Come and explore the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS)

A message from the Director, Stephen Murphy

Stephen Murphy

SERS is not a typical department.

We are interested in being critical about the world around us (that means being self-critical too) and through teaching, research and outreach, striving to make society and our environment better for as many as possible.

Since its founding in 1970, SERS has been a world leader in taking action to create a more sustainable world.

Social-ecological sustainability is our mission.

 The real world is not divided into silos or disciplines.  The real world is complex, interconnected and messy, and it means we have to think about the sustainability of linked systems of people and nature, or socio-ecological sustainability.  A more conventional disciplinary approach to sustainability is not wrong, but it has limitations.

Our unique path aims to teach, research, and act by means of ‘transdisciplinary’ approaches that are often more appropriate for today’s complex challenges.  Transdiciplinary means we learn from and act upon a range of disciplines, seek to understand what emerges from the interaction of those disciplines, collaborate with community groups, government agencies and others, and use our shared insights to solve very complicated problems that undermine the sustainability of society and the environment on which we depend.

For example, we can’t solve biological extinction easily and certainly it cannot be solved without understanding why humans act to cause a biological response. Better still, we need to identify what alternatives can be offered that are pragmatic and that solve the root causes of biodiversity loss. Similarly, we know that reliance on non-renewable resources is a dead end, but how can we motivate people and decision-makers to act early when there are often economic and social disincentives to be an early adopter of more sustainable practices? There are enormous numbers of these questions and challenges, and engaging with them in SERS translates into meaningful and rewarding careers.

Because SERS crosses boundaries of disciplines, we are not easily categorized but we do focus on some cross-cutting areas of teaching, research, and action:

  • environmental policy and governance, particularly in resources involving water, food, energy, and oceans
  • ecological restoration and conservation across a range of environments - 'natural areas' in all their forms (like parks/protected areas), agricultural systems, forests, urban areas, mines, oil/gas fields, and the broader aquatic and terrestrial systems across the planet
  • ethics, assessment, and practice of socio-ecological sustainability - with particular attention to those marginalized or absent from the decision making processes based on gender, culture, or any form of self-identity (yes, those are real and invidious issues that have bad consequences if left unsolved)

The specifics of SERS' mission are:

  • SERS seeks to transform society and the environment by making the planet more sustainable and resilient; we do this via use of excellent teaching, research, and collaboration and we are self-reflective and self-critical to avoid any temptation to become dogmatic.
  • In teaching, research, and action, SERS is guided by the themes of transdisciplinarity, sustainability, systems-thinking, complexity and resilience, ecological sciences, and governance. Almost every course or project carried out by an SERS student, faculty member or staff member examines the consequences for environmental and social sustainability whether one demarcates the study as natural sciences, social sciences, or physical sciences. This makes our research socially relevant, intellectually robust, and of great interest to people who make decisions.

We teach students how to think critically about socio-ecological problems and how to systemically solve them using a range of disciplinary skills and transdisciplinary skills; this leads students to fulfilling lives and careers.  For students, this means a greater emphasis on learning advanced knowledge and skills earlier in your tenure, more experiential learning and skill building, and more

  • emphasis on one-to-one mentoring from full time professors, culminating in a final independent research and action project - regardless of whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student.   This is what education is supposed to be about. It is a process of self-transformation, of learning the nuances of the natural, social, and physical sciences, and skill building rather than consumption of factoids to be regurgitated.  It is learning in a more hands-on and transdisciplinary style than is usually offered in high school or even at other universities or departments.
  • We do world-class research that matters both intellectually and pragmatically; our research influences decision making by everyone from citizens to leaders in government, civil society and the private sector
  • We participate, facilitate, and lead on all stages of socio-ecological sustainability by working with local communities, provincial agencies, national agencies, international agencies; we collaborate within academia but have very strong research, teaching, and action-on-the-ground collaborations with the private sector, Non-government organizations (NGOs), and the public sector

Those are bold words. Do we fulfill the mission? We encourage you to visit our stories about teaching, research, and alumni. Long story short, over half of our professors have major research appointments that reflect their world influence, proficiency, and ability to remain at the leading edge; several professors have won University and international teaching awards; many of our students have won major scholarships and published their work in international venues as early as age 19; and most of our students are still in contact with us - even the ones who graduated in the early 1970s - and regale us with their career and personal triumphs.

I'd say we fulfill our mission. 

Come and join us; change the world for the better - for real, for yourself, for me, for all of us.