based campus that a lot of other universities don’t have. It’s partly the departments and faculty housed here, which have a lot of ongoing research related to sustainability, but I also think it’s the location and the community.

Ecosystems are more easily accessible here [at the Macdonald campus]. I think just being close to a variety of ecosystems helps create a supportive, sustainable atmosphere.

On top of this, the small campus means that everyone is close and supportive of one another. A large part of social sustainability is about frequent communication. Having staff and faculty that are able to carry on the legacies started by past students means that we can sustain these initiatives.

As someone who is so integral to sustainability at McGill, what message do you want to share?

My message to everyone at McGill is that we need to think of our university as its own community, and if it’s going to be a sustainable community – environmentally and socially – it needs to work across all levels: students, staff, and faculty.

My message to the students is to keep doing what they’re doing. I think students are doing a great job and that there are so many opportunities to get involved in sustainability.

I also understand that there is some anxiety around climate change, [but] the existing opportunities to take action towards sustainability make a big difference, even if they don’t feel like it in the moment. It can be easy to feel defeated, but never forget that there are so many opportunities to do good – so take them!

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