Scientists grappling with complex and seemingly unresolvable issues often refer to them as “wicked problems”. Arguably, some of the nastiest are those related to the deteriorating health of our environment.
Across McGill’s faculties and disciplines, researchers, students and administrators are tackling these problems head-on, by seeking to understand – and reverse – the widespread impact that human activity is having on our planet. They have made headway through multidisciplinary research projects in a number of key areas, including climate mitigation and ridding our oceans of plastic waste.
Now, their efforts have been given a huge boost, through a landmark $15-million philanthropic investment in the McGill School of Environment from McGill alumnus and agri-food entrepreneur Marc Bieler, DipAgr’58, BA’64. His contribution – comprised of an initial cash commitment, as well as future support from him and his estate for the next 25 years – will ensure a long, steady stream of resources for the School that will allow it to expand interdisciplinary teaching, research and experiential learning capacity. In recognition of this extraordinary gift, the School has been renamed the Bieler School of Environment.
“Environmental sustainability is one of the great challenges of our time, and McGill’s students, researchers and administrators are committed to playing a leading role in addressing this challenge from a variety of approaches,” says Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill. “With this transformative gift from Marc and Marie Bieler, the Bieler School of Environment will be well positioned to translate new knowledge into solutions that will have a real and lasting impact on our world for generations to come.”
A joint initiative led by the Faculties of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Arts, Engineering, Law, and Science, the Bieler School of Environment is comprised of 18 jointly-appointed faculty members and 53 associate members whose expertise ranges from climate science to water resource management to environmental policy and law.
“This extraordinary investment will have a real and transformative impact on the Bieler School of Environment and open up exciting opportunities for environmental research at McGill,” says Anja Geitmann, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, which has administrative purview over the School.
“Contributing to a safer, healthier and more environmentally sustainable world is not just about the discoveries we make today. It is about equipping a new generation of environmental leaders with the skills, experience, agility, and global perspective to drive change and extend the School’s network beyond our University.”
Bieler’s landmark gift – the largest ever from a graduate of McGill’s Macdonald Campus – will bolster environmental scholarship, research and outreach at the Bieler School of Environment by strengthening three key areas.
First, it will allow the School to expand its academic programs, especially those at the graduate level, through the recruitment and support of doctoral students engaged in collaborative research, the development of leadership training opportunities for graduate students, and an inter-faculty initiative that will create a network of environmental experts who will drive change and extend the School’s network beyond the University.
There will also be significant impact on the School’s research capacity, through support for interdisciplinary research addressing critical environmental issues, along with funding for innovative investigations – especially where they build on collaboration among units, departments and faculties – and initiatives such as special events and symposia, visiting scholars and the establishment of international partnerships.
Finally, the Bieler School of Environment will be able to expand engagement and experiential learning opportunities, through the creation of internships and mobility awards for undergraduate and graduate students, the promotion of learning and knowledge sharing outside the classroom, and other outreach initiatives.
“With its world-class researchers across a breadth of disciplines, the Bieler School of Environment has the science, the expertise, the talent, and the collaborations to tackle the environmental challenges of today and tomorrow,” says Frédéric Fabry, Director of the Bieler School of Environment and an Associate Professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.
Environmental issues require multi-disciplinary approaches, and the School’s multi-faculty structure encourages students, researchers and administrators from diverse backgrounds to think beyond boundaries, to test skills in real-world settings, and to explore where their passions and strengths lie.
“Through dialogue, discussion and debate, they come to recognize the multiple perspectives underlying the complex and interrelated threats to our planet,” says Fabry.
Among those whose research will benefit from Bieler’s landmark investment is Professor Elena Bennett. In addition to her work as an ecosystem ecologist, she and research colleagues from around the world are collaborating on the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project.
Bennett believes that real environmental change requires a new mindset, and that we can counteract the paralyzing effect of doomsday climate scenarios by telling positive climate and environmental sustainability stories. “Stories and images create our reality,” she says. “So, it’s important to tell positive stories. Otherwise, we risk creating the very future we’re projecting.”
After achieving success in various sectors of the agri-food business, including cattle breeding, apple processing and maple syrup production – several of these ventures in partnership with his brother and fellow McGill graduate, Philippe Bieler, BEng’55 – Marc Bieler was able to launch his cranberry growing operation in 1984. Today Bieler Cranberries, located in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, 100 kilometres south of Quebec City, is the world’s largest single-site cranberry producer, with 1,500 acres in production and an annual harvest of 40 million pounds. It is generally regarded as the operation that put Quebec’s cranberry industry on the map and led it to becoming one of the largest and most highly regarded in the world. In addition to the cranberry farm, Bieler operated a cranberry processing plant, which in 2018 was acquired by Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.
A two-time McGill graduate, Bieler has maintained strong ties to his alma mater. He has been an annual donor to the University since 1964, and in 2009, he contributed $1 million to create the Bieler Family Internship Program in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, enabling students to get practical experience that helps them develop their career plans. He has also been generous with his time and insights, as a volunteer and longstanding member of the Faculty’s Advisory Board.
"Four generations of my family have attended McGill, and it has played a very important role in my life,” says Bieler. “It gave me my start, and it’s where I developed my passion for agriculture, the environment and food.”
As someone whose career has kept him close to the land, Bieler has always had a deep attachment to and respect for the natural environment. Likening his gift to a pebble tossed into a pond, he hopes that it will ultimately motivate others to support the School’s important work. “Knowledge is power, and I have great confidence in the research that’s taking place at McGill. I hope that this investment will propel the School’s important contributions to new levels of excellence and encourage others to support its vital work.”
Take a few moments and watch as Marc Bieler gives us an up-close view of his gorgeous rose-coloured cranberry bogs during the fall harvest.