communication education museum science

Telling the story of science

Amadeo Enriquez-Ballestero is science presentation co-ordinator at Otago Museum.

If we all did a little bit, we could make big differences in the world.

My motivation is offering the experiences that I would have wanted as a child to kids around New Zealand, and seeing that I can make a difference.

Don’t stop feeling life – do logic after you have felt something – otherwise life is worthless.

We are facing another major extinction, and maybe we can do something about it – the dinosaurs went extinct due to rapidly decreasing oxygen levels, we are facing with a similar issue of sky-rocketing carbon dioxide levels. We’ve seen it happen before and if we don’t do something about it, humans will become extinct.

climate change science

Community resilience disrupted

Dr Caroline Orchiston is Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago.   She has an interest in resilience from the perspectives of tourism and communities, particularly in the context of natural hazard events.

Talking points

Sustainable: Traditionally it’s always been about preserving what we have now in such a way that it doesn’t encroach on the futures ability to do so.


Success: Successfully negotiating parenthood and staying in academia as well as writing my thesis!


Activist: I love activism, personally I choose to do other things in my life to create action but I’m fully supportive of activists. I do think it is very important to make a difference at some point in your life.


Motivation: Just doing work that might have some positive environmental or societal impact.


Miracle: My miracle would be that people start accepting people of other religions and cultural perspectives, I think that would make the world a much happier place.


Advice: Engage with your community, figure out what is happening locally, if a disaster occurs those connections will be really helpful… as well as trying and find value in everything that you are doing!

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.

ocean science

Sharks! A sign environmental regulations are working





The Environmental Revolution…we put in all this legislation because we recognised all those problems. Here we are 40, almost 50, years later, and we’re seeing the top predator in our coastal ocean recovering. I would argue that that is a sign that we’ve been doing some things right.



Dr. Chris Lowe, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of The Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach.


Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens, Resilience on Radio. A weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher, and me, Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here tonight because I’m at the California State University of Long Beach. There’s big signs up everywhere that just say The Beach. So we’re at the beach.


Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference, and we try to find out what motivates them, what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens, appropriately for the beach, is that of Dr. Chris Lowe, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the Shark Lab here at California State University Long Beach. Thank you very much for joining me.


Chris: Sure. It’s a pleasure.


Sam: Big picture things first. Where’d you grow up?


Chris: I grew up in Martha’s Vineyard, a little island off Cape Cod. My mom’s family had been on the Vineyard for a couple hundred years. We were whalers and sea captains and commercial fishermen and things like that. So I grew up fishing. Something I did everyday as a kid. I loved it. Then I learned to dive. First in my family to go to college, and they couldn’t understand why I wanted to be this strange animal called a marine biologist. Why didn’t I want to be a fisherman or a carpenter or something? I kind of broke the mould. I was the black sheep of the family.


Sam: Did you always want to be a marine biologist?


Chris: Probably since I was about eight. I really … I just found marine animals fascinating, and I just love learning about them.


Sam: Where’d that come from?


Chris: You know, I think it was I was just naturally drawn to them. I was fascinated by them. I would catch these different fish. I remember the first shark I caught. I was eight. I didn’t know what it was, and it actually forced me to go to this place called a library. I wasn’t a big reader, but that actually got me interested in reading. I spent a lot of time in the library learning about sharks, and that was it. I kind of knew what I was going to do, even though I didn’t know what that was and nobody in my family could tell me what it was.


Sam: Did you have a mentor or somebody that inspired you on that?


Chris: You know, I did. We had a shellfish hatchery on the island, and I met one of the marine biologists that was running that. He kind of took me under his wing and kind of got me interested in marine biology, and that was my first kind of mentor as somebody who did this for a living.


Sam: So you took yourself off to college.


Chris: Yeah, so I got a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology at a place called Barrington College, which was in Rhode Island. Then that led me to Central America, where I worked for a couple years building field stations. Then I came to Cal State Long Beach, actually, for my Master’s degree to work with a guy named Don Nelson. He was kind of a world pioneer in shark behaviour, and he started the Shark Lab here at Cal State Long Beach back in 1969. Don used a lot of technology, I’ve always been a technology fanatic, and he used a lot of technology to study sharks. A lot of the technology that’s used all around the world today was developed here at Cal State Long Beach.


Sam: When you went off to do your B.S. in Marine Biology, is marine biology like studying everything but underwater?


Chris: It was and that was good because what it did was it gave me a big broad perspective. I was learning about algae and invertebrates and all these things that weren’t necessarily my favourite, but I still found them interesting, and it gave me that kind of breadth. I had a better understanding of what sharks eat, for example. I think that was very important, part of my early career, was to have such a broad base in the study of all those different things.


Sam: What did you enjoy the most?


Chris: You know, we did a lot of salt marsh work, and I love slugging around the mud and doing beach transects and things like that. Even though I wasn’t working with sharks, I still loved that part. We were out in the field a lot, and that was the part that really kind of got me going. It even got me interested in things like chemistry and math and all the things that I didn’t think were important in marine biology, I learned to appreciate more.


Sam: You’re still doing a lot of field work?


Chris: I do.


Sam: There’s a group of students behind you cleaning off the boat. You’ve been out recently.


Chris: They’re getting ready.


Sam: Oh, are they?


Chris: We’re preparing for our summer field season, and they’re getting the boat ready to go. They’ll spend a whole summer living out at Catalina Island working on orange sharks and game fish and things like that.


Sam: What’s the question for this summer’s work?


Chris: Well, we have about eight projects running this summer, so that group that’ll be out at Catalina will be tracking horn sharks, which are kind of like Port Jackson sharks in Australia. Cute little sharks. They feed on things like sea urchins and crabs, and we believe they’re actually a keystone species for the kelp beds. I have a grad student who’s going to be using new devices we call Smart Tags that we clamp on their dorsal fin. It’s like a backpack that we put on their dorsal fin. It measures acceleration in three dimensions, and it has a gyroscope so we get a compass heading. We get a temperature and a depth that they’re at, and we can then put a transmitter on them and then follow them around and see where they go.


One of my grad students has been calibrating the Smart Tag in the lab by feeding sharks different types of meals, and we can actually identify what they’re eating based on their movement signatures.


Sam: How they’re wiggling?


Chris: Yeah.


Sam: Swimming differently or something.


Chris: Well, when they’re feeding. For example, when a horn shark eats a sea urchin, what it does is it has to pull all the spines off the sea urchin in order to get to the shell. When they do that, they get a lot of up and down, bouncy movements. So we can tell when they’re eating an urchin because they do that up and down, bouncy thing. But when they’re eating a crab, that becomes minimal, and it’s more side to side. We can begin to tease out those signatures and identify what they’re eating, so the goal would be in the field, we won’t have video cameras and somebody watching, but we can use the acceleration signals to figure out what are they doing during the day? What are they eating at night?


Sam: Do you have a pile of students frantically getting equipment ready at the moment?


Chris: I do.


Sam: Testing a lot of gear that’s not behaving.


Chris: Exactly. We’re getting ready for field season because we’re coming into the season when all the fish are going to be active. Our waters are going to start warming up. Productivity blooms in the spring. This is a big time of year for us, and summer is our big field season. In addition, we have a lot of fishers, just recreational fishers, that volunteer for us. They love it because they get to fish in a marine-protected area. But the coolest thing is we share the data with them. So they get to see not only all these big fish that they normally wouldn’t get to catch because it’s protected, but they’re involved in the science. They get to see how we collect the data and begin to understand why we do what we do, and they become awesome ambassadors because they go out and fish with their buddies, who are fishing in non-protected areas, and they tell them about the things that we’re finding. That’s how we’re changing, hopefully, the way fishing is done in southern California.


Sam: In terms of the big question, the really big one: why sharks?


Chris: I think a lot of it has to go back to when I was a kid. That fascination of seeing that animal that looked different than every other fish that I’d caught and not knowing what it was. Then really digging in and learning more about them. The more I learned, the more I realised well they’re just a fish, but they’re a very different fish. That kind of set me off on this path. I’ve studied sharks and stingrays and skates and, basically, the whole gamut is interesting to me. Unfortunately, there’s no money to do shark research, and that’s where my love of fishing comes in because … There’s actually a lot more funding to study game fish, fish that people like to eat, or fish that people like to catch, so a lot of my research has focused around that.


Then also the fact that I grew up fishing. I love to fish. My family’s living came from fishing, and I want to see that continue.


Sam: You probably hate this question but I’m going to ask it anyway. What’s been the ongoing impact of Jaws?


Chris: That is a major one, right? I think it’s had some good impacts and some bad. The bad impacts, of course, are people are afraid of sharks. The good impacts are that people are interested in sharks. Jaws only transitioned into Discovery Channel Shark Week. When you think about it, there’s an entire network that was dedicated, originally, from programming about sharks. The entire Discovery Channel Network started with that. When you think about it, it’s pretty remarkable. I mean, there are tonnes of books out there on sharks and snakes and whales and dolphins and things like that, but how many have their own week of programming?


Sam: Is it an irrational fear?


Chris: I think so. I mean, much of my job is dedicated to providing people with science-based information about sharks to help convince them that they’re not thin, mindless, feeding machines that people have imagined them to be. That’s hard to overcome because mass media has contributed a lot to that. I’m in the process of writing a book for the general public talking about how what we’ve learned about sharks over the years, the science behind what we’ve learned about sharks, and a little bit about why I think people think the way they do about sharks. A lot of it comes back to how our brain works.


In the early days when we would have to go out and fend for ourselves, hunter/gatherers would encounter dangerous animals. Then sometimes they’d have to fend them off, sometimes people would be killed, but they’d come back and they would talk about these vicious animals they encountered. People who weren’t in the field, maybe people who were just hanging around the camp, would intently listen about these things, and these stories would be scary because this was a scary event. What happens is your brain gives you a little happy juice when those things happen. That’s why people go to horror flicks because they get off on a little bit of being scared. But evolutionarily, it’s good for us to be scared. You remember those things. You paint that picture in your head. The tough part now is for us to convert that image that people have in their heads that have come from that scary stories and begin to give them some reality.


The other thing is, people are not aquatic. We don’t feel at home in the aquatic environment because we’re not aquatic, which adds another layer of fright to it. I can relate it back to wolves or bears or mountain lions. 150 years ago, we killed all those animals. We saw them as potential threats. They worried us. Sometimes they hurt people. They killed people, so we killed them. We’ve eliminated all the land predators. About 25, 30 years ago, we realised that that was not a good idea because ecologically, all the things they fed on were no longer being controlled. Like deer on the east coast. We’ve spent a lot of time and money bringing those things back, and a lot of that’s required science to learn more about wolves and their behaviours. That information’s got out into the public. The cool thing is, if I were to take the average person out and we were to go walking through Yellowstone and we were to see a wolf, and people were to see that, they would go, “Wow! That’s awesome! Look at that wolf!” If I were to ask, “Are you frightened right now,” they would go, “No because I learned all about wolves.”


Now the funny thing is, now imagine it’s night. It’s completely dark and I play back a wolf howl. Now they’ll know that’s a wolf, but if I ask them if they’re scared, they’ll go, “Yes.” If you ask why, they’ll go, “Well, I can’t see it.” Humans are very visual. We rely on our vision to reassure us. Here’s an example of an animal that most people will go, “I’ve learned a lot about wolves. They’re very caring. They’re group-oriented. They’re not potentially dangerous.” All those sorts of things. But that part of our brain that tells us I am no longer in control. I am no longer in my comfort zone. I’m at night. I’m not a nocturnal animal. I can’t see this animal coming. All of that programming changes. This is a difficult thing to convince people that sharks pose very little threat to them. It’s hard to get out of your head.


Sam: I’m a distance ocean swimmer.


Chris: Yeah.


Sam: I swim along and the way to deal with it, is you just pretend it’s not happening.


Chris: Exactly. But that’s hard to do, right? These are things that I think we’re making progress. Let me give you another good example. Whales. Okay, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, people were scared of whales. Whales were dangerous animals. They killed people. Now remember, most people never saw a whale, but whalers that would come back from these voyages where people would be killed by whales would talk about these horrible events where somebody was killed. They would paint these pictures. Now, you know the other part of the psychology is when somebody’s telling a story about something scary and people listen, they tend to embellish. What happened is these stories get scarier and scarier as time goes on. Moby-Dick, for example.


Okay, so by the end of the ’70s, most whales in most oceans had been hunted to the verge of extinction. Scientists are trying to do work on them. We’re trying to educate the public. Whales become protected in many coastal waters and many international waters. There was a lot of educating done about whales. What do we know about whales now? They’re mammals like us. They nurse their young. They’re highly intelligent. They’re very social. I think what really happened was whales got a very good PR agent back in the early ’70s, and they did a great job at changing people’s perspective about whales. Now, if we were to go out and somebody were to jump in the water and a whale to swim by, most people will go, “Oh, that’s a whale. That’s awesome!” They wouldn’t be scared at all.


How do we go from that with whales-


Sam: At the same time, when sharks got a very bad PR agent, from their perspective.


Chris: Exactly. So we’re in the process of rebranding.


Sam: They’re also, for some cultures, tasty.


Chris: That poses another problem. In many ways, that was a double whammy. People were afraid of them. They were scared of them, and they didn’t have a problem with fishermen catching them. In fact, they were doing double good. Not only are you eliminating threat, but you’re providing people with a meal. We quickly learned that this is where, one of those places, where sharks are different than other fish. So a shark and a tuna, two very different beasts. Tuna? 20 million eggs in a spawn. A shark may only produce one young every three years. How many tuna can you take before you completely deplete the population? By the way, that tuna can reach sexual maturity in two years. That shark may not reach sexual maturity until it’s 22-years-old.


Sam: Which is a lot closer to mammalian type reproduction.


Chris: They’re more like people. What we learned, literally in a 40- or 50-year period, very rapidly, is that you cannot fish sharks, rays, like we fish other fish. They’re more like people. They’re very easily over fished. When you do over fish them, it can take decades, or even a century, for their populations to come back. These are things that have been difficult to educate the public on mainly because of that fear. They saw that as a double good. You’re keeping the waters safe for us humans because you’ve eliminated the predators. Much like land predators, we have a lot of educating to do.


Sam: Are they indicator species? Are they keystone species? Do they represent the health of the ecosystem?


Chris: Well, most sharks are either intermediate or top predators, which means on the food pyramid, there are fewer of them. Their populations are most easily impacted, but they’re never very abundant. The top predators are usually the apex. The ones at the very, very tippy top are never super abundant because there’s never enough food to support them. So they’re easily impacted. White sharks are a good example of an apex predator that’s probably been impacted worldwide for over a hundred years. Now, there’s no direct commercial fishery for white sharks. There’s never been one. There’s been a recreational fishery, a trophy fishery for them here and there, but their numbers are so low that they could never support a commercial fishery.


Their teeth are incredibly valuable. Their jaws are valuable. Their fins. Their meat is perfectly edible and valuable, but they’re just not abundant enough to support that. Nonetheless, we saw their populations, what we think, go down from over fishing, mainly of the babies. A baby white shark is about a metre and a half long, about five feet long at birth. A female will give birth from anywhere to 2 to 14 sharks that size. One of the things that we’ve learned in the last 10 years is that a lot of these young white sharks like to hang out off our coastal beaches. Here in southern California, we have probably one of the largest nurseries for white sharks in the Northeast Pacific.


When I was a grad student here at Long Beach back in 1989, I never heard of that. We heard about adult white sharks up around the central California coast in the fall but never heard about a baby white shark ever. Then about 10 years ago, it started to happen. Fishermen started catching them on the piers. They’d catch them on the beaches. We’d get footage of people seeing them just literally right outside the wave break. Last year, we tagged 22 off Huntington Beach in a single summer. The numbers have just been going up and up and up.


What happened was this got me thinking about, “Okay, wait a minute. We’ve been telling the public that shark populations have been going down. How can this be? This doesn’t make any sense.” I didn’t believe my own data, so for a year, we collected more information, and we looked at more data, and we collected historic records, and the data all showed this trend of numbers going up. There were even other scientists who were saying, “No, the population’s going down.” We kept saying, “But this doesn’t match. You can’t have more babies without more mommies. Things have to be going up.” Then I started to ask questions. Well, how can the white shark population go up? Let’s just say, for example, that I’m right and the population is going up. How could that be?


Well, the white sharks have been protected in California for 20 years. In 1994, the state of California passed legislation to prohibit capture of white sharks. Mainly because they recognised the importance of white sharks in the ecosystem, and they recognised their vulnerability to over fishing. So for 20 years, they’ve been protected. There had been fishery interactions. Commercial fisheries have caught juvenile white sharks, and they landed them prior to 1994. But many of those commercial fisheries have gone away. They’ve either been banned, their use have been banned in certain locations, or the fisheries just went extinct because they couldn’t make a living anymore.


Just protection alone might have allowed some of the population to come back. However, that’s not enough to explain the trajectory that we saw. So what else does the population need to recover? Well, it needs food. So what do adult white sharks eat? They eat marine mammals. Then I started looking at marine mammal populations. Then is when the bells really started to go off. Our coastal seal and sea lion populations are some of the biggest carnivores we have in our coastal oceans. They’re warm-blooded like us, and they eat fish like gangbusters.


When you looked at their populations, to give you an example, in 1920 it was estimated that there were as few as 2,000 California sea lions in all of California and Baja. By 1920, they had been hunted to what biologists thought was the verge of extinction. If a fisherman saw a sea lion, they simply shot them. They viewed them as competitors. In 1973, the Marine Mammal Protection Act goes into place, and we see a steady uptake in California sea lion population. In the mid-1980s, there’s a dip. That dip was because of the last strong El Nino we had. Because the food got pushed offshore, a lot of sea lions starved. Then after that, in the mid-90s, when we heavily regulated commercial fishing in California, we see the greatest influction. Population was estimated to be growing at a rate of 6.5% per year at a time when we were telling the American public that we had fished out our ocean. We eat the same things sea lions eat, so if we fished out the ocean, how is this population growing at a rate of 6.5% per year?


Now population estimates for California sea lions are somewhere between 220,000 to 470,000 animals. They went from the verge of extinction to maybe the most that have ever been on the planet, in less than a hundred years. They did that because we protected them. Is it any surprise that the white shark population’s recovering if there’s all that adult white shark food out there? Now the question is, how does the sea lion population grow that fast? They need food, too. We’ve been telling the public … On the news, we hear about over fishing is a big problem and pollution is killing all the fish and we’re taking too many. How are they getting enough food? We’ve done a lot in the last 40 or 50 years to better manage our fisheries, to better manage our water quality.


In the US, we had what I call the Environmental Revolution, which occurred in the late ’60s. So Rachel Carson and all these other kind of alarm sounders about all this environmental damage that we had done through the US Industrial Revolution, which happened from the ’20s through the ’60s. As a result, we passed the US Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wetlands Protection Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Act. In California, we passed the white shark protection. We banned the use of nearshore gill-nets. We passed the Marine Life Protection Act. We put in all this legislation because we recognised all those problems. Here we are 40, almost 50, years later, and we’re seeing the top predator in our coastal ocean recovering. I would argue that that is a sign that we’ve been doing some things right.


Now the interesting thing is, if you look in many of our coastal environments like southern California, we have 22 million people that live within 60 miles of the coastline. Every single one of those people flushes the toilet every day. All that water goes out five pipes. In the ’70s, California had the worst water quality that existed probably anywhere in the country. We were discharging raw sewage, basically, offshore. We had the industrial waste going into that wastewater treatment. Clean Water Act forced a massive restructuring of that. Now in southern California, we have complete secondary, in some cases tertiary, wastewater treatment. We have some of the best wastewater treatment that exists anywhere in the world, basically accommodating a huge population density. We have cleaner water now than we did fourty years ago, with three times more people.


Sam: Is this a sign that southern California can be sustainable?


Chris: I think so. I think so. I would argue that the steps to sustainability are recognising that there’s a problem, which is what has happened. People had to get disgusted with the air quality. People had to get fed up with the water quality. People had to be upset about over fishing. Enough so that it forces governments to do things. In addition, all those things, all that legislation comes at a cost. We, as citizens, pay taxes to cover those things. New technology has to be developed. That is a really important step to this process because the way you make water quality sustainable is you have to develop new technology to clean that water, to recycle that water, reuse that water. The only time that technology gets developed is when you have a problem.


I think the key in these steps are you recognise there’s a problem, people do something about it, and then we develop new technology that helps us remediate or deal with those problems.


Sam: It seems like this is a good news story. We should be celebrating it. So why aren’t we? Is it, perhaps, there’s a fear that if we get it too right, the sharks will come back?


Chris: Well-


Sam: We’ll be afraid to go back in the water again?


Chris: Well, yes and no. What I’ve been telling people is there are things that we should be definitely cheering about. We’ve solved a lot of problems and the recovery of that … Bringing back top predators is a sign that the ecosystem’s getting healthier. However, there are going to be challenges that come with that, and that is we’re going to interact with these animals more, and sometimes those are going to be negative interactions. The tricky part is, I would argue two generations of Americans have had the benefits of unfettered access to the ocean, to use it for all our recreation needs without worry of having to interact with those predators. But we’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to bring these animals back, and now that they’re coming back, we’re going to have to learn to share.


In my opinion, the way we do that is through education. People in many places have not learned to recognise and manage risk well. I think that’s particularly true in the United States. Okay, you go to Disney Land. You expect to be able to get on a ride and that ride will be safe. There are inspectors. There are all these strict codes that they have to adhere to to ensure that when you go there for fun and recreation, you will be safe in the park. When you go in the ocean, that disclaimer doesn’t hold true. That’s the part that people have forgotten. Even though we use the ocean for recreation, there are risks that we have to assume ourselves. Nobody else is responsible for those but ourselves.


When you go in the ocean, you could be bitten by a shark, but the likelihood is already so ridiculously low, that it is not worth worrying about. Nonetheless, you have the choice about whether you want to go in the water or not. Now if there are sharks sighted in that area, you have the choice as to whether you want to take that risk or not. I think what we need to do, and what I need to do as a scientist, is provide the best science-based information that we have about sharks and their behaviours to give people information so that they can make good, educated decisions on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to use the ocean.


Sam: Is there media society interest in this too? There’s certainly the lots of interest in shark tourism and the people wanting to go and feed the sharks sort of stuff. Is there interest in the work you’re doing?


Chris: I think there is. I think it’s growing. I think people’s attitudes towards sharks are changing, and I think the more science we use, the less fear. It’s like anything. The less you know about something, the easier it is to be afraid of it. The more you learn about it, the less you may fear it. One of my life’s goals are to provide the public with good science-based information about sharks to help alleviate those fears. The other thing is if people aren’t afraid of them, they’re going to care more about them, and therefore, they’re going to do more to protect them. I think we’re seeing that. In other words, I think what we’re seeing now with sharks is the same thing we saw with whales back in the ’70s and ’80s. We’re seeing a change in attitude where people are going from, “Kill them. They’re scary animals that could hurt me,” to “You can’t kill sharks. They’re important. We need to protect them.”


Unfortunately, that pendulum can go too far that way. To the point where people don’t think it’s right that a fisherman should be able to catch and eat a shark. They argue that shark fisheries aren’t sustainable, and that simply isn’t true, either. This is, again, where we have to use science to provide the public with the best information because we don’t want people wanting to protect animal fur for just those reasons that, “Oh, we needed to protect them 20 years ago, but now the populations are back. But we should still protect them.” In many ways, I think we should still be able to harvest and eat sharks, but we have to do it smartly. We have to do it sustainably.


Sam: Do sharks have personalities?


Chris: To a certain extent.


Sam: You can tell them apart by how they behave?


Chris: Yeah. In many ways, they’re not that different from people. You’ll meet people who you know who love to bike. That’s their favourite thing. If you give them all these different options of how to get around, they would prefer to bike, and they’re really good bikers. They’re good riders. They know how to ride well. They can ride in any conditions. They can mountain bike. They can street bike. We find very similar sorts of trends with sharks. There are some sharks that like to eat this one type of prey. If you watch them, they’ll feed primarily on that, and they’re really good at it. But they won’t eat other things, or other sharks may be more effective at eating those things and have learned to feed more effectively on a different prey. In that sense, we do start to see kind of trends or some people could call it a personality. But those sorts of things are common in sharks and other fish.


Sam: Do they have complex societies?


Chris: They do have pecking orders. They have clear pecking orders. They’re, to a certain degree, social, but I don’t think we fully understand all that. They do have networks. We have seen studies where some species will hang out together, individuals will hang out together, and they form, what could be, social groups. We don’t know about that just yet. You know males and females quite often separate at certain times of the year, and they occupy different habitats. The only time they come together is to mate. We’ve seen, what could be, cooperative hunting in some species. So there’s probably some of that, but not as much as we’d see in mammals, for example.


Sam: When you have students come in, what are they wanting to do now? Is it that they’re people that, like you, think, “I’m going to study sharks. That’s what I’m going to do.” Or do people find their way here by accident, perhaps a mix of those things?


Chris: A majority of the students that want to come work with me for grad school, that’s the primary thing they want to do. They want to study sharks. My wife, who’s a marine mammalogist, studies seals, and she argues that it used to be dolphins. Everybody wanted to become a marine biologist to study dolphins. Dolphins are out now; sharks are in. That’s part of that people losing that fear of sharks and wanting to know more about them and study them more. So that’s increasing.


I think the thing that I’ve noticed the most since being a professor, and looking back at my career, was my reason why I wanted to be a scientist was I wanted to learn about the animals. That generation that I was in, that’s what drove them to be scientists. This generation, if you were to ask them that big picture question, why do you want to be a scientist, why do you want to be a biologist, why do you want to be a marine biologist, and their answer is different. It’s “I want to protect things.” It’s amazing. This is a generational thing. Then I say, “Well, aren’t you just interested in learning,” and they go, “Well, of course, but we have problems to solve.” As an ecologist, it’s interesting for me to see that regime shift in philosophy. Why they want to be a marine biologist is to learn to conserve things.


Sam: Does that mean you have to include policy and such that in your feature?


Chris: Yeah. Absolutely. I teach a class in fisheries ecology in conservation, and the whole point of the class is to get them to understand that we have 8 billion people on the planet, and they all need to eat. Fish is an important food that we need to feed the masses with. Fishing isn’t going to go away just because some populations have been over fished. We still have to find ways of having fisheries, making them sustainable, and to do that, we need people who have good training and backgrounds. That might mean studying fisheries from different angles. What I mean by that is there are some people who are more interested in the beast, studying the fish and its ecology and its life history and its population dynamics. But there are another group, I call that group the more social group, who begin to understand when you regulate a fishery, you don’t regulate the fish; you regulate the people.


In order to do that, you need people who have good training in sociology, who have good training in psychology, who have good training in policy, and in regulations. Because you’re managing people, not a fish population.


Sam: I’m thinking of the Maui’s dolphin in New Zealand, which seems to be on a relentless march to extinction, despite the obvious solution being stopping fishing in a couple of reasonably small areas.


Chris: Right.


Sam: Perhaps that’s not a wicked problem, but are there areas where you do have wicked problems? Those things that you just can’t untangle?


Chris: Well, I think the biggest one, the biggest challenge … While I’m excited and I think what we’re seeing are signs that are really good here in California, and maybe in the US, the biggest one is global climate change. The problems that we have solved are regional problems. But global climate change, that’s different. That’s not the state of California saying, “We’re going to do this to try to reduce carbon emissions,” and those sorts of things. Or the US saying, “We’re going to do this,” or even a bunch of nations saying, “We’re going to get together and do this.” This is everybody on the planet pitching in to do something. That is hard. That is really hard. That’s going to take more than climate scientists. That’s going to take more than biologists and fisheries biologists. That’s going to take more than economists. That’s going to take everybody. I think that is a big, big problem.


Sam: How sensitive are the sharks and other fish to climate change?


Chris: Well, we’re trying to figure that out now. We’re already seeing shifts in populations that we are pretty convinced are attributed to these global climate change issues. Rising sea temperatures and things like that. But we don’t know exactly how those populations will be affected. They have the ability to move, so that automatically gives them a little bit of buffer. But other animals that can’t, like sessile invertebrates and things like that, they’re kind of screwed. But nonetheless, those are integral in the food chain, and somewhere along the line, they’re going to impact sharks. I see that as our biggest challenge now.


With the Maui’s dolphin, and here in California and Mexico, we had the Vaquita dolphin, where we have a limited area, the animals are definitely on the track for extinction. But you run into these challenges where you have these subsistence fisheries, you have these small scale artisanal fisheries, and you can’t shake your hand and say, “Oh, it’s the big industry that’s doing this.” You’re talking about people who are living on like $5,000 a year and putting them out of business. So we have to be more creative. We’ve done it in other places. We’ve done it at certain scales. The tricky part is quite often populations that are under these impacts, it’s more than just fishing that’s driving these issues.


I did a lot of work in Hawaii, and the Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammals in US waters. However, it’s also one of the most isolated marine mammals. The Hawaiian Archipelago that they use is some of the most isolated areas in the entire planet, and yet its population is still declining even though humans have the least amount of interaction with that species. In some cases, you’ve got to wonder is it just evolutionary if the clock has run out on the species. We might have accelerated the clock a little bit, but their ticket was punched a while ago.


Now, the US government invests a lot of money in trying to keep that population going, but all the while, we have all these other populations that are really just getting hammered, but they’re not as charismatic as a seal. What do we do about those? Plants that are going extinct at unbelievable rates. But how do you get the public to rally around a plant? Or a toad?


Sam: No. Most large animals have the advantage of being charismatic megafauna. Sharks don’t, perhaps, have the charismatic, but at least-


Chris: Well, they do. They do. Maybe not as much as a dolphin or a whale.


Sam: There was a cute one in Finding Nemo.


Chris: Exactly. Whales, sharks, and things like that are … People can kind of rally around those species. But it’s all the others. What worries me is that there are a lot of conservation groups, there are a lot of NGOs, that will selectively pick those species because they know they can get funding for them. Yet, some of these other species are ignored. Who’s going to look out for those?


Sam: Is there something that ordinary people can do, perhaps in their purchasing, that would help? Can we avoid shark fin [crosstalk 00:41:03]?


Chris: Sure. In fact, I think this is the education component. We have to have multiple lines of defence when it comes to protecting species. We have to have federal protection. We have to have state protection. We have to get grass roots. We have to get people educated so that they understand why these regulations are in place and what they can do to minimise their impacts. Then after that, it’s really the consumer. The consumer has all the power. If people don’t buy a certain species of fish, or if they don’t buy shark fins, fishers won’t catch it.


Once we get past the marketability issue, then we have to get back to bycatch issues. Those are things where fishers are catching things while they’re trying to catch something else, and those things get just discarded, and that poses another problem. But I look at those as technical issues. Those are where we just have to find better, smarter ways of fishing that are less impactful, less stressful, less destructive. If we can develop all this other technology, why can’t we do that?


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


Chris: I would say the ability to keep doing what we’re doing with the population that we have now. I realise everybody has probably a different definition of that, but for me, it would be the ability to keep doing what we’re doing with the population we have now. With a growing human population, the game changes, I think. Because what I worry about … The reason why I think we’ve been able to be sustainable with agriculture, with some of our fisheries and things like that to date, has largely been based on technology. If our human population growth grows faster than our ability to remediate or to modulate those things through technology, then it’s game over.


Sam: Does the premise of sustainability of us living on the land … but we’re not very good at thinking about people on other bits of land, cumulative effects of what we’re doing, other countries, and even worse, at looking into the future. I would put under the sea even further away than that.


Chris: Yes. I would agree. I think things are getting a little better, though. You know the whole global economy thing? I think people are starting to think more globally. You know what I think changed that? Was our ability to go into space. For people to be able to see the earth from space, from people to be able to go online and see what the ocean temperature is anywhere on the planet at anytime. To see storms and clouds and things like that, and you can go on any computer, you can go on any smartphone, and you can see that anywhere on the planet anytime. I think what’s that done is it’s changed many people’s perspective. It’s made it more global and less regional.


Now there are obviously lots of humans out there that don’t have access to all that technology and may not have that same perspective. But I think that technology has helped change some of that. We still fight that it’s my inalienable right to take what I need to survive and forgetting the fact that you multiply that by 8 billion.


Sam: We’re writing a book of these interviews. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes. Trying to look at what people are doing now that we’re going to look back at hopefully and say, “That was awesome,” and we’re describing it in terms of people’s superpowers. How would you describe your sustainable superpower? What is it that you’re bringing-


Chris: I would say my superpower will be my students. I think a lot of the work that I’ve done has been, I hope, has made a contribution to the field. I do a lot, as much as I can, as a scientist to not just stay in my little scientific world but to get out to the public. What I’m trying to do is train my students to be more that way, to be a less selfish with their data and their knowledge and try to make it more accessible to the public.


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


Chris: I think the biggest success that we’ve had has been in getting our science in the hands of the public. I’ll give you an example: some of the work that we’ve done on catch-and-release fishing. We’ve done some studies on different species of fish, and we’ve demonstrated that if anglers handle fish properly and they put them back in the ocean, like the regulations require, that those fish will recover rapidly. I think the key success for me was … In fact, it was very discouraging because when we had the data and we gave it to managers, managers said, “We can’t use this for regulations,” and we kept saying, “Why? This is great. We’ve shown if you bring a rockfish up and its swim bladder over inflates and you recompress that fish, it can survive that.” They go, “Well, we won’t pass a regulation because fishers won’t do it.” It was very discouraging to have such encouraging, supporting data and not have it used by managers.


Then what I started doing was giving talks at fishing clubs and just telling fishermen at what I had learned, and here are some things that they can do. Then they started inventing things, like devices to get fish back down. Before I knew it, they were actually going to managers saying, “We think you should put regulations in place, and we want credit for it.” It kind of changed my perspective on that. I used to think that I did science to help managers improve management, and I began to realise well maybe I’m doing the science for the wrong people. Maybe my science needs to go directly to the public, and when it comes to fisheries, who better than the fishers?


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Chris: Not really. I consider myself to be an educator.


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


Chris: I love what I do. I love solving a problem. I love developing new tools that help us do something that we couldn’t do before. I love seeing my students get excited about what they do, and I love seeing them develop those skillsets. This comes back to my superpower hero, my students. I have students that have, so far, surpassed me in their careers, and that just is awesome. For me, I’ve done my job. Done my job. The next generation of student that I’m trying to develop are hybrids. They have computer science backgrounds or engineering backgrounds, but they have training in biology, and they have training in policy and all those areas. That’s what it’s going to take to make this planet sustainable.


Sam: Do you make much use of citizen science?


Chris: Actually, quite a bit, but it’s tricky because … We spend a lot of time training as scientists to be able to do what we do, and you can’t expect to pick somebody from the general public and just have them do what we do. However, the fishers that help us with our fishing science, that’s a perfect example, I think, of a really good citizen science project. All I’m asking them to do is be a fisher.   Catch me a fish. So they’re going to catch the fish, and they’re going to do what they do. Then we’re going to sample the fish, and they get to watch and help us with that. Then we let that fish go. Then we show them the data. But what if you handled this fish this way? Well, let’s do another experiment. Now we’re going to handle the fish, and we’re never going to touch it with your bare hands. We’re going to use a shammy cloth, so we’re not going to rub off any mucus. Then we’re going to measure all the same things, and we’re going to put it back. Then we’re going to show them the data. “Oh, you know, if I don’t hold the fish that way, look at the blood chemistry. The blood chemistry shows that the fish is responding better.” Or we recaptured that fish and there were no marks on the fish, so that means there’s less stress.


For them to see the data is very different than if I publish a paper and I say, “We did this study, and this is what we did.” They never believe us. They always go, “You science eggheads, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know how to fish.” But if they’re involved in it, they see us, they watch us do it, they’re part of it, they believe the science. If they believe the science, they change their practises. If they change their practises, they convince their friends to change their practises.


Sam: What’s the biggest challenge you’re looking forward to in the next couple of years?


Chris: I would say the biggest challenge … You mean environmental challenge? Science challenge?


Sam: Both.


Chris: I would say the biggest environmental challenge we face is global climate change, without a doubt.


Sam: Not just the challenge of climate change but that’s also the big scientific question.


Chris: It’s how do we measure its effects, and simultaneously, how do we convince people to change their behaviours? Quite often, one helps the other. If we can measure some of these effects, then we have a better likelihood of convincing people, number one, that global climate change is real, and number two, that things that they do can make a difference. The examples I can use are water quality, marine mammals. All of those are examples. These are problems that we recognised, we found solutions, and look at … Things come back.


Sam: Isn’t it interesting how we mix the doom and gloom, because clearly climate change is a doom and gloom story, but we need to leave enough of a positive story.


Chris: Or else why would people want to change their behaviour? If they think it doesn’t matter anymore, that we can’t reverse it, that we can’t make things better, why would anybody change their behaviour? My theory on the doom and gloom is that it catches people’s attention. Like going back to the evolutionary parts of our brain. People are programmed to pay attention to things that can harm us. We listen to those things. We pay attention to those things. What the media has learned is that that makes news.


Now what we have to start to do is seed in some positive things, some things that we’ve done well. The funny thing is US agencies are horrible at that. NOAA has done some amazing things, but they are horrible about bragging about it, and they need to. Because if they can’t convince the public that we can reverse some of our fishery trends, or we can reverse some of our ocean problems, then why should people care?


Sam: Two more questions. If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur by tomorrow morning, what would it be?


Chris: How big?


Sam: However you like. I have a follow up question.


Chris: Okay, well if it’s a big wand, it’s a really big wand, it would be a big CO2 reduction. That would be a big one.


Sam: Okay. What’s the smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact on that?


Chris: Smallest thing. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are small things when it comes to that. These are big things. It’s more than just magically sucking up the CO2 and making it disappear because it’s going to come right back. I think the biggest thing that we need to solve, as a society, is a renewable energy issue. That is our number one thing.


Sam: Tim Flannery’s talking about third wave technology, I think that’s what he calls them. Essentially carbon scrubbing, and a big part of that is seaweed farming to suck up carbon dioxide.


Chris: Sure.


Sam: But the area to which he’s talking about is massive, but it’s still a … Is that a doable thing?


Chris: Yeah. I think there are a lot of really smart people out there thinking about these ideas, and that is a good scrubber approach. Kind of a remediation approach. But at the same time, we have to stop using fossil fuels. We have to wean ourselves off that. We’ve over paved everything, which doesn’t help. You lose water that way, and you gain and you reflect heat. There have been really good moves to try to eliminate some of the concrete and go back to planting plants that are low-water tolerant, that can handle low-water conditions, those sorts of things. I think it’s going to be a bunch of small things, not one very big thing that makes a difference.


Sam: Lastly, then, do you have any advice for our listeners?


Chris: Yes. My biggest advice, the same advice I give my students, is you should always be asking why. That comes down to voting on issues. That comes down to listening to what scientists say. How do you know that? Why? Those are the most important things. Because if people ask those questions, that drives that change faster. That gets people motivated to do things because if nobody can answer those questions, then that means somebody needs to try to do that. Even scientists need to be asked, “How do you know that? What’s your evidence for that? Convince me.” If we can convince sceptics, that’s going to be good science.



This conversation was recorded at Long Beach in June 2016.

climate change communication science

Science communicator, a bit subversive.

Tim Flannery

My working definition of sustainability is a world that isn’t creating more problems than it solves.

Professor Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year in 2007 and until mid-2013, was a Professor at Macquarie University and held the Panasonic Chair in Environmental Sustainability. He is the chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group. He was the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, an Australian Federal Government body providing information on climate change to the Australian public, which was disbanded by the new right-wing government in 2013. Almost immediately afterwards he announced that he would join other sacked commissioners to form the independent Climate Council, that would be funded by the community. Prof Flannery is currently a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne. He started his career as a mammalogist and his work has earned high praise, prompting Sir David Attenborough to describe him as being “in the league of the all-time great explorers like Dr David Livingstone”. He has published extensively but his two most famous books are “The Future Eaters” published in 1994 and “The Weather Makers” published in 2005. We literally could go on and on talking about Tim’s achievements but we have to stop somewhere so we can actually let the man do some talking…

Talking points

As much a science communicator as a scientist

Somehow I was fascinated with science from an early age

I remember finding my first fossils on the local beach, aged about eight, and taking them into the local museum and having them identified, that was a formative moment – one of those things you’ll always remember

All the time I was doing my arts degree I was volunteering at the museum – working on fossils, learning everything I could about science.

The curator would ask who wanted to go on field trips – my hand was always up.

They clearly got that I was interested in this sort of stuff.

The guy in the lab coat could have been the curator of fossils or the cleaner – it doesn’t matter to me, he changed my life.

What I love about museums is the reach into the community.

Even when I was running the museum, if the opportunity arose to talk to kid about what are interested in, I would always grab it.

If you see some kids looking at the exhibits, take the time to talk with them, it could be hugely important.

My favourite places – swamps where I looked for frogs – were being filled in with rubbish, the beach with oil and junk floating in the ocean and thinking this is not right. I asked my mother about it and she said “that’s progress”, and I decided then that this “progress” was a pretty bad thing.

I put my hat in the ring for a job – the only job in the country I really wanted, a scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney – curator of mammals.

I did twenty marvellous years doing survey work in the Pacific Islands.

We called it Rattus detentus because its ancestors had been detained on Manus island, also we were well aware of the plight of the detainees there.

(A slight subversive name?) Yeah, just to let people know they haven’t been forgotten. What can a scientist do with that sort of stuff, not much really, but this was an opportunity, and that name will be there forever, so they will be remembered.

Boaty McBoatface – if the people want it then I’m firmly of the view that they should get it.

I don’t like power structures…there is true wisdom in the people, if you can tap into that wisdom you will achieve great things as society.

As the new director of the South Australian Museum…engaging with the SA government that I became aware of what a huge challenge this climate change issue was.

Future Eaters: The people of Australia were really the first to start eating their future, eating into their capital that was meant to sustain them into the longer term.

A spectacular manifestation of the nature of what it means to be human.

The book came about from 15 years of questions I just couldn’t answer.

There’s something about my personality. I do think about difficult questions, and I tend to do it from first principles basis. I can’t just live in Australia without understanding the place.

Some of those questions are big and complicated, and do take a while to work through, but I’m very happy doing that, picking away at the puzzle, a giant jigsaw no-one’s ever done before.

Weather Makers: I tried to distil the science into a form that was understandable by the public but still faithful to the original research – all held together with a story of human impacts on this very complex climate system.

There was a nasty backlash…once climate change became a political issue in Australia there was no holds barred…it was really scary for a while, I had to have federal police protection at home for about four months – that was tough.

There’s a lot of economic interests in Australia, tied into the fossil fuel industry.

We had a bigger share of the export market for coal than Saudi Arabia does for oil.

Those industries were very embedded in government and society.

But I knew the reason this was happening is because I’m winning, I’m having an impact. If I wasn’t having an impact then none of this would be happening, they wouldn’t be bothering.

(Geological time-scales it doesn’t really matter what we do) That’s true, but what sort of argument is that? Where does that leave us as human agents? Where does that leave us in terms of care for our children and future generations?

This has to relevant to us as people in some sort of moral framework we live in.

(Are we at the point of people understand climate change but don’t want to?) If I believed that I’d be doing a different job. I think that carrying on explaining it is making a very big difference.

People come up to me all the time saying I embarked on this career, chose this PhD, because I read your book and wanted to do something…some of those people are now running significant companies – renewable energy companies and so forth.

So it makes a difference but it takes time.

I’m a really big believer in the wisdom of common people – if you can tap into that , into people as individuals and their sense of what is right and wrong, then you’ve done somthing very profound, and that’s what my life has been about. It hasn’t been about going into politics and trying to lead people, I’ve been much more interested in releasing the latent good and capacity in people.

When you reach out to people as individuals, even those antagonistic people, you get beyond the fa̤ade Рthe frightened person or the smart arse, and you can reach a real person in there, and that is where the reason and where the goodness lies.

empowering people with knowledge, reaching them as individuals, that’s the important stuff, it’s not about political leadership, nor parties or ideologies, it’s about somehow unlocking that individual goodness and letting that flow upwards into some sort of societal structure or shape that gives meaning to all our lives and makes things better for all of us.

You have to treat people with dignity and engage in a dialogue.

We are now committed by virtue of the greenhouse gas we’ve put into the atmosphere for the temperature to rise by about 1.5 degrees by the middle of the Century. We’re getting into the danger zone (has been at +1.2 degrees for a couple of months).

This El Nino has done us a favour in a way, it’s spiked temperatures by about a third of a degree – it’s giving us a little window into the future.

In some places, this view seems OK, the great Autumn we’re having, but look north to the Great Barrier Reef, we’ve just learnt that it is 93% bleached, a bleaching event six times larger than anything we’ve ever seen before. And there’s massive and long lasting consequences from that on the reef ecosystem.

Arctic ice is at its all time winter low.

The thing to remember is that climate change is a process, not a destination. It’s a process of change. 1.2 degrees will transform to 1.5 degrees then 2 and 4 if we don’t do something about the driver.

Scientists are now increasingly prepared to say “this weather event would not have occurred were it not for human greenhouse gas pollution”. That’s a big breakthrough – linking individual weather events to the cause.

This is a collective action problem – it’s something the whole world needs to act on together.

The capacity of any society to do anything about this is driven by passionate individuals.

We need that drive to come from society…to drive down emissions.

But my personal view is that’s not all we need to do, we also need to get some of the gas out of the air. That’s going to require the development of a whole series of new technologies over time.

Technology is a tool…you’ve got to have a spanner to fix the car. But having a spanner is not enough. You’ve got to have the knowledge to know how to use the spanner, and you have to have the will to actually employ it

You need all of those things, you need the technology and you need the will-power to use it. We need the right regulatory structures and the right enabling circumstances in society for this to happen.

(is third wave technology a green myth? Carry on having a party, technology to save us is just around the corner?) Excellent question, one we need to answer.

From 2016, two things are very clear, first, that we have to reduce emissions as quickly and as hard and fast as possible whether we develop new tools or not. The second is that we don’t really know at the moment whether those tools will have the capacity to draw enough CO2 out of the atmosphere at the scale needed.

At the moment humanity is putting 50 Gigatonnes of CO2equivalent into the air every year. Now, if you want to plant trees to take 5 Gigatonnes out of the atmosphere per year, you would need to plant an area larger than the size of Australia. This is a very large scale problem.

Can we manufacture carbon fibre out of the atmosphere at a scale that will make a difference? Carbon plastics, CO2 negative concretes? Silicate rocks to draw C02 out of the atmosphere? Seaweed farming? Can we do it at scale? We know all these things are possible at very tiny, laboratory scales. But do they work at the gigatonne scale? That’s the question we need to answer by 2050 if we’re to have the hope of any of these technologies making a real difference.

(Scale of problem is going to need solution at that scale, which is more industrial development, which will make extinctions worse…will a focus on climate change make everything else worse?) eg seaweed farming which are a great place to grow proteins.There’s a lot of biological desert in the world’s oceans that could feed the world…if we could cover 9% of the world’s oceans with seaweed farms we could draw down all 50 Gigatonnes.

If we can take the problem – atmospheric CO2 – and turn it into a solution (eg sky mined carbon fibre) that competes with other polluting industries you’ve done something major.

This is where technological advancements can take us, not just into a more industrialised dirty future, but as a replacement for already dirty processes, and thinking differently about the world in ways that might make a difference.

My working definition of sustainability is a world that isn’t creating more problems than it solves.

There are always uncertainties, but you have to move forward, you can’t be paralysed by uncertainty.

We can have sustainable growth, it depends on what is growing and for how long, but there’s a billion people out there living in abject poverty who need betterment and a better quality of life, so we have to have at least enough grow to give them a decent standard of living.

Limits to Growth – general sentiment was right, but was wrong in that people thought we would run out of resources, but it turns out that there are lots of resources – particularly mineral resources – the volume you have is proportionate the amount of energy you’re willing to put into getting them out.

The big limits to growth turn out to be the rubbish bin – earth’s rubbish bin, the oceans and atmosphere. That’s the real limit, once the rubbish bin got full…that’s something people didn’t foresee.

We need a big political change…it entrenches privilege, it disenfranchises people…

A vision of where I think we might be going that solves these problems. Imagine a situation where politics is not a career. an you imagine if each one of us had the experience of sitting on a jury to decide the size of the defence budget, or how the health budget should be used, or an aspect of foreign policy.

Division of labour works in every area of human life and enterprise, except politics. It’s the one area where we all have to pull our own weight as citizens if we want to have a decent and just and prospering society.

(Superpower?) Empathy

(Success) Probably too early to tell, but the establishment of the Climate Council, adopted by the people of Australia. It’s taught me a lot, that process, a lot about structures that work, and how you engage people.

(Activist) No, I don’t see the world in those terms. Activist entails that there is a power out there, an authority that we’re fighting back against, and my world paradigm is not like that, I think that the big decisions need to be made outside the political system, and there’s a role for leaders outside the political system to engage in dialogue and influence the public dialogue about things…so no, not an activist, maybe a public intellectual.

(Motivation) I think it’s curiosity first and foremost about the nature of the world. And somehow I’ve always had this view that we need to leave the world a better place than we found it – and the only way to do that is to really understand the world.

I find this a paradox in me, because I’ve lived through a period where the world has self-evidently got worse, in so many ways over my lifetime – we’ve seen so many extinctions and all sorts of things happening in the environment, and yet I still have this belief that we need to leave the world a better place than we found it. So I don’t know how to explain that, except that it is a profound conviction that I have.

And real faith in human nature and people, that is the most important resource that we have- our fellow human beings and unlocking the full potential of ordinary humans to engage in the world and determine their own fate in a wise consultative way is just so central to what we are as a species.

(Challenges) Staying fit and healthy. Re-engaging in the Pacific Islands.

Community projects in the Solomon Islands trying to foster community conservation – which is really the most important type of conservation in those societies.

I reckon it’s like for a woman putting on that lipstick in the morning, you do that and you look great…well climate change is one of those things where you just can’t go and put on the lipstick in the morning, it’s too long a process, there’re very few moments where you can say we’ve won, we’ve done something, but this Pacific Islands work (community conservation), is great, “wow, I’ve already got some success”. The rest of it – climate change – will be a slow grind, I’ll be an old man before we can say we’ve overcome the problem, if I’m lucky enough to live that long.

(Miracle) To have us on a downward trajectory of about three parts per million of atmospheric CO2 per annum – a slow readjustment of the system back to where it needs to be

(Smallest thing) Get engaged with a group of like-minded citizens, because anything we achieve is achieved together.

( Advice) You’re a long time staring at the lid – get out there and do something, don’t waste any time.

Professor Flannery was in Dunedin as guest of the Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago.

art climate change science

Art explorer of the world

Gabby O Connor-01

I’m trying to make sense of the world – to understand things I don’t understand – making sense of them using the language that I have…colour, space, light.

Gabby O’Connor is an artist and interdisciplinary researcher. Her work ranges from landscape scale installations, through room-scale icebergs, and to photographing the smallest ice platelets. Her work is process based, often involving communities and children. After several years of imaginatively exploring the space and place of Antarctica, Gabby recently spent time there as an artist embedded in a research team. We are joined also by Bridie Lonie and talk about Gabby’s work and the role of the interdisciplinary researcher in both communicating and perhaps influencing the science of understanding our world.

We also talk about seal snot.

Talking points

It’s an experiment within an experiment to see if art could in turn influence science.

I’m trying to make sense of the world – to understand things I don’t understand – making sense of them using the language that I have…colour, space, light.

It’s a stereotype that there are scientists and there are artists, the process is often quite similar.

It’s like a Venn diagram, the art intersecting with the science, then there’s this education component. They can each operate separately, but in together combination the power is just just massive.

That’s that really exciting unknown space…we’re really enjoying pushing all the disciplines a little bit further.

Tensions? There’s a lot of trust because it’s a relationship built over time.

Both artists and scientists are trying to find out things that aren’t known – both trying to understand the world.

Scientists are trying to find small pieces of a puzzle that will help explain and prepare us for Climate Change, and I’m using many small fragments of information to try and tell similar stories.

(Success) Going to Antarctica.

(Activist) No, but, not protesting. Really good information, connecting with children is a really good investment.

(Motivation) I’m an artist, impractical…maybe practical and imaginative. I’m in a unique position at the moment where all my interests have intersected in a most perfect way.

(Challenges) Turning data into newer things.

(Miracle) Lost of time, dedicated space, great conversations.

(Advice) If your’re an artist, have a blog – you never know what might happen – but don’t make it a pretty things I like blog. A historical document, where you can put all those ideas. (Gabby’s blog)

policy science

Challenging deep assumptions

Hans Bruyninckx

Over the long term a pillars model is intellectual nonsense, you cannot have a little bit of sustainability on a finite planet.

Professor Hans Bruyninckx is Executive Director of the European Environment Agency. He says we need to move from a focus on efficiency, to one of transition.

Talking points

It is a time we need to challenge things.

We need to challenge ourselves through better analysis what is driving fundamental unsustainability – how we produce things, how we consume things – and at the same time how we overcome that, and how we organise a transition to a more fundamental sustainability on this planet.

I wanted to do research that had relevance and I strongly believe in the responsibility that comes with knowledge – the privileged position which you have as a researcher in society.

I feel incredibly privileged (to be leading EEA), this is a fantastic organisation.

We take a systemic view, we look at four systems in society we think will need to become fundamentally more sustainable: energy; food and agriculture; transport and mobility; and urban and built environment systems.

All of the elements are connected, pieces in the knowledge puzzle, and our value is in connecting the dots.

Sustainability for me is living well within the limits of the planet.

That means taking those limits very seriously as a boundary condition, it’s not “living well and also thinking about the environment”, it’s living well with the limits of the planet, it’s a very different thing.

We need to move away from this idea that that we somehow have to pay attention in the socio-economic also to the environment and when we do we call it sustainability. In the long run, on a finite planet with limited resources with more people rightly demanding a decent lifestyle.

Sustainability is not about adding a little bit of environment to social and economic development – it’s about fundamentally organising our society while embracing the boundary conditions, and these are about environment and climate and natural resources, that’s the real meaning for me about sustainability.

We need a higher integrated approach (than a pillars approach), the issue is not adding a green pillar to the economy and then a bottle of champagne when the green economy grows 50% (from 6% to 8%) – the real success is greening the economy, which is a very different way of dealing with natural resources. (Sustainability is)… going from a linear model where you dig stiff up, you produce something that you use a limited number of times, then you throw it away. We need a circular economy, it’s about decarbonisation of our core systems, rethinking our energy systems, it’s about fundamentally understanding our ecosystems and the value of natural capital.

The so-called conflict between agriculture and nature – which you see in many countries – I don’t think the fundamental question is how we can solve the conflict between nature and people and farmers, I think the fundamental question is how we have come to a system of food production and consumption that is a key stress factor on the environment, when the basis should be the environment. That points to a much more integrated view of long term sustainability.

Over the long term a pillars model is intellectual nonsense, you cannot have a little bit of sustainability on a finite planet.

We will have to make our core systems of production and consumption essentially sustainable.

We have decoupled our economic production to a large extent from forms of pollution, but in essence, we need to move to a deeper, more systemic long term thinking.

Moving from the Venn diagram to an egg model: where we organise our socio-technical system with the environment, not just taking environment into account – that’s a pretty fundamental paradigm shift.

We need to understand the dynamics of locking in the characteristics of our current unsustainability, and then we need to understand how we can nurture more niche innovation and give that the space to become more mainstream and to upscale. We have to accept failure (in those innovations). The change we need is so fundamental it will require experimentation and it will require thinking and acting out of the box – and we can’t expect everything we invest in to work.

Encouraging niche creativity and innovation, and at the same time understanding what locks us into unsustainability is key.

(can we get transition incrementally?) The jury is out there. Yes, in some way we can go in incremental steps – if you think of urban mobility… Copenhagen’s mobility has been incremental but challenging deep assumptions – it is now operating at the speed of the bicycles – that’s quite a paradigm shift.

I think it will be a mix of more abrupt change and incremental change. We need to understand where the tipping points are – when can we say we are really entering a new paradigm. Last year was the first year that we added mode renewable energy capacity than traditional capacity – is that a tipping point?

It’s easy to shout from the sidelines that we need a revolution, but when you’re trying to push from within the system you realise that you shouldn’t under estimate the forces that are embedded within the current system.

I believe in the capacity of the system to point in the direction. The 7th Environment Action Programme is a very progressive and rather fundamental document. It was formulated after the Global Financial Crisis and people said “it’s all going to be about the economy and jobs now”, but this proves them wrong.

I believe in the adaptive capacity and forward thinking of institutions, but of course you need pressure from society, academic and other knowledge work to point in the right direction, critical forces outside and inside the system.

What we do (EEA) should be aligned to the policy agenda, how we do it comes from our independence – we are a critical voice.

We (EEA) don’t consider communication as a tail-end add-on to what we do, it is an integral part of the approach we have to policy making.

If we understand that the challenges of changing our system are rather complex and there are degrees of uncertainty in that, then we should find a language, find images to communicate that – because it would be almost intellectually dishonest to present them as single cause issues, or simple issues. We see that on social media “if only we would do this simple thing we could solve it” but it probably would not – most issues in society are rather complex, if it only took a five minute decision in one direction, then we probably would have done it. We have a duty to explain complexity, but we do it in terms that speak to those who have to make the decisions, and that’s not easy.

We need to move from an efficiency to a transition paradigm.

The air we breathe, that enters my body is the result of polices that have been implemented or not, so in a way that is political, what I eat is political, my body is political.

The structured agency debate – we all have responsibility, but we do it within systems that surround us.

(EEA’s) communication framework, five narratives, storylines that frame things. One of our core storylines is that environmental issues are not at the outskirts of the debate – this is about production and consumption, hence who we are as a modern society. So it’s at the centre of the debate, the centre of distribution and hence the centre of societal issues.

For a lot of people, environment is sort of on the outside: “if we solve the social and economic issues, then we’ll have time to talk about the environment, you’re not in the room”. Well, yes, we are in the room.

Living well within the planet’s limits is a necessity, not a luxury.

We (EEA) are not doomsday thinkers or communicators. Yes, we have serious information, and yes we need to face reality – whether it is implementation gaps or trend lines that are not positive…but I think we have found a language to say “the problems are serious, but we see a lot of pathways, or at least potential pathways to move out of this and go into a better life that is future oriented”. That, I think has opened a lot of doors for our message.

Areas of the world clearly need qualitative growth, but that doesn’t mean we need to organise those urban infrastructures around individual car use, that doesn’t mean we need to organise food systems based upon unsustainable consumption of meat and sugar – but the need for qualitative growth we cannot ignore, it would be unethical.

We need to reflect on what growth means in a global perspective and also draw the consequences of growth for those not in need of quantitative growth – the contrary, and need to reflect on the footprint of our current lifestyle.

(Success) The agency produced a State and Outlook of the Environment Report that made clear the need for transitions in a way that engages others to discuss and think of a positive future, and not in a way that closes the debate or marginalise the environment.

(Activist?) I consider myself very much convinced of the responsibility that comes with knowledge and the specific knowledge in my role, so yes. I think I have the responsibility to use the agency (small a) I have as an actor, so in that sense I could be considered an activist.

As an academic I was active in environmental organisations. I don’t see a conflict, I had a very clear line.

(Motivation) I love what I am doing – it’s science based, knowledge based policy work. I don’t just manage, it’s knowledge and value based in a highly relevant context, I find that fantastic that I’m allowed to do this.

(Challenge) Translate our fundamental analysis in a way that keeps the momentum going in Europe, going in the direction of transition.

(Miracle) The discourse that environmental and climate policies are against economic interests would disappear from our planet. (On a daily basis – other places learn from Copenhagen’s mobility pattern – what a difference).

(Advice) Pessimism has never really solved anything, we have to be realistic optimists – that motivates us too, to be active participants in change – in other words, if you want to change things, try to be the change you want to see.

climate change oil politics peace science

Encouraging scientists to think differently

Stuart Parkinson

We want to promote dialogue amongst scientists and engineers, particularly in areas where they don’t want to talk about things

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Talking points

Our aim is to promote science, design and technology in contributing to peace, social justice and sustainability

Encourage scientists and engineers to think differently

To think differently about their role in society, prioritising environmental issues and social justice rather than a narrow economic focus

The challenge is an agenda of security through an arms industry – we argue for science and technology not based on yet another generation of highly destructive technologies

We want to promote dialogue amongst scientists and engineers, particularly in areas where they don’t want to talk about things

There’s an acceptance of the arms industry – “it keeps us safe” – we want to question that.

We try and fill gaps, ask the awkward questions.

Not just responding to problems with a technofix – another technology.

Part of the concern is that technology is often grabbed as a simple answer and it turns out not to be – it might deal with one problem but create another.

Trying to get around the techofix mentality

The term activist is so often used as a pejorative. If it’s about about questions, proposing different solutions to mainstream, challenging systems and offering something constructive, then it’s an activist organisation.

Working in the arms industry made me ask awkward questions, ones I hadn’t faced before – severely questioning what I was doing.

One of the challenges of the environment is ‘oh we don’t need to worry about that because it is too uncertain’ but on the other hand, we’re willing to believe economists, where the uncertainties are orders of magnitude bigger than the environmental ones.

We’re willing to take at face value economic models…despite being hugely unreliable and based on so many assumptions you can make them prove whatever you want according to your political viewpoint.

We’ve developed an economic system that’s not very stable (or fair or sustainable) so takes a lot of tuning – our news has become fixated on this.

(why sticking to growth narrative) because we haven’t come up with an alternative economic model that works in the way we’ve become used to.

SGR has ethical principles rather than specific polices on every subject. We encourage debate and discussion to apply principles.

(On demilitarisation) moving towards a society that solves its conflicts through dialogue and building trust and diplomacy rather than trying to build new generations of weapons

We need a to follow cautionary principle, rather than doing things just because we can

Some scientists can create a new technology, and other scientists can ask awkward questions about that technology – like what’s the impact, social implications and will it improve quality of life.

We’re being driven along by an economic imperative, not considering broader pros and cons.

We’re breaching environmental limits, some clearly, others either we don’t know or we will breach them in few decades – and that’s really scary.

We need to change norms of international behaviour that says nuclear weapons are unacceptable for anybody to have.

Challenge the assumption that there is a technofix. Technology is just one group of approaches, we need scientists and engineers to know that there are other groups of approaches

Codes of ethics (in professional bodies) are very narrow. Our organisation’s name is Global Responsibility – derived from social responsibility, corporate, environmental responsibility.

Ethics so often in professional institutions is interpreted very narrowly – professional ethics of do you job well, don’t lie, don’t plagiarise, don’t make something that’s going to blow up as soon as you’ve sold it. We think that’s far too narrow, you’ve got to think about your role in society, your place in society as an engineer, as your company, as your profession – and think are we doing the right thing?

Activist: Yes. For same reasons the organisation can be considered activist

Making things unacceptable is a very powerful idea. At the moment nuclear weapons aren’t something to be ashamed of for a lot of countries – chemical weapons are, biological weapons are – that shame that comes with breaching international law that’s built up over a couple of hundred years – its more powerful than people realise.

(What do we need to do to preload students with awkward questions?) We want to inspire students with science, give them at least sight and experience of something else.

The science and technology that is presented as exciting, especially for boys, is things like explosions, fighter planes and warships…we’re trying to present an alternative to that, still desirable, kind of nicer, this is what society is about, helping each other and using technologies that help us to help each other. And this is how is how you can live a good life – not being dazzled by the flashing lights and loud noises of the problematic technologies.

Being affected enough to make a different choice in their lives.

This conversation was recorded in the Common House at Lancaster Cohousing (see earlier conversation with Cathy and Alison).

energy science

Energy transformation

Gerry Carrington


The fossil fuel era is a hang-over from the hunter-gatherer era.   Finding fossil fuels is something that is a bit speculative – a form of hunting, and digging it up is a form of gathering.  We’ve moved away from that, most of us, 10-12,000 years ago in relation to food, we just haven’t done it in relation to energy yet.


Physicist Emeritus Professor Gerry Carrington was lead author on Royal Society of New Zealand’s recent paper on Facing the Future: Towards a Green Economy for New Zealand.


Talking points:

Energy efficiency is an open ended opportunity – it’s something that we can continue to work on and transform the way society works if you take it seriously.

65% efficiency is probably the sweetspot

Moving to electricity as a means to deliver energy

Just seeing the beginning of the  transition.   Nobody knows how quickly it will occur or when it will reach full maturity.

Some transitions in the past have taken place extraordinarily quickly, in the US when they transformed from being mostly run by horses to people having cars, the transition from 10% to 90% took place in 10-15 years.

Managing what you’ve got really well.

In the era we moved away from hunting the people that made arrows and spears found that business didn’t go so well, so yes there will be winners, and there will be losers and we have to find ways of dealing with that.

We need to have inclusive processes for developing a vision of a sustainable future

There’s no real relationship between emissions and social progress

I’m not one for preaching Armageddon, there are lots of opportunities, but we need to move purposefully, and stop sweeping things under the carpet

Sam’s joined-up-thinking:  Previously on Sustainable Lens, Dr Bran Knowles described how appealling to the selfish “do this because it will save you money” not only doesn’t work but does a disservice to sustainability.  This week Energy Minister Simon Bridges blamed the failure of power switch policies to lower power prices upon individuals not acting in their own best interests – we need to be more selfish he says.  This shows for me that while selfish behaviours might work at an individual level, they should not form the basis of public policy.  Instead we need structural change, and as Bran said, appeals to wider, perhaps altruistic motivations.

 Shane’s number of the week: 38.  That’s 38%, the predicted loss in food production for China with a 2 degree increase in global temperature (via Gwynne Dyer).


Africa science

Crap as a vehicle for discovery

Marcus Byrne


We use crap as a vehicle for discovery

On making science accessible: We owe it to the public. We live in a society that allows us to do these crazy things, and it’s my job to give back, one: the knowledge and two: the process.

Marcus Byrne is an Associate Professor at Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa, where he teaches zoology and entomology. His research interests revolve around the use of insects for biological control; which includes dung beetles. Dung beetles have a single-minded approach to life and its challenges. Dung beetle orientation is underpinned by an effective visual navigation system which can operate in the dimmest starlight, using limited computational power. This research won Marcus an Ignoble Prize in 2013 – an award he wears with pride as it gives opportunities to talk Science.

Talking points

I knew I wanted to be a biologist but…I was terrified of insects.

Dung Beetles are such enigmatic animals, hugely entertaining and really interesting.

The is the planet of the insects.

Having a big dung ball is a bit like having a Porsche

You hang around the bar – the pile of poo – with your big dung ball and hopefully pick up a chick – and roll it away with her.

That’s how you spend the day, finding poo, rolling dung balls and fighting off other males.

Observation triggers questions. Like most fields of science, as your dig into it you turn up more questions than answers, and that’s the joy of science.

A society that allows people to be curious and ask crazy blue-sky questions is a wonderful society. It’s part of the human condition – why is the sky blue? These are important questions, if we didn’t ask them we wouldn’t have poetry, or music or literature. I don’t think things have to have a purpose in themselves. I really believe that science should not have to be commercial as its basis.

We can learn things from these little guys.  Their brains…are solving complex problems with very little computing power.

Learning from the Ignoble: Science is not a creed – it can be bent, folded, stapled, beat-up in any way you like and it still works. It’s this self-correcting system that doesn’t need respect

We use crap as a vehicle for discovery

On making science accessible: We owe it to the public. We live in a society that allows us to do these crazy things, and it’s my job to give back, one: the knowledge and two: the process.

Marcus was in Dunedin for the Science Teller Festival organised by the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. We are grateful for the organisers of the Festival in their help in arranging this episode of Sustainable Lens.

Image: Chris Collingridge

climate change science

Historian of climate science

Naomi Oreskes

Ever wondered why science and politics don’t play nice? Naomi Oreskes tells us why in this history of climate science.

The naive vision of ‘we do the facts then hand it over to the policy makers and they act on it’. That would be great in a perfect world, and it worked for ozone so scientists could be forgiven for thinking that was realistic, but it hasn’t worked this time around.

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard. Professor Oreskes’s research focuses on the earth and environmental sciences, with a particular interest in understanding scientific consensus and dissent. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global warming , co-authored with Erik M. Conway, was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize, and received the 2011 Watson-David Prize from the History of Science Society.

In this conversation, Naomi tells us of the bad luck of the coincidental rises of neo-liberal economics and the emergence of the global environmental issues

Talking points

We see a tendency to err on side of least drama

What we call science has changed dramatically over time

Narrowing of focus of science…the rise of specialisations, a powerful tool but comes at cost of broader perspectives.

After 1940s, increasing recognition of role of science and technology in modern warfare…not entirely new but…becomes much stronger.

Disassociation begins to take place where scientists don’t talk about the larger geo-political context of their work

We might like to believe that there is a litmus test for the truth…the reality is that it doesn’t really work that way.

The insight of Kuhn…consensus.

Continental drift…as a model for how scientists judge evidence independent of political interference (was originally uncontroversial before people realised had age of earth implications).

Climate change not a paradigm shift because didn’t replace an alternative

Climate change is applied physics and chemistry.

By 1965 signals that carbon in the atmosphere was increasing…(but)… most scientists thought we wouldn’t be able to detect climate change from increased greenhouse gases until the 21st Century.

The surprise in the story was when it occurred sooner. when already the the late 1980s and early 1990s the effects were beginning to be seen.

When was it first described as problem:

In 1957 he (Roger Revelle) gave an interview with Time Magazine where said one reason why we should care about this is that a warmer world will lead to sea-level rise

There is no question that Revelle thought it could be a problem, he wasn’t 100% sure that it would be a problem and how soon it would be a problem.

The idea that it (anthropogenic climate change) could be a problem was on the table going back to the late 1950s.

Gordon MacDonald was one of the first in the US to say that climate change could be a problem. He wrote about it in the 1960s and called it inadvertent weather modification.

At that time he’s a relatively quiet voice, its not a big issue in the environmental movement as a political issue but it turns out to be really really important politically…today in the US the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, this has been affirmed by the Supreme Court and we are waiting for the EPA to do this.

The Clean Air Act 1973 includes weather and climate in the issues the Act has authority over… that is because people already understood at that time that pollution had the potential to cause changes in weather and climate. And that work was largely done by Gordon MacDonald.

By the 1980s climate modellers are building climate models that they now think are good enough to be able to predict what the climate signals should look like if there were no additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere versus what it actually does look like. In 1988 James Hansen and his colleagues published a paper in which they said that they believed climate change had become detectable. (That was controversial but it reached public awareness).

In the next few years there’s this tremendous political momentum begins to build and its that momentum that also triggers the backlash…a right-wing turn against science.

This is the bad luck story – what historians call a history contingency…the growth of neo-liberal economics happened just around the same time as scientists begin to find evidence of some really major global environmental problems. So as environmental concerns moved from local to global issues…gigantic issues with huge economic consequence…just at the same time as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan are promoting deregulation in the economic environment, scientists are pointing out these very major potentially grave environmental threats, and how do you prevent acid rain…climate change…protect the ozone…? Well the answer is regulation, and sometimes really big scale regulation like international conventions with significant political implications. So we were beginning to see the advocates of free market policies turning against science.

People who up until then had generally supported science as supporting industry…the business community valued science because it helped create technology, now you see large sectors of the business community beginning turn against science. And that is the historic Greek tragedy part of the story, things go downhill from there very seriously and very quickly.

Critical analysis is one thing, dishonest attack is another.

Scientists have been conservative in their estimates of the rate and degree of climate change over the last 30 years.

The whole issue of climate change is now so political and so difficult that I think a lot of people in the scientific community are kind of spooked. And they’re nervous and they don’t really know how to respond. And I think a lot of scientists think that if they’re just very cautious and very careful and very conservative that that will preserve and protect their credibility.

Absolutely scientists should be conservative and should not make claims they can not support with evidence and high quality data…the question is once you have that data, what do you say about it? And if you don’t think the world is responding, if you don’t think the world gets it, then that tells me that you aren’t communicating it clearly enough.

How do we communicate clearly in ways that are effective and truthful and correct? It’s not an argument in favour of exaggerating the science or saying things that aren’t true. It’s about taking what we believe to be true and communicating it clearly.

But now you’re up against the largest, most successful, most profitable business in the history of mankind, you’re up against an economic system that depends on burning fossil fuels, you’re up against a lifestyle – every rich person in the world because we live off the energy stored in fossil fuels, and I don’t mean rich-rich, I mean all of us, every person who lives in the West.

Can science compete against the business system with vested interests in us over-consuming? That’s the $64,000 question…that is the question that will determine the what happens in the next 100 years. If we can’t figure out a way to act upon what we know then we’re going to see a lot of pain and suffering.

The naive vision of ‘we do the facts then hand it over to the policy makers and they act on it’. That would be great in a perfect world, and it worked for ozone so scientists could be forgiven for thinking that was realistic, but it hasn’t worked this time around.

(Am I an activist?). Not really, I teach classes and do my research. Students often ask me…”what should they do?” and I always say you have to figure that out for yourself – based on who you are, what your temperament is, what your personality is, what your talents are, what resources you have at your disposal…so I’m a scholar, and I love doing the work I do. …. I feel like I’ve ended up in a place that has worked out being meaningful, and valuable, and I think the best thing I can do is keep on doing what I’m doing.

We went from ‘most of the observed warming is likely to be…’, to ‘most of the observed warming is very likely to be…’ and now ‘it’s extremely likely…’…likely, very likely, extremely likely I think these are shades of difference that the scientific community thinks are terribly important but that most people outside the scientific community don’t really see that that’s so significant…

Naomi was in Dunedin for the Science Teller Festival organised by the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. We are grateful for the organisers of the Festival in their help in arranging this episode of Sustainable Lens.


Positively sceptical thinker

Guy P Harrison

Everybody needs to understand that science is not this thing that some other people do.

Guy P. Harrison is author of several books on sceptism including 50 Popular Beliefs that People Think Are True and the soon to be released Think: Why You Should Question Everything. With a positive and engaging brand of sceptical thinking Guy argues that weak scepticsm is the biggest threat facing the world.

Talking points

We need an open mind, but not doing to draw a conclusion until you’ve done the work

We need to humanise science, it’s not something that other people do.

It has to be OK to say “I don’t know”

Science is not a job, a profession, it is an outlook, it’s about embracing the real universe, the real world and the real humanity for what it is, and trying to learn as much as you can about it – and what is boring about that? That is exciting.

If you are a scientific thinker – a good sceptic – and you chose reality over fantasy and you open your mind up to whole world, all human kind, all the universe, you’ll never be bored a moment in your life.

There’s never a dull moment when you are a scientific thinker

If you are a scientific thinker, you are probably prone to being one of the crazier thinkers out there, because reality is so bizarre and there still are so many mysteries that we’re working on

My mind is open to anything, but I’m not going to ever accept claims without good evidence – it has to go through the meat grinder of scientific process, we have to see what comes out the other end. But thinking about these things…think away…dream.

You have to be comfortable not knowing

People love to point out when science is wrong and they go “Aha!?” and I go “what are you talking about? you’re pointing to the greatness of science”. Science is wrong and we go – “Aha we’ve found the blunder!” and they change the textbooks. That’s how it is supposed to work. That’s what’s great about science, we fix the mistakes.

I completely separate the irrational belief from the believer. I have complete respect for anyone regardless of what they may believe.

Believing crazy stuff is part of the human condition – we’re all a little goofy…the ways we process information (vision, memory) set us all up to fall for things that are not real or true, and if you remember that it humanise the believers and just keeps you in check – it allows the sceptic keep grounded. We’re all in this together, we are all fighting the same battle trying to be not nuts.

Creation stories are beautiful and there’s much wisdom to be found in them, but it breaks my heart that creation stories stand in the way of the real human story – the real story of humanity evolution – because that is the most beautiful, most unlikely, story of all. But 9/10 people couldn’t give you a good summary. Religions around the world are suppressing the real human story.

Teaching a child that the earth is 6000 years old is as nuts as teaching a child that the distance from the earth to the moon is about half a mile – that’s how nutty that is, that’s educational malpractice.

To teach biology without mentioning evolution is like teaching astronomy without mentioning planets or stars – it doesn’t make sense

You need to have that sceptical force-field around you…asking questions.

We need humanise science. Everybody needs to understand that science is not this thing that some other people do. Science is not this thing I learned in high school and then I can put away. Science is this core part of humanity. Science is who we are, we all have a stake in the scientific process, we all have a stake in scientific progress. If we turn off to science, if we leave it to others to worry about stuff, we are burying our heads in the sand and setting ourselves up for disaster.

We’re going to have this bizarre situation where we’ve got a planet where 99% of the people are scientifically illiterate but yet everything depends on science – that’s a recipe for disaster.

We have to stay connected to the science…this doesn’t mean memorising the periodic table…but should at least tap into the wonder of the world of science.

Part of being a good sceptic is being comfortable with “I don’t know”. Ignorance is fine. Admitting ignorance is honest. Don’t shy away from it. Let that ignorance drive you, motivate you to keep searching for answers. But don’t lie. We have this strange compulsion throughout humanity to fill in the blanks with made-up answers when we don’t know something. That’s a big mistake. It’s OK to leave it blank for now if we don’t have the answer.

Everything is tentative in science.

You’ve got to be a grown up – you can’t always have answers to everything. Never pretend to know what you don’t know.

(on Economic growth) Quality rather than size.

I’m realistic but optimistic.

We are in reach of a overcoming racism, poverty, and disease. We can overcome these things and really do better. It is possible. Doesn’t mean we will, but it is possible and just that possibility should fuel one with hope. It is something to work for and reach for – it’s there, we’ve never been closer. And to get there we need scientific thinking, we need a world filled with good sceptics so we that don’t waste time on pseudo-science and superstition. We can focus more on real social progress, real economic progress, real technological progress for all and devote more time for each other.

Tap into human creativity and passion for learning and discovery – we call it science but it’s really just being human . If you’re a teacher, don’t put sit your students them down in chairs rows and make them listen for an hour while you talk for an hour in front of a chalkboard, take them out and walk them along a coastline. Explore and discover.

Children learning are not robots, they’re not automobiles in for a tune up, these are human thinking machines that need to be stimulated – they need to wander off in different directions. We have to keep that component of excitement and discovery.

For me sceptism is a moral issue. I care about people, I care about the world, so I feel I have to speak up about this. I have to encourage people to think more clearly – there’s so much nonsense out there that’s harming people.

Guy was in Dunedin for the Science Teller Festival organised by the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. We are grateful for the organisers of the Festival in their help in arranging this episode of Sustainable Lens.

communication documentary ocean science

Whalers turned citizen scientists

Tess Brosnan

The story of how whalers have become passionate protectors is the story of the change we all need to make

Tess Brosnan describes herself as a humble reporter on a quest to package science stories better. Tess has almost completed her Masters in Science Communication. Her film Whale Chasers, tracks the story of Cook Strait whalers who are now passionate about the future of whales and every year undertake the Cook Strait Whale Count. This is, Tess tells us, an iconic example of Citizen Science. We talk about science communication, documentary film-making, citizen science and hopeful tourism.

In her thesis, Tess describes how citizen science is helping to bridge the gaps between two communities who need to better understand each other. Hopeful tourism is a new discipline which aspires to do the same, rejecting prevailing tourism ideology. There is much evidence of a desire for more meaningful experiences which contribute to fulfillment of life purpose, rather than exploitation of people, animals and environment, materialism etc. There is also an immediate need to reduce human impact on our ecosystem, and for fine-scale monitoring to protect this ecosystem. It is here that citizen science may prove to be the perfect new form of tourism, mitigating human destruction, helping science, and instilling joy, knowledge and stewardship into those who participate.­­­

Film-making 101: don’t squeal when you see a whale

I’m not an activist, I’m a packager, I can be more useful by remaining neutral

Whale Chasers premiers at the Regent Theatre on the 25th October as part of the Science Teller Festival.

Shane’s number of the week: 95. Ninety five percent certainty that climate change is a result of human activity according to IPCC.

Sam’s joined up thinking: A European Commission report this week puts a price on the underpresentation of women in the ICT industry. The European Commission estimates that bringing more women into the ICT industry would boost European GDP by €9 billion. That ICT suffers underrepresention is not new, the challenge is what to do about it. This week I’ve been considering the new landscape of qualifications for computing and wondering if the new structure will help. I’m reminded of the computing for social good discussions we had with Mikey Goldweber and ask if we’re still missing the boat.

communication science

The story and the science

Jean Fleming

The good story will always win – even over facts, so we need to make sure science has both the story and the facts right

Jean Fleming is a Professor of Science Communication in the University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication, where she convenes the Popularising Science MSciComm. She is also a reproductive biologist in the Department of Anatomy, with research interests in the molecular and cellular origins of ovarian cancer.

Talking points:

information is easy, but there are no easy answers for attitudes and wisdom. Emotional connections through stories.

not everyone can look at the bigger picture, science communication can help with that

Science communication is jolly good fun

You can’t stop people believing the wrong information, we’ve got masses of information out there – information not wisdom, and people will believe what they feel comfortable with

With that masses of scientific information emerging, perhaps too much for people to digest – we need to help tell the stories

rise and rise of market and corporate idea that science must make a buck

Somehow we have to step down from growth

Despite all evidence, great denial about Climate Change, (mostly engineered by vested interests).

People do need to know what is happening to contribute to societal debate

(Am I an activist ?). Not quite yet, I’ve got to retire first next year. (Alan Mark said he was an activist, a requirement of an academic), actually yes, I’ve been an activist all my life. When I went to the royal commission on GM I had to suddenly wear a bra, and be like a judge, and so that really put the kibosh on me being a real activist for quite a while – I’m just beginning to come out the other end now. I was a great feminist in the 70s and 80s. And that got knocked out of me but the dark is rising.

Shane’s number of the week: 10. Ten years of Pacific cooling. In the last 10 years there has been a slowing in the increase in temperature across the globe from that predicted by the increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So since about 1970 the increase in global temperature has tracked the increase in CO2 levels very closely until about 10 years ago when the correlation started to diverge. Climate change deniers have made much of this and it has been a bit of a mystery – until now. There is a cooling effect on the atmosphere – one of the many long term climate altering cycles… so Waters in the eastern tropical regions of the Pacific have been notably cooler in recent years, owing to the effects of one of the world’s biggest ocean circulatory systems, the Pacific decadal oscillation. Here in the pacific we are used to El Nino and El Nina affecting our weather and climate patterns but this is a longer cycle which brings cooler weather and can last decades. The last time this oscillation was in its cooling phase was back from the 1940s to the 1970s (Scripps Institution of Oceanography and supported by the US government’s National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration NOAA, and was published in the journal Nature).

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: The Audacious Student Business Challenge has expanded this year to encourage business for good with a social enterprise category. It has also moved to encourage wider participation with a new crowd-sourcing platform Skulksource. You can encourage the development of sustainable start-ups by voting for the fledgling businesses such as:

    • Spread the Help: Spread your donation across multiple charities, and Spread your Help to your community, by giving.
    • Resource Locus: Resource Locus proposes to foster farmers’ market culture by providing an online meeting place.
    • Flowbot: An innovative, reusable drink bottle to help fight obesity in kids through interactive design.
    • Ecoplug: EcoPlug is a simple way of bringing homes and offices into the 21st century
    • Dunedin Street Bikes: Using on-street fleets of bikes to improve social mobility, the environmental image of Dunedin & its economic development
    • Fur Retreival: Ethical Possum eradication to ensure the sustainability of the eco-system through natural methods
    • Humblebee: Taking the toxic out of protective textiles and staying dry in a deluge using nature’s ancient tech
    • Farmscape: An educational game that teaches people about sustainable agriculture. #farmerfromwayback
    • Eureka Energy: Eureka energy provides small energy solution to create a more sustainible future
    • Fixing Faults: Fixing Faults gives you the space, skills and resources to turn your boring junk into funk!
    • HandiConnect: HandiConnect – Connect handicaps to the world and help them live a life with no difference.
communication science

Story. Story. Story.

Lloyd Davis

If you’ve got bad news, don’t hit them over the head with a hammer – give them hope

Lloyd Spencer Davis is the Stuart Professor of Science Communication and Director of the The Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. He is a leading authority on penguins and sociobiology – behavioural ecology from an evolutionary perspective. He is also an award winning author and filmmaker. In his Looking for Darwin he manages to squeeze the science of evolution into a rollicking yarn of travel and personal discovery. We explore the relationship between science and communication. Putting him on the spot, we ask for the top three things a budding science communicator must do. “Story” he says. Three times.

Focus on the story, and use whatever device you can to get that story told. Jeopardy, tension, star presenters. The package must be exciting.

People are turned off by stories of doom – they want hope. The story must empower them, even if the news is bad you can do something about it.

climate change conservation biology ecology economics maori politics science

Wise Response (Part 1)


Previously on Sustainable Lens Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark (pod) described work towards the Wise Response campaign.  This call to face up to New Zealand’s critical risks, was launched in Dunedin recently with a series of speeches.  This week and next on Sustainable Lens we highlight those messages:

  • Hoani Langsbury What sustains life essence?
  • Professor Peter Barrett We’re creating an event of geological magnitude (greenhouse but with remnant ice sheets – so energy transfer)
  • Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck Beyond myths of market: we have no choice but to reduce demand, only whether this is graceful or not. Every professional needs to make changes to provide products and services in new reality.
  • Dr Mike Joy Impacts of massive increase of industrialised dairy farming.  Intensified cows have footprint of 84 million humans need to cost impacts.  25¢ Phosphate fertilizer cost $100 to remove.  Ecological debt $20 for 1kg milk fat.


India science systems

systems across scales

Sylvia Nagl

Dr Sylvia Nagl is a transdisciplinary scientist specialising in systems thinking. Her research focuses on complexity of the human body and its interrelations with natural and built environments across multiple scales. We talk about the basis of systems thinking as it is applied to scales ranging from the cellular to the landscape and community and even global in climate change models. Prompted by questions of the relationship between the computer model and the real world, Sylvia is working in India with the Daughters of Yamuna where she hopes to mainstream womens’ knowledge through the creation of new knowledge economies.

In this wide ranging interview we talk about; the relationship between art and science; the coherence of community; democratic knowledge ecologies; resilience and culture; computational thinking and slime moulds.

education science

Teaching scientific thinking

Dr Steven Sexton is a primary school teacher who now works for the University of Otago. He tells us about “Nature of Science” as the basis of the New Zealand Science Curriculum. Rather than content (learning the periodic table and so on), the focus is engaging in scientific thinking and process, whatever the context.

Shane’s number of the week: 40. In forty years we will all have to be vegetarians. Malik Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) argue that water will be the scarce resource of the medium term future. Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050.