agriculture art community education geography

Rural imaginings

Professor Valentine Cadieux is Director of Environmental Studies and Director of Sustainability at Hamline University in St Paul, Minnesota. She studies collaborative knowledge practices related to food, agriculture, and land in the context of settler society cultures in Canada, the United States, and Aotearoa New Zealand.

Talking points.

Incentivised to explore the woods behind my house.

How to colloboratively define rural environments

Imagination of wilderness

People describing themselves as “rural people at heart” but don’t know any farmers.

Questions around what keeps people in the city when they’re living in rural areas?

Say your objectives out loud – in time you can hear them

Embedding sustainability across the curriculum

Validating what people are doing already.

Pieces of sustainability that dwarf the carpooling. Social justice, transformative change.

Sustainability has been “owned” by the environment, but more and more people are realising that it’s the connection to people – social justice, processes of change – that makes that special.

Institutions of higher learning promote value sets that are more consumerist than they intended. So we have to teach them (students) what is excessive.

Making food access and food liberty a part of being educated.

Students are so anxious about the future of the world. We’ve seen a huge reduction in scare tactics – they’re scared already, we have to present positivity as a message.

Permission to do the things you find pleasure and joy in.

A course: Planetary Home Care Manual.

How do you contribute as much as you take in a collaboration?

Definition: Conditions under which all can thrive

Activist: Social relationships are core – without them the technical won’t work.

Motivation: A surprisingly cheerful reaction to adversity.

Challenge: Not getting boxed in to recycling. Although that is a springboard to energy conversations.

Advice: Work with people who are joyful and find joy in the work. Be joyful and creative.

geography science systems visualisation

Modelling land management

Dr Bethanna Jackson is a Senior Lecturer School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University Wellington.

Bethanna’s research addresses the impact of land management and climate change on multiple ecosystem services, including flood risk, agricultural productivity, water quality, biodiversity, erosion, cultural services, green-house gas emissions, and amenity/socio-economic impacts.  We talk about the LUCI project – a land management decision support framework – in particular how well we understand processes across multiple scales of time and space.

Talking points

Sustainable: Nothing is truly sustainable… I don’t truly have a definition which encumpasses every aspect of sustainablitly.

Success: It’s been a huge success developing this framework, which is a huge step forward because we are now able to look at the impact of many different environmental variables.

Superpower: My ability to be non-judgemental and provide a platform for sustainable development.

Activist: Yes, in the aspect that I am acting to create change and I believe very strongly in what I am doing… I don’t consider myself to be an activist as I actually try to keep certain environmental opinions to myself because I think it is very important that I am as objective as possible in putting this framework together.

Motivation: I really enjoy what I do, and I do feel like I’m making a difference to the world!

Challenges: I am looking forwards to more and more of my students getting out and taking their ideas out into the world. I’ve got some really good collaborations forming, so I am hoping that in a couple of years we will have produced something that is being applied quite broadly.

Miracle: Showing a bit less fear towards people in other cultures and accepting more refugees.

Advice: Whenever you are thinking about sustainability try and think beyond specific issues.

climate change community geography

inspirational community movements

Sean Connelly and Doug Hil


 Imagine. Imagine if the world was like this.

Shane: Our guests tonight are Dr Doug Hill and Dr Sean Connelly, both of Otago University Geography.  Sean has been on the show before so I’ll skip straight to Doug Hill. He got his BA at Australian National University and his PhD at Curtin University, Perth. His research interests include South Asia, especially India, development studies, geopolitics and trans-boundary water resources – we’ll talk to you about what they are – migrant labour, ports, labour restructuring in maritime trade, world development, participatory governance in West Bengal, urban transformation and socio-spatial segregation in India’s megacities. Both of them have just given a talk entitled, “Community Power: Exploring the process for change through the Clean Energy for Eternity campaign in New South Wales, Australia,” which we’ll talk about in detail shortly. Welcome to our show. Doug, you’re from Australia originally, yes?


Doug: I am, Shane, yes.


Shane: Where were you born?


Doug: I was born in Sydney, in St Leonards, which is a part of the northern part of Sydney. I lived there for only a couple of years and then my family moved to the country. For the majority of my childhood I grew up in a place called Tathra, which is in the far south coast of New South Wales, about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, a little coastal town surrounded by forests, et cetera.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grew up?


Doug: I think, at that point I really wanted to be a pilot, because when I was about eight I took my first plane ride and it really gripped me that there was this great thing that you could do. My dad started talking to me about being a lecturer, actually. He was quite keen on history as a profession. Quite early on in my life I got this idea that this was a nice thing to do, go and work in a university. He particularly talked up this idea of a sabbatical, which thankfully here we still have.


Shane: So, you went to school. Was it kind of the idyllic Australian childhood, wandering round the forests and on the beaches. What was it like?


Doug: Yeah, it was relatively idyllic. It’s a small coastal town. A lot of people move there for lifestyle reasons, but having said that, it’s also an area that I guess was fairly socially not particularly progressive at the time that I was growing up. It’s an area where the dairy industry was predominant in that place, and so there’s fairly entrenched attitudes, I guess, around a whole a whole sorts of things. Relatively idealistic, but that always comes with those provisos about the lived experience, of what it’s like to grow up in a small country town.


Shane: Obviously your father was encouraging you to do history. What made you change direction? Was there anything in particular, or is it just that you gradually thought, “Hey, geography’s kind of cool”?


Doug: When I was at high school I was really interested in the political aspects. I was reasonably politically active as a high school student, and so when I went to university I started studying politics and economics in the first instance. The quantitative emphasis of economics completely lost me and so I started being drawn to development-type issues. A particular motivation for that was I had what now is called a gap year, in between leaving high school and going to university. I went to Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia, and really opened my eyes. Quite different from small, coastal Australia. That got me really fired up about development issues around the environment, et cetera. Gradually I shifted towards that kind of trajectory.


Shane: What did you do your PhD on at Curtin? What was that?


Doug: It was a study of some villages in West Bengal, which is an eastern State of India. At the time there had been quite a reformist-minded government in that State for the last 25 years. There was a lot of plaudits at that time for the capacity to be a model for the way that poverty alleviation might happen in rural development scenarios in eastern India. I was really interested in going and exploring that. I chose two different parts of a single district, one part of which had undergone agricultural intensification and there was a lot of increasing livelihood options for local people, and the other which continued to be fairly arid and the livelihood options in that part were quite constrained. I was looking at the differences that these things made in terms of the capacity of these institutions, which this government had brought in to try and initiate poverty alleviation.


Shane: Wow, so you obviously have a huge focus on India. What’s the fascination for you and where did that come from?


Doug: The initial moment is going to Nepal when I was 18 and being grasped by this very different kind of scenario. As I was an  undergraduate at university, I started periodically going to India and in between finishing my undergraduate since starting my honours, I spent a year there. By that time, I was completely hooked. In a more general sense I think it’s just a fascinating country. There’s so much diversity there. People often think about the poverty, but from somebody who teaches development studies, the interesting thing about India is there’s so many interesting solutions coming out that country. It can really tell us a lot about the constraints of development and the kind of avenues that we’re pursuing, but also the kind of solutions which me might be able to utilize and generalize in different places.


Shane: Yeah, so your interests … I was looking at the transboundary water resources and geopolitics. That’s probably an issue in India, is it? Round that area?


Doug: It’s a huge issue in India.


Shane: Huge issue in India. Can you talk just a little bit about that? What is that?


Doug: To frame it I guess, and to get our geographic imaginations going as we like to talk about it; if you think about the Tibetan plateau, and everybody has an idea about what Tibet is and what it means in terms of those broader ideas about China and the West, et cetera. What people often don’t think about is what geographers call the third pole, as a great proportion of the world’s water resources begin in that region and then flow down the mountains in the Himalayas and cross over the borders of around 11 countries. The process of it coming from the Tibetan Plateau and flowing down into the ocean, then of course it crosses national borders, provincial borders and the way that those rivers should be utilized becomes the subject of a whole range of contestation, politics, et cetera.


For the last couple of years – I guess about the last 10 years actually – I’ve been travelling to Bangladesh, to Nepal, to India. I’m involved in various groups in different parts of the world, to looking at the dialogue processes by which we can think about how to manage those resources. With a changing climate, those issues become all the more urgent.


Shane: I was at a talk last night with the US ambassador, came down to talk about the Fulbright Forum. We were talking about Syria. The issue of Syria came up and of course the key driver of that conflict there was, in fact, a drought in the highlands, which droves the rural people down into the cities. That sparked all the conflict. How risky is it for that region that you’re looking at, for conflict to start erupting around water issues, or is that something that’s kind of outside? It is quite a serious issue.


Doug: It’s a very serious issue. Scholars who work on this like to throw around this truism that wars have never been started over water conflict, but the reality is that the intensification of contestation over water leads to grievances which then get translated into the conditions by which conflict can occur. For example, the Indus Basin, which is basically the water between India and Pakistan. At the moment there is a dispute going on between India and Pakistan – so, the last couple of weeks – over some terrorist activity which has taken place on the border between those 2 countries, which seems to have nothing to do with water ostensibly, except now India is threatening to renege on the treaties that it’s made with Pakistan over the management of that water.


Pakistan is a country of about 200 million people that is completely dependent upon just a single basin for its water and its agricultural basis very water-intensive, so how that water is used, it’s very easy for people within Pakistan, and the military within Pakistan in particular, to start saying, “Well, this is India’s fault, why this is happening.” We see variations of this happening throughout the region. India is worried about what China is doing on the Brahmaputra, for example. Bangladesh is worried about what India is doing above it, Nepal, et cetera. Then, within each of those countries there’s also provincial level disputes. It’s a very … I really like looking at it because I think that it’s a really interesting way of thinking about the contestation over resources.


Shane: Let’s get on to your talk today, which was about this amazing project, the Energy for Eternity in Australia. This is really interesting, because last week we had the Australian Prime Minister trying to blame renewable energy for some power outages, which was just this crazy response to a storm which knocked over a few pylons and disrupted the electricity system. Is it our understanding that in Australia renewable energy is a point of politics contestation? Would that be an accurate … ?


Doug: Yeah, absolutely. I think that what you find in Australia is a very divided polity when it comes to these issues. There’s a lot of people within the society that can see that Australia is a perfect laboratory for the roll out of all sorts of renewable technologies and that it’s a place where we can really develop a whole range of industries and transform the economy in profound ways through this. On the other hand, it’s also a country which has, at current estimates, about 250 years of brown coal reserves and a mining industry which is very influential in politics, a media sector that is very concentrated amongst particular groups, in particular the Murdoch press, and because of that climate change politics and by extension renewable energy is very, very contentious. It is really something which it’s difficult for politicians of any shade to really get much purchase for moving things in a more progressive direction.


That’s not to say there’s not the initiative there, or that there’s no the political will, but there’s a lot of push back towards that as well. That’s one of the things that we were talking about in the talk today.


Sam: Is Australia on the edge?


Doug: On the edge?


Sam: I’m thinking about how close they came with the 10 year drought.


Doug: Australia is definitely a place which is already feeling the effects of climate change in a pretty profound way. It’s always been a country of climatic extremes. You’ve always had droughts and bush fires and storm events, et cetera, but it’s clear that that is being exacerbated. I guess, most profoundly, some of the areas which are being impacted are those areas where there’s a significant proportion of the population living. It’s hard to say objectively what on the edge means, but it’s certainly the case that it’s a country where climate change is a lived reality now.


Sean: Which I think is a really interesting dichotomy: the politics and climate denial on the one hand but also living and experiencing the effects of climate change on almost a daily basis at the same time, which is a really interesting dynamic, I think.


Sam: Presumably they’re aware of that tension?


Doug: Of course. The particular movement that we were talking about today really began in 2006 at a time which is typically referred to as the climate change election. This took place at a period when there was a really significant drought and it had seeped into mainstream consciousness that this was something that government should be being proactive about. There was a wave of enthusiasm, I guess, at that point, which this movement, Clean Energy for Eternity, or CEFE, was able to harness to move forward and do lots of small scale initiatives.


Shane: What got you involved in starting this project, because it’s outside your research areas and it’s kind of outside where you normally work? How did you get involved with it?


Doug: So there’s 2 different things driving this. The first of them is that, in the last couple of years I’ve been working on energy issues with a think-tank based in Jakarta called Economic Research Institute of ASEAN and East Asia. We’ve been looking specifically at low-carbon transitions, so it was on my radar to start to think about these things and ask the questions. The most significant thing is that CEFE began and really prospered in Tathra, the town that I grew up in. During my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to go and spend a bit of time there. The last 10 years while I’ve been living here in Dunedin, every time I go home I hear about what CEFE is doing and look at these great initiatives and et cetera. It just seemed like a fantastic opportunity to try and understand this movement in a more significant way. Bringing Sean in is a way of really understanding that broader application of knowledge around community movements and sustainability and how we might go about understanding those.


Sam: Is it a young people’s movement?


Doug: No, absolutely not. It was started off by somebody called Dr. Matthew Nott, who’s a local orthopaedic surgeon, essentially in 2006 realized that this was a significant issue which perhaps he should be looking to try and take action on, and so organized a movement on the beach. 3,000 people turned up and spelled out, “Clean energy for eternity,” on the sand, Tathra having a population of about 1,500 at that point, and then thereafter got together a core group of people who formed the nucleus of the movement, most of whom, as far as I can see from my interviews, et cetera, are middle-aged with kids, some of them artists, some of them are professionals, some of them are environmental activists. But, it has been very good at including young people and other members of society, but at its focus, I think it’s certainly not a young person’s movement per se.


Sam: That’s one of the things that people are of about critical about Generation Zero, is that it is just coming from young people. Now, they argue that’s that’s their strength, “We are the future,” sort of stuff, but it’s kind of easy for other people to ignore them. “That’s just the kids, they’ll stop complaining eventually.” It sounds like this is quite different.


Doug: Yeah, this is quite different, and I think the way that they’re trying to initiate social change is also quite different from those sort of movements that you’re describing. They’re self-styled pragmatic, non-political organization which is interested in trying to craft local solutions and bringing in the broad tent of community members into initiating local action around climate change, so it’s not the usual suspects. I think that that also has some strengths, as well as its weaknesses as well.


Sam: You said, “Initiate social change.” Do they have a clear message or in fact idea of what that social change … What they want?


Doug: They absolutely do. After this first moment on the beach that I just described, they then formed a community group and did an environmental audit of the district and worked out where energy was being used, both in terms of electricity but also in terms of transport et cetera, and came up with a blueprint for the council called, “50 50 by 2020.” The idea here was to transition towards 50% usage of renewable energy and to have 50% efficiency gains in terms of the way that that was being utilized. 50 50 by 2020 became the calling card of this movement, as it spread from its initial moments in Tathra to become at various points a state-wide – or at least having representation within different parts of the state – and actually thereafter attracting national attention.


Shane: How big is this movement now?


Doug: It’s a bit hard to put your finger on really, because one of the strengths of it really is that it’s able to cooperate with local movements and mobilize them for specific events and then to move on and to do other things. One of the things that they’ve been interested in doing is to try and work with community groups to get renewable energy put on public buildings: surf clubs, rural fire sheds, public halls, et cetera. It brings people in, helps them to achieve these aims, and then those people may or may not be involved again. I think that nucleus of the movement, the group which is actually active around these things, is probably somewhere between 10 and 15 people, but they’re able to mobilize at various points hundreds and sometimes thousands of people for particular actions.


Sam: We went to Oamaru last year on the basis of your geography field trip who went and looked at the Transition Town. We thought we’d go and follow up on that, and it turns out it’s only 5, 10 people. This does seem like a similar thing, that it’s quite a small group of people making a big impact. One of the things that the people in Oamaru said is, they don’t need to convince all of Oamaru, they just need to put the systems in place for them to lead the better life that they want them to. Is it a similar thing here? Are they trying to change hearts and minds, or are they just trying to get it to be better somehow?


Sean: I think it’s probably a little bit of both. There’s certainly that … Doug’s told the story of the aha moment of this Dr. Nott of sitting on the beach when it’s abnormally hot, reading the weather makers and having this internal crisis of, “Oh my goodness, what kind of future are going to live? I need to do something.” Sort of that. So, it very much is rooted in, “We need to do drastic change,” but I think it’s interesting that there’s been through the interviews various people that have had that similar kind of moment and that served as motivation for them to actually get together and do something. But then, when they actually go about mobilizing hundreds or thousands of people for events, it is much more focused on the easy access: we’re making this accessible, come out, the whole community’s involved, everyone has a part to play, you can bring whatever politics you want with you when you come, as long as you’re there.


You know you’re there for a reason. You’re going to talk to your fellow community members and have a conversation around energy and climate issues. Hopefully, that will build more awareness and lead to further change, but it’s not directly involved in, “This is the kind of change we need to make.” It’s not directly confrontational in that regard.


Sam: This, “Hopefully leading to further change,” there’s the crux of the question. Do we need everybody to have this aha moment, this transformation, or can we get away with just a few people having it and somehow infecting everybody else to just make the change without having that aha moment?


Sean: I think so. I think so many of us go through our lives unthinkingly, and we use the infrastructure that’s put in front of us. If there’s a cycle path, I’ll use it. If there isn’t, I’ll get in my car, kind of thing. So many of us do that unthinkingly. Yes, I think it would be great if everyone had the aha moment and that led to a massive transformation, but I think that that point of, as long as you have key people in key roles that can make that change … There’s very few people that, I think, are fundamentally against renewable energy, are against taking action on climate change. They just struggle with, “What can I do? How can I do it? I’m already super busy. It might be inconvenient. I don’t have time.” That kind of thing, but if it’s put in front of them, they’ll embrace it. I think that changing hearts and minds, while it is important, I don’t think it is critical.


Sam: So you said that they’ve been doing things like working to put solar panels or wind on the surf club. Is that primarily to generate the energy or is it more of an awareness and education tool?


Doug: It’s both. It’s trying to make those local clubs have renewable energy, but it’s obviously also a very visible symbol of what the future might be. I think a really nice illustration of this is that last year, the culmination of a lot of campaigning and a lot of work, et cetera, CEFE in collaboration with the local council opened the first community solar panel sewerage works in the shape of the word, “Imagine.” If you’re coming along the flight path you can see these solar panels that have written, “Imagine,” there. If we’re purely talking about the efficiency of the way that those panels should be put together, where they should be facing et cetera, it’s a poor use of that technology, but nevertheless it’s taking up about 25% of the power that’s necessary to run that sewerage plant, and it’s that fantastic symbolic moment where people can think about it. Imagine. Imagine if the world was like this.


Sam: To what extent is energy the easy problem we’ve gotten distracted by? We started talking about water and even in New Zealand where it’s not so intense, we don’t seem to have a solution. We don’t seem to be able to come up with a simple way of managing the stuff that doesn’t result in the water getting polluted. I can only imagine that it’s so much worse in India and Cambodia and so on. Ramp it up, put those issues on steroids. I think what I’m asking is, is that the hard stuff? Is energy, that we’ve gotten stuck on, the easy stuff, but we’ve identified energy as the poster child for sustainability, and that’s distracting us from the really hard questions?


Sean: I think part of the issue is that energy is so attractive because it lends itself well to technological change and substitution of different energy sources, so it doesn’t actually result in making us uncomfortable thinking about how we use resources. It’s that simple solution, “Oh, okay we’ll put in an energy efficient light bulb and I’ll still leave it on all day when I go to work or when I’m not around because I’m using less energy. It’s that efficiency gains. That’s all that matters.” I think that does distract us from the much more important issues around, how do we actually live differently? How do we have to change our behaviour? How do we have those really uncomfortable conversations about, “You know what? We’re consuming too much. It’s an issue of consumption, not about energy efficiency.” I think that’s why energy is so easy to latch onto because it fits that technological change, not a social change kind of model.


Shane: Is there a consciousness of that within the movement? Did you explore that, or was that something that ever came up?


Doug: I think that the emphasis of the movement is around everyday changes that people can make in terms of their own life and the simple things that they can do in order to do this, but there’s also … It’s not at the forefront of what the movement is talking about, but certainly the people who are involved in it are very frustrated by the nature of the Australian political system and the fact that you have large mineral companies and others which are very influential in terms of the agenda. I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s born of a realization that there’s some really complex political realities there to try and deal with, but these are the kind of things that we can do.


Shane: Did you have a favourite moment or event that these guys did? Apart from obviously that big … Getting 3,000 people onto a beach is pretty impressive, but was there a favourite moment you thought, “Wow, that was something else. That was something special.” Or was there something special about that you found?


Doug: A moment that I really liked, if you go from Tathra where we’re talking about and then you go towards Canberra, you go up onto a plateau, which looks not dissimilar to Central Otago, I guess. In a similar kind of a way, there’s a great potential for wind energy there. There’s a little town up there called Nimmitabel which has about, I don’t know, I would say optimistically there’s 500 people live there. They’re very water-constrained. In the summer time they often have to truck water in.


But, a few years ago there was a proposal try and put in a wind farm up there called Boco Rock. You got Nimmitabel School, which, I don’t know exactly but I imagine has fewer than 20 kids in that school, together to form a sign which made a wind turbine. They started campaigning on the fact that this was going to be a positive thing for their area, for their school, and to go back there now, and of course, it’s not because of those kids that the Boco Rock Wind Farm is there, but it certainly demonstrated the community potential or that fact that the community was very interesting in embracing that technology. That’s a nice moment in terms of these kinds of things.


Sean: I think the thing that sticks out to me in reading through the interview transcripts is, they took all these pictures of these human signs that they made on the beach and made calendars out of them. Someone talks about, they were in the local stores and the calendar was in the local store and the calendar was on the wall and they said, “Oh yeah, I was in the E, which part of the word were you under?” So, this was a point of connection and building identity around, “This is where we’re from. This is who we are, and we all have this shared experience around this wonderful event of making this human sign on the beach.”


Doug: My parents are in that boat actually. The rest of my family who lives there can point out to you where they are in that sign and it’s a nice moment.


Sam: Okay, so I’ve got a different question. Can those everyday changes, can they add up? Do they add up to a socio-ecological transformation?


Doug: I think the history of social change is about those shifts, isn’t it? Some of them are triggered by significant events that bring to the forth people to rethink things, but often it’s just a steady accretion of a particular way of approaching something which eventually wins the day. I think that absolutely, the history of transformation is about those small moments building up into large transformations.


Sam: Do we know which ones work?


Doug: I think in the case of CEFE – so there’s a very specific case there – we would say that what works is building alliances with people who you wouldn’t necessarily think were you allies, but who nevertheless are interested in being part of the community, who are interested in some kind of sense of collective identity, and are interested in changing things for the better for their community. Shifting those kinds of people towards this kind of action is likely to be more successful, if we look at the CEFE case, than an adversarial politics, which seeks to confront and speak to power head on. Having said that, I would say that we can all identify instances where it’s very much that speaking-truth-to-power moment that is absolutely necessary in order to try and force social change.


Sam: Are the people in the area and the town that they’re in, or wider, that actively think, “That’s crazy,” and are actively working against it?


Doug: In the broader region, there’s a lot of sea changes and tree changes, people that have moved there in the last say, 20 or 30 years for the lifestyle which is offered there, so I think you’ve got a fairly sympathetic constituency there. But, the general historical nature of the region is a very conservative one, so of course, when you have that situation who think that this is just trouble makers and that this is … In Australia there’s a lot of people who think that climate change is a myth anyway, but I think in this particular case, because you’ve got somebody leading the movement who is an orthopaedic surgeon rather than some kind of rat-bag intellectual or some kind environmental activist et cetera-


Sam: Geographers!


Doug: Yeah, there’s this veneer of respectability that goes that goes with that, which I think has helped the legitimacy of the movement. It’s interesting dynamics going on, but anywhere in Australia you’ve got people who are passionately opposed to climate change and people who are rabidly trying to mitigate the worst of it. That’s not necessarily the case that either of them are particularly well-informed in taking those positions.


Sam: Do you have a go-to definition of sustainability?


Doug: This your moment.


Sean: I wouldn’t call it a definition but an approach building on what we’ve been talking about. It is fundamentally about doing something differently. Things have to change. Of course we can do things differently in a regressive way, but we can also do things differently in a way that puts us more in tune about our relationship to the environment and our relationship to each other, in ways that promote well-being. I think that’s how I would approach it.


Sam: The sample of students that you get to see is a biased subset, because they’ve chosen geography, but are they coming through getting that?


Doug: Yeah.


Sean: Yeah, I think they are. I was really taken by how you started off with the person from western Sydney around how do you embed these things into education and ensure that once they leave, that they’re actually embracing those kind values and those attributes and carrying it forward into their lives. I think for the most part, geography students do. It is a fundamental aspect of it.


Doug: I think that at the very least, they intellectually acknowledge that there’s some really serious problems with the current trajectory of the world. Now, there’s obviously going to be differences in the extent to which they then embrace that and modify their own behaviour and become actively involved in that, but I think most of them aspire to do something in their lives which is going to further sustainability. We’ve got a good cohort in that sense.


Sam: We’re writing a book about these conversations. We’re calling it, “Tomorrow’s Heroes.” How would you describe your superpower? What is it that you’re bringing to the good fight?


Doug: My superpower?


Sam: Yeah.


Doug: My superpower is that I’m good at grasping lots of complex ideas and explaining them in a way which is accessible to people, if that’s not too big a claim. I think that that’s really important because we need to be able to speak and have conversations about these things in lots of different ways to lots of different people in order to communicate these kind of issues. I think you need to be able to do that.


Sam: What’s the biggest success that you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Doug: I think that the work on transboundary water. I’ve been involved in a series of dialogues, different stakeholders in different parts of the region. Some of them have been sponsored by the Australian aid donors with universities in Australia, and some of them have been in European-based think tanks. I think that that’s part capacity building, part dialogue, but I think that it’s really important to try and get people from around South Asia together to talk about the commonalities and differences they have around those water issues. Being involved in that, I can’t claim any particular credit for progress, but in terms of what’s been most satisfying for seeing social change, that’s definitely right up there.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Doug: I consider myself to be an engaged teacher. I don’t think that I have the time or the energy to be an activist in a way that I would want, but I think that I’m really lucky in my job allows me talk about a whole range of different things and go and find out about them and talk to people involved in those things, and then communicate them to people here. That’s a form of activism, but it’s disingenuous perhaps, to says that’s activism, per se.


Sean: I guess, do you think that’s putting activism upon a pedestal that makes it out of reach?


Doug: Yeah, maybe. Sure.


Sean: Maybe we should rethink. Activism doesn’t have to be this big, massive marching in the streets or doing these really, really radical things. Maybe there’s all kinds of other ways, as you’re talking about, teaching …


Doug: Absolutely. Look, there’s lots of things that have changed the way that I think about the world, but one of them was about going to university. I think that we’re in a really … It’s a fantastic position to be in, that you can change the way that people think about the world. That’s a big thing.


Sam: Should we be following Bob Huish’s lead? Should we have Dissent 101?


Doug: I think that students are active to learn about how they can be involved in social change. I think that when you look around the world with campuses that run courses and degrees on activism, they’ve been incredibly popular and the students that have come out of that have gained a lot from them. I think that, if we’re interested in sustainability, we need to be helping our students to gain those kind of tools, so why not?


Sam: Do you think you could get it passed the senate or council or whoever it is? Why don’t we ask them? Shane?


Shane: There might be something in the plan. There might be something afoot already. That’s all I can say.


Sam: What motivates you?


Doug: I’m interested in stuff. It’s nice to get people to think about things in a different way.


Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?


Doug: Personally or professionally or … ?


Sam: You can have both.


Doug: I think that, as somebody who works on a region which is going to be one of the largest economies in the world in the next couple of years, and is already the third largest emitter of carbon – that is India – I’m concerned and optimistic and extremely pessimistic and all sorts of contradictory sentiments about the rise of that country and what it’s going to mean for the globe. Not for the global economy or for the lifestyles of the people in the West, but there’s 1.3 billion people there and the trajectory that it’s moving on is obviously going to put further pressure on the finite resources of our globe. That’s a big challenge.


Sam: Does sustainability mean the same thing there?


Doug: I think it depends a lot on who you’re talking to. I think that there’s a lot of people … If you have population where, somewhere between 300 and 700 million people, depending on whose figures you believe, are really below or only just above the poverty line, then sustainability for those people is being able to live a life with dignity, which means they won’t die early and see their family die early, and won’t irrevocably erode the resources around them. What sustainability means for a middle class person in India that’s now experiencing lifestyles that was unavailable to their parents, is perhaps a whole other thing. The challenge, I guess, is to try and cater for of those groups of people, have inclusive growth, but do so in a way which going to shift India towards a low-carbon economy. It’s a very, very big challenge.


Sam: For those vast numbers living in abject poverty, it would be churlish of us to begrudge them a fridge.


Doug: Of course.


Sam: But, can we do it?


Doug: Yeah, I think that it’s going to be a long time till all of those people have fridges, but I think that this is the challenge, isn’t it? To try and … I’m not saying that all of the solutions are technological, but clearly we can’t have the same fridges for 700 million people in India that we do elsewhere, otherwise … The white goods industry will be happy, but it’s going to be a problem. I’m not sure what the answer to that is. I think the rise of India as an economic force is not entirely assured, either. I think that the jury’s still out on that. We always think about it as, “Well, in the future, we’re going to suddenly have 800 million people who are middle class.” I’m not sure whether that’s true.


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


Doug: That you should be active participants in your own life, that you should try and gain different perspectives on familiar phenomena as much as you can, and if you feel strongly about something then you should try and take action on it. You should try and work out what kind of action that might mean for you, but you should nevertheless try and do that.




community geography

spaces of empowerment

Sophie Bond

It starts with talking and it starts with doing things ever so slightly differently. Those sort of little incremental changes allow people to start just even just shifting the way they’re thinking and making space for doing things differently.

Shane:                  Our guest tonight is Dr Sophie Bond. She’s a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at Otago University. Her areas of research include the formation of collectives in response to environmental and social change. Social sustainability, autonomous geographies, and alternative economies, urban sustainability, qualitative and feminist methodologies, political ecology and discourse theory. Welcome to our show, Sophie.

Sophie:                 Thank you.

Shane:                  Now, just before the show I can embarrass myself as always because you guys said that you went to school with Sam. I thought because I heard that southwest English accent the same accent Sam has. I thought you went to school in England, but you didn’t. You came from very close to where Sam grew up.

Sophie:                 I spent the first four years of my life in Bristol.

Shane:                  Funny, I can still hear it, just a little bit. I’m a linguist so I pick these things up a bit more quickly than other people. Do you remember much about Bristol?

Sophie:                 I’ve been back a few times, spent quite a bit of time there. My partner is from Dorset so we try to get back there quite regularly.

Shane:                  Oh cool. You grew up in Dunedin, is that right?

Sophie:                 That’s right, I grew up here.

Sam:                      They have a great school I might add.

Shane:                  What school is that?

Sophie:                 Logan Park.

Shane:                  Logan Park where my son goes as well and Sam’s son.

Sophie:                 My daughter studies there too.

Shane:                  Oh yeah, it’s a crazy place. You went to Logan Park. Was there something at the school that got you interesting in geography or … What got you interested in going to university?

Sophie:                 Actually I came at geography in a very, very roundabout way.  I did  a law degree as my undergrad. I did women’s studies. I wasn’t remotely interested in geography at that time. Then, had a bit of a break went to, lived in Monaco for awhile, did some stuff there. Including getting involved in the environmental society writing, submissions and helping them out on a few things. Then, we were abroad for a couple of years, came back and deciding that we do something a bit more productive than what we were heading. Went to back to university, and did a planning masters in the geography department and then kind of stayed. Got a PhD. following on from that. Yeah.

Shane:                  What got you particularly interested in the sustainability stuff? What was the urban sustainability? What got you interested in that? I noticed your PhD. and thesis, we’ll talk about that a little bit later. What piqued your interest about that?

Sophie:                 I think it was … It’s really hard to pinpoint. I think I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. I think also, my focus on sustainability has always been in relations to social sustainability and I guess urban sustainability was a way to focus on the social in the context of a very sort of physical environment planning system here. Planning stuff kind of drew me into that urban sustainability stuff I think.

Shane:                  What’s your legal qualifications, do they help with those concepts about legality and governance and …

Sophie:                 Yeah, I think they did. When I did my law degree I focused on peripheral subjects not mainstream law subjects, like environmental law, international law. Some of the public health stuff and ethics and things like that. Yeah, definitely.

Shane:                  Would you characterize New Zealand as being quite advanced with the resource management act at that point. At that stage, was it a bit kind of ahead of the game and thought it was exciting?

Sophie:                 I think the reform process, the resource management reform process and the way that it brought lots of different groups together to discuss the issues was well ahead of its time. I think the way it’s been rolled out and practiced has closed down a lot of those opportunities that initially started with the focus on sustainable management. It was a first, I think, for many countries in terms of focusing on their sustainable management in terms of it being the main planning legislation. Yeah.

Shane:                  That provided a lot of areas for research. Did you find anything interesting about that? Was there any particular  reason why it happened here in New Zealand first? Or did you have any understanding of that? Was it just that …

Sophie:                 I think the 1990s reforms here were so aggressive in terms of sort of embracing the umbrella-ism that we were in a state of flux and a state of change anyway. That might have provided some of the conditions for that. Yeah, so they were reforming local government at the same time. I think that probably had a huge impetus. Yeah, it’s not an area that I’m hugely familiar with. I’m just yeah.

Shane:                  What’s an autonomous geography? That’s another phrase, I went, What is that?

Sophie:                 Autonomous geography, it’s a group of researchers in the UK who were … They describe themselves as activist scholars. They’re really actively involved in creating change through their own scholarship and through their own activism. They bring those things together as much as possible. Autonomous geography has kind of embraced part of that idea, so a lot of their research has been about creating social spaces or community spaces. They’re trying to create alternatives to business as usual, the status quo and be sort of autonomous from mainstream consumption and that sort of thing.

Autonomous geography is about looking at those spaces and how they operate and how they create change for the people who are  living and working within those spaces and that sort of thing. I guess you could include things like time banks, community spaces. They have a number of different operations going on within them. Alternative economies, things like some transition towns would sort of embrace those ideas as well. They often operate on a non-hierarchical consensus building type of consensus based decision making model as well.

Shane:                  Sounds very near anarchist.

Sophie:                 Very much informed by anarchist thinking, yeah.

Sam:                      Just to be clear, though, do you consider yourself to be an autonomous geographer?

Sophie:                 No.

Sam:                      Why not?

Sophie:                 Probably because at the that stage I’m at I don’t think I’m quite fully embracing the way that they embrace those concepts, living it and doing it. I’m working on it, but I’m definitely not there yet.

Shane:                  Moving on to the next interesting topic there was  qualitative and feminist methodology, in order to put those together, why did you put politics and feminist methodologies … A lot of people may be asking what does feminism got to do with geography. I kind of get what it does, but why are those two things together and how does feminism inform geography, understanding geography.

Sophie:                 There’s a huge area of feminist geography within human geography, within the geography of people and place. The sort of more social geographies. Actually, feminist geography is a discipline or sub-discipline has been really instrumental in creating opportunities in making qualitative methods acceptable and rigorous and an important part of social science. They did that by questioning a more scientific method, which has its place but also misses out a whole lot of the human experience. The emotional aspects of being and living in the places that we exist in. I think feminist geographies are  not just about looking at gender as a form of inequality, which they do a lot of. How gender inequality is distributed in different places, and how they exist in the power relationships associated with those things.  It’s also about thinking about how knowledge is produced. How research is responsible for the knowledge they produce. Actual research as a co-production of knowledge, it’s not just about experts coming in and extracting knowledge from groups or from people. It’s about working with communities to produce knowledge in a shared way. Treating people as the experts,  the communities that we work with are the experts. We’re sharing knowledge building processes and doing work that those communities and those groups are wanting to have done. That it’s going to feed into things that are useful for them.

Shane:                  A lot of sustainability thinking criticizes quantitative research and the scientific method because it misses out the human experience. It misses out … You can only use proxies for instance the health of streams. You can say, it’s got the [neoduction 00:09:40] levels of this, the [duction 00:09:42] levels of that. You can talk about bio-diversity, but even that’s kind of controversial. Subject now, that definition there, is that criticism the same as feminist criticisms, that science can only give you approximation or a proxy indicators of what’s actually there. That it misses out on this massive thing, it disconnects us from nature. Is that …

Sophie:                 Yeah, that’s a really big part of it, it’s partly it’s that objective knowledge that you can … It’s like with the scientific method, the scientist is invisible. The knowledge is produced. The scientific method is so far normalized as the means of the main dominant means of producing knowledge that we don’t question the decisions that are made in the process of producing that knowledge enough. What feminist geographers were trying to do, and has happened in other social science disciplines as well, as well as other feminist sociologists for example and others. They were trying to say that we need to recognize that any knowledge production process involves making a whole series of decisions that may include or exclude certain factors and certain assets of the nature of the proxy that’s used to measure whatever. Has an effect on the outcomes. It’s about being really critical about who is making those decisions and why they’re being made and how they’re being made. What the effect of those decisions is. It’s just about questioning the process and not treating science as some absolute, you know, sort of single truth, you know.

Shane:                  It’s not a universal truth. The thing is, what people forget when they tend to be like … When scientists pretend to be invisible is that they choose the questions. Those questions are framed by their world view. This was the feminist critique …

Sophie:                 Absolutely.

Shane:                  Saying hey you come to this space with a world view. You might go into a native tribe in the middle of the Amazon and say, “These people are really primitive, they don’t know anything.” They have a huge wealth of knowledge, but it’s not knowledge that’s recognized by Western science. The knowledge of the environment so that’s really, really interesting. Let’s go on to political ecology. What is political ecology?

Sophie:                 Political ecology is kind of the molding together of ideas about political economy. Almost processes of production, reproduction, roles catylism, within, marrying with the idea of ecologies. Ecologies being networks of systems that involve people, places, environments and so on. It’s a really diverse area. It involves social anthropology, development studies, geography, sociology, loads and loads of different disciplines. The level of sort of scientific ecology that comes into those political ecologies is really variable. Actually, probably more recently it has moved more and more and more towards the social sciences. It’s about looking at the relationships between the actions that people have in particular places and their effects on sort of broad ecologies.

Shane:                  You said social economy there. The current paradigm, the dominant paradigm is that politics and economics, they have to be kept separate. You said social economy here, so will you talk about that?

Sophie:                 I’m not a political economist. Yeah, I guess using political economy probably coming from it from its Marxist roots rather than thinking about it as the political system is, at the moment, which is embedded within neo-liberalism. I guess the broader idea behind political ecology is to demonstrate that those broader economic drivers have a fundamental shaping effect on the decisions that are made and how we interact with environments.

Shane:                  The last thing was discourse theory, so could you explain what discourse theory is?

Sophie:                 Discourse theory is,  a specific analytical tool that actually comes from a group of scholars from the University of Essex in the school of government. It was initially developed by, primarily by two people, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, who were pretty famous for a book they wrote in 1985. They’ve been described as sort of post-Marxist thinkers. They’re really talking about ideas about democracy, very broadly conceived and how power shapes what people can say in particular situations. Discourse theory draws on this idea, sort of a [DeCodian 00:15:12] idea of discourse, discourse as a set of ideas that shape how things are understood in the world and how meanings are made. How this then becomes hegemonic or dominant and normalized, so that we don’t actually see outside it. This is the case, many would argue, in terms of neo-liberalism. Unless you’re really critical of it, you probably don’t call it neo-liberalism. You also don’t see beyond the role of the market or creating jobs as a good thing. Those sorts of things that are embedded within the sort of contemporary,  business as usual, model of capitalism. What discourse theory allows is a kind of way of thinking about and picking how particular sets of ideas coalesce around a key idea or key concept and then they  are perpetuated and continued through a whole series of power relations in society.

Those power relations go from things that have happened in the media in a way that media perpetuates it as a way of understanding the world all the way down to our individual actions. How we’re shaped by the meanings that are made and represented to us so we continually perform them and re-perform them and reproduce them through those performances as well.

Shane:                  One of the interesting things that I’ve been thinking about is that in the Great Depression during the 1920s, there was a huge amount of discussion about capitalism and the nature of capitalism. Then, we had the 2008 global financial crisis and there was some discussion. There were many movements, like the Occupy movement, [inaudible 00:16:56]. The Arab Spring was a direct result of the repercussions of the GFC. Do we have any handle or any understanding of why those movements haven’t flourished or why they’re … That they haven’t quite succeed in the way that … You can look at 1930s Europe and America, there was a huge foment of different ideas and new concepts and debate. Which had some very aspects as well, nervous if that happens. We seem to just have fallen back into the pre-2008 time, mind frame. Is there anything like … You talk about alternative responses and social responses, that was a big alternative of social response so what happened to it?[crosstalk 00:18:02].

Sophie:                 It’s such a hard question. It’s big, it’s huge. I’ve got some ideas, a lot of it’s embedded within the way that … I’m going to come down hard on neo-liberalism again. The way that neo-liberalism is so dominant and hegemonic. I think I’ve done a little bit of digging  around some of those earlier ideas or those early thinkers in relation to neo-liberalism ,a guy called Mirowski, who is a leftist economist, has written a book and done quite a lot of work. He talks about the neo-liberal thought collective. You know those early thinkers, Hayek and Friedman and so on. They have created this collective, who were very tightly knit. They were trying to create this ideology and get it going. They were really forceful, really strategic, and really clever in the way that they did that. It took them until the 1980s before it started being rolled out in different places around the world, the States and in Britain under Thatcher and here.

One of the things that they did, this is something that Mirowski writes about, they had this idea that actually in order to have neo-liberalism work, you’ve got to have a really strong state. Which is counter to the neo-liberal mantra of a de-evolved state and de-evolution and de-centralization. They knew that to have a really strong state, particularly in the context of the time that they were talking about this and  building this momentum, which was 1940s, 1950s was really unpalatable. They also saw that in order to have this strong state, you couldn’t have … democracy was the antithesis of being able to roll out neo-liberalism in the way they wanted to. There was this disconnect between the power of the people and rolling out this project of neo-liberalism. They knew that was really unpalatable so they hid it. They turned the ideas of democracy into freedom of choice and freedom of consumption. It was a kind of a really clever kind of move, now our political practitioners and political scientists could perhaps have done some work on this. He has said, he’s done some work where he’s talked to governance practitioners, people who are working in the governance and the ministries and in government and local government.

There’s this idea that actually real democracy doesn’t give democratic outcomes, doesn’t give good policy. Our practitioners in government don’t believe that full participatory democracy or debating issues or discussing issues is actually going to produce good policies. This has become this kind of  entrenched idea I think within our governance practitioners. How do we create change when the people who are supposed to be the people who are leading us in democratic forms in democracies, don’t believe in it.

Sam:                  What would a full participatory democracy look like, then?

Sophie:                 I don’t know. No, I don’t know. I guess an ideal that would certainly be better than what we have at the moment is spaces for robust debate about issues. Whereas, at the moment, we get closed down by any thing that kind of is dissenting against the sort of business as usual. There’s debate about stuff round about the middle, straight down the middle, that doesn’t really go against the main system. Anything that goes against it or outside it is “you’re just a leftie,” or a hippie or a greenie, so we don’t need to worry about you. There’s a kind of like this de-legitimization, a systematic de-legitimization of anyone who’s outside that mainstream, straight down the middle.

Shane:                  This is incredibly topical because right now there’s a protest in town about the TPPA, which is the TransPacific Partnership Agreement, which is being sold as a free trade agreement, but it isn’t. Because the stuff that’s been leaked we can see it’s all about corporate control and investor state disputes. There’s been a power grab by the corporations so this obviously  involves a lot of double think. To borrow George Orwell’s brilliant term. TPPA is like another step in that process of de-democratization and grabbing power.

Sophie:                 Absolutely. It’s a classic example of it. Yes, it’s quite scary.

Shane:                  I didn’t realize … I knew there was a TPPA or a TPIP or PPI in Europe so there’s a previous one between the US and Europe. There’s also the TSA one as well, which is the trade and services agreement. TSA is also being negotiated. There’s three negotiations at the same time, kind of roughly overlapping, kind of doing the same kind of stuff. Where we’re giving up our power as democracies to set our laws to corporations. People are dismissing the protesters in exactly the same way as you’ve described. Some people are angry protesting and re-route the protest, but what about the mainstream people. Do you have insight why people just aren’t kind of … Is it complex? Is it too complicated?

Sophie:                 It’s complicated. There’s not very much information about it. The information out there is leaked before it can be dismissed because it’s just leaked, it’s not official. I think that’s another big thing. There’s no open debate or discussion about it, you know. I think that there’s a lot of anger about it. I think there’s a sense of they’re going to do it anyway. We can’t necessarily do anything about it. I think what is positive is the number of people who were out the other weekend, all across the country

I had to have a wee chuckle at John Key’s responses to that where he started labeling. A third of them were Green … He didn’t actually say Green Peace fringe crowd. He did say fringe crowd. Another third were … He has these ways of basically de-legitimizing any protest. He did the same sort of thing with oil-free protests that were going on a few years back where there were 5,000 people on North Island beaches doing a banners on the beach type protest. He described them as a Green Peace fringe crowd. He has these one-liners and other ministers do too. The media picks up on those rather than going with reporting on the number of people who were there and the range of different people from all sectors of the community who were there as well. I think there’s a whole …

Sam:                  Sustainable future is going to need a system change. Is it going to need the system to change to deliver it?

Sophie:                 It is too hard. I agree a sustainable future does need a system change. I don’t know how we get there. I think, you know, we just got to keep trying to create change and create spaces where people feel empowered to speak out.

Shane:                  You discuss communities of change and how people come together, it is quite difficult to do that when you feel officialdom,  the official society, is opposed to you or doesn’t agree with you. How communities get the courage to step up and …

Sophie:                 That’s a really hard question too because all of those systematic methods of closure and this is part of some research that I’m doing at the moment is talking to people who are actively engaged in trying to create spaces of debate, dissent, and  of action. Trying to work out how they deal with those constant negotiations that they have to deal with every day of being sneered at in the tea room when they have to get a cup of tea. Because they happen to be on the front page of a paper in a protest and they were seen there. They are like, “You were over there at the weekend you know.” Or “Are you happy?” Something like that. Which is seeing it in a really negative way, rather than something …

Shane:                  A celebration, yes you’re great to participate in democracy, You’re a great citizen.

Sophie:                 Yes. Why doesn’t that happen more? I don’t know what the answer to that is. I think there’s a whole lot of pressures on us every day, as well as just being super busy and struggling to just  keep going. It requires energy and motivation and the ability to counter that constant de-legitimization of what you believe in.

Sam:                  We went to Oamaru and did six interviews with  various people from the transition town movement. In fact this trip of ours was prompted by you going the month before with the third year geographers – including my daughter.

Sophie:                 Yes.

Sam:                  One of the things that was apparent to us was that there’s a really small group of people actually making a change on behalf of and taking the rest of the town with them. W interviewed six, there’s probably another 20 or so out of a town, I don’t know what it is, 10,000.

Shane:                      10,000 yeah, 12,000.

Sam:                  Some of them had very much this attitude of yeah we’re taking the whole town with us, everyone thinks we’re great. Other people came in and said Hold on, most of the town thinks we’re loonies, but they’re recycling their rubbish. They’re visiting the community garden. Despite the fact that a whole lot of the town doesn’t think they’re a good job, they are actually reaching that tipping point. Is there a model that we can learn from in places like Oamaru, a Transition Town, for how we can make change without needing to convince absolutely everybody.

Sophie:                 Absolutely. I think those small scale, local community responses that are creating opportunities and different kinds of relating to each other and relating to place and doing things differently are just absolutely vital. I think they do really, really important social stuff as well as really important environmental stuff in terms of building resilience for want of a better word. Creating connections between people that wouldn’t otherwise exist because people are too busy jumping in their car and going to work rather than walking down the road and chatting to people, or buying locally or whatever.

I think those things are really important. Actually, I think that’s one of the things that a group of scholars are doing in Australia. They’re called alternative economies network. They’ve done a huge amount of work on trying to understand both the social and environmental sort of ethics of these kinds of groups that create change from the ground up.

Sam:                  Marion Shaw, who runs the resource recovery park in Oamaru had a very clever line, which I can’t remember exactly what is was, but it was something like, “We’re in the business of recovering people, we just happen to be sorting the rubbish.” For me, it really brought home that community as the centre of the sustainability message. What’s your take on the relationship between community and sustainability?

Sophie:                 I think it’s fundamental. I don’t think you can have environmental sustainability without having communities who are  embracing social sustainability or embracing and relating and working together to achieve it. It’s never going to be a top down thing. People aren’t going to respond to  [inaudible 00:30:30], though they would be helpful in some contexts. I think, you know, encouraging people to work together to create change is one of the best ways to achieve the kinds of things we need to start achieving.

Shane:                  Why do we value some work over other work? This probably comes back to feminism and in fact I’m absolutely positive that it comes back to feminism because most of the highly paying jobs are done by men and not by women. I don’t think that was a coincidence, or that there’s any reason for it. How do we establish these value systems and why …

Sophie:                 There’s messes. I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess one thing to hold onto is that these value systems get created, but they’re not absolute. They can be changed. I think it’s the sort of thing to keep holding onto. It’s just like, there’s definitely something to be said …

Shane:                  As far as when you look at alternative economies, are there other systems or other systems of economies that we can look to. For instance, as an example, the Iroquois Nation had a completely different economy to Western Europe. When people arrived there, they shared resources and a women’s council basically divvied out all the resources according to whatever system they had. That was a completely different system to what was happening in Western Europe at the time when Westerners arrived in North America. Are there other alternative economies out there that maybe we can look to as maybe positive examples. Have you come across any?

Sophie:                 I haven’t really. It’s an area I would like to look into more. I mean there’s all sorts of models all over the show that wold be really useful to tap into. I guess it’s again about creating the spaces to experiment and try out different forms of economic exchange that don’t involve the [inaudible 00:32:49] economy. To value those kinds of labors as you suggested before in different ways.

Shane:                  We’re almost doing that. We’re doing that in transition towns. Oamaru is doing it. There’s this alternative economy going on. Which is not about money exchange, it’s about exchange of skills, food.

Sophie:                 Time banks.

Shane:                  Time banks as well. That stuff all. It’s happening …

Sam:                      Time banks. I was talking to students about it today. Time banks is just about how much time it takes you, isn’t it? If you’re a brain surgeon or baking a cake, it’s an hour’s worth of time.

Sophie:                 Yeah, the media is time. Yeah, the market is based on time.

Sam:                      Do those hold up over the long-term?

Sophie:                 It depends, to some extent,  on the nature of the group who are involved in the time bank, I think. People who are willing to engage in that exchange on that basis will do so. People who aren’t won’t. I guess, in a way, it’s a kind of flattening out, a kind of radical form of equality in terms of valuing time in a completely sort of flat way. There’s no hierarchy involved anymore. Perhaps there is a hierarchy but it’s reversed because those task that people don’t want to do are the tasks that people want done, so they’re actually valued more highly than are the highly skilled jobs. Actually, maybe it changes those hierarchies quite nicely. Time banks operate on different bases, I think as well, it depends on how they’re set up and that sort of thing.

Sam:                      What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?

Sophie:                 I don’t really have a go-to definition of sustainability. I think it encompasses ideas of that sort of nexus between social and environmental sustainability. I don’t think you can have one without the other. It’s about creating some kind of, I was going to say, equilibrium,  but it’s probably not quite what I mean. Something that’s just more, something that’s just more caring in long term.

Sam:                      You keep saying social and environmental sustainability, as if they’re two different things. Are they?

Sophie:                 No, no, no they’re not. It’s probably because when I was reading sustainability literature, that’s exactly what they were treated as. I think the other thing is the whole … Sustainability is not actually a term I use very often. The reason is because often it just ends up meaning economic sustainability, which is not where we’re coming from at all.

Shane:                  What do you use instead? I’m here with my pencil ready to write it down.

Sophie:                 I talk about alternative futures, probably.

Shane:                  That’s funny because no one knows what that definition is. Thank you for asking.

Sophie:                 Nobody has one, that’s a relief.

Shane:                  What about resilience, we’ve got that in the title as well.

Sophie:                 Yeah, resilience is another one that’s going the same way as sustainability. It gets co-opted in all sorts of ways where it loses it’s sort of critical egalitarian purchase.

Shane:                  Is it radical enough?

Sophie:                 Exactly, I think the way it’s often used, it’s not. It doesn’t, I don’t think it does enough.

Sam:                  I think it is used because it is more appealing. We don’t actually have to change anything, it’s just about a few community gatherings. We’ll be all right.

Sophie:                 Yeah, that’s right.  It’s about adapting to change, not creating change, yeah.

Shane:                  What successes have you had in the last couple of years?

Sophie:                 Actually kind of bring together the stuff that I’m researching with the stuff that I’m teaching. Trying to create change through those things I think is kind of the main thing. For example, Doug Hill and I created a course in geography and taught it for the first time this semester last year. It was about creating spaces of contestation within the context of neo-liberal New Zealand. It was about drawing together some of the things we were talking about before. How democracy is shifted so radically and try to bring it back. That’s sort of where a lot of my research is at the moment as well. That’s probably … It feels very modest. I’ve been here for two years, I haven’t been away for quite a long time and I’m just still finding my feet. Working on creating other opportunities.

Sam:                  You say that you’re not an autonomous geographer despite the fact they have activist scholarship. Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

Sophie:                 Not really. I would probably say that I’m probably a want to be.   I do research with groups who are activists, but I wouldn’t call myself one. I haven’t quite managed to work out how to commit the time to it and balance it with all the other time commitments at the moment.

Sam:                  It’s a time issue, not a philosophical position?

Sophie:               It’s a time issue, not a philosophical position.

Sam:                  What would have to change?

Sophie:                Academia being slightly less demanding on my time. That’s probably the main thing that would have to change.

Sam:                  They do pay you.

Sophie:                 They do pay me. Yes, they do. They pay me well. I like to know that.

Sam:                  Following up from that then, I’m going to dismiss that as a motivation, what motivates you?

Sophie:                 Issues of injustice.

Shane:                  That was quick.

Sophie:                 It’s the biggest motivator.

Sam:                  Has that always been a driver?

Sophie:                 Yes, it has. That’s probably what I should have said when you asked me right at the beginning about sustainability, issues of injustice. That probably actually started from when I had a trip to South Africa in 1983, or 4. Pre-the end of apartheid, and  it was quite an eye opener for an early teen.

Sam:                  What challenges do you have in the next couple of years?

Sophie:                 The biggest challenge is probably actually  being able to do what I want to achieve in the time constraints that I have. Time’s quite a big factor at the moment. I think trying to create a balance between being able to create opportunities for change and actually keep sort of doing the work that I’m doing in my day job in balance. Because I’m really not good at balancing at the moment. I struggle.

Sam:                  Okay to do less things, create opportunities for change. Lets start with  what changes? What kind of changes do you want to see?

Sophie:                 The biggest change actually I want to see is coming back to those ideas about democracy. People feeling empowered to speak out and not de-legitimized for doing so. Not struggling with negotiating, constantly being harassed for doing so. Those are the kinds of things that I would really like to see shift. Because I think that would make a big difference.

Sam:                  In any particular community or just in general?

Sophie:                 In general, I think.

Sam:                  Starting with the whole world.

Sophie:                 No, no, no obviously. Starting with local communities in terms of working with local communities to try and  achieve those sorts of goals. Or just actually working with local communities to identify the barriers that stop people from achieving those goals, as a first step. Then, trying to work out strategies for dealing with it.

Shane:                  If you start with any old community, as one of the ones living down on the harbour, you can have Carey’s Bay, if you like.

Sophie:                 Thank you

Sam:                  What would you see actively happen differently?

Sophie:                 I’m sure that there are really strong connections between many of those communities. I don’t want to sort of label anyone in particular. I think what you were talking about in terms of Oamaru and Transition Town stuff, creating connections and getting people talking about stuff actually is a huge motivator for people actually taking action. It starts with talking and it starts with doing things ever so slightly differently. Those sort of little incremental changes allow people to start just even just shifting the way they’re thinking and making space for doing things differently.

Shane:                  You say incremental changes. One of the things I’m questioning is whether incremental changes are going to get us there. If enough of us change the light bulbs, actually that’s not going to help.

Sophie:                 I agree with you. They still got to change. People can’t, I don’t think people can change fast in the current situation, which is kind of depressing.  I think people are so sort of… within the way we live our lives. The way we’re structured to continue to live our lives. There are so few people who have choices to be able to do things radically differently. A lot of people who do, do, which is great. You know people still have to go to work and do all that stuff and that’s just,  you know. I think that there’s …

Sam:                  Is radical change some sort of luxury then?

Sophie:                 I think it is a privileged position, at the moment, absolutely.

Sam:                  It’s a privileged position that lots of people are happy being n that privileged position.

Sophie:                 Yeah, that’s right. It ‘s a bit of a problem there.

Shane:                  What do we do about that?

Sophie:                 I don’t know, re-distribute wealth.

Shane:                  That’s not going to happen.

Sophie:                 I know.

Shane:                  That’s why I was saying a particular community. You’re not suggesting going and breaking down the doors of the manor house.

Sophie:                 No, no because, yeah, I don’t know what the answer to that is.

Sam:                  Okay, if you could wave a magic wand and  have a miracle occur by the time you wake up tomorrow morning, what would that miracle be?

Sophie:                 Can I have two?

Sam:                 Yeah.

Sophie:                 The first one would be that governments would divorce themselves from the corporate … That would be one that I think would make a very big difference and start looking beyond those three years …

Shane:                  They might pretend, but they’re not.

Sophie:                 Yeah, but they are. Actually start looking beyond three year terms and exponential economic growth. That would be my first one. The other one, as we were just talking about …

Shane:                  That was already three, not two.

Sam:                      that’s actually …

Shane:                  No, that’s just one, okay.

Sophie:                 That’s just one big one, one big miracle. Then the other one is those community responses where people have the time and the energy to do all that fantastic stuff that people in transition towns are making happen.

Sam:                  Okay for the first one and the second one then, what’s the smallest thing that you could possibly do that would make the biggest difference in making that happen?

Sophie:                 Say that again.

Sam:                  What’s the tiniest thing that you could that would have the biggest impact in terms of actually getting governments to divorce themselves from corporates looking beyond year three exponential growth? Sounds like three to me. What could we actually do to make that happen? … No, okay, it might be easier for the other one. What can we do to encourage community responses?

Sophie:                 Talk to your neighbor.

Shane:                  How can we scale up what they’re doing in Oamaru and places like it? Can it scale?

Sophie:                 I think it can replicate. I think as soon as those communities get too big, it starts to get really difficult to manage the sort of local dynamics that go on within any of those kinds of groups. Lots of groups scattered around that are working together. Lots of little communities, transition towns, or whatever they are. Yeah, I think it’s about understanding how they do things and working with that to create visions for possible alternatives.

Shane:                  Lastly, I have a list here you see. Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

Sophie:                 Be the change you want to see in the world.

Shane:                      That’s great, be the change.


development education geography health Inequality

teaching social activism

Bob Huish

There’s always been this association of higher learning to progressive social movements…Instead of saying that this is something that happens on the fringe of university culture, why can’t we make this a learning experience?


Our guest tonight is Associate Professor Bob Huish from Dalhousie University. He’s part of the International Development Studies Department at Dalhousie, and a recipient of the 2015 Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada.

His research explores ways in which social activism can lead to comprehensive development outcomes. He focuses on global health inequity and the role of activism in bringing about improved provision of healthcare and resource poor settings. Beyond community based health advocacy, he examines how medical education acts as a determinant of global health and equity, particularly with regards to Cuban Medical Internationalism.

It is well known that while many diseases favour the poor, the ability to treat and prevent illness tends to favour the affluent, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later. He pursues research about the pedagogies of activism and the organization of social resistance. He also explores the role of sport for development with special attention to Cuba and how this facilitates comprehensive development as well as organized forms of resistance.

At the moment, he’s currently working on following four areas, might be some more when he talks about it a little bit later on: Cuba sports internationalism solidarity, the pace of activism in the future of the university, global health assets, and human rights activism in North Korea.

He’s presenting a lecture entitled, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Bounds.” Dark connections between offshore capital sanctions and human rights abuses in North Korea, which sounds very exciting there. It’s on the 14th of September at 1:00 PM, it’s in St David St lecture theatre. You also have one on Tuesday, which we just found out about before the lecture at 5:00 PM on Tuesday. I’m going to talk to you about that in a second.

You’re also currently the Ron Lister fellow in the Department of Geography, the University of Otago, which is why you’re here. Welcome to our show. Welcome to New Zealand.

Bob: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here and loving being in Dunedin.

Shane: This all sounds really fascinating, but tell us what the lecture you’re giving on Tuesday.

Bob: Tuesday is the Ron Lister Visiting Fellow lecture. That’ll be at 5:15 on the campus. I believe it will be in room … I’ll find it for you.

Shane: You find it and get back to us. (Burns 2)

Bob: Yes, I’ll get back to you on that. It’s going to be talking about some of the research I’m doing involving North Korean human rights. As geographers, as the department of geography, we are all about going to places, experiencing that place, learning about the land, the life, the interactions. What I’m talking about on Tuesday is as a geographer, how do you research a place that you cannot go to, that is totally forbidden.

To go to North Korea, if you were there as a tourist, you would spend about €4000 for a week there, and you’d be given this veneer tourism. If you were to go in there illegally, you would risk your life. It’s very hard to get to see the realities of a place like that. Yet we know that this is an area that requires both scholarly and moral attention. How do we address it? That’s what I’ll be talking about on Tuesday night.

Shane: That sounds really exciting. Before we get into that, this is just absolutely fascinating stuff for me here. These are really, really interesting topics. We’ll go back and we’ll talk about, you grew up in Canada, I take it?

Bob: I did, yes. Six generations, Canadian, both sides, mother side and the father side.

Shane: Where in Canada were you brought up?

Bob: I was brought up in a place called Wasaga Beach, Ontario. Wasaga Beach’s claim to fame is that it is the longest freshwater beach in the world.

Shane: Wow. Was that mean that you spend lots of summer evenings down on the beach?

Bob: Absolutely. It’s a place where you have 18 kilometers of pristine beach. It’s inimitable. Then a couple of areas of the beach, we would let the tourists come over and take over and destroy the place, but we would maintain at least a good 16 kilometers for local activities. Now it’s a provincial park that’s protected for environmental sustainability as well. Lovely spot.

Shane: Is this what got your interested in geography? What made you become a geographer? Was that something that happened in school, or is it just something?

Bob: It was. I grew up wanting to travel and explore and take photos along the way. I remember telling the guidance counselors at the high school that I was going to either be a pilot or a National Geographic photographer. To be a National Geographic photographer, good luck. All the best to those to do it, but it’s a very competitive field. I figured a pilot would be a good way to see the world. When I went in for my medical test at the age of 16, the physician who did the test, you go through a few things, gets onto the eyes and he takes out the colour blindness book, and I’m seeing numbers that he doesn’t.

I remember him laughing out loud about how hilarious this was. I just saw, at the moment, my entire career and future just fading away. I went and talked to a high school teacher, Dave Knox, who had a radio show himself, avid rock and roll fantastic, but also very dedicated geographer. He pointed me in the direction in geography. It’s a field that will, pardon the pun, but it’ll take you places. I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Shane: Brilliant.

Sam: Shane’s always incredulous that people want to be geographers. We of course understand why you’d want to be a geographer.

Shane: It’s just that in school, it’s taught in the most boring way. Once you get to university, it resembles nothing compared to what you did in school. I’m always fascinated by this, physics is natural continuation but … Did you get frustrated with how high school teaches geography?

Bob: At the time, I was fortunate to have some really good high school teachers. Dave Knox was one, this other guy, Wayne Hunwicks, he was a fantastic teacher. I was really fortunate to have that growing up. Now looking back, to look at what a lot of geography is presented, in Canadian high school, I can speak to specifically, there is a disconnect. I think that when students come into university and they have an idea of what geography is in terms of making maps and capitals and mountains and ice and whatever else, to see the rich context that geographers, researchers and university professors bring to the table, it can be a very uphill battle for students in the first year or so.

Then once you realize how appreciated geographic research is in other disciplines, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Shane: Yeah, you always just think it’s like what you learned in school….boring, but it’s not, it’s just absolutely fascinating and really … You examine so many different areas of life. Let’s rush on. You obviously got interested in health.

Bob: Yes.

Shane: How did you get interested in health?

Bob: It was when I started doing work in Cuba. My Master’s project involve trips to Cuba to do work there. It was more in a historical, cultural geography framework. When I was in Cuba on the first day of arriving, this would’ve been April 30th. Still a bit chilly in Canada. You have a group of Canadian students who are coming down to the Caribbean for the first time, and we are exposed to this beautiful Caribbean sea. The first thing you want to do is jump into it.

No matter what culture you’re in, what language you speak, a red flag on the beach means what?

Sam: Danger.

Bob: Stay out of the water. Next thing you know, I’m the first guy in. It was this wave that came up, crashed over me, over my head, took me down and did one of those things where you’re corkscrewing. Smash, right into the rocks. I had my shoulder hanging open. I remember crawling out with one hand out of the beach and these two guys come in and they say, “we’ve got to take you to the hospital, man.” I thought, “I don’t want to go to a Cuban hospital, this isn’t what I want. It’s okay, I’ll walk it off.” You look over and the shoulder’s gaping.

They put me in the back of a ’53 Oldsmobile, picked up another guy who’d cut his foot open on a beer bottle, and we went straight to the hospital. We were both stitched up, cleaned up and out the door in 20 minutes. The next day, a nurse actually came by the hotel and said, “Hey, how’s that guy with the shoulder?” This was a time when some of the most wealthy and affluent countries were exercising extreme austerity on their healthcare systems. To me, being in a resource poor country that has many democratic and social problems, to extend that healthcare to a foreigner for no cost really resonated. I wanted to know why that was.

From there, it opens up a whole new area about what is healthcare, why does place matter to it, what can we bring to learn more about how this experience can be repeated.

Shane: Do you ever reflect on that one moment possibly changed your whole direction of your career?

Bob: It definitely did. What I did was I went back and started to do research in Cuba for a few years. After that moment, I started to look more about the health indicators. You see that in almost every category, Cuba, whose economy is not that great, especially then, it was in line with Mozambique and Vanuatu in terms of economic growth, but its health indicators were outperforming most European countries, certainly outperforming the US and Canada in many regards.

When you start looking at the data about what their health indicators are, their capacity to train physicians and nurses, their approach to health, not as a product of a physician’s craft, but as being produced from issues of community sustainability, that opened up the whole gates. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Shane: That’s quite a different fundamental point of view approach to healthcare and approach to community and approach to resource allocation. What have you learned from that? You’ve probably learned huge amounts, but what main teachings have you got from that?

Bob: When I offer my course on global health in Canada, the first question I ask my students is to define what is health, just to define. You’ll get a few answers that’ll come back. It could range from the absence of illness or to have good functionality as an organism. Some people will identify that it’s the broader conditions that maintain health and well being.

If any of your listeners have an iPhone or a dictionary on their tablet or computer right now, just punch in what’s the definition of health. It will probably come up in just a regular dictionary, the absence of illness. I find that very interesting because no other definition in the dictionary defines something for which it is not. You do not identify an apple as not being an orange.

We have structured so much of our attention on understanding what health is, as being the absence of illness. We really don’t understand what maintains and produces health in the first place. It goes far beyond bio medicine and it has a lot to do with social equity and justice, social movements and the ability for people to take care of each other. That’s a really important and under explored area for health and health studies.

Shane: Did the revolution in Cuba and the focus on community and … Do you think that produces that different philosophical framework?

Bob: Absolutely. When you look at what the Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, those guys, when they got into that, it was about agrarian reform, it was about land redistribution. That was their movement. There were other movements in Cuba. There was an urban movement, there was a student movement, there was a communist movement. They all had different goals.

With the Cuban revolution, the first thing was land reform, and then education, and then health. It wasn’t until 1962 that Cuba officially nationalized its healthcare system. Now, it’s one of the greatest drivers of its economy. It’s opened up doors around the world, even to warm up relationships with the United States. Initially, it wasn’t the focus. The focus was to try to get access to resources and education for the poor, and then from there, build health capacity.

Shane: On reflection, is that the right order to do it in? I think a lot of people keep saying, how do you best promote healthcare? I think your dad said this, Sam, was about having educate first, and then the health improvements go in. Remember that conversation we had? Is that something that you would agree with? Is that order right?

Bob: Yeah. The fact that if you look at how our health systems operate around the world, they’re usually there to make sure that there is good employment for health workers and that patients don’t go bankrupt in the process. Most well functioning healthcare systems follow that guideline to a degree. Very few of them really look at health promotion and disease prevention in the same close net, well organized sense.

When you look at a lot of health promotion material, it’ll often deal with individual behaviour change. Don’t smoke, try to drink less, exercise, et cetera. Just look at the smoking factor, for example. You walk into a doctor’s office, they’re going to ask you if you smoke, no matter what it is. If you have a cut on your toe, are you a smoker? That’ll come up. We know that in most societies, it’s the poor, the people who are the lowest income brackets, are also the most frequent and heavy smokers. Why do we look at something like that in terms of individual behaviour change and instead of seeing this as an issue of equity, of demographics, of income inequity, of social equity?

If you re-approach the question that way, you may be able to find strategies that are more effective than simply putting up bus ads to encourage people not to smoke.

Shane: It really is very much community based, equity. What can the west learn from this?

Bob: Let’s go back to Cuba for a minute. Some people call it the Cuban paradox, where you’ve got such a low income on a national level compared to wealthier nations, yet their health determinates right across the board are fantastic. One theory is that the levels of income aren’t that great in Cuba. The person who earns the top and the person who earns the least, there isn’t that great of a differential between the two. There’s some research on that that came out of the Whitehall Studies in the ’60s in the UK that tried to look at how income differences matter.

Then evolving from that, there’s another theory that says that really, it’s about social equity, it’s about class and hierarchy, and your position to have sense of responsibility, autonomy and control over your livelihood, that that matters a lot more to health than differences in dollars and sense.

Shane: This is the work the Spirit Level Address looked at. Of course, they’ve done more research since.

Bob: Exactly. In the Cuban case, there’s a lot of evidence to show that because it has that relative level of social equity, they’ve been able to produce these health outcomes in a way where people have a better sense of health, and hence their health services are not invested as much as other systems are in repairing people, as opposed to maintaining that health. Now, with increasing inequities arising in the country, this could be something that will be a challenge that they’re going to face.

Shane: I was looking at the … You’re talking about sports for development and how it’s being used as a way of, in Cuba, to promote social equity and development. I reflected on, that sounded really like the GAA (Gaelic football).  In the sport and revolutionary movement skills, it reminds me of the GAA in Ireland at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century when it was really a front for the … A way of getting people involved in the Gaelic revival movement, and then obviously involved in revolution, their war of independence.

That’s really interesting. What did you learn from that? How does Cuba use sport, and what sports do they play?

Bob: What’s really interesting about Cuban sport is that you look at the Olympic medal county, Cuba and New Zealand are right next to each other, where they ended for medal counts. They usually punch above their weight quite a bit when it comes to elite sport performance. The other factor is that about 95% of the Cuban population at some point in their lives, participate in organized sporting activities. This could be off to a gymnastics school or a baseball camp, something in that way, or if you’re ever in Havana and you’re up between 6:00 and 7:00 in the morning, you’ll see these, they call them grandmother circles, where you’ll have the seniors coming out and doing tai chi and yoga in the park on a daily basis.

The encouragement that people are active in sport is a very strong national value in Cuba. It’s done in a way where you want to encourage as much participation as possible. Community level stuff where it’s participatory. Then from there, begin to offer streams for advanced elite performance. That’s very different, how a lot of countries, Australia and Canada in particular, groom their elite athletes. It’s usually, you take a lot of money and you invest in a few athletes who are likely to perform at certain sports well, rather than actually trying to draw out elite performance from national participation.

The other thing is that when you retire, if you’re an elite athlete, you still have an occupation with the Cuban ministry of sport. You become a coach, you become a teacher, you’re not unemployed looking to do something different when it’s done. You are still part of the system. It’s a lifelong career to be I sport in Cuba.

Shane: Do you think those systems will fall apart as it opens up?

Bob: What I find very interesting is that there will be some changes, of course, to Cuba. Where they’ve put their attention and emphasis in their development stream is by investing heavily in education and healthcare. That includes sport, sport’s a part of that. In the 1990s when they lost 35% of their GDP, 87% of their exports in 1992, 35,000 people went blind due to the lack of vitamins, the average Cuban male lost 40 pounds, that’d be 20 kilos or so, in a year. They thought the whole show was going to end.

Where most countries that were faces economic crises at the time, where they created this austerity that went into health and education in particular, Cuba expanded schools, expanded hospitals and expanded seats for medical students, and they offered scholarships for foreigners to come in as well. Fast forward 15, 20 years, and now you have at the forefront of their economic growth is a provision of healthcare services to other countries. Now you’ve got 36,000 Cuban health workers working in 66 countries around the world. In some cases, when they do partnerships with the Gulf states, with South Africa, they get quite a good amount of remuneration for that. When they partner with Haiti, nothing. They do it for charity.

The country of the Gambia, I love this one, where the Gambia had a malaria crisis in the early 2000s, late 1990s. They said, “We need to get on this. Cuba, can you help?” “Sure, what would you like?” “We’d like doctors.” “We think you need a medical school, so we don’t have to keep sending you our doctors all the time.” 250 Cubans come in, they build a medical school, they provide community care, they address malaria in this way where you had 600,000 cases in 2001 down to 200,000 cases by 2006, and now it’s under 100,000 cases a year, which is an amazing decline.

When they start talking about what can you give us back for this work that we’re doing here, Gambia, who was quite broke at the time, said, “Do you like peanuts? We have a lot of peanuts. We export peanuts. We can give you preferential trade deal on peanuts.” Sold. Then later, third country partners like Taiwan and Norway came in to offer financial assistance with those projects.

Shane: Wow. That’s incredible.

Bob: It’s a shockingly different way of thinking about foreign aid, about what global health is, and about the importance of actually creating capacity within communities, as opposed to just always doling our or giving out extra resources in that way. Those doctors who worked in west Africa and Cuba carried on, other delegations have come in. If you go back to 2013, 2014 when Ebola was kicking off in west Africa, it was the Cuban doctors who were already there on the ground, and then another 600 showed up to go into the red zone to be the only medical work force to provide that number of physicians on the ground.

Sam: You’re talking next week about researching a place you can’t go to.

Bob: That’s right.

Sam: What gave you that idea?

Bob: Here’s the connection between health and what we’ll talk about in a minute about North Korea, is that on one sense, on doing work on Cuba, people would colloquially just compare Cuba to North Korea, and then I would grumble and get frustrated. That was always on my back radar. When you look at how these advances in health promotion or anything, really, foreign, it’s usually by people demanding it. Well organized, committed individuals who make these demands for program design and for such developments.

I wanted to offer a class on social movements, activism and social justice, and I did. It’s one where we have students actually going out, hitting the streets, and protesting for concerns that they have. The university in Canada, they were a little concerned about what topics would be fitting. I was trying to guide people on topics where there would be no moral opposition. I read a book about the story of a defector from North Korea. His story, I devoured it and I thought, students are going to love it. We turn it over to them, they did love it, and they wanted to start protesting about human rights in North Korea, figuring who in the world would object to that.

Once you start seeing how grim that reality is, away we go. We were out protesting, aiming at world leaders who were coming to our city of Halifax for a security meeting, and we just said, “By all means, have your meeting, but if you’re going to talk about security, don’t forget human security. Let’s talk about people who are in need now.” We’ve done that for four years, and in that time, North Korean defectors have reached out to us for support, for opportunities to tell their stories, to do research projects together, and it’s carried on since then.

That switch over to this world of social justice brings me to working with North Korean defectors. The very difficult part about that is that North Korea is a no go zone for research, as I’ll be talking about next Tuesday. The amount of published articles on North Korea are shockingly few. There’s no topic that is this understudied. It’s a topic where it’s just shrouded in mist and rumors and deceit and intentional mistakes, where defector testimony that comes out from North Korea is usually incorrect. The satellite imagery is not as accurate as we would like it to be. The politics of this place, we don’t fully understand. Everything is a black box.

For myself, someone who’s publicly helped and supported North Korean defectors and spoken out against the regime, if I was to go there, that would be the end of me. It’s a place where you cannot go, but you know there’s something important to be studied and explored there. The question is, how do you do it?

Shane: that’s really interesting. You talked about how health is normally … Better health outcomes is demanded by the people, and North Korea is a communist country, and so is Cuba. You’ve already said … communist countries. First part of the question, did Cuba, was that focus on developing healthcare, was that done by the leadership or by the people, and the second question is, what is the primary difference between Cuba, which has done this amazing thing with its people, and North Korea, which seems to be doing terrible things to its people.

Bob: Absolutely. The first question is about where did Cuba’s medical system come up. The real foundations to it were in 1962 when they passed a bill to say that physicians could no longer bill patients directly for medical services. Mirroring exactly what happens in the UK and Canada and elsewhere, and even proposed by the Kennedy administration at the time in the states. It wasn’t too radical by any means. The physicians in Cuba took off. Of a workforce of 6000, they were suddenly down to just under 3000. You had 256 teaching faculty at the University of Havana in 1962, by 1965 you had 14.

That exodus of that medical expertise, because Havana was well known for medical expertise in the ’50s and ’40s, left this void, this vacuum, of a new generation of doctors and medical students that built the system up based on the values that you have today. It wasn’t ever put in the hands of the top leadership to say we have this miracle vision that we’re going to drive it. It was always about impact and feedback from both physicians and patients in communities to meet their needs. It’s been a very elaborate process.

This is where you see that to label something as just communist, may be accurate in terms of how their government’s organized, but there’s a lot of flavors of communism, from the mild version to the absolute toxic. With Cuba, you see that they’ve always had this ability to have feedback from communities to the representatives in government. Sometimes it’s slow, there’s a lot of inefficiencies within there, but there is that value of human security that comes out.

When you look at North Korea, a country that leadership in Cuba did not visit until 1995, “We don’t want anything to do with these guys, this is a different flavor.” It came up almost by accident, where you had a leader rise to power, Kim Il Sung, who read the Stalin Playbook, same thing that happened in the eastern states in Europe, where that form of governance was about trying to create a cult of personality, kill your enemies, kill your political opponents, and get orders top down.

You see it almost operate more as a feudal system, where you have this elite in Pyongyang that want for not. Below them, the loyal class who are pretty well taken care of. Then, they have a wavering class and a hostile class. That’s literally what it’s called. It’s called the Songbun system, it’s a feudal form of control where you have those three major classes derived in about 50 or so subgroups. The government there realizes that most of the people that are under its control resent it terribly, and there are these systems of control in place wherein if you speak out against the leader, it’d be considered a political crime, you will be going to a political prison camp. Your family will be going to a political prison camp. Any children you have will be going and any children they have will be going as well. Three generations of punishment.

Nothing that nuts has ever existed in Cuba, even in what they call the four gray years, the 1970s, where if you spoke out against communism, you maybe had long hair and listened to rock and roll, you’d have the moral authority police come over and give you a stern talking to. There is some determinant that also took place in Cuba in the ’60s and ’70s for people who deviated. Now, no. That’s about as far away as it can get. A lot of scholars in cube recognize how twisted the North Korea system is.

It’s a different world.

Sam: I’m going to change topics slightly. You talk about deviation. You teach a course, which is called Development and Audacity.

Bob: Yeah. Audacity development, development activism, yes.

Sam: How did you manage to convince the university to let you teach something with that title?

Bob: Yes. Just to be clear, we’re talking about my university back in Canada, Dalhousie. When you offer a course as a one off, nobody really pays attention to you. Special topics. Then if it gets popular, as this one did, and we took it not just from a one off topic, but to a calendar course and then a degree requirement. Then that sat before a committee called the Academic Development Committee where they had visions of students running riot in the streets and just losing it.

I got called in and the dean is there, and other members of this committee are they. They start asking questions about, “What happens if there’s a radical takeover of your class by a fundamentalist student?” I said, “I guess we call the police.” “What happens if a student wants to burn a police car?” I said, “Look, I don’t know how to do that, contact the chemistry department. They’re the experts.”

This banter went on back and forth and I said, “Look, you guys are missing the point. If you look at history and you look at the history of social movements, universities have always had a fundamental role in that.” When you had students in Tennessee and Mississippi taking over lunch counters, they were organized, they were taking seminars on nonviolent resistance. It was faculty who were leading that. You see this from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr. There’s always been this association of higher learning to progressive social movements. The women’s suffragettes in the US in the early 1900s, all university students. The guys who kicked off Tahrir Square in Egypt, university students. The guys who overthrew Milosevic, university students.

Instead of saying that this is something that happens on the fringe of university culture, why can’t we make this a learning experience? Again, people dithered on it and they weren’t too sure, but ultimately, when you have a class of 35, then you have to expand the enrolment to 60, and then 75, and then 80, it becomes very financially attractive for the university to make sure that course stays on the books.

Shane: Did it end up being a degree requirement?

Bob: Yes, it is.

Shane: Can you require all students to be an activist?

Bob: Absolutely not. By no means is that course the minting process to be an activist. What it is is it gives students the opportunity to engage with it in real time, to look at what goes into the organization of a social movement, to create a scenario that we’re going to go out and make our demands known to people in government and try to get the attention of others in society. That doesn’t just happen by swinging a picket sign around on a crowded street. We have to plan about this, we have to think about it, then we have to reflect on how this is impacting our politics today.

Why are some social movements so quick to be recognized and embraced and others quickly dismissed? It gives students what we call experiential learning. The ability to witness, experience and engage in this process, and then form their own structured thoughts that connect the literature to that experience. That’s really it.

There’s been cases where we’ve had students from the military who are under Canadian military code cannot protest. They can’t do it. How do they get through? We set up roles for them as researchers if they want. Others who have objected to it. Students who come from South Korea who are on a working Visa and they say, “I don’t want anything to do with messing around with North Korea, man. This is too hard.”

There’s always accommodating at every turn. That myth that activism and social movements are somehow naturally organic, that they don’t require leadership, that they don’t require dealing with interpersonal skills at a community level, that’s a dangerous knowledge. If we realize, we really realize that if you have a small group of well organized people put together, and be they’re committed to it, you can intimidate a regime like North Korea, in places where other governments have failed. You can demand things like better equity, better social justice, better healthcare.

It’s a very, very powerful force, and most world leaders, governments, businesses, are quite intimidated by activism. In one sense, it can be a very powerful tool for change, it can also be something that can go right off the rails and lead to far worse consequences.

Sam: If you could have a whole degree in it, would you do it?

Bob: I think that idea would be fantastic, but we would need a big team of teachers and experts to get through that. We would need philosophers, ethicists, city planners, historians, the geographers would be in there somewhere, of course, to really understand how this process impacts our world.

The other thing that’s really challenging about activism is that in that moment, when something is conflicted, there’s a tendency to label activists as being the outlaws, the troublemakers. Then you look back at history, the heroes of the day now were the outlaws of the time then. That’s a very difficult thing for society to accept.

Sam: Given that most of the students I would suggest aren’t going into societal roles where they are carrying on being placard waving activists, and lots of them are going into various businesses or government. Do you talk to them about how they can carry on that role?

Bob: Absolutely. We’ve had students come out of that class and have run as members of parliament, they didn’t win but they did it. That was good. The practical skills that come from this course are quite strong. They get into issues of advertising, marketing, campaigning, all of that. There’s a lot nongovernmental organizations and political parties who find value in that practical skillset. We all know that university education is beyond just practical skills, it’s about opening your mind to alternative ideas.

The feedback I receive from students down the road, who graduated the course, maybe they’ve gone onto a higher education degree, maybe they’ve gone into corporate sectors, some people work for law firms. They’ll write me little anecdotes to say that there are moments in their professional careers where they disagree with something, they disagree with authority, they disagree with how something’s being run. Instead of just ranting or grumbling by the water cooler or voting with your feet and leaving, they’ve actually been able to strategize, to create small change, even within their own workplace.

Others have, I hope, learned some of the value in organizing at a community level with issues that might be impacting their world.

Sam: Do you have a go-to definition of sustainability?

Bob: Sustainability, a go-to definition? I think in terms of social justice and activism, something that endures. In many ways, social justice movements can fall victim to having a lack of sustainability. At the same time, they can be very important in creating that sustainability. Endurance is really important. It’s often an uphill battle.

Sam: We are writing a book of these conversations, which we’re calling Tomorrows Heroes. We’re actually writing it, we’re not just talking about that, it’s actually happening.

Bob: Well done.

Sam What we’re trying to do is to look at the people’s superpowers and describing what is it that they’re doing, what are they bringing to this good fight. How would you describe your superpower? What is it you’re bringing to the team?

Bob: Oh my God. I don’t know if it’s a superpower, hope it’s not because it should be a contagious thing. I think that approaching these areas of study, what’s really important is to try to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. For example, next Tuesday we’re talking about creating change in North Korea, a place that you can’t even get to. That’s impossible, so let’s hold that thought of impossibility in the mind, and at the same time, be determined to make it otherwise.

That’s a big personal conflict, to see that things can be absolutely hopeless and yet still be determined to make change. It’s tough, you’ll lose sleep, but you’ll also have fun.

Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?

Bob: The biggest success. I think that making personal connections with the defectors in North Korea when they’ve needed help and helping them along in their way has been personally really, really important goal. There’s a lot of controversy that can shroud North Korean defectors if their testimony doesn’t match up or there’s errors in their details. There are still people fighting and have gone through a lot. To make that connection and form real friendships, I think has been one of the most rewarding factors that I’ve had.

Shane: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Bob: There’s just so much to do. The thing is that I love my job. I realize how precious of a statement that is. I’ll grumble over things like that committee that took me in that meeting, but at the end of the day, having the capability to get interested in a topic and pursue it and have fun doing it, is the most rewarding thing. I wouldn’t trade that in at all. You get paid along the way, fantastic, but if you love what you do, you’ve got it.

Sam: There’s so much to do. What’s next?

Bob: The next thing to do is to give those lectures next week. That’ll be great. After that, my plan is to turn to writing a couple books about the geopolitics in North Korea, and also about testimonies that have come from North Korean defectors. They’re fascinating testimonies and what I’m finding very fascinating is how sometimes if there’s a … Which ones are accepted by society and which ones are not. There’s a bigger political reflection in there.

What comes next is continuing to offer students the opportunity for education in social movements and activism. I also run a course in Cuba for two weeks a year that the students have the ability to come down, see the Cuban development model firsthand. We have a fantastic administrator back in Canada who puts it together, I’m just merely the academic component. We turn it over to Cuban faculty to do the rest of the teaching. It’s a grand experience.

Sam: What are you doing in New Zealand?

Bob: The Ron Lister Fellow in the  Department of Geography, I’m having the time of my life. It’s been great. It’s been fantastic to have the space to work on some of these issues. I’ve been focusing a lot on the North Korea research, looking at an expiration of the literature on North Korea, tracking the movements of marine traffic coming in and out of the regime and identifying shady suspects, to spend time connecting with defectors. All from the comfort of Dunedin, which has been fabulous. It’s been a great space to get some research done but also just to connect with such a great group of people in the department at the university more broadly.

I also have become quite a fan of the curling club down at the ice stadium. If anyone’s looking to go for a curling game, it’ll be next Monday at 7:00, happy to teach you the ropes.

Sam: How are you finding the students that you are having contact with? are they similar to the Canadian ones?

Bob: There’s fewer of them. I tend to teach very big classes back in Canada. Sometimes, 200+. The ability to be in a class of 12, eight people is fabulous, because you get to know them. You get to know their interests and you can help feed them along, what their pursuits are about. It’s great, yeah. International, globally minded students that you get to know on a one on one basis. Love it.

Shane: Are they activists?

Bob: They’ll have to decide. Maybe not yet, maybe they don’t think they are, maybe they will be, but we’ll see.

Sam: We ask this question of everybody, and I suspect we can predict your answer. Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

Bob: I do. I certainly didn’t grow up in Wasaga Beach thinking that. That was pretty far flung. I don’t remember anything political in Wasaga Beach. It was a pretty calm place. Then moving into the university world, undergraduate mentorship with some good professors, students and friends along the way, yes, then it certainly grew. I think that’s an important aspect to identify, to carry those messages both into research and into teaching.

Sam: There’s lots of arguments for not being an activist.

Bob: But is it possible to not be an activist, is another way. By not having an opinion of something, doesn’t necessarily mean neutrality. It could mean actually supporting injustices in a quiet way, as an advocate.

Sam: Do you not lose objectivity?

Bob: In which way?

Sam: By being an activist.

Bob: That’s a tricky game. Activism involves emotion. Objectivity is supposed to be free of emotion. Again, to balance perspective with what you feel is your own personal conviction is a skill building exercise. That’s what I mean, that we should take time to reflect on what goes into it. If you’re going to engage in politics of the street, you can acknowledge that they’re incredibly powerful, but at the same time, there are rules to that game. There are certain things that work, others that don’t, and how you create that engagement matters a lot on how you balance your own personal conviction to objectivity of the subject.

Sam:  Is it perhaps easier being an activist about North Korea, because it is a place you can’t go to, there’s this thing over here and you’re objecting to it, but then you can go back to your normal work. Would it be harder to be activist against, I don’t know whatever your local major industry is, you have to deal with those people in the supermarket, it’s close to home?

Bob: Yeah, that really is. That’s the case. When you’re dealing with something that’s far away, even though you make real connections to those places, there’s that certain amount of anonymity that go to it. When you are dealing with something not in my backyard or you’re engaging something in real time, be it a labour dispute, be it a pollution issue, whatever it is, there will be people who are in your face a lot more that’ll try to wear you down.

It comes back to that issue of endurance. When you want to engage with North Korea as a researcher here in Otago, I can do that according to my schedule. If you’re an activist here in Otago and you’re taking on issues in Otago, you may not have that luxury. That’s absolutely a part of it.

Sam: Although if you’re doing something locally, you have the opportunity to bump into those people at the sports field and various other places, you can actually talk to them.

Bob: Very much.

Sam: Do you think that the university should be activist?

Bob: There’s always going to be activism on university campuses. That’s always going to be the case. In quiet ways and in loud ways. The real question is, how does the university deal with it? It is something that happens on the fringe? Is it something that can be brought into the classroom? Is it something that can be studied and analyzed? Is it something that even administrations can support and market?

It really depends about what that institution wants to do with that phenomena, because it does exist.

Sam: Should a university have a statement on North Korea, climate change?

Bob: It wouldn’t hurt. It really wouldn’t hurt because the pressure’s there. With climate change, there’s a lot of campaigns in Canada right now for universities to divest, get out of fossil fuels all together. That’s being pressed upon a lot of university administrations. There are universities around the world that do have memorandums of understanding with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a place that’s been famous for producing internet hackers.

There are these academic exchanges and there needs to be some questions asked about how ethical those are. My university in Canada, two years after running the course, we actually put a proposal in to nominate Shin Dong Hyuk, who is the only person we know of who was born into a labor camp to have escaped for an honorary degree. To our knowledge, he’s the only North Korean defector who has an honorary doctorate from the university, which is a big political statement, considering that other institutions actually have cooperation agreements with the regime.

Sam: Shane’s about to close us down. Very quickly, two last questions.

Bob: Sure.

Sam: If you could have a miracle occur, what would it be?

Bob: One miracle? Health equity for all.

Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?

Bob: Whatever it is that you are charged up about, politically ticked off about, you’ve got the ability to engage it and to organize to make that change. Activism doesn’t come by accident.

Shane: Brilliant. Fantastic. You are listening to Sustainable Lens on Otaga Access Radio, 105.4FM. This show was recorded on the 8th of September, 2016. Our guest was professor Bob Huish. Your hosts were professor Samuel Mann and me, Shane Gallagher. You can get podcasts of previous shows on, or you can subscribe on iTunes.

We hope you enjoyed the show.

engineering geography water

Proactive natural engineering

Paul Quinn

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the term Engineering, and that’s understandable, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring concrete where it wasn’t wanted…but the kind of engineering we’re talking about, this working with natural processes – if water is flowing too fast, slow it down, if you can slow it down then other processes can kick in.

Dr Paul Quinn is a Senior Lecturer in Catchment Hydrology at Newcastle University. His work focusses on the future of landscape. The long term goal is integrated catchment management bodies capable of solving pollution and flooding problems. Paul calls his research “Proactive” – as in getting stuff done. And he has been proactive in creating systems of natural engineering in flood prone areas such as Belford.

Talking points

We’re pressurising systems – taking climate change as read, we’re moving into hotter, more drought, more floods, more landslides – we have to get the food for everyone on the earth, enough water for everyone on earth, and everybody needs a safe place to live.

We’ve spent a 1000 years getting rid of all the trees, now in the last 200 years we’ve been trying to exploit all our soil for food. I’m a big fan of food, but it has really changed our hydrological balance – our soil is not really soil any more, it’s just the place where we grow our food. When water hits the soil it mostly tends to run quite quickly off the surface -it doesn’t interact with the soil so much, we don’t get the recharge,

The fact that we’ve really changed our system everywhere…changing the whole world into a food factory. And it has these spin-off side effects that we get more floods and more droughts.

As one of my colleagues said, if you kill your soil you kill the world. And people haven’t realised how much we’ve changed the soil…and the rest of the world we cover with concrete.

If we look at nature it gives us some indication of how the world should be functioning, and the world system now is out of balance.

We’ve been compressing the soil for 200 years, it has no porosity any more, especially in the UK with so much clay, we’ve got a big block of plasticine. There’s no structure to the soil, the rain can’t get in, and kills all the worms and biology. So we cultivate and irrigate the top layer, but it doesn’t take long to overwhelm that.

It’s still a green and pleasant land…I’m a big fan of farming…but people haven’t noticed this big change in the water balance: both droughts and floods.

People always talk about this wall of water – so we work to slow down the water before it gets there.

Take all the opportunities that you can.

We can’t build the walls higher and higher.

The best place to store water is always in the aquifer

The old understanding that the water should be in balance with the soil, and the soil with the ecosystem – there’s some very basic natural concepts – and you break these rules at your jeopardy.

We need to chose what we want our landscape to look like and what we want it to supply to us. It has to provide us with clean water, it has to supply us with all our food, and it has to supply us with a safe place to live. So we’ve been looking at how much of the land do we have to give back to nature.

If we can use the main flow pathways that the water is following, then we can create corridors of green, where we can store water, we can strip out the sediment, we can accumulate carbon, we can let all the bugs come back…this corridor of green that will bring the whole catchment back into balance. We can mitigate for the farming, by getting the farmers to give back some land, and that land is best in the riparian area…maybe 5% of the land. Not abandoning to nature, but managing it to get all those things that we need – clean the flow, slow the flow, recharge the aquifer and create a healthy place for pollinators, birds and fish. In a way, to engineer the system back into balance.

It’s very different from the hydrophobic approach to water and land management – of paying to get rid of water then paying to put it back with irrigation.

(Is this the future of British landscape?) We’ve got to do something, we can’t just keeping pouring concrete around our towns, a bit of protection is good, but eventually it will be over-topped. We can build walls higher, but we can’t keep building them higher.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the term Engineering, and that’s understandable, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring concrete where it wasn’t wanted…but the kind of engineering we’re talking about, this working with natural processes – if water is flowing too fast, slow it down, if you can slow it down then other processes can kick in.

We don want to make it clear that if we are going to build something then it’s got to work – it has to be engineered. So we have guidelines, you need to know hydraulics, you need to know how to build something that will last – it might be natural engineering, but it is still engineering.

The jury is out on cost, there are other options such as lower intense organic approaches to building up the soil, but can that feed everyone? if we are going to stay on the trajectory of sustainable intensification, then we have to increase crop yield and make the landscape safer at the same time.

The key to focus on soil health – not just soil productivity.

(Success?) Doing a whole catchment was pivotal. Not only the success of doing a catchment, but now it’s being taken up all over the country.

(Activist?) I’m passionate. I’m driven more by frustration than love. You see things going wrong and you think “that’s easy to fix” so you go and write proposals, and everyone ignores you for years, and laugh at you for years, and you say to yourself, “no, I’m right here”, so you surround yourself with like-minded people. We call ourselves the Proactive project because we say “let’s just get it done, and we’ll do it till it’s done”. And we’re back-fitting the science, we’re trying to invent something here…and the natural thing is back. I’ve tagged the term engineering on it, because engineering is doing things not just being inspired by it. If we can line up the funds, there’s no reason why we can’t bring whole landscapes back into balance.

(Motivation?) I’m paid quite well for what I do, so I always feel obliged to get some work done. But once I see that something can be solved, why wait for someone else to do it? Flooding is the most miserable thing, and it’s a no-brainer, if everything is running too quick, then slow it down a bit. Because it’s a system, the more good things you put into it, the system becomes more robust.

Stop observing, stop calling yourselves scientists and get stuff done.

(Challenges?) Getting other people to build these things.

(Miracle?) We need to work at much larger area and try this out. Healthy soils, healthy streams…do all this at a really big scale.

(Advice?) When I say go back to nature, don’t go too far, we’re not going back to the wild, but be inspired by nature and let it shape some of your thinking – if it’s too fast or there’s too much of a thing, it’s usually bad. So think about balance. Also, do you know where your local river is, if you’re in a city it’s probably buried or behind a fence. Reconnect with nature: find out where your food comes from, where your water comes from, find out why you were flooded, what the cause of the drought is – get to the kids and train as many people as you can to think that way.

This was conversation was recorded at Newcastle University in September 2015. It was published on World Water Day, 2016.

geography urban

Place-based sustainability

Harvey Perkins

When you join particular places with people with vision and energy you can create all sorts of interesting places and fascinating opportunities.

Professor Harvey Perkins focusses on aspects of sustainability and urban change. He is interested in innovation for sustainable futures – particularly in the transformation of cities.

Talking Points

Third form social studies…I remember the first was a revelation, I really enjoyed learning about the way people made their lives in places. I dedicated my life to that study.

The most important thing I learnt, the huge variety of ways people make lives in places. Now people talk about mobilities.

When you join particular places with people with vision and energy you can create all sorts of interesting places and fascinating opportunities.

In many respects we are the places we live in. Places give us opportunities, they enable us to do a range of things, but also limit us in some ways.

We clearly live in a more mobile society. Movement – physical through transport, or virtually – but we are always in place, we are always somewhere.

Did you want to change the world? I did when I was young. I still want to change it, but I guess I’m a bit more realistic about what can be done.

I think the world is more complicated that I did when I was younger, there aren’t any simple solutions.

There’s a big gap between those who are doing very well, and those who aren’t. And that’s not going to work.

Inequality is easy to say, but hard, much harder, to find a solution.

There are no simple solutions to complex problems.

Transformation boils down to identifying the right kind of people with the right kinds of skills, who are able to harness resources, and who have a vision to make the best of those resources.

Energetic people with vision have capacity to make a difference

We need to better understand which programmes work, get to know those people, share that knowledge

Political will, vision…energy

(Success?) Transforming Cities work – building an energised community of resources.

(Motivation?) Connecting ideas with practice

(Activist?) No, a scholar which implies a level of activism. (Would 1970s you be happy with that answer?) Probably not.

(Challenges?) I’m semi-retired. Balancing expectation that can do everything.

(Miracle?) All of New Zealand’s settlements flourish. (smallest thing to have biggest achieve that?) adopting a different kind of political economy – one that is much more social democratic.

This conversation was recorded at the conference of the NZ Geographical Society.

geography history landscape urban

Environmentally engaged students and communities

Eric Pawson

An educational activist…encouraging other people to find out how they can best act in the world.

Eric Pawson is Professor of Geography at the University of Canterbury. He has written several books on New Zealand’s environmental history and his recent work concerns biological economics. He is President of the Ako Aotearoa Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence – we discuss his approach to “classrooms without borders” and his experiences in community-based teaching and research in post-quake Christchurch.

Talking points

We saw the industrial revolution as a economic process, rather than a series of independent technological innovations.

Working with local schools…adopting the lake shore as a series of outdoor classrooms.

(Success?) Student projects in the residential red zone

How community aspirations might be accommodated around the landscape transformations

Flashpoints can unstick reputations…water quality may be such a flashpoint for us.

(Motivation?) Working with other people on things that are rewarding – that have intrinsic value and a wider purpose. Rather more that information transmission – I don’t believe in an information transmission model of education – I think that education is something that people create for themselves with a certain amount of assistance and guidance. A process of guided self-discovery.

(Activist?) It depends what you mean by activist. An environmental activist in the conventional sense of the word – no. Yes, an educational activist in the senses that I’ve been describing – perhaps less putting myself forward, and more encouraging other people to find out how they can best act in the world. If that’s an activist, then yes.

(Challenge?) I’m retiring – so many exciting things to do, so many exciting places to go. …I will carry on with the community based teaching.

(Miracle?) Not sure I believe in miracles. (the smallest thing that would make the biggest possible difference?) There are an awful lot of people in my home city (Christchurch) who are still in very difficult situations with insurance companies and unmended homes… it is a travesty that after five years we haven’t been able to take care of everybody. I would like us to wave a collective wand and fix this.

This conversation was recorded at the conference of the NZ Geographical Society.

education geography

Educating global citizens

Ellen Schlosser

Giving students a holistic view – how we’re both interdependent and integrated is essential both for their futures and their ability to positively impact the world.

Ellen Schlosser is the Foundation Director of Global Connect and the Curriculum Development Advisor of the GlobalScope Curriculum Guides at University California Irvine.

Talking points

Working on something with meaning beyond the campus

Learning from experience fundamental to developing leaders and developing activism

Bringing social sciences to high school…information about the 21 Century world.

Telling stories that students could both academically and personally invest in.

Giving students a holistic view – how we’re both interdependent and integrated is essential both for their futures and their ability to positively impact the world.

You are not only a member of your local community, you are one of the seven billion people who inherit and are charged with caring for the earth.

We do need to challenge the American Dream. We can show inequality in America.

When things come close to home, they are much more easily understood.

The Project of Change is our call to action book…we help them to set up their own NGOs to address the Millennium Development Goals…it is really a recipe for action.

Agent of Change is one of our lessons.

Science is being shared as a global commodity

We have to change thought in order to change practice, to improve the environment

We’ve done such a good job of marketing science and social science separately, we’ve forgotten how to integrate the disciplines

We need the science…but to activate – to help a country in need, you need the humanities, you need the social sciences to help develop the narrative, to have a real impact, to really change the way we look at the world. It needs to be both.

(Success?) Being recognised as a viable course, acceptable, and building the bridge can open it the pathway for other projects

I would like to write a biographical sketch of what the students involved in this project have gone on to achieve…it’s amazing what they have done.

This programme honours serious students, but with communication skills to bring it to the high school classroom.

(Activist?) A late blooming activist? We have to start early on. Being of service to others should be taught in the home and carried through in the schools.

(Motivation?) Education – how your life can be transformed through school. When you write something that makes sense to someone else, enlightens someone, this is a great gift that I had no idea I would be academic. So I want to hold the light out for everyone.

(Challenges?) I would like to use my energies to help share this material

(Miracle?) I would love schools across the world to tell their students that they live beyond their immediate surroundings. And to enlighten them about others. You can’t keep your children hidden from the realities of the world, they’ll never function if you do. Enlighten the kids through global studies, and 21st Century – let’s not teach what was taught in 1955 – it’s not going to work.

(Advice?) having a formal education is vital to opening so many doors in life, but it is the curiosity and creativity that we each possess that can lead all us to new solutions. Remember to put yourself in the centre of what you are learning.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

education geography urban

Technology as a tempting narrative

Josefin Wangel

There’s a strong technical solution bias – ICT is the new technical fix that will allow us to not change our lifestyles in order to achieve sustainability – and of course that’s hard to say no to, it’s very tempting to believe in such a narrative.

Dr Josefin Wangel is Associate Professor in sustainable urban development at the Division of Environmental Strategies Research at KTH in Sweden. Her focus is on how sustainability is understood and put to practice in urban planning and policy making. She uses futures studies (mainly backcasting and design fictions), systems analysis (including target formulation and sustainability assessments), stakeholder analysis and discourse analysis.

Talking points

I knew wanted to try to save the world through environmental engagement of some sort.

I studied sciences because I thought that if I knew the sciences then people would listen to me – today I can see that that was a naïve understanding of the workings of society.

As an 18 year old, my understanding of a lack sustainability was that it was a lack of knowledge that makes society unsustainable.

I quickly realised that people knew, that it was bad for the environment to drive a car, for example, but still they drove a car -and that is when I realised that my natural science based education wasn’t really apt for answering the questions that I had.

Today if I had to choose, I would place myself more in the social sciences than the natural sciences.

Why aren’t we behaving in the way we should be behaving in order to save the planet?

The discrepancy between our stated intention and what we actually do can be found at all layers of society from the individual, through the community to the planners and politicians. I think this is where we can find leverage points to actually start doing sustainability.

Environmental effects are disconnected in time and space. If I eat chocolate I know the effects on me, but if I drive the car everyday then the effects are somewhere else, ten years from now – these effects are harder to grasp.

Sustainability issues are the result of collective action, or collective inaction. I don’t gain weight when my partner eats chocolate.

Sustainability is more than the functioning of ecosystems, the other dimension is social issues. However, I don’t think sustainability is the right word for social issues, it should be social justice or social desirabilities – for me sustainability – the ability to sustain is very much connected to the ecosystems.

Three step model: Brundtland…pillars interact. Then de-construct…a discursive perspective, talking of multiple sustainabilities, that our understanding of the world is always socially constructed…then students have to make up their own construction…that links to their own discipline.

It is important to dare to be very serious about the threats implied by surpassing the planetary boundaries.

The trick is to get them to realise at the bottom of their hearts what sustainability is about, and how deeply unsustainable and unfair the world is today. And then provide them with the tools for doing something about that.

If want sustainability to last…then people have to care at a personal level,

“Sustainable” urban development areas in Stockholm…show window for Swedish sustainability and ecotechnologies…however none of these areas are actually sustainable if by sustainable you have an understanding of absolute levels of pressure that the ecosystem – if you look at resource use, these areas aren’t sustainable, and if you look at resource use in terms of the global population it becomes obvious these areas aren’t socially just either.

This does come very close to greenwash.

There’s a strong technical solution bias – ICT is the new technical fix that will allow us to not change our lifestyles in order to achieve sustainability – and of course that’s hard to say no to, it’s very tempting to believe in such a narrative.

We in Sweden have wonderful life, but that is only possible because people in other parts of the world have lousy working conditions and suffer environmental degradation that the production of consumption good sold in Sweden results in.

For us, the status quo looks like the best option, but at the global scale, and taking social justice into consideration, then it isn’t sustainable.

As an individual it is hard, sometimes impossible, to see the consequences of collective actions and take responsibility for it.

(is sustainability a luxury?) You choose what to invest funds in, you can choose to invest in highways, or you can choose to invest in railways.

Do it yourself urbanism: people having opportunity to influence built environments themselves.

(Success) Interview in a big daily newspaper, I was able to start a national discussion about alternative discourses of sustainability.

(Activist) I used to be.

(Your teaching and research is normative) if you have a title with the word sustainability in it, then you are, at least if you are doing what your title says you are.

(Motivatation) I really love my work. I get to work on something I find super interesting and important.

(Challenges) Getting married. I was just appointed of director of collaboration and impact.

(Miracle) That everyone would realise the two dimensions ecological sustainability and social justice – and that economy is just a part of the social. The wedding cake, but with only two layers.

development geography

Gendered inequality

Nina Laurie

That other form of development is what I’ve been looking at in the Andes in the context of what they call buen vivir or good living – which isn’t always about accumulation and excess.

Nina Laurie is Professor of Development and the Environment at University of Newcastle. Her roles include the founding director of the Developing Research Network and the Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Newcastle University. In 2015 she is Ron Lister Visiting Fellow in the Geography Department of Otago University.

Talking points

I’m interested in how inequality in the world is gendered in particular ways. How poverty affects men and women, boys and girls, differently. And different types of men and women, boys and girls.

Now I’m focused on different visions of development, how particular understandings of development are produced, and who gets marginalised in that process.

I’ve been working with returned trafficked women in Nepal – and I have to say is the most challenging work I’ve ever done…there is very little support for these women.

And (because they can’t get citizenship without a male family sponsor)…many of them are stateless in their own land

Now there are going to be very real issues in Nepal (post earthquake) of access to water and housing, and how the need will be not lose sight of the long term important agendas such as the issue of who has citizenship in the context of the very real everyday needs of suffering people.

Understandably meeting those basic needs take over, but the new constitution is needing to be ratified – that framework of rights for all is fundamental.

International development came post Second World War, the reconstruction of Europe. The Marshal Plan…if you give people money you are going to stop them becoming communist.

A lot of our understandings of international development are framed still through that old Cold War mentality of Eastern Europe contaminating the rest of the world. Cuba…Latin America.

Stopping poverty to stop the domino effect from Cuba.

We’ve gone through all sorts of different approaches to development: the big projects of the 1960s – dams and infrastructure; to a focus on grassroots, self-help; then the focus on governance issues in the 80s and 90s – particularly in Latin America return to democracy in countries like Chile and post civil war situations.

Now we have a different world. It’s not just a bi-polar world, not even north and south… and all of this has thrown uout what development means for me. I am happy to use the term Development Geographer, but I don’t see it in the same way as I used to.

I’ve been teaching a course Changing Development: Changing Actors…and what that is about is to think through the context in which development is not what it has been and who are the new actors who are shaping development.

Indigenous people…new actors in development. But we also have to recognise that some of the new actors that are getting power are some the very old actors, like, for example, the military. (Much of…) the UK aid money that has gone into Afghanistan under the development budget is in the control of the military…the reconstruction scenarios mean that the military are having a big role in development.

Development in the form of reconstruction has become a career path for ex-military…many areas are post-conflict zones, so you need that level of understanding, they bring a sense of logistics, of managing big movements of people or materials. Yet that reduces us to a very narrow understanding of development is about things, and not about people or ideas or different ways of doing things.

That other form of development is what I’ve been looking at in the Andes in the context of what they call buen vivir or good living – which isn’t always about accumulation and excess.

But you have to careful not romanticise indigenous development, it’s almost as if we’re looking for a hero and a perfect answer. Development is multiple, it’s always contested. We need to get away from the notion of development is always progress, and that’s where the tension is.

I think our understandings of development are broken, and maybe even the term. But what we replace it with is what I’m trying to work through at the moment.

The big institutions have been propping up a very particular understanding of development in which people get excluded from having a voice.

Good living could be in all sorts of directions, it could be about staying still.

Because racism is so strong, the assumption was that in order to progress socially, you needed to become socially whiter – you needed your children to be professionals.

When we say development is broken, that isn’t just about development, you need to understand long legacies of racism, the realities of post-colonial Bolivia, where modernisation is dream that was never completed but is still there and draws people to it – everybody wants their own big water project, their own infrastructure but it has never been completed. But they have these aspirations.

(Is a desire for growth an inevitable response to desires and aspirations?) I think that is a spiritual question. There are alternative models to that. But I don’t have an answer to that at the individual or community level. At a national level, what we have now is alsmot as if neoliberalism became inevitable – you couldn’t question it.

In Peru we’re seeing the inevitability of the extractive model… it is booming on the back of a mining concession boom. It is a complete return to an extractive model of development.

There are other models. We need to hear other voices about the other national development imaginaries that we can have. Where there alternatives to the modernisation through extraction agenda, or where people have said “no we don’t want that”.

Geographers are born not made.

Geography is the appreciation of the relationship between the physical and social environment.

I can’t go somewhere without wanting to know about it.

Increasing recognition of the big challenges – like climate change, water scarcity, broken understandings of development – geography has a core place for trying to come up with some of the ways for understanding what’s going on and maybe some of the pathways out of some of those things.

(On Peruvian fishermen/farmers making the best of a bad situation) Yes, but it is really interesting not just that we make the best of it in the here and now, but it becomes the foundation narrative, about their community, their story, their history. The narrative is constantly linked back to the collective memory about how we were and who we were, and how we came together and how what we did to that environment – how we interacted with it is as important as what everybody else has done.

Sustainability for me used to be about the physical environment…now it’s a lot broader, it’s about knowledge production – forms of producing knowledge where everybody gets a say.

Network of relationships between people and having access to voice and seeing things and making connections, verbalising one’s desires and hopes.

Those binoculars where a window in on the two parts of development, the shrinking snows, but also this woman that sees them (the glaciers) daily, but through the binoculars she saw them in a different way…the everyday life that goes on underneath that informs the dreams and the hopes and the aspirations that those communities have.

(Is sustainability a luxury?) It is contingent on time and place. I don’t think any of us have the luxury of not thinking about the long term future.

Sustainability is about using those binoculars to turn a lens on both the physical and the social as intertwined at any moment.

(Activist?) Activist academic. That is where my gifts lay. I go out on protests and things like that, but my gifts are in ensuring that the research projects that I do engage in ways that provide space for marginalised people to have voices.

(Does being an activist academic conflict with notions of objectivity?) Absolutely, but then I don’t think that research or science is objective.

(Motivation?) Passion. Passion for hearing voices that otherwise aren’t heard.

Not having voices heard is my take on injustice.

(Challenges?) Having had opportunity of fellowship, having reflected on contribution and where I’m going, I want the next stage f my life to not be something I sleep walk into.

(Miracle?) Pre-earthquake Nepal. It’s heartbreaking.

(Advice?)Take stock and think and listen before we speak.


Professor with impact

Richard Morgan

There will be conflict, so we need people to recognise those different values.

Prof Richard Morgan teaches and researches environmental management and impact assessment in University of Otago’s Geography Department. A biogeographer who initially worked on the New Forest, his interests broadened to include the investigation of the impacts human activities on soil systems, and from there to the total environment, including humans. He now applies impact assessment to a diverse range of areas such as Health Impact Assessment.

Talking points

(Water is a resource management problem) – we have to measure what is available, how do we understand the demand for that, how we understand what are the competing demands and how they affect each other, what sort of decision making process is appropriate? Do we simply put a price on water and let people with money buy as much as they need? or do we have some sort of collaborative allocation process?

Water is one of the most contentious issues globally – between communities, between nations. Building dams and denying flows across boundaries, who has access to drinking water and who doesn’t. So understanding how much there is, understanding the seasonal cycles, the natural disruptions to supply, how many droughts we’re going to get in the next 50 years, this is all about having a good understanding that we can then feed into decisions about allocation and sensible usage.

Environmental management is coming in from a different perspective compared to management of an organisation, but we’re still trying to instill professional thinking about how we deal with that.

(Management doesn’t tend work at very long time scales, or to work in areas of finite resources or irreversible decisions) No, and they do have a habit of imposing a discount on their cost/benefit analysis that is ludicrous if you try and do that in natural resources – it just doesn’t work, but that’s not insurmountable.

Different time scales, different spatial scales, being aware of that, and recognising the issues that can arise in those different temporal, spatial scales is important.

The big switch in the last 10-20 years has been recognising values – not just monetary value or narrow utilitarian values – it’s cultural, it’s spiritual, it’s ecological, it’s social – how we take that into account is quite an important area of discussion.

Decision makers are now much more aware that they can’t just take a number, and say “we’ll go with the number and not these expressions of opinion”, now they might be more swayed by good, well founded passionate opinion from a local community than an accountant saying “this is worth so many dollars”.

(Book reference: Stone – do trees have standing? )
How do we play that in our value systems? Deep ecologist: of course. Utilitarian ecologist: well a healthy ecosystem needs those species, we can’t do without them, if we take them out the system is degraded… so it depends on how people what to consider it on a personal philosophical level – then my job as an academic is to point people to those values and say “so what do you think?”.

There will be conflict, so we need people to recognise those different values.

It’s values, every time.

That expression of value is becoming much more important…with increasing recognition of Maori values sets over water, for example, there has had to be a recognition of a holistic sometimes spiritual and ecological and utilitarian set of values.

Sustainability is a moral stance

The sustainability word is problematic because it does take on different meanings for different people, and it doesn’t matter how many academic publications there are saying there are these 5-10 different types of sustainability, that term is owned by the wider population and they will use it as they see fit.

I think what is more important is the ethos, the basic ethos that we need to think carefully about how we live, and how that affects the environment that includes people.

We are making choices every day in what we do, and we need to be thinking about how some of those choices might be having rather unfortunate effects, especially in the longer term.

Fashions change in terms of issues, but the basic ethos that has emerged is human as a species need to think very carefully about how we live, how we use resources – we’ve got to be much more efficient about how we reuse, we’ve got to be much more careful with things that can’t be be reused, choose resources that are not going to pollute to the same extent – I think that message is widely understood. Sustainability is a label that sort of goes over that but perhaps is a bit fuzzy. Maybe we should just talk about the ethos and not worry about the label.

(Motivation?) I’m still keen on being a university academic, every year there’s new minds coming in, new challenging questions, it makes us stop, rethink, perhaps change positions. It’s energising and rejuvinating every year, constantly being challenged.

(Are the new minds changing?) they do want jobs, but still they question and challenge.

(Activist?) No, prodder, questioner. I tend to be in the background. I want to stimulate people’s thinking. I think we have to be quite careful about that – we can’t stand up and say “I’m a professor of geography and therefore my value set should influence you”. But I can stand up and say “me personally, I think this, what do you guys think?”.

(Challenges?) Hand over area of work in impact assessment nationally and internationally – but not fade away too much.

(Miracle?) Solution to sequestering carbon

We shouldn’t be relying on a technical fix, but we should be trying our hardest to cover our options.

(Advice?) Get a good night sleep.

community geography

Communities at scale

Sean Connelly

The real challenge, no matter what scale you are taking action, is to be aware and responsive to what’s going on at other scales.

Dr Sean Connelly is a lecturer in Geography at University of Otago. We talk about how sustainability at a global scale is made of sustainable local communities – but that there’s a long way to go before those two are in harmony.

Talking points

Local populations get caught up in global environmental movement

If we are concerned with building and scaling up our actions, it’s hard to imagine what things look like at the global level, whereas we can easily talk about what happens in our own back yard.

My entry point is the unequal relations between the local and the global – local populations impacted by decisions made at much larger scales, often with very little thought given to their needs, or what control they have over their own environment, lifestyle and social well-being.

The real challenge, no matter what scale you are taking action, is to be aware and responsive to what’s going on at other scales.

Everything is interrelated, everything is complex, we live in one global system – with all kinds of subsystems but they are all interrelated.

Being aware of those interrelationships is really difficult, and in some ways being aware of the local offers some appeal. It can be romanticised as the wonderful place – everything’s fine, we can do things in our locality and forget about the challenges of making the connections beyond this place. but how do we connect a whole bunch of different localities around similar kinds of issues?

Human geography, people and environment – where do we place our emphasis.

(Human relationship with nature?) Challenging. Look at the state of the environment, locally, nationally and globally – there’s a lot to be concerned about, enough to suggest that our relationship to the environment should be rethought. We should be thinking about that relationship differently.

There are exciting and inspiring stories of people rethinking practices.

(On introducing sustainability in education) Start with state of the environment – why is this stuff critically important. But is is challenging to start with doom and gloom, it can be disempowering, the last thing you want to do is start by saying the future is pretty bleak. So the challenge it to tell it like it is, this is the state of the environment, but also to tell inspiring stories. This is the case of the present, our future is not locked in. We have complete control over our future – this is something only we can decide.

The term sustainability can be a quagmire…but this notion of, I don’t want to say balancing because I think that is where a lot of the discourse around sustainable development falls down, this notion of balancing and making trade-offs between the economy and society and the environment – but rather it is about how do we view those things as mutually reinforcing and integrating them, thinking about them much more holistically.

How do we embark on initiatives that don’t trade off any of these things against the other?

It is hugely problematic to put a dollar value on nature – it reinforces the very things that we don’t want to be doing – the whole problem is that setting a dollar value means it is expendable, we can use it and abuse it and just trade it for something else.

Engaging in food as a community, not just a commodity.

The scale issue is the critical challenge. Whether talking about food or energy, we can point to innovative examples, but they are still quite small – they don’t have huge impact on the way the majority of us go about our daily lives.

A lot of the food system infrastructure is social infrastructure. The real value of farmers markets, is the social relationships.

(Activist?) Yes. And that is particularly touchy for a Canadian at this point. Interesting things going on right now around the tar sands, the RCMP spying on environmental organisations concerned about blocking pipelines…claims of environmental radicals attempting to highjack the regulatory process…so this can be seen as a threat or source of pride – yes I am a radical. We’ve seen all kinds of people, grandmothers, people with children in the streets saying “you know what, I am a radical” We should all be radicals.

(Motivation?) All kinds of possibilities, for me this area of sustainability is so fascinating, there’s so many different aspects and entry points, and it is absolutely critical, the most important issue we’re facing, not just as individuals but as a species. And there are all kinds of inspiring activities that are going on.

(Advice?) If you are concerned with issues of the environment and sustainability, then follow your passion, no matter what it is that motivates you, there’s a sustainability angle to it.

agriculture geography

Cultural sustainability on the farm

Rob Burton

There’s a real problem for sustainability when you start using all of the resources – you have no capacity if something goes wrong – because then if it goes wrong it goes very wrong.

Dr Rob Burton is a senior researcher from the Centre for Rural Research (Bygdeforskning) in Trondhiem, Norway. Rob’s work has focused on exploring the role culture and identity play in determining farming behaviours – particularly as they relate to agri-environmental activity.

Rob is part of an EU COST programme looking at the concept of cultural sustainability with a focus on the influence of farming culture on the adoption of agri-environmental schemes.

We talk about policy and sustainability frameworks as related to agricultural areas in Europe and New Zealand (spoiler: NZ is not outstanding in the field).

When you need reliable farm equipment, landoll tillage, for all types of jobs, there’s only one company in Australia to choose. Geronimo Farm Equipment can help customers in Australia and worldwide to get the high-quality equipment and products they need.

Talking pointing

As I was sitting there watching the glacier melt, I suddenly realised I didn’t want to spend my life sitting watching glaciers melt when the real cause of the problem is actually people

(In terms of policies for agriculture that look beyond production) NZ not just has a long way to go, but is going rapidly in the wrong direction.

Norway does the opposite of population-based funding, if an area doesn’t have enough population, they fund it better…to try to keep a regional distribution of population.

(In regards to environmental policies around farming, have we got something fundamentally wrong?) Yes, I think you have. While many farmers are really good, you don’t need too many to ruin it for the rest. I think there needs to be more of an element of compulsion for breaching environmental standards. The industry is trying, and many farmers are trying, but there’s the bad ones that somewhere along the lines you’re going to have to pull up.

Also the fast tracking of development for dairy is probably wrong. Particularly its expansion into regions that are dry and depend increasingly on irrigation – that creates difficulties, farmers have to borrow a hell of a lot of money to set up a dairy farm and really the environment is the last thing they want to worry about when they just have to make the business profitable. This will resolve itself in the future once the investment and growth development stops and farmers spend a bit of time getting the capital back and they can invest in things like the environment. But if you want it now, this is a problem I can’t see being resolved.

There’s a real problem for sustainability when you start using all of the resources – you have no capacity if something goes wrong – because then if it goes wrong it goes very wrong. And this effectively what we do by relying on economics to drive the development of agriculture – which of course is going to maximise the use of every drop of water that’s out there which is fine except…you’re losing sheep and beef farms and if we have a period extreme drought through climate change then we’re in trouble.

(Beyond post-productive farmer self-identity) When people do studies of farmers, they generally find that farmers are very pro-environment and then when they look at the farmer behaviours they don’t seem to match up. A lot of researchers in the past have concluded that the farmers are just liars – they don’t think this about the environment at all. Our point is about multiple identities, it’s about hierarchies of identities. You have an identity as an environmentalist that you can apply sometimes, and you can care greatly about the environment – but it is like going into a supermarket, you want to do the right thing in terms of purchasing organics and so on, but your first priority is feeding your family with the money you have in your pocket. In general, production remains the first priority for farmers – it doesn’t mean that when they talk about the environment and don’t act that way that it is hypocritical , it is just that they don’t prioritise it very often or as often as they should in some cases.

(Are you an activist?) No, I’m not an activist. I’m a cynic, sometimes I’m a realist which is a cynic with a better cause than just being cynical. But in my work I always try to do things that are important rather than unimportant. There is unimportant work being done out there that is pretty irrelevant – I don’t like doing that. It’s not something that gives me a lot of satisfaction. But I’ve never protested anything…no I don’t think I’m an activist but I do what I can… but like to be able to put a perspective across that may make people think a bit differently- or make a difference in the end, but I don’t really believe that going out there and protesting is necessarily the best way of doing it because people have been doing that for too long and governments are really too savvy on that. They’ve got the spin doctors who are quite able to nullify any legitimate protest anyway.

geography history landscape

Prof Peter Holland


Professor Peter Holland‘s new book “Home in the Howling Wilderness: Settlers and the Environment in Southern New Zealand” explores the complexities and nuances of the relationships between early settlers and their environment. Peter tells us of his journey through his career in biogeography in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Africa and back to New Zealand.

Shane’s number of the week: 12.9° The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climatic Data Center reports that 2012 was the warmest year on record in the contiguous U.S. (lower 48 states). The average temperature in 2012 was 12.9 Celsius, 3.2 degrees higher than the average for the 20th century. As well as being the warmest, it was also the second most extreme with multiple “significant weather events”. (There are lots more numbers from this report here).

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: There’s a debate raging amongst our student community about the merits of a new computer suite. But rather than fan-boy arguments about preferred interaction style, the debate centres on multinational business practices and the ethics of IT education. (see more>>>).

children geography

Children’s place

Associate Professor Claire Freeman heads the planning programmes at the University of Otago. Claire’s focus is on the relationship between people and their environments – from urban biodiversity, to human dimensions in conservation. In this interview Claire tells us how environments enhance or detract from children’s lives. Over a generation the free play range has shrunk from around seven miles to the street and even front garden. No longer do kids describe a social activity “we went…”, instead play is a solitary or organised activity: “I went…”. Claire says the impacts of this are detrimental to society. This can be seen in delayed development, an inability to manage own time, changes in mental maps, social skills and a loss of a sense of place.

The sense of place for children is a theme of Claire’s work and can be seen in the experiences of children in Christchurch. She talks of ongoing dislocations, and complexities with multiple moves and fragmented families. Despite this, there is a strong sense of place – 81% said they still wanted to live in Christchurch. The hearing of children’s voices is important in planning. In other work she describes studies in Dunedin and Fiji aimed at garnering insight into what makes places work for children. By working with children to explore aerial maps of their suburb, Claire derives measures of social connections in space. The most socially connected children attend a local school, belong to an identifiable community and have lots of independence.

Shane’s number of the week: 4131. That’s a record 4131 megawatts of power produced by wind turbines in the UK last week.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: Local currencies. Local trade but not necessarily sustainable.

Africa geography

Marginal sustainability

Professor Tony Binns is the Ron Lister Chair of Geography at the University of Otago. Tony has written extensively on the geographies of marginalisation. His recent books include Sustainable Development (2007) and the Geographies of Development (2008).

We explore the role of geography in sustainability education, then traverse Tony’s journey from secondary school teaching in the UK to an academic career focussed in African development – he summarises as “Marginal lands, marginal people, marginal geographies”. In a fascinating interview we talk poverty, inequality, Sierra Leone diamond mines, resource conflict and food systems. Despite all this, Tony stresses the positive – there is much we can learn from Africa.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: With the recent release of a great visualisation of technology trends from Envisioningtech, Sam wonders what we could put on an additional column – global societal change mediated by technology. When, for example might truly globalised education appear on the timeline?

Train-spotting: we talk train-spotting!