York U collaborates on $2.5 million SSHRC grant with McGill and Vermont

Human beings have had such a powerful impact on planetary environmental systems since the Industrial Revolution that scientists say Earth has entered a new geologic age: the Anthropocene, the era of humanity and its effects on the Earth.

York University and the University of Vermont are collaborating on a six-year $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada and led by McGill University to develop a doctoral curriculum designed to produce leaders who can help lighten humanity’s footprint on the planet’s fragile ecosystems. Co-applicants from York are Faculty of Environmental Studies Professors Ellie Perkins and Peter Victor.

The three institutions matched the grant with another $2.5 million raised internally at each school and through private philanthropy.

The new program, called Economics for the Anthropocene, will provide resources for up to 60 graduate students to explore theoretical and practical aspects of ecological economics, drawing on a broad range of disciplines and experiential learning with a strong environmental focus. The program’s principal goal is to produce a generation of leaders with the holistic skills needed to address complex environmental problems.

“Drawing on the teaching and research resources of three universities, this new program will prepare a significant number of scholars able to address the pressing problems of the Anthropocene,” says Victor.

The core of the program, which begins in the fall of 2014, is a three-year course of study overlaid on existing PhD programs at each of the three universities. Students will graduate with a doctorate or master’s degree in the field they are pursuing – environmental studies, agriculture or public administration, for instance – with a supplementary certificate in Economics for the Anthropocene.

The program will be delivered to three groups of up to twenty students beginning in consecutive years. Each cohort will focus on one of three challenging issues facing humanity: water, energy and climate justice.

The first cohort will address the issue of water, with a field course that will take place at UVM in the summer of 2015 and focus on Lake Champlain and the lower St. Lawrence watershed. The second cohort will look at energy issues, with a field course at McGill. The third will target climate justice, with York University as the setting for its field course.

A key element of the program is its alliance with non-profit and governmental partners in Canada and the U.S. who will play a vital role in the students’ education. Examples of Canadian partners include the David Suzuki Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund and the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics.

“We want the students’ research to be informed early on by considerations of relevance, participation and implementation,” says Perkins. “They’ll work closely with one or more of our partner organizations throughout their studies.”

“I hope that when we’ve launched these new PhDs in the world,” says Victor, “they’ll be the future heads of academic departments, government agencies, NGOs and leaders of enlightened businesses. Through their influence, we hope to see the emergence of public- and private-sector institutions and policies that are needed to reverse the course we’re now on.”

Other goals of the program are: to create an international transdisciplinary research network beginning with Canada and the United States, but expanding globally; to create solutions for transnational challenges related to water, energy and climate justice; to impact and expand the focus of the social sciences to include bio-physical considerations; and to create teaching materials, lesson plans and modules posted on the Internet for everyone to use.

Further harnessing this network, the program incorporates a strong distance education aspect. Each term a class will be taught virtually, allowing students from all institutions to collaborate together. These courses will rotate between institutions, and pilots have indicated that students enjoy the experience of interacting with their peers in real time.

It is a great example of graduate education utilizing technology-enhanced learning, an area that York has been very vocal in encouraging.

With files from yFile.