Sustainability is the long-term ability of human and ecological communities to endure and thrive. This requires that present-day decisions and actions not diminish the well-being of ecosystems and future generations. Among the many research centres investigating and promoting sustainability worldwide, POLIS is unique in combining trans-disciplinary, multi-sectoral, and cross-cultural approaches in cultivating ecological governance.

Ecological governance means embedding the environment at every scale—species, ecosystems, climates— in all levels of decision-making and action, from personal to global. It means considering our cities and communities, our forests and watersheds, our economic, social, and political lives, and our cultural heritage within a paradigm that treats “the environment” not as an add-on or afterthought, but as a web of interrelationships that are all encompassing and all pervasive.

Mission & Objectives

Our mission at POLIS is to be a place of active learning and exchange where diverse people can enhance their understandings of and contributions to ecological governance, and enact changes needed for an equitable, just, and sustainable world with a regenerative (rather than degenerative) future. All of our community-engaged and action-oriented research, policy work, and education is rooted in place, and seeks to understand and address pressing, complex questions:

  • How do we govern ourselves in ways that are ecologically sustainable and culturally appropriate?
  • What does governance shaped by legal and ethical principles of ecological sustainability and Indigenous self-determination look like?
  • How do we implement collaborative models of ecological governance from local to global levels that are not based in colonial systems, but embrace multiple worldviews and respect place-based Indigenous laws, ethics, and cultural protocols?
  • How do we create and nurture collaborative arrangements that value intercultural understanding and enable us to work well across our differences, seeing strengths in diversity?

What We Do

Our work encompasses a number of initiatives spanning the last couple of decades, each embodying the principles of ecological governance and working towards a responsible present that supports a sustainable future. Our current priority areas are:

Water Sustainability – driving innovative water and watershed law, policy, and governance reform to generate change towards a sustainable freshwater future.

Biocultural Ethics – exploring the value systems underlying the ways we treat one another and the natural world, across different cultures, geographies, generations, and species, to create guidance, shape policies, and build capacities for relational accountability and response-ability as part of the web of life (website coming soon).

Who We Are

At the heart of POLIS are passionate people working skillfully together. Our core team includes our POLIS Co-Directors who also lead our current initiatives, Communications Director, and Water Project Manager. Our work is supported and enacted through our Associates, Affiliates, and Advisors, who have a diversity of academic, public, private, and practitioner expertise and cultural backgrounds.

Project History

The POLIS Project on Ecological Governance was founded in 2000 by Dr. Michael M’Gonigle (Professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria), and formally established in 2001 through the former Eco-Research Chair of Environmental Law and Policy (ERC) at the University of Victoria. POLIS coalesced from a group of diverse researchers who had been working under the auspices of the ERC from 1995-2000 to an integrated and innovative collective effort focused on ecological governance.

The ERC received financial support from the Eco-Research Secretariat in Ottawa until 2000, as well as from an endowment fund held at the University of Victoria that was originally created with generous support from the Real Estate Foundation of BC, the BC Ministry of Environment, and the Notary Foundation. Research, policy advocacy, and education projects carried out by POLIS researchers were (and continue to be) financed mainly by funds raised from research granting agencies and private foundations.

Our work grew and evolved with added support from from the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation and the Vancouver Foundation to develop the organizational capacity of POLIS and harness our synergies. Since 2000, POLIS has helped launch a number of independent research and advocacy organizations dedicated to ecological governance in specific research areas. These include: SmartGrowth BC, Dogwood Initiative (formerly Forest Futures), and the UVic Sustainability Project.

POLIS’ early work in supporting community-led research was through the Community-University Connections initiative (2001-2005) funded by the Coasts Under Stress Project (led by Dr. Rosemary Ommer, 2000-2005) and the Clayoquot Alliance for Research, Education and Action (led by Dr. Rod Dobell, 2001-2005). Our Community-University Connections initiative made significant contributions to the creation of a Standard of Conduct for Research in Northern Barkley and Clayoquot Sound Communities (2003), the establishment of an Office of Community-Based Research at the University of Victoria in 2006, the development of A Code of Ethics by the International Society of Ethnobiology (2006 with 2008 additions), and many other initiatives that have informed our current focus on Biocultural Ethics.

Our Water Sustainability Project, likewise, evolved over the years. It was originally established in 2003 as the Urban Water Demand Management Project. The focus quickly broadened to include fundamental governance issues, including long-term, comprehensive, watershed-based planning and innovative institutional and ecosystem-based legal reforms. To reflect this change, it was renamed the Water Sustainability Project in 2005.

From 2001-2011, POLIS was part of the Faculty of Law and School of Environmental Studies, and maintained a small office with part-time staff and a diverse community of researchers at University House 4 on the University of Victoria campus. In Fall 2011, POLIS joined the Centre for Global Studies (CFGS) and relocated to the Sedgewick Building, thus beginning a new level of integrated research, policy engagement, education, and community action in collaboration with the other CFGS projects and initiatives. POLIS continues as one of the ongoing interdisciplinary projects and an integral part of the CFGS community.


Our name is from the ancient Greek word “polis” meaning “city state.” But, for the Greeks—and for us at POLIS—the word takes on a broader meaning, representing the highest of human ideals: The ability to make decisions collectively for the greater good. It is the root of words such as “politics” and “metropolis”—a term that represents a rootedness in place and community. And why is POLIS all caps? Just to be different. Because we are!