Educating for professional dilemmas

Geoff Scott

This is one of the big problems of the sustainability movement, the green movement, is they assume, falsely, that change is achieved by brute logic. Change is not achieved by brute logic. It’s achieved by, in fact, listen, link, leverage and lead.

Tonight’s guest is Emeritus Professor Geoff Scott from Western Sydney University.   He was in Dunedin to help Otago Polytechnic celebrate its 50th Anniversary by presenting a keynote at the Educating Tomorrow’s Workforce Symposium.  Many of the resources Geoff refers to can be found on the FlipCurric website.


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 but I am joined by Emeritus Professor Geoff Scott from Western Sydney University. He’s Pro Vice- Chancellor but also runs the Office of Sustainability there. He’s the leader of the UN-endorsed Regional Centre of Education for Sustainable Development. He’s the Executive Director of sustainability at the university. He’s the co-chair of the Sustainable Futures Leadership Academy. In 2010 he undertook a stocktake of sustainability in Australian universities and a long list of other things. But we’ll start with you. Where’d you grow up?


Geoff: Manly, surfing. Born in 1945, first surfboard in 1956 with a man called Midget Farrelly, who just died recently. Actually he was the first world champion. Midget and I started on the same day with a eighteen-foot board in Manly in 1956.


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


Geoff: I have no idea, really. I’m 71 now and I’m still not sure what I’m going to be when I grow up. That’s one of the wonderful paradoxes of life, really. My career has been one of strategic serendipity where, if you’re not completely obnoxious, when someone says, “Can you think of anyone for some job that I never knew about,” they put your name up and you didn’t even know the job was there. This is the myth of intentional career development by six steps, really. I think I just wanted to do outdoor stuff basically and live by the sea, really. The rest of it … I feel lucky, I was a baby boomer. Seemed to come along without a lot of strain actually, in those days.


Sam: Did you get to live by the sea?


Geoff: Yeah, yeah. I lived at Manly and I was a young skipper in the West Indies at one stage. That was in the sea, really, for a couple of years. We now live by the harbour in Sydney and I surf every day.


Sam: Wow. What did you do when you left school?


Geoff: When I left school I went to Sydney University. First in family at university. My mother and dad were so paradoxically perplexed but proud that they came down to Manly Wharf when I caught the ferry out for my first day and waved me off like I was going overseas. My first tutor was Germaine Greer. My first day at university in ’63 was Germaine Greer. That set me up for a life of anarchy.


Sam: What were you studying?


Geoff: English, history and maths. I got into a whole lot of faculties but Dad thought because we’re first in family and didn’t have any money, that if I took a teacher’s college scholarship, that would give a lot. That gave ten quid a week as well as paying your fees whereas if I need medicine, I’d only get the fees paid. I became a teacher of English, history and maths.


Sam: You didn’t have any particular ambition to be a teacher?


Geoff: Not really. In those days it was actually quite a prestigious thing as opposed to now. When I got quite a good result on what was then called the “Leaving Certificate”, I had a choice. I certainly put down teaching as a choice, and engineering. I got interviewed to work in engineering and then I got into medicine, as well. The financial arrangements at home dictated, really, that my choice of the three turned out to be teaching.


Sam: And did you go teaching?


Geoff: Yeah, yeah. After I finished I taught for two and a half years in high schools in Sydney. Then I left and went overland with my girlfriend, Carol. Took us a year to get from Sydney, we hitchhiked from Sydney to London. except for a plane from Bangkok to Dhaka. Took us a year. There was a hippie trail. It was all quite safe in those days. Like Afghanistan was stunningly beautiful and very safe and Iran was good. It was not at all fraught.


Sam: It’s hard for people to get that sort of experience now, isn’t it?


Geoff: It’s just changed completely, in terms of sustainability, social harmony, actually top of the agenda and cycles that have been through life. I drifted into the sustainability area almost because when I was travelling, I was so taken by the multiple cultures, the way in which people lived, the way in which they could sometimes, although they never have labelled it, live sustainably and all. We stayed with people in little [camp-ons 00:04:57] in the middle of nowhere. The way they actually sustainably lived their lives stayed with me. They were decent to people. They were humane. There was a certain social sustainability about them. Their economic, they didn’t have a lot of money but, by goodness, they seemed content. Consumption was not happiness for them.


Yes, travelling, as we know, it’s a cliché. I’ve actually written a little book about it on the two years there. We call it “Travelling with the Princess of Serendip”, which is that wonderful story of happy chance, serendipity.


Sam: You found yourself in London?


Geoff: Yes, naturally.  Lived in a basement flat with rising and falling damp, down actually in SW four or five. I think we were down at Hammersmith or somewhere like that, or maybe Fulham, I can’t remember now. It was the ’60s. Then we went south. That’s how I became a yacht skipper, just through serendipity. I was sitting in a bar in Tanner Reef with my girlfriend and next to me was a bloke from Seattle who’d been made redundant by Boeings. He turned to me at one stage and he said, “Would you be interested in an adventure?” I said, “What do you mean?”  He said, “I’ve got a thirty-two-foot yacht down there. My wife got seasick and has gone back to the states and my friend got claustrophobia, and I need someone to help me sail it over the Atlantic to Antigua in the West Indies.”


I thought, why not? That’s how I came to be in the West Indies. Once I’d sailed, I was automatically, in those days, seen to be a really highly competent mariner, so I got jobs. I was a mate on an eighty-foot yacht, then a skipper. Delivered yachts around the West Indies and did charters with people from New York, just found myself at Galveston and left that and displayed it around the States for a bit. Met a whole lot of sustainability-oriented hippies. The way you end up and what you end up being interested in life is never really articulated. I’m only articulating it to myself now because you asked that question, connected to sustainability. I didn’t have any vision about that. I was too busy drinking beer and [inaudible 00:07:13] and surfing. But you’d experience …


Sam: How long did you manage to pull that off for?


Geoff: I came back to Australia, I taught in Wood Green School in Whitney for a year and for a six-month stand in the Balearic Islands in Spain and then I got back to Australia about ’73, so I left in ’69.  Then I just serendipitously walked into a senior tutor’s job at Macquarie Uni. I was out actually in to academia I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea so I thought maybe I’ll do education administration so I went into Masters course in that and I was walking up the corridor with my board shorts on and some bloke said, “Hey, you. What are you doing?” I put my head around. This bloke called Tony Johnson said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m enrolling in a Masters course.” He said, “You’ve got a degree?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Would you like a job?” I became a senior tutor in education and that’s my career, really. I ended up being a Dean of Education and all those sorts of things over the years, and a Pro Vice- Chancellor and it just sort of came out of me going up to the Macquarie Uni, not knowing what was going to happen serendipitously and Tony having to, for some reason, call me back.


Sam: He liked the look of your shorts …


Geoff: Otherwise I would’ve walked off into some other life, really.


Sam: You did a PhD there?


Geoff: No. What I then did is I did the tutoring work there. Then I was enrolled in that Masters and then I thought … My mate Bob went to Canada, to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto and he said, “Mate, do your Masters over there,” so I got a job working at the School’s Commission for a year or two and then Bob came back and said it was great so I just sort of thought that’ll do for me. I went again, serendipitously, and I did my Masters there and then ten years later, my friend Michael Thorne, who I met then in the Masters, he then asked me to come back and got me a big scholarship to do my doctorate so I did both my Masters and my doctorate in Toronto. Met my wife there, go over to Canada every year now.


Sam: What is your PhD on?


Geoff: It was on what do you do on Monday to make change work in the universities and colleges. There’s too much talk about what should happen and nothing happens on Monday so my doctorate was about, what do you do on Monday to engage mad people who don’t want to change.


Sam: Who don’t want to change.


Geoff: And those who do but are overly enthusiastic and how do you work out what we should all try and do that’s digestible as well. We’ve written books about, Michael and myself, wrote a book about if your listeners are interested and are in higher ed. It’s called “Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education” and it’s actually the story of how I then took what I learned in the doctorate and applied it as Pro Vice-Chancellor at Western Sydney Uni to turn it around and it starts off with the quote. The opening quote in the book is, “It’s been said that elementary school teachers love their students, secondary school teachers love their subjects and academics love themselves, and therein resides the problem of change in universities,” so it’s about that. I said it in a caring and nurturing way and I know there’s not a single academic in New Zealand who would fit that profile, of course.


Sam: Of course not. “Turnaround Leadership”, where’d that phrase come from?


Geoff: It came from a book Michael wrote about school days so I’ve worked with Michael, we’ve worked on trying to bring the three sectors together for twenty-five years now because they tend to operate in their own granular empires with their own cultures so Michael wrote a book called “Turnaround Leadership in Schools” and then we were commissioned by Jossey-Bass Wiley to write the “Turnaround Leadership for Higher Ed” book and they liked the idea of it being the same thing because what you’re really trying to do is to turn around a very slowly moving ship with many decks and many people on it. The nature of the leadership, therefore, isn’t a charismatic leader. It’s all of those who are leading on the various decks to actually have some intent about turning the ship.


Local programme leaders in sustainability, for example, in courses are the key arbiters in whether any chance happens. It’s not the Pro Vice- Chancellors and the leaders and the strategic plans, they don’t make any change for it. It’s heady on power. Local heads of programs and their teams to take on, in our context of our [inaudible 00:11:39] and take on the notion of, in a sense, re-framing the curriculum around building sustainability into what people learn in a social, cultural, economic and environment in a way that is powerful and relevant and makes them work-ready plus for tomorrow rather than just work-ready automatons. It’s about …


Sam: What started your academic career was all about empowering leaders or what are the tools that leaders can use.


Geoff: As we know, change is learning. If you haven’t got to learn something new, there’s no change, it’s just window dressing. If you take a university and you want to change something … That’s mine, that’s me. If you want to change something, then what you really got to do with that is you’ve got to actually do four things in this order, always, to get change to work in any institution. First you’ve got to listen to the case for change and some options that have worked for others somewhere so the people can see feasibility built in but also in a social notion that it’s desirable and you listened and you try and work out what those that have to take it on, what they would see as most relevant, feasible and desirable to have a little go at. That’s listen.


Link is to bring together what most people are happy to have a go at and you actually tell them. That’s why when you do stocktakes you’re actually intentionally using, as a change till, to illuminate to people that in a sense a lot of people are already doing bits of it and some [inaudible 00:13:11] are willing to have a go at a bit more. Listen, link and leverage is always the third thing you do. With leverage, what you’re doing there is you’re actually picking some people who are further down the track who are willing to have a go at the cunning plan under controlled conditions with the students helping with co-creation in order to see what would really work in practice.


The motto of leverage is not really aim, aim, aim, aim, get it all done and make everyone do it. It’s ready, fire, aim. Ready, we’ll have a go at it. This group’ll try it for us. Fire, we’ll see what happens. We’ll see whether mister Cockup visits or not. We’ll work out the bits that do work and aim is what works. The final L, listen, link, leverage. The final L, which is lead, is actually to utilize that peer group to help people learn to scale up the change in their own suitable way in their own context. Listen, link, leverage and lead.


The research we did on turnaround leadership for sustainability in higher ed, which was a commissioned national project in, I can’t remember now, 2013 or whatever it was, was actually about finding leaders who have done that in order to let other universities and colleges around the world who wanted to learn from successful travellers further down the path how, basically, they’ve done the listen, link, leverage and lead. That’s all it is. That’s available if anyone’s interested and that’s full of cunning plans from fellow travellers further down the path, is all it is.


Sam: At what point in your career did sustainability become explicit in the work you were doing?


Geoff: Because I was Pro Vice-Chancellor, so I was a provost at this Western Sydney University. Western Sydney University’s got about forty-five thousand students. It’s got the local residents who come to that university are from a hundred and seventy different countries so it’s highly multicultural but not with international students. Sixty-five percent are first in their family. My job was to try and turn it around but at the same time, given their profile, there was all sorts of material that you could use as part of the living laboratory for learning about social, cultural, economic and environmental sustainability so when I was provost, this was all bubbling around. None of this is ever clear. You sort of learn after a while what you’re doing.


When I was provost so I thought rather than … I was provost of the campus. I thought rather than do the usually thing of give students biscuits and cups of tea when they’re going into their exams and having a student sort of community committee sort of thing, clubs and all of that stuff … I thought, could I get a theme? I think I met my friend Daniella Tilbury about that stage and she said, “Why don’t you just sort of look at building it as a living laboratory for sustainability?” What we did, we built one of the campuses of Western Sydney University as a living laboratory for sustainability, but we also built into the curriculum recognition for doing work that was sustainability related to that campus. Then we set up a rolling fund from my friend Leigh Sharpe to Daniella with the turnaround leadership thing so it’s all a messy story that goes together.


Leigh had mentioned they had a rolling fund at Harvard. She’s from Harvard so … Serendipitously the deputy Chancellor at the university was the guy who was a former minister for the environment in New South Wales government, Kim Yaden. When I talked to Kim I said, “Kim, mate, what about we set up a rolling fund where we actually get these people to do, in a sense, blue economy projects which is making money out of waste.”  Staff and students could put out proposals for funding with a return on investment of seven percent to actually make the campus more sustainable with a return on investment so the rolling fund idea is [viable]. We started with five hundred grand and I think it’s up to three million now.


The students were able to do it as a community action subject we invented. They could do with a project report or the community action project that, in this instance, they had done that related to the … We called it “SURF” of course, Sustainable University Rolling Fund, given my background. They would put it up and we had bankers on it and we’ve had very little default. Return investment’s been very good and they did it all sorts of ways that was environmental. That was the standard pipes and pumps and that sort of stuff you’d expect at campus but there was social sustainability stuff. There was a whole lot of stuff related to the establishment of a Muslim relationship society for the university. There’s a whole lot of indigenous projects were invented.


Then with the students and the staff, we then invented a big one which was called the “River Farm”. This is all how you do it in life, really, you just have to notice. Creativity is a sideways glance in life. We noticed there was a hundred acres down on the Hawkesbury River in Sydney and so we thought that was going furlough, what about we make that a living laboratory? I was on the Australian government’s Green Schools Implementation Task Force, which was for VET colleges, right? For training tech colleges. I thought one day, “What about if we got all the trade students from the co-located vocational training college to help us renovate and restore the old original farmhouse, which was the first white farm settlement on the Hawkesbury River, as a sort of living testimony but to do it in a green way?”


We got all of the builders, the applied electricians, you can imagine the landscape gardening people came in. We then got the artist to come in and actually plant a garden of the original indigenous foods that grew on that hundred acres by the river twenty thousand years ago. Then we got the environmental sustainability students from the university to advise the tech students on how to renovate the house in a way that was sensitive but they put all sorts of cunning things in as they did it. When the school kids would come on, we have three thousand school kids a year come onto the living lab here, meeting students from the university who then encourage then to think about doing sustainability subjects. They test the water in the river, they look at the feral plants, they look at the indigenous plants, they look at the cultural history stuff. The VET students put in using the water tank, every time you wash your hands a radio comes on because the radio is hydro-powered so they put all the nice little touches inside the house. That’s the River Farm.


That’s a long story but it’s important because the message I wanted to leave there is that you don’t learn about sustainability in the classroom. You learn about theory has to meet practice and it has to meet it around something that’s real world and there has to be a moral purpose behind it all. The motto is “we’re more likely to act our ways into new ways of thinking than to think our way into new ways of acting.” This is one of the big problems of the sustainability movement, the green movement, is they assume, falsely, that change is achieved by brute logic. Change is not achieved by brute logic. It’s achieved by, in fact, listen, link, leverage and lead. It’s achieved by learning by doing before learning by being told, but you can do it in that order.


Sam: Take a couple of steps back. Why sustainability as badging a whole pile of things that you could have called “Social justice or conservation”? Was “sustainability” a word that coalesced … Where’d that come from?


Geoff: That’s a great question, really. I think, because by that stage then I was in the United Nations University and we’d set up a whole campus then, after the River Farm was a Regional Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Development and I got sucked into this, as you mentioned at the outset, of being co-chair of the sustainable futures leadership academy. It was really, in those days, quite strategically sensible to use the word “sustainability” as a label because it was the Decade of Higher Education for Sustainable Development, 2005 to ’14. This enabled us, when we got the Regional Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Development, which … Basically what the United Nations requires for you to get the endorsement is you actually have to link and leverage all of the groups that are working in the NGO sector in business, in the schools and the VETs and everything, into working together on a common theme rather than working parallel or in competition. That’s how you get judged.


Calling it “the Regional Center of Expertise in Sustainable Development” meant we got to put the United Nations logo on the gate. We also got to get a lot of funding because in those days sustainability was actually still reasonably trendy and there were departments, both state and federal. Remember Kim Yaden, right? We had contacts so we were bringing in about a million a year in grants because we were able to put in grants for social, cultural, economic or environmental sustainability, or in some instances a mix of the four, to both state and federal groups for funding. We also go sponsorship funding from business because they can write it off and it looked good. It was literally chosen. Whether sustainability goes the way of “green”, because green, that’s why we’re using the word “blue economy” now, not green, because green tends to bifurcate. I’m with you or against you. Sustainability’s a bit of a messy term but politically it’s not that bad and it’s got that notion of sustainable development so you still allow development in.


Sam: Don’t you think the people who drive bulldozers just hear the “development” word and …


Geoff: Yeah, it’s an oxymoron, sustainable development, in a sense because if we keep developing we’re going to run out. However, you’ve got to be a bit pragmatic in life and you’ve got to allow the idea that if we’re going to develop, we’ve got to do it in a way that’s not absolutely mad. This links, actually, very much to my current work as a Australia’s national senior teaching fellow where I’m looking at, what should universities and colleges be doing to develop graduates who are not just work ready for their day but work ready plus for the future? The “plus” is actually about four things. First of all, there’s what we’ve established as there are many, many government instrumentalities and businesses who are actually looking for graduates in professions who are sustainability literate. There’s a sustainability edge, not the least of which if you take examples like engineering, there’s alternative technologies, for example. It’s not just there, it’s actually across every profession, accounting and whatever.


The first plus is “sustainability literate”. We continue to use that term until people look at all. The next one is being change-implementation savvy, which relates directly to what we were chatting about earlier. Every undergraduate should actually learn how to manage mad people on Monday when they get out there, not just assume that they’ll learn when they get there. They need to be alerted to it and they need to have the opportunity to realize it’s okay for dilemmas to face you, for things to go wrong. The art is how you manage this sort of thing, is what’s going to make a good professional.


Sustainability literate, change-implementation savvy and thirdly, and I’ve just been to the States now to a whole lot of universities, every undergraduate in my view should have a chance to be inventive. By “inventive” we don’t just mean inventing for inventing money. We really mean ethically entrepreneurial, able to in fact invent solutions that relate to social sustainability because, in a way, if you’re into capitalism, you still need to have a harmonious society to productive in capital. Fractious societies do not have a very good GDP. It’s pragmatic, if you know what I mean.


Sustainability literate, change-implementation savvy, inventive and the final one which is really interesting, I’ve worked with twenty universities in Europe at the moment, they’re very interested in this.  Every graduate from a university have emerged, having come to grips with their own personal value position on the four tested assumptions driving the twenty-first century agenda and those four tested assumptions are, first of all, consumption is happiness. When in doubt buy an iPhone 7. Growth is always good for everyone, as long as the GDP’s growing it must be good. Consumption’s happiness, growth is good, information technology’s always the answer, as distinct from Twitter, seen by some to be online bar full of people passing around random ideas that actually have no voracity but they take it on in trends and people act on it. ICT’s sometimes the answer but sometimes not.


The final one’s globalization’s great. When in doubt, make sure we don’t have any biodiversity in our human relations. Let’s make sure we’re all the same everywhere even though we know that the essence of adaptability for an uncertain future is, in fact, diversity. Growth is good, consumption is happiness, ICT’s the answer and globalization’s great. What I’ve done in that national senior teaching fellowship, if you look at those pluses, it’s not just sustainability literate there. The tested assumptions are actually about the underpinning value proposition we might want graduates, ninety-five percent of the world’s leaders have a degree. I’d kind of like them to come to their own position on those assumptions, even if they don’t agree with me. You can see where I’d be going on those. When they have to make a hard decision politically or when any of us is faced with a dilemma we end up taking, when the fork road situation’s there, the ultimate jump is actually one that’s based upon values, not upon logic.


Sam: You said “Green, not blue” but of those assumptions we’re testing, at least half of politics, probably more, thinks the opposite of what you were saying there.


Geoff: You know, at least half but that’s the point. Why shouldn’t we make that contestable and actually explicit in a university education rather than allow, if you like, the popular culture to actually have it unquestioned? That’s what we’re working on in Europe at the moment in the Copernicus network of universities, the twenty basic ones but this is another fifteen. Whether it’s right or wrong, all it’s saying is we’re not actually about vocational training in colleges and universities at all. If we really want the leaders of tomorrow to actually be able to lead, and I refer you to the first debate that occurred a couple of days ago, that’s the alternative.


Sam: In the second one of those work ready plus things was the change implementation and you mentioned dilemmas there. Maybe that’s one of the challenges that education hasn’t really come to terms with because we don’t actually have the answers for a lot of this stuff. We like to think, even if we’re beyond thinking that we’re the sage on stage, we still like to secretly have this idea that we have the answer that we can tell people even if we’re going through hoops of getting them to think about them themselves or whatever.


Geoff: There’s a difference between having the right answer and being a designer where you set up the mechanisms for people to take your view into account as a reference point along with many others, but I’ve learned a away in which they can test the voracity, in real time, about what they should do. A parallel for that is what we’re now talking about from that successful graduates research we’ll be doing around the world, is setting up, possibly in every single undergraduate professional program, a unit or a paper, as you call it here, called “dilemmas in professional practice“. That’s sort of feasible. Rather than having to say to everyone, “You’ve got to change the whole curriculum and everything,” what you do there is you get the successful early career graduates in the profession concerned.


They identify in the first three to five years when they were most challenged, they tell you when the killer moment was. They then say how they handled it. They then make sense of how well they handled it against the top twelve capabilities for successful graduates in that profession. Then you can use that in the dilemmas of professional practice, you can have a group of three or four can take one killer, one after the other, in two week blocks and look at what they would do, what the person did, how it relates to their capabilities and then the assessment could be a formal exam, an exam room, of an unseen case. At least we’ve alerted people to the fact that the real world is not certain. You’re only tested, really, when things go awry, which is like dilemmas, but you could do it in a slightly feasible way by calling it a subject, “dilemmas of professional practice”, which brings it together. In that, that is where you could alert people to the plus bits.


Sam: How do we get people to see those dilemmas of their professional practice might be at different temporal or spatial scales from they’re used to looking at?


Geoff: The people being the students?


Sam: Yeah.


Geoff: Yeah. What we’ve done, we just finished a study now, which has actually gone to Tertiary Education Commission here yesterday and relates very much to what the Productivity Commission is talking about we should be doing, which is using successful early career graduates three to five years out as your material for validating your program level outcomes as new source, not just what we, the experts, think. Like you were saying earlier, you allow the experts who are the early career graduates to tell you what they found really counted and they came up with the dilemmas.  When you’re teaching the subject called “dilemmas of professional practice”, then what you’re actually doing, it’s not so far removed. It’s for those travellers just down the path, which gives them the scale issue that you mentioned. Actually, it’s not like a person who’s been in it for forty years talking about their dilemmas as a CEO of Wally or something, “This is me, I’m out there, I’m just ahead of you.” That’s what people like.


Sam: Can they talk about what happens if your boss told you to go and do something, which is clearly unsustainable. What do you do about that? You haven’t had to have that discussion much with students anymore. They’re kind of prepared for that.


Geoff: Yeah. I think, what would you do when Mister Cockup visits really should be a substantive design element of the undergraduate curriculum but you’re going to need all the skill and knowledge. We’re not eschewing that … Saying you get rid of it. If you’re going to be in construction engineer you’ve got to understand the structures and you’ve got to understand how materials work together but you’ve also got to be able to work with clients and you’ve also got to be able to manage it when suddenly someone’s done a pour and the pour is actually the wrong one in the wrong spot and it’s setting.


Sam: You said before that you don’t learn sustainability in the classroom but isn’t that kind of the problem that if somebody’s trying to teach accounting, we need to give them something which they can incorporate into what they’re teaching and not be able to teach accounting over here and then some other day, on Monday, go and teach them sustainability and go and walk down a river or something and then we’ll come back to accounting?


Geoff: The idea is that if you have dilemmas of professional practice, for example, you’ll pick up the integrated notion of those various things, number one, number two. It doesn’t stop you alerting students to the options in accounting in terms of where sustainability is already under way in Deloitte Touche where they have three hundred sustainability accountants around the world working with people on carbon credits, for example. One of the other issues is the notion of overgeneralizing or over-specifying but the art is to in fact try to and embed whenever you can but pragmatically that’s not always possible. Look at the expansion in Australia of higher ed. You’ve got sessional teachers. How are you going to get them into the zone on all of this, you know what I mean? You’ve got to work out actual subjects that actually … Develop a baseline, for example where whoever they are, once they know what it is and what the assessment is, they’re actually at least briefed on it because there’s a soft teaching, briefing thing for the students and start on what to do.


I don’t think we’re going to get to restructure universities and colleges away from, really, what is a nineteenth-century model which is a whole lot of disciplines that are unrelated to one another. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and get little ways forward where people can see that maybe it does work and that’s why the dilemmas of professional practice one is actually trans-disciplinary when you think about it, such that you wouldn’t have to say it. You’d have dilemmas of professional practice in accounting, which we’ve done. We’ve done it in medicine and sports management and journalism and engineering and IT and all sorts of things. Every one of them has a personal and interpersonal hot component, which means you bring in … You don’t call it “STEM”, you call it “STEAM”. You’ve got to have the A into science, technology, engineering and maths.


Sam: We’re exploring the idea of a modern BA. Why do we like the notion of the BA? We like the notion of a BA not because it’s got Latin and art history. Some people want to learn those things, those are wonderful. With the loss of humanities around the world, society recognizes that it’s missing out on something. It’s missing out on that critical creative … able to articulate, all those sorts of things. Can we get that set of capabilities without having to make people learn Latin and political studies or whatever it might be, or art history?


Geoff: As studies of successful early career graduates, what we’ve got is a capability and a competency framework that we’ve developed which, if you look … I’ll explain this very quickly. I’d say you’ve got personal capabilities like being able to remain calm when things go wrong and that’s part of a dimension and that we call “self management, self awareness”. You can learn that. You can’t be trained in them but you can learn it through experience. The interpersonal being able to listen, link, leverage and lead genuinely. This is not [inaudible 00:36:15] and then I’ll try and do to them what I want to do because my ego’s so vulnerable over here on personal. You’ve got personal, interpersonal and cognitive is not actually problem solving but diagnosis; people learning how work out what’s going on here, technically and humanly, when things are going awry or an opportunity’s come up. It can be positive or negative, right? Underpinning that, that’s capability, that’s nuanced and the three things go together. You’ve got to have the right personal to enable the interpersonal to be relaxed enough to do the cognitive, otherwise you’re having a hyopthalmic meltdown. You can’t bloody diagnose anything the competencies are the skills and knowledge and that’s generic skills and knowledge and role-specific skills and knowledge. In engineering or accounting or medicine, of course you need those skills and knowledge but you need the above ones in order to enact them.


If you then look at the arts, what the arts are about, Latin and history and so on, in a way enable you to get access to the personal and the interpersonal but also to moments when people were faced with dilemmas and had to do the cognitive, the diagnosis, and work out which way to go. You can’t do it through osmosis, by saying, “Learn Latin and I hope you get these other things.” My personal view is you start with what successful graduates in the area you’re about to go into have said are key personal, interpersonal and cognitive things and then you bring to there the dilemma-based sort of stuff. Then you make sense of it by, for example, and I’ve done this: if you look at the top rated capabilities for all of the vocations, and we’ve produced a book on this, we are to do with things like being able to remain calm; being able to work constructively with others, including not just your own mates; being able to give negative feedback in a way that ends up being very constructive; being able to set priorities and not just react to everything equally.


Then if you look at the world’s religions, which you can do if you it after, you know what I mean? You can say, “It’s very interesting, guys. Let’s now look at,” there’s a book called “Comparative Religion” by a guy called Burke in 1963 at Oxford, where he was just interested in looking at the value propositions of the world’s religions. He was a scholar of religion, of theology, [inaudible 00:38:29], Buddhism, [inaudible 00:38:31] and Islam is all about actually thinking of the groups and the others and not yourself. There’s certain underpinning lessons from the humanities that you can bring to bear by starting with successful people like me further down the track telling me what I need to do because I’m no actually interested in just the generic theory. I’m interested in starting with practice and backward mapping myself to the context later on, if you see what I’m getting at.


My views are that you don’t like we used to do in engineering in Sydney Uni in 1963 when I went there and had Germaine, where the engineers are asked to read a novel in first year. They just went feral. If they’ve been told about successful early career engineers and the emotional intelligence that’s needed, and someone had labelled after they’d experience that how that actually aligns with a harmonious and productive society or organization by referring, for example, to Burke or something, you know what I mean? You do it after you’ve started with, “what am I going to do”, not “what do you think I should do”.


Sam: The short question is the big one. The role of education, some people would argue, is about an abstract critical thinking, it’s not about pushing barrows. People treat sustainability as if it was a religion that we are trying to get everybody to follow.


Geoff: Yep and that’s the problem. That’s that notion of George Bernard Shaw, reformers have the misplaced notion that change is achieved by brute logic, right? Just because you go and lecture them, in fact what you’re going to do is turn them off. How do you do it? You’ve got to listen, link, leverage and lead so if you go in working with a company, you don’t go and say, “You’ve got to be sustainable,” you do a blue economy project and that’s … The listeners are interested. It’s the most wonderful book, you just put it into your search engine, just “Blue Economy“. We have a hundred projects operating around the world out of the same United Nations University that endorses our RCEs, Regional Centres of Expertise, where you’re making money out of waste.


Just as a very quick example of one, the students from Pretoria University go into a community up at Phalaborwa, Northwest South Africa where there’s a citrus grove that’s broke. The engineers brought in by the Bank said, “Just automate and you’ll make money.” The task of the Blue Economy team is to see how could we actually keep the jobs of these people, even improve them and think laterally about how to do it. That’s the inventiveness. Here’s what they did, right? They had a whole range of people, they had plant biologists, they had chemists, they had tourism, students and a range of others all went up and their job was to go out and do some community diagnosis.


Phalaborwa’s on the north gate of Kruger so they found all these game lodges full of rich people my age all sitting there with a very high end camera shooting the big five and then sitting around at night having very pleasant meals in front of open log fires, right? The tourism students came in and said, “Where do you get your orange juice in season?” They said, “Oh, we fly it up frozen.” Would you guys and these people here, sixty-five, seventy year olds, be interested in … They got to meet the local township who would bring in the orange juice and talk about the township as they did. “Oh yeah, that would be fabulous.” We can do it under the price of Pretoria, that’s good.


While you’re at it, you’re not allowed to chop down wood here so can we bring in wood for you for the geriatrics to sit around to talk to the people? Yeah, that would be good. Then the plant biologist said, “Well, would you be interested in shiitake mushrooms? We can show the local group how to in fact grow shiitake mushrooms on the detritus from the citrus leaves when they prune.” They brought in the thing and shiitake mushrooms and in fact large international coffee groups are now growing shiitakes on their waste coffee grounds out in the background and they pay money. Then the chemist said, “Hold on, don’t throw away the orange peels. We’ll get a lemonade press, which we’ve got twenty thousand [inaudible 00:42:40] to get it.” The lemonade press presses lemonade oil, which you get a lot of money. The return on investment, that was paid off in six months.


Then the guys working with the bovine cattle development program said, “Don’t throw the orange peels away, we can feed them to the cattle because they’re a clinching agent for the first round of cattle.” The point is I count probably four or five sources of income there so instead of doing the one automate thing, you’ve actually kept the jobs of the people, the people have got to meet these other people there who’ve actually … Social understanding doesn’t hurt. Everyone’s got a job and you’re not wasting anything. That’s the Blue Economy. Why would not this be happening out this door here, the students …


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


Geoff: What is my definition of it? There are numerous ones about the Brundtland and all of those ones. My view of sustainability is that the world is able to work in a harmonious, decent way where there’s a reasonable equity of distribution of resources for people and we don’t actually use up all the resources for the kids of the next generation. Tied into that is another subject which, again, therefore you’ve got to move to alternative energy rather than carbon. My university’s working with five universities now on solar semiconductors. Once we get that, we’ll be able to separate hydrogen from oxygen and water using only the sun.


Sam: You said there used to be money in it. Why isn’t it trendy anymore?


Geoff: I think it’s come back since Paris. It went down. Copenhagen was a real zeitgeist in 2008. You’ve got the global financial crisis hit. Suddenly this is was people do. Crikey, forget that. That’s all too fluffy. What about my pocket? Then you have the Copenhagen conference, didn’t work, was a failure. So the politics of it was if you look now at what’s happening with China, if you look at the commitments that were made in Paris, there is an intent, a substrata of more positive attitudes. I think it’ll come back whether the word sustainability gets used, we’ve got a global action plan out of the United Nations. We had a big stock take last year of the decade and the global action plan is the next step. That’s really being taken up by the States. Europe is really impressive. China has got a lot to do but it’s at least making really quite significant carbon type targets and so on. I think the big dilemma that we still face around the world is social and cultural sustainability. That’s actually, to me, is part of the four pillars. Whether it’s called sustainability as a term, I don’t know.


By the way, you’ve got one regional center of expertise for sustainable development in New Zealand right now, we’ve endorsed it. That’s at Waikato. Hosted by the University of Waikato but it’s centered, they all are around a theme and the theme is the Waikato River, social, cultural, economic and environmental.


Sam: Can we get there with technology change or is it going to take system change, people change?


Geoff: I think you just answered the question, in a way. It’s the mix. Technology’s not the answer, it’s a tool and it can be a dangerous tool or a helpful tool. The issue is who controls it with what tacit assumptions, which is why it’s so important to at least have folks think about their position, even if they said, “I don’t care,” I still have to send a text.


Sam: We’re writing a book of these talks, we’re calling it “Tomorrow’s Heroes”. How would you like to describe your super power? What is it that you’re bringing to this?


Geoff: Moral purpose. I think we’ve lost our moral purpose in education. I think it’s gotten unrelated to tacit assumptions but the key thing that … It’s not my super power, it’s the thing I’ve discovered. Basically, what I discovered really, it’s not a super power but it’s a super insight, which is probably better because, as you’ve already detected, I think the idea of the charismatic person is not it. What I’ve discovered there is my university that I was at in the turnaround, because sixty-five percent of the students were first in family, when I said to the staff, the academic staff and the professional staff, “How many of you are first in family?” Most of them put their hands up, I said, “That is our moral purpose. If you guys have got that far through a decent education, why don’t we do it for the punters that are coming through the door now?” That was far more powerful engagement mechanism for change than talking about brute logic or intrinsic motivators like you’ll get fired or we won’t get any money. People march to moral purpose and I think we’re losing it because I don’t think anyone is actually clear on their position on the tacit assumptions. I know mine.


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


Geoff: I think … It’s not my success at all but the actual turnaround at Western Sydney University, when I came in 2004, it’s an entirely different place then as it is now. We improved overall satisfaction on the national course experience questionnaire, for what it’s worth, by twenty-five percent. We improved retention by six percent and retaining first time family students to get a degree gets the family a profoundly improved life. Western Sydney Uni, for what it’s worth, is now number forty in the top one hundred universities under fifty years old in the world. The old money can get on and do their own thing but out moral purpose, we’ll do that and we’re quite happy. I think that’s an “us”, it wasn’t “me”.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Geoff: No, not an activist in the sense of demonstrating. I’ve been on my fair share of demonstration, as you can imagine, in the ’60s but I’m action-oriented. I’m not talk-oriented. In other words, I’m very much about, in a sense, the motto of my little career is “good ideas with no ideas on how to implement them are wasted ideas”. I’m in favour of not wasting the good ideas and that means, what do you do on Monday? That means how do you not become an activist yourself, but how do you build the enacting will of those who do the change anyway, because you never do it yourself. I’m not really an activist. I am an en-activist.


Sam: Do you think we have a responsibility to be producing en-activists.


Geoff: Absolutely, and that’s why I think work ready plus is so important. It’s the future and the sustainable future of the planet depends upon, I think, us doing a lot more than just training people to be automatons for today because ninety-five percent of the world’s leaders have a degree.


Sam: We have this faith that education is going to make such a difference but I’ve seen a graph that shows the growth of education over the last two hundred years, pretty much mirroring the growth of unsustainability. Why do we think education’s going to solve it?


Geoff: I’m not sure there’s a cause or connection between the two graphs there but I don’t know. It could easily be something to do with the population but my personal view is that change is learning and unlearning and if change is a learning and an unlearning process then universities are charged with helping people learn and that’s why the work ready plus has that … Helping people learn how to engage people with change is the first thing. The second is the tacit assumptions bit of work ready plus, is there’s a profound difference between change and progress. Change is just something becoming different. Progress is something becoming different in a way that people have applied a value judgment to that they see as being beneficial and this comes out of education. By education, I don’t just mean universities or colleges, I mean VET colleges and schools. I think the more we actually look at capability development, not just competency development, the more we’ve got a chance for a sustainable future for the kids that will follow us.


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


Geoff: The surf.


Sam: I knew you were going to say “surfing”.


Geoff: Yeah. It’s a sort of … Also feeling useful. I’m retired now. I’m an Emeritus Professor so I’m over here in Otago and it’s a balance of life between … Last week I was down at our cabin cross-country skiing and surfing and what a blessed life I’ve had. The serendipity of where I was born and when and I’m not really a mouth about it but I kind of like coming and doing stuff like chatting to you guys and stuff because it makes you feel useful. It’s something more in life than just doing it all for yourself but you need a little balance. You need to have a bit of pleasure, a bit of fun, a bit of a laugh. What gets me out of bed most is if I’m with a bunch of friends and we have a giggle, really, because laughing is perspective.


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


Geoff: Staying alive.


Sam: Finding that perfect wave.


Geoff: Finding the perfect wave, yeah. I’m seventy-one now …


Sam: You haven’t found one yet?


Geoff: Yeah. Oh, you do and you don’t. Every wave is different, like life. In fact, that’s that wonderful metaphor about what we need for the future is people can learn to ride the waves of change, which means you’ve got to pick some. If you get new ones, you don’t try and pick every wave. You try and pick the right way. It’s not a very good analogy but it’s a start.


My feeling about, I suppose, the future for our world is I think it is at a bit of a fracture point and I think it’s actually very tied up to the fulminating rapidity with which IT is changing. The amount of information is doubling every, whatever it is, every two years or something. How are we going to get our head around all of this and all of this interactivity? The idea of actually coming to a classroom as opposed to people tweeting to one another around the world and what does this mean? What happens then in terms of political movements? I think it’s a bit of a challenge for education to get its head around that which is really hard to predict in the IT area.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur by tomorrow morning, what would you like to have happen?


Geoff: I would love to see the politicians of many countries around the world actively try to get their heads around looking at something more than just the short term planning that goes on in the electoral cycles to something that’s sustainable and it’s very difficult because of the confrontationalist way it works but that notion of some mechanism that would enable politicians to actually look at a strategic development plan and then to work with higher education, skills and VET colleges around their little role and helping people learn how to do change that relates to a sustainable future. There’s about eight different areas in what I’ve just said there in terms of any chances but I still don’t think it should mean that we should give up.


I’ll certainly, while I’m still around and kicking, I’m happy to talk to that because I think education could be losing its way and I think if politicians can start to return to see education as more than just creating work ready people or work ready plus people and have that with intent and I might say I’m quietly interested in the New Zealand Productivity Commission’s report that’s just come out today on the future of tertiary education. It talks about some of the issues that I’ve raised here today and the study we’ve just done on successful early career graduates in engineering in New Zealand, I was very impressed that New Zealand was interested in doing it, to try and learn from the engineers. There’s a plan to actually now do it with accountants.


Sam: In terms of the change that relates to a sustainable future, what’s the smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact?


Geoff: Smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact? The smallest … It’s not small but it’s sort of small I think in terms of the amount of money that’s being spent in the world and that’s that solar semiconductors. They’ve got it almost now where the energy that you can produce using the solar semiconductor by separating the hydrogen out using only the sun is actually just getting over that which you need to reproduce more semiconductors. Once they get that, we’ve got hydrogen. Once we get hydrogen, we can have hydrogen cars, hydrogen power and all you’re getting when you burn that is water. That really, in one fell swoop, it’s portable. Hyundai, all these car companies, BMW, have all got hydrogen cars right now. The problem is you can’t fuel them sustainability because you’re having to use coal to make the electricity to separate the hydrogen. Once we can get the sun to do the work for us, I think that would be quite a dramatic change.


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


Geoff: Maintain the rage, brothers and sisters. Think of moral purpose. Think just occasionally around the tacit assumptions in the sense, the dependent variable being not happy but contented. If one finds one is being continuously discontented because one has to wake up at all times of the night to check ones Twitter feed or whatever it is, is that the right track? That is totally and utterly a personal decision.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Geoff: Pleasure.


Sam: You’ve been listening 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. We broadcast on Otago Access Radio, “” and podcast on “”. On “” we’re building a searchable archive of conversations of people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations we’re trying to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of emeritus professor Geoff Scott of Western Sydney University. You can follow the links on “” to find us on Facebook to keep in touch and you can listen to Sustainable Lens on iTunes and other poddy places, as well. That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.


climate change community geography

inspirational community movements

Sean Connelly and Doug Hil


 Imagine. Imagine if the world was like this.

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


Doug: I am, Shane, yes.


Shane: Where were you born?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Doug: It’s a huge issue in India.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam: Is Australia on the edge?


Doug: On the edge?


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


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


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


Sam: Presumably they’re aware of that tension?


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


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


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


Sam: Is it a young people’s movement?


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


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


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


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


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


Shane: How big is this movement now?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam: Do we know which ones work?


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


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


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


Sam: Geographers!


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


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


Doug: This your moment.


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


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


Doug: Yeah.


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


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


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


Doug: My superpower?


Sam: Yeah.


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


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


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


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


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


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


Doug: Yeah, maybe. Sure.


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam: What motivates you?


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


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


Doug: Personally or professionally or … ?


Sam: You can have both.


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


Sam: Does sustainability mean the same thing there?


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


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


Doug: Of course.


Sam: But, can we do it?


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


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


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




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.