Dr. James MacLellan

Dr. James (Jim) MacLellan, is a lecturer for the Department of Physical and Environmental Science as well as the program director for the Environmental Studies program. He possesses an educational background in various departments that, combined together, work well in his favor in our world of intermingling disciplines.

“I have a background on the Humanities side, a degree in Economics and Sociology with a bit of Philosophy. I also have another undergraduate degree in Forestry focused on Boreal Forest Ecology as well as an Emergency Response background. The idea is that we are consistently trying to integrate these different elements.”

In terms of teaching, for the past 6 years, he has mainly been educating students regarding climate change both here at UTSC as well as other Canadian Universities.

“I have taught Carl Mitchell’s course, Introduction to Environmental Science here and at York University. I have taught Climate Change Adaptation at York University and the University of New Brunswick (I will be teaching the same course here in the spring).”

From his work as a decision analyst, Dr. MacLellan also teaches courses relevant to decision analysis such as those in the Environmental Studies program such as ESTB01 -Intro to Environmental Studies, ESTD17- Cohort Capstone course and EESC24- Advanced Readings. He will also be introducing a new risk assessment course later this year.

Though he didn’t consider teaching as a profession at first, his experience in Germany helped change his perspective.

“Teaching is a funny one. As a decision analyst, I am a problem solver. I love solving problems. I believe everyone is involved in problem-solving, but the problem-solving in terms of a broad spectrum of problem-solving, that is my specialty. Interestingly enough, when I was doing my research during my PhD, my colleague asked me to teach, which back then I was unsure of. Who wants to teach? My colleague got me a teaching gig in Germany. I would teach for three weeks and stay in a chalet, almost like a guest. One thing I found really interesting from teaching at university in Germany was that if you are not teaching well, they would bluntly tell you that you are not doing a good job in teaching. However, if they think you teach well, almost spontaneously they would start hitting the desks. That’s when you know you are teaching well. For me, having the purpose of teaching my work and something that I feel good about is very meaningful and rewarding. Sustainability is about people and how we can interact with the planet in a positive way.”

Professor MacLellan’s sustainability influences are those who continuously express their passion for their work.

“I am a big fan of David Admiraal. It comes from people who believe in what they are doing. I cannot watch another nature video and feel as inspired and entertained. It has to be ecologically sound. In any field or profession, whether you are a writer or an artist, say Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan (who just received a Nobel Prize), I respect those who are passionate about what they do and who cannot stop. Those who are true to what their passion is. It could be spiritual or professional but obviously, should be things that can help others.”

Through the eyes of James MacLellan, sustainability can be seen through the abstract Utopian concept of harmony with the environment.

“I have done a lot of reading on this. In the beginning, you could be very much doubting that anything Utopian is so untrue that it will never work. There are things that people would do to benefit everyone. Adam Smith would agree to the fact that people can be nasty and selfish but at the same time, there are positive attributes about people, too. For me, sustainability is about realizing that it is a regulative goal that it is something we seek and a never-ending process. Human well-being and the planet are inseparable. The Ancient literature sees that if humans are taken out of the equation, in essence, the Universe is incomplete. It is about finding the harmony that happens to be naive.”


  • Could you tell us about some of your on-going projects? Who is involved and what are the ultimate goals?

I was brought in to help raise the adaptive capacity of the people of New Brunswick and my role has been relaying any findings to the academic community. We are finishing off that and we are very happy with our results. My role was to truly understand the research capacity and how it can be applied for the province of New Brunswick. It is funny that the province itself has some huge capacity in terms of climate change, ecosystem modeling and management but other places do not have any capacity at all. Therefore, It is about finding what the province is good at and not so good at, then going outside the province, which is a very simple equation. I have found that though the province itself is very poor, the capacity of New Brunswick is unbelievable. It is really about helping people find their capacity in what they do and that goes to students as well. This year, we are working on infrastructure because New Brunswick is coastal community. There has been a very serious question about the seal level rise and flooding. Therefore, those topics have been their focus and we are helping the researchers in New Brunswick with them. We are working with people here at UTSC, Metrolinx, TRCA and the government of New Brunswick at the national level. We are also working with the forestry community in ecosystem management by putting on forestry training workshops. We are heavily involved in research on that side in terms of doing the modeling, species composition and hydrological modeling. We have colleagues across the countries such as India and the Pole as well as in Quebec and Ontario. We are trying to use all our relations and methodologies all across the world to figure out how to tackle the issues. We are also working on the topic of habitat. In the context of climate change, wildlife conservation has been more less ignored. Climate change adaptation became about people while 40% of the literature was focused on wildlife adaptive climate change. Coming back to Ontario, it is about what we can offer to them. Can we become part of a solution and bring the win-win situation that can compliment each other? Universities always have a role within economy within nations. Universities have a role in doing a research on researchers and see if they can better do a research in the future. I have also been doing a research in how the campus works and how to help the Environmental Studies program.

  • Having worked on a lot of projects, we believe that you have faced many challenges. What was the biggest challenge that you encountered in the past?

There are a couple of things. I tend to look at knowledge itself as a value. It is not pure entity that we bow down to and worship. Also, knowledge is not just something that we must respect but it is about moving forward with what we agree on as well. When we do not agree, it becomes an interesting game, sometimes of corporate politics. The politics of knowledge would always be my greatest challenge.

  • Have you ever argued with your friends or family about environmental issues or sustainable matters? Are there any good ways to convince them to be a bit more sustainable?

I should not make a broad generalization. Within families, we typically cross the political spectrum. I have a brother who is a lawyer. He tends to be more on the right while I tend to be more on the left which makes us a typical family. It is almost like not talking about the election at the Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S. after Donald Trump got elected as a president. That is a challenge for all of us. With the environment, it is very much similar. The thing that has given me the greatest success for dealing with the climate change has been expressing it in decision analysis. When I first started teaching the Introduction to Environmental Science, I found that my colleague and I had a different perspective on teaching in terms of what we believe should be enforced in learning. What she was saying was she would not have her theory of evolution questioned because evolution is the truth and that she would not have an open discussion about it. Fortunately, the decision analysts do not have to deal with this issue. How do I talk to people in my family as well as in the corporate world? I talk to many engineers who tend to be skeptics because the more education you get, the more likely you become skeptical about things. Being engineers, if they cannot incorporate it, they will not consider it. I think it is personally being informed. Hard work can be being personally informed.

  • Any sustainable outdoor activity you enjoy that you would like to share with us?

I love cycling. I grew up in Scarborough and he would let me work on his car. I grew up in car culture in the 1970s. Literally, when I was 10, I helped fix my neighbours’ cars.  I have been commuting into downtown Toronto from the north beaches by bike for over 15 years. I started riding a bike because I did not like TTC. It was almost like a no brainer to ride a bike for me because I found the subway stopping and being delayed all the time very inconvenient and annoying.

  • What are your biggest personal goals for 2017?

I would like to finish off my research project I have been working with the government of New Brunswick on biodiversity.