education marketing media

Sustainable messaging

Every student needs to understand that no matter what their life passion is, they can find a path to sustainability through what they’re doing.


Ferris Kawar is Sustainability Project Manager at Santa Monica College.  With a background in marketing, Ferris offers an insight into sustainability messaging both on and off campus.


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 because I’m in Santa Monica, at Santa Monica College, indeed. Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference. We try 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 is that of Ferris Kawar – who is the Sustainability Project Manager at Santa Monica College. Thank you for having me.


Ferris: Thanks so much. I’m glad you’re here.


Sam: What a pretty amazing building.


Ferris: Yeah. Thanks. It’s a unique little space here on campus that we’ve had for over 20 years because a set of professors really recognised that environmental issues were important enough back 20 years ago. They wanted a hub on campus that we could really talk about these things, and cultivate interest with the students, and build it into curriculum. A few years ago they were able to get some funding to make it as sustainable as possible. We can demonstrate energy efficiency, and reuse, and recycling. It’s a zero waste office. It doesn’t have air conditioning or heat in here. We have some very innovative ways of keeping ourselves comfortable and making it a very useful space with a lot of people coming and going. It’s a very effective place to work. It’s great to show off all the time.


Sam: It’s a retro-fit in 1920’s bungalow.


Ferris: Yeah. Something like that. Maybe 1940’s. Yeah. It was old, draughty, bungalow that is actually replicated down the street. It’s nice to be able to look at our energy, gas, water bills. Then look at the one next door that really houses the same number of people working for the colleges. It’s apples to apples. Yet, our electric, water and waste bills are so much lower than everyone else’s. It’s a great model to show off.


Sam: We’ll come back to what you do in your job. Let’s do some bigger picture things first. Where’d you grow up?


Ferris: I grew up actually in the Middle East originally. In Amman, Jordan. Moved to the United States when I was 11 years old up to Northern California San Mateo. Went to college in Sacramento. Did my studies in business marketing. Then moved to the Bay Area shortly after that. Worked for an advertising agency for a number of years. Before I realised a really wanted a change. Didn’t see myself in advertising for the long term. Started to look around to what else I might want to do.


Interestingly enough, 15 years ago when I moved to Los Angeles to think about what I really wanted to do. I found myself here in Los Angeles. I ended up taking a workshop at Santa Monica College that was a sustainable living workshop. That was funded by the city. Taught you really how to reduce your foot print in every area of your life. I ended up taking that workshop. It blew me away. Opened up so many doors to possibilities. I said, that’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to focus my attention, and use my knowledge for creating messaging. I come from a marketing advertising background. I said, “That’s what I really want to do. To get the word out about sustainability.” That was 2001.


I actually ended up teaching the course here on sustainability. I outreached it to residences in Santa Monica. Then I went on and did some other work around Los Angeles in other areas. A year ago, I had an opportunity to come back and be the Sustainability Manager for the college. It was a nice full circle story. To be able to come back and see how the college has grown. Really built on it’s sustainability credentials. It’s fun to be back.


Sam: Let’s step more slowly through some of those shall we.


Ferris: Sure.


Sam: John.


Ferris: Right. Now they did go way back.


Sam: I’m going way back.


Ferris: My father’s Jordanian. My mother’s American. They met in college here. My father was a hospital administrator. He had an opportunity to open up a hospital in Jordan, and return to his home company. They thought, well, what an opportunity to raise our children there. Have work for him. I went to an English speaking school. That’s why you don’t detect much of an accent. I never really had one. I lived there until I was 11. I think it is such a great opportunity to live in another country. Learn that other people learn different ways. That’s really helped me be patient with people. I realised everyone really wants the same things. They might not have the same background, and social norms. They may not understand the value of recycling the way we were brought up to once I came to the United States. I know that doesn’t make them bad people.


When I go back to Jordan I notice that the recycling is not something that happens. There’s no system set up. That doesn’t make them bad people. They also reuse the heck out of everything. Far better than we do in the United States. I get to have that view from both sides. That view helps me understand people within the United States and my LA California. To see how different cultures see sustainability or don’t see it, but that they’re still probably interested in it. You just have to make it accessible to them. Introduce it to them in a way that makes sense.


Sam: It’s interesting how America, in particular, has jumped to the lowest form of the reduce, reuse, recycle pyramid.


Ferris: Yeah. That-


Sam: It doesn’t mean you can get away without reducing your consumption.


Ferris: That’s right, but recycling has been the best thing that people can really do. My last job actually was a Recycling Specialist for the city of Burbank, here in Los Angeles. I did that for six years. I was constantly surprising every group I spoke in front of saying, “Recycling should be synonymous with trash.” That’s the worst thing that you can do. You really want to focus on reduce and reuse. That’s why those two things were first. When you ask people, “Well what does that mean?” So few people really understand how important it is to not create the trash in the first place, even if you go and recycle it. They don’t understand the long journey these items have to take to get recycled. The amount of embodied energy it takes to create this thing in the first place. It’s going to create all sorts of pollution in the processing of the material. It’s quite a task we have to educate them.


Sam: From Jordan back to Northern California.


Ferris: That’s right. When I was 11. Went to finish my schooling there.


Sam: Had you been coming backwards and forwards until then?


Ferris: I had. Every two years we would come to the United States. I knew a little bit about American culture. Back in Jordan, my school was filled with expats and their kids. It wasn’t too much of a culture shock coming here, but it still was.


Sam: As you were a young teenager. What did you want to be when you grew up?


Ferris: That’s the problem.


Sam: Young teenager get you past wanting to be an astronaut and whatever else …


Ferris: Honestly, sadly, I didn’t have any strong calling. I went into business because my dad was in business. It just seemed like a nice, safe thing to go into. You can apply it to anything. I really didn’t have any strong calling. It wasn’t until I was 30 when I stopped and said, “You know what? I don’t see myself in advertising.” This was fun for a while. Was really interesting. It made me feel like I was contributing. It wasn’t until I took the Sustainable Living workshop that I realised, oh my gosh, how much damage I had created? Creating ads to some things that people don’t need. That are just fueling the consumptive society. I always say this is my penitence for all those years.


Sam: I’ve talked to some people in advertising and marketing who are quite defensive of their role in sustainability. That their role is actually not necessary to sell more stuff, but to add value to stuff.


Ferris: They’re telling themselves that to make themselves feels better. Certainly there are some products, more and more are making their way onto the shelves, to give people options from the conventional products. I know the industry. I worked in it. I know that we all tell ourselves things to justify what we’re doing for a living. I think it’s important that we understand how powerful advertising is, but media as well. Not just advertising. They are very skilled practitioners in understanding the human psyche to make sure that they are getting people to buy a product even if they don’t really need it.


I think we saw, if you look back just after World War 2 the idea of modern day consumption really took root in this country. Before that people really purchased things on how sturdy was that product. How long was that going to last you? Not, how does it make you feel as a person. How does that product give you some kind of a value in terms of how you feel? Does it make you look good or not? Modern marketing has made people forget about how well made is this? What was it made with? How does it benefit my community? Now it’s just use it up, tosses it out, get the next season’s cover and repeat. They’re very masterful.


Sam: For someone with a background in advertising, who is not going to be defensive of marketing and advertising then…how real, how blatant is green washing?


Ferris: Green washing it’s definitely out there. You have to be very careful with it, but there are plenty of places to go to find products that have been vetted by organisations that you can trust. I mean, for me Environmental Working Group is an organisation that vets cosmetics, suntan lotions, underarm deodorants. All sorts of other beauty products. I will turn to them, because I am not a scientist. I am not going to be able to really look at … It’s too time consuming for me to try and figure it out on my own. You have to sometimes trust others, but really turn to ones who you can trust. Just be cognizant of it.


Even with green washing there is some value in it. It pushes that company. They’re always running the risk that they’re going to get caught. If they do, people are pretty diligent to call them out on it. Then force them to live up to the expectations that they put out there. 10 years ago, no one was even trying to green wash. It’s actually progress that we’ve got green washing, unfortunately. That’s sad to say. At least, it’s now part of the conversation and something we have to watch out for.


I find it interesting. I helped start a guide of green businesses. We started on Los Angeles. We researched every single business in Los Angeles that was consumer focused, not business to business. We had to walk in as secret shoppers. Figure out who was offering some kind of a sustainable alternative to your conventional products. When I first did it, this was 2005. Sustainability just wasn’t part of the conversation in the media. Every business owner was just completely honest whether they had something or not. You didn’t have to be really guarded about were they going to try to sell themselves as green. We did that guide, and released it.


Then we redid the guide two and a half years later. It was really interesting. In just that period of time. From 2005 to 2007, 2008, businesses had realised, wow, people really care about this stuff. I want to be a part of this movement. They were willing to embellish and to misrepresent or over represent how green their product lines were. You had to really start to pick through who was being honest and who wasn’t. It was a good sign. It made us have to be far more vigilant.


Sam: Somewhere between marketing, and you didn’t call it an epiphany, maybe you did, a workshop you went to here…


Ferris: Yeah.


Sam: Did you just stumble in through the door or was it something that was niggling or something?


Ferris: I knew that I enjoyed the outdoors. That was as close to an environmental direction that you can get. I had been thinking, well, what can I be doing? Where do I want to spend my energy? I just happened to read this course list. I think I was going to take Spanish and something else. I saw, oh, a sustainable Living workshop. I thought of myself as a pretty green guy. Lived in San Francisco for eight years. I recycled. Really once I took this workshop realised how little I knew. That’s really true of most people. We all think of ourselves as pretty environmental. Really, I’m doing everything I can. I don’t want else I can possible be doing.


That’s just human nature. People see themselves in a more favourable light than most people see them. Studies show, especially if you talk about recycling. If you asked the average person, 70% or 80% of people think that they recycle everything, all the time. Then you go through their waste bin. You realise, okay, only 30% are actually doing it right. Only, maybe 50% are actually doing it. Then only 30% are actually doing it right. That’s just human nature.


Anyways, I realised how much I had been missing. How deep this rabbit hole goes. I always say, “It’s like peeling back an onion.” You find out oh, I didn’t know about this issue. Then you peel back that layer and oh, there’s a whole other level of issues below that. You keep peeling it back. I’m not even half way through the onion right now. I’ve been working in this field for 15 years. It makes decision making really difficult. My wife looks at me and goes, you can’t just make the simplest choices. I said, “No!” There’s consequences to every choice. Once you know you can’t go back. I would rather be an informed citizen then to be blindly going through life, and creating damage. Not willing to address it. I think that’s what we kind of do. It’s better to hold that stuff at arms length so that you can just plead ignorance. Not feel guilty.


Sam: That’s the deal isn’t it? There’s the catch. The ignorant choice, let’s just carry on having a party and buying stuff, is a simple choice. We’re not offering people a simple choice.


Ferris: No. It’s complex. It is. I wish there were a way to bottle this, and/or package it in a simple term. One catch phrase. We’ve been working on cracking that nut for a long time. It just, we’re not there. No one’s really done it very well. Yeah. I deal with that all the time. I do messaging for the campus. For the students. In terms of transportation. To professors in terms of the curriculum. After a while, they start out and they’re pretty interested. Quickly their eyes can glaze over and they’re overwhelmed. It’s frustrating.


Sam: We’ll skip over some of the things you’ve been doing between now and then. Focus on what you’re doing now. You mentioned that you were at the City of Burbank and other things. Now at the Santa Monica college. You’re a Sustainability Project Manager.


Ferris: Correct.


Sam: Is it just you?


Ferris: I have an assistant. I have 14 student workers who really run five different eco-clubs. Those clubs range from a gardening club, a bike club, a plastic free SMC trying to get disposable plastic off campus. One that’s looking to get more vegetarian and vegan options in our food service. Each one of those, one runs a garden where it’s students teaching other students how to plant and be self-sufficient with your food. We have a bike club that’s really helping students become self-sufficient with their bikes. We hold a bike repair clinics. We fix bikes a couple of times a week at no charge. Constantly trying to get people back out on those bikes. Just because the chain comes off they don’t use that as an excuse to start driving again.


We have another one called Eco Action. Where we hold events. It’s using week long events to teach about sustainability. Like Earth Week. On sustainability week, we do massive beach clean ups where we have 600 plus people come down and clean up our beaches. You know? During these weeks we’re holding workshops. Do it yourself workshops. Debates. Movies. Events where we hold a free farmers market for students. Give away 1,000 pounds of produce.


These students are really my outreach arm. They re using their clubs to introduce sustainability to students in all sorts of different way from, like I said, transportation biking, to growing your own food, to food in the cafeterias and this such. It’s not really just me and my assistant. We have our minions.


Sam: That’s quite some commitment from the institution.


Ferris: It is. That’s not something that most universities really have. It’s been fantastic to have them supportive and allowing us to cultivate it over the years. The student association which is the student governing body, they have a sustainability director. It’s terrific because their president, vice-president, and treasurer…among their top leaders they have created a sustainability director position which is quite another commitment from the college. That they want to see sustainability infused throughout the campus.


One of their biggest coups I thought, was they hold the purse string for a lot of college departments. Through the year, as departments want to hold an event that is focused around students. They go to the student association and ask them for money to hold it. Generally thousands of dollars. They said, “It’s now our policy, if you hold your event it has to have recycling and composting. You have to use compostable materials for your servings.” From your folks, cutlery, to plats, and cups. It all has to be compostable. That’s, I think, overnight changed the way that people thought about throwing an event on campus. It caused all the departments to stop and think how they spend their money. When you throw an event it doesn’t just mean you’re going to create a massive amount of waste that day. All of that material can either get recycled or composted. Just with the stroke of a pen, there power as a leverage point to get the whole college to really think differently about events and waste.


Sam: How high up in the Santa Monica structure, physical structure or in terms of policies and mission statements and whatever, where do we go to see sustainability?


Ferris: Well, we have a brand new president. Only a couple of months old. Our previous presidents have been big supporters. The president, two presidents ago, signed what we call the ACUPCC American College President Climate commitment. That person signed this letter saying that our college will make every effort to reduce its carbon footprint over a period of years. That was 2009. That is really driving what we do for the years forward. Since then, we have been able to have one of the five ILO’s, which is Institutional Learning Outcome. Those change every few years. They are kind of also our guiding principles of what our college wants to have our students get out of these years that they’re with us.


One of them has to do with sustainability. That they will become sustainable in their actions. They will learn to live as sustainable citizens. We talked a little bit earlier about global citizenship as a requirement for graduation. It’s a series of classes students or a set of classes students need to take to be able to graduate with an AA degree here. They have offered at least some of those classes their sustainability focused. They recognise that to be a global citizen you should be knowledgeable about sustainability.


Sam: Is that all students have to do a compulsory sustainability course?


Ferris: No. Not all students. They have a choice out of a set of classes to take. A few of them are sustainability oriented classes. They could take classes that deal with other cultures. They don’t have to just take sustainability classes. They are offered as an option. You’re talking about-


Sam: It’s alongside, things like social justice…


Ferris: Correct.


Sam: They can’t avoid this sort of thinking.


Ferris: Yes.


Sam: It might not be specifically sustainability.


Ferris: Yeah. I would like to see it infused as a mandatory lass across the board everyone needs to take. There’s so many other courses that are mandatory. How hard it is to get to add another one to the list. There’s really three ways that we have sustainability in our curriculum. One of them is we have a Sustainable Living workshop. Very similar to the one that I took 15 years ago right here at this college. It’s still being taught here. It’s an eight week workshop that teachers students how to reduce their personal footprint. It’s a non credit course. It’s just for extra credit. We have about 70 professors who offer that to their students.


It’s really great because you get students who are not self-selected environmentalist. Typically, when you say hey, we have an environmental course. Why don’t you come and take it. Most of the students who show up are the ones who already know this stuff, who just want to go deeper. Well this particular course, you’re getting students who may be getting a C, and they just want to make sure that they pass. They’re taking the extra credit. It is a life changing opportunity because they’ve never heard this material before. It’s an hour and a half each week. We talk about energy, water, waste, chemicals, transportation, food, and shopping. We have experts come and talk. We have films and field trips. It’s a really, really robust course. That’s one way. You get a lot of professors who support it by offering extra credit.


Then you have a whole subset of professors who are weaving sustainability into their curriculum. Such as english professors, business professors, art, anthropology, psychology, sociology, public policy. That’s terrific. I’m constantly trying to expand that. Get other professors to recognise that they can use sustainability as examples in whatever course it is. We have a fashion design course, and a cosmetology course. Those professors just recently came to me, because I held a green career fair recently. They were actually interested in having some speakers come to their classes that they have never thought about. Oh! Nontoxic nail polish. Wouldn’t that be interesting to talk to our students about. Fashion design that took into account the damage that seasonal changes in fashion create.


It’s actually expanding quickly. That’s the subset. Then there’s another area that we call it the Sustainable Technology programme. We have an Energy Efficiency certificate. A Recycling and Resource Management, and Photovoltaic Installation certificate that you can get. This is more for students who really want to change careers. Who know exactly, they just want to get into this field of work. They can come. They can get a certificate from us. We help them get out into the working world. This is one of those, we call it CTE programmes. Where they are certificate, technical, education. Try to get them out into the workforce. Then we also have an Environmental Science, and Environmental Studies degree that students can take, and to transfer with.


Those are all the areas of curriculum that we offer.


Sam: Do you think that students coming through now getting it?


Ferris: More and more. Definitely. They are getting it. They’re getting it from other areas. There are plenty of studies that show that this is what students are really interested in. I wish that the professors would get it. That there students are getting it and they’re looking for those examples. They really are. I think the students have heard it long enough. They just need it to be applied in a way that’s accessible in each programme. Whether they’re a business student or in fashion design. They need it to be made accessible so that they can say, “Oh! I see now.” Because, yeah, sure recycling. Great. Well, that’s bottles and cans. When you talk about recycling in dollars and cents. How much it can save a company in an accounting course. Then you go, oh! Okay. These things really do matter. Waste is not just the cost of doing business. It is an opportunity to make the business more money by being smarter about it. I don’t know. I’m constantly fighting to get more professors to embrace these examples. They’re usually the hardest to change the minds. They’ve been doing this for years.


Sam: With a background in advertising, how are you using those skills in this job?


Ferris: Well, it’s was using what I know about messaging really. It’s a lot of promotional material we create. Understanding that you need to simplify your message as much as possible. It’s a complex message, but as much as we can we try to break it down so that it lands. Most people are overwhelmed with emails and messaging all around them. When we put out any email, or brochure, or posters, or banners, all that kind of stuff, we try to distil the message down as simply as possible. That they can get our top line message and then if they need to drill down offer them the website to go to.


Sam: That works when the message can be simplified. Can you simplify wicked, complex, messy problems? Which is the essence of sustainability?


Ferris: No. It’s very difficult. It’s not easy. Say for our transportation campaign, we have 12 different options that we offer for getting to campus without your car. From apps, to bus, and trains, car-pooling, websites. All of these tools that we give people. We really focus the message on reduce stressed, and time, and money. That’s what people really care about. I don’t really mind if take a bike, or carpool because it actually saves them money, not the environment. The end result is they are saving both. That’s what matters to me. I try to play down the environmental aspect of it. I know that 80%, 90% of the people really care more about how long does it take me to drive, and fight traffic, look for parking. How expensive is it to fill up my tank every week. Be the one responsible behind the wheel. I try to focus the message on those things that I know people care about universally. Rather than, hey, this is better for our air, and for our kids, and for our future. That’s just too amorphous.


Sam: Does it matter if they’re changing behaviour for the wrong reasons?


Ferris: At this point, no. Ultimately, I would like them to change for the right reasons but I feel like we have tried to get them to change for the right reason. People really are not responding that much more than they were 10 years ago. A little bit more. We’re making some gains. There’s some other things that need to happen in society before we get to wholesale, real, tangible changes. You almost need to do it in other ways. Get them to change for other reasons, or to just institute mandates. Just go that route. Say, well, okay, we’ve used the carrot forever. We have to use the stick a little bit. You know? Maybe. I don’t know. I actually can’t think of an example that we would use on campus here.


The City of Santa Monica has an example where they said, by mandating that residents can’t put in spray irrigation anymore. They have effectively gotten rid of any new lawns going into the city. You have to have spray irrigation for lawns. You can’t drip or these other targeted irrigation techniques. They pretty much just said, “You can’t have a grass lawn in our city anymore.” Or they said, “You can’t use plastic bags.” We tried to get people to let go of plastic bags for a very long time. At one point, they just said,”Well, that’s enough.” If you want, to pay for a bag. You will get a paper bag, but you will have to pay 10 cents for it. They mandated getting rid of styrofoam. All of these things. After a while, you can try to educate people about the dangers of having all the stuff in our environment.


At the end of the day if they are just not going to make those choices on their own. Sometimes just having to mandated it just works very well. In each one of those cases that I mentioned, the sky didn’t fall. Business adjusted. It didn’t really cost anymore to your meal or to your shopping trip. People started to remember their bags. Get used to other packaging materials. That was that. It all passed very quietly.


Sam: Putting in place systems that offer a better alternative, so that people aren’t able to use the…


Ferris: That’s right.


Sam: This is better life not a lesser life argument.


Ferris: That’s right. They’re doing it in transportation by narrowing streets. They call it street diets. Widening bike lanes. I agree with all those measures. We’ve for so long made it so easy to drive. Where parking was free. Streets were wide. We’ve filled up all those parking spots and those streets with cards. It was so convenient. Gas was cheap. Now they’re saying, well, let’s not make it so easy for people to make that choice. Let’s incentivize other options. People are finding other reasons to love getting out of that car. Being freed of the constraints of just having cars as your only option to get around. Now that people are forced to try other options they’re realising, wow, this is great. I don’t have to be the responsible one behind the wheel. Deal with parking tickets. Paying for parking passes and all that kind of thing.


Sam: Is all that enough? When you said that you opened a door, went through a rabbit hole, are we challenging ourselves far enough? I’m thinking of the student events that require to have compostable cookery. Wouldn’t we be better off having china?


Ferris: Yeah. We do that here at our office. It does become problematic when you have an event for 2,500 people. That can be a big cost to rent all of that. Yes. That is ultimately where we need to go. Every department on campus should have place settings for 20 people. At least everyone in their department. There’s always going to be a birthday party. An event that they have throughout the year. They should have their own. You’re absolutely right.  We are still taking baby steps when we need to be moving in leaps and bounds. We are not moving fast enough to keep up with the pace of the closing window of opportunity to keep the climate somewhat stable. We know it’s not going to be what it has been for so many generations. To keep it livable by our standards.


Sam: what’s it going to take to move an institution, or society, or even a family, to that leaps and bounds side?


Ferris: I think it comes back to media having a responsibility for their messaging. I think that most people get their cues for living from the media they consume. Whether it’s magazines, TV commercials, the news, music videos, films, TV shows. They are all putting out the message that life is fine. Everything we’re doing is fine. Continue as you have been. Even though, once in a while, they’ll do a news segment on ocean acidification is a real problem. They’ll cover that topic. Then they’ll be a commercial for a seafood chain. Or Oprah will talk about a real important environmental issue. Then turn to the audience and say, “Now for Oprah’s favourite things. Look under your seat and see all the things you get to go home with today.”


We put 2% into, hey, here’s some really important issues happening to us. Then 98% of the time, people are lulled back into a sense of security that everything is going to be fine. No one has changed their tune anywhere else in society. I’m surrounded by the message that things are fine. Don’t worry about it. Let government take care of it. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry your pretty little heads. People are constantly lulled back into that feeling about how I don’t really need to make any changes. I think media needs to realise they have a real responsibility to society to work into their TV shows, into their messaging, actions that represent where we want to be. They’re always trying to represent exactly reality.


Unfortunately, the people who are writing the scripts are not, what I think. are the most conscientious people on the planet. Most of them live here in LA. You see them in a coffee shop writing their next script. They are very, you know? I don’t think they are who we really want to be emulating our life after necessarily. They want the next big car. They want a big flashy house. They think everyone can live in a 5,000 square foot mansion. Everyone now aspires to the live a life of the rich and famous. Instead of having what really matters to people. I think when you get down to people really want time. They want their health. They want time with friends and family. That’s not what people seem to be going to work for. They tend to take on extra jobs because they have to pay for the extra house. The condo they have in the mountains. The boat that they bought. The accumulation of things.


Instead of reflecting the way life is, well, let’s try to reflect the life we should be living. Put some ethics back into our journalism, and the media that we produce.


Sam: Has the switch to social media given us a window to catch up that fast moving window that you talked about before?


Ferris: Yes, it has, because people are not just limited to the corporate owned news giants. Just even the regular TV shows that are produced by NBC, CBC, ABC. We have the opportunities to be entertained by a while new range of people. Which is good and bad. We have the potential for being able to be exposed to better messaging. Is that what we’re actually getting? Not necessarily. Sometimes. I use my Facebook page to constantly enlighten my friends about issues that I think are very important to me. I’m not taking pictures of my meal and posting them. I’m using that to hopefully get through to some people.


Sam: With the exception of people that are your friends, and probably mine, the danger of social media is the ability to tailor your feed. To only stuff that you want to hear about.


Ferris: Yeah. That’s true.


Sam: It’s not challenging us at all.


Ferris: That’s true. Even in news, they’ve shown that if you’re interested in this range of politics they will tailor your news feed to that. That is dangerous.


Sam: Do you think it’s important that students on campus are challenged?


Ferris: Yes. Absolutely. Up ‘til now, we’ve been coddling our youth. Protecting them. They are going to be living in to a world that is very different than the world you and I grew up in. They need to be ready for the realities of that. Be proactive in helping to change their future. I’m sure every commencement speech has had similar words. I feel like it’s never been so true. Everyone, this is the most important decision in their life. How are they going to contribute to, get involved, in the decision making for their future. If they want to have the easy living that they had growing up? They’d better get active. We have not set them up very well for a nice, easy life. I’ve got two young kids. It really hits home for me. It’s a distraction. Knowing that they are not going to have the same opportunities that I had.


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


Ferris: Being able to take care of your needs without sacrificing the needs of future generation. Pretty basic.


Sam: If you could have a sustainable superpower, how would you like your sustainable superpower to be described? What is it that you’re bringing to this hero action?


Ferris: Are you saying like a sustainable super hero or a … got you. Well, I’d say that person was able to, with a single blow, knock the senses into all media giants. Knock the money out of politics. Those two are to me some of the biggest hurdles. Those are the heart of the problem. The reason that we don’t make more headway is because of the money interest in power that don’t want things to change. People don’t see it because the media doesn’t give it much credence. The majority of the people don’t really see the connection. I think that if those two were addressed we could actually make some quick progress. Everything that we need to survive into the future is off the shelf right now. We’re not waiting for a magic bullet to be created. We don’t need a super hero to come and save us. It’s off the shelf technology. We just need the political will. To have the political will, those two things really need to change.


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


Ferris: I’ve seen in California, the biggest success we’ve had are some new laws that are mandating organic recycling. There are two laws that said, first of all, businesses of over a certain size and apartment buildings over a certain number of units have to start recycling. Then there was a compositing law that said if you are a business that generated a certain amount of organic waste, you have to start composting as well. There’s a third one actually said for all cities and municipalities who had been taking the green waste, you know? The green cart … Up till now, that all had been used as cover for landfills.


This sounds asinine that people would take the time to separate their garden clippings, grass, and leaves. Put them in a greet cart. A separate truck would pick all of those up. Put them all together. Then they would take them to a landfill. Instead of turning them into compost, they were being used as what we call alternative daily cover. They would be used as covering on a land fill. It would keep down smells, birds from landing and picking up trash and carrying it off into neighbourhoods. That was somehow okay. They would get credit for they diverting that green waste from a landfill, but it was being used. They said, “Well we have to cover the land fill with something every day.” Instead of tarps, they used green waste. That’s still stuff that turned into methane and leachate.


Anyways, they now have to find a way to compost all that stuff. In just a couple of years, those have been the biggest wins for me. Composting to me is one of the most elegant solutions to so many different problems that we have. It’s the quickest way to get from a stack of negatives to creating something positive in the environment. They are now going to have to create a whole bunch of jobs, and composting facilities throughout California that are really going to change the amount of Methane gas that’s being distributed. All sorts of other things.


Sam: Have you got the food waste from the food halls on campus sorted?


Ferris: Not completely. We compost 250 pounds of organic waste from our cafeteria through the digestive tract of about 40,000 worms on campus. We have compost piles that are organic learning garden. Here in our office we use worms to eat through our food waste. Now we have a green waste collection system also for all the other campus green waste that goes to be composted. Still some is making it into the garbage, but it’s relatively small now.


Sam: Your building’s got lots of clever things like the solar tubes for the lights. You don’t have the actual lights turned on. You’ve got a very, very clever heating system. Powered essentially from the heat of the CPU’s from the computers.


Ferris: Yeah.


Sam: Are you seeing those things leaking out into the rest of the campus?


Ferris: No. I’ve only been here a year. I focused most of my tours on students. Just figuring that most of the campus had experienced this building. Now I realised over the last year, that every time a new faculty or administrator or facilities person came through here, they were looking at it like it was the first time they were seeing this. I really need to focus on getting open houses happening here, so that they really realise what the potential is for their offices. Especially in terms of zero waste. What they could be doing. Yeah. There’s a lot that we could do. Although, every new building on campus is going to be LEED Gold. Which is one down from Platinum. One down from the highest rating. That’s our commitment. At least the shell of the building will be built pretty sustainably. There is how you fill it, and how much paper you use, and all of that stuff can be done better. I think I can have more influence there. Our facilities in our college has committed to building green. Every new building from here on out.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Ferris: I do.


Sam: In what way?


Ferris: Well, I am not just doing my job and fulfilling my stated goals for the year. I really think that the students can be a big influence. I can be a big influence on the students and how involved they get in the politics on campus, or the politics outside of campus. I definitely have my opinions, as I stated, about campaign and finance reform, and media reform. That those are two real key areas that need to change for my job to get easier. Even though those two areas are well beyond the scope of my job. I think, well, wait a minute. Why continue to nibble around the edges of this problem when the real heart of the matter is we’re being stopped by too much money in politics. People not learning about any of these issues because of the failure of media.


Sam: You have students on campus that are right across the political spectrum.


Ferris: Sure.


Sam: How do you message it so that it’s, not down the middle, but clearly, particularly if you’re seeing sustainability as including things like social justice it veers it off to the left. How are you not disenfranchising the right from the sustainability thing you’re trying to do?


Ferris: Well, quite honestly, first of all … This is something I want to do. I have not been really been an activist and putting this into my messaging out there. Having said that, I think if I just plainly said to people there’s too much influence on our politicians by organisations. Almost, everyone will nod their head. Some people would be saying, Yes! Those unions have way too much influence on our politicians. Yes! The corporation gives the $100,000 cheque has too much influence. They both agree with my statement. My statement is still true. Then I say that those unions and corporations shouldn’t have that much influences on a politician. A politician should be freed up to make their own decisions. Vote from their heart and their minds, rather than from whose going to give me the next campaign contribution. I think that it’s possible to have a message that is a political and be true at the same time, and you will strike the chord with everyone across a political spectrum.


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


Ferris: I am blessed that I get to come to work. Get paid for the work I would be doing anyway. I get to have the best conversations from facilities people, to the students, to faculty. Then interviews like this. Obviously, I can talk forever on this topic. I frequently do. It gets me up everyday. I would be out there doing this for free if someone wasn’t paying me for it.


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


Ferris: I’m done with challenges. Okay. In terms of my job, one of the biggest challenges is transportation. Getting people on and off this campus. Doing it without a single person, in a single car. I’m really excited actually to see some new things developing. We just got the new train that came to town. That is serving all the way into Santa Monica and taking people downtown. Have never had that in the last 60 some odd years. We have just a whole new array of technology and services that have just surfaced in the last year. That are filling the gaps of what we call the first last mile. That has kept people from using an alternative form to get to campus. You know? So many people remain tethered to their automobile.


They drive it because they’re afraid. Well, what if I get to campus and I have to leave unexpectedly? My kids gets sick or I have to leave early or stay late. I just want it as a safety measure. Now we have car share parked right on campus here, so that people can rent a car. We have bike share. They can use it to go to lunch or go to another campus for a different class. Go down to the beach. Go to the bank. We’ve got new apps that tell you exactly when the bus is coming. It takes the guess work out of am I just going to waste part of my afternoon waiting for the next bus.


It’s all these little things that have popped up and are making it really easy to say, you know what? I’m just going to leave that car at home. Make it a bit of an adventure. If something comes up, which 98% of the time it doesn’t, but if it does, I got options. I can take an uber home. I can rent one of the cars if I need to. They’ve even got a car on the street that is an electric car. Doesn’t cost anything to drive for the first two hours. You can get most of your errands done in essence for free. You’re driving around in an advertising wrapped car which I have a little bit of a problem with. But, hey, that’s the only kind of advertising that I’m really supportive at this point.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur tomorrow morning. What would it be?


Ferris: Okay. It would be to have the President say, “Every professor has to use some kind of sustainability examples in their course work.” I think that it’s easy enough to do. There’s plenty of great examples out there. Every student needs to understand that no matter what their life passion is, they can find a path to sustainability through what they’re doing. They don’t have to give up feeling good about what they do just because they love to design clothing. The days of leaving your values at home while you go to work are over. We can do both now. We need to show our students that it’s possible. That they need to just get a little bit more creative. Continue to follow their heart, but also their mind. The ethical part of their mind.


Sam: That’ll be an interesting Presidential directive. Some people would argue you couldn’t do it because of academic freedom reasons.  But you couldn’t get away with teaching in a racist way, or in sexist way.


Ferris: Right.


Sam: How can we let them get away with teaching it in an unsustainable way.


Ferris: Right. I’ve been saying the same thing. We don’t allow people to yell fire in a crowded theatre. Yet, we can allow a news channel to call itself a news channel when they have an agenda. They are omitting facts, or cherry picking facts, or manufacturing facts. You know? How do we allow one thing under our first amendment right, right to free speech, and say, oh, we can’t limit people’s speech? Yet we do. We do it for good causes. I think this is a good cause. I think we have to change our … Well. Let’s see. We have to really consider how much damage our current system creates. How we can best address it in the quickest way.


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


Ferris: My advice is always vote with your dollar. Every single dollar counts to help drive the right kind of investments, but think bigger. Don’t just think of the things that you buy at the store, but your investments. Then think even bigger than that. How is your local government spending its money? Up to the national level. Where are we putting our incentives? Is it for things that are truly beneficial to society or not?


Sam: Thank you very much.


Ferris: Thank you.


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 are broadcast on Otago Access, and podcast on  On we’re building up a searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are playing their skills for a sustainable future. In our conversations we try to find out what motivates them, and what it means to see a world through a sustainable perspective through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Ferris Kawar who is the Sustainability Project Manager at Santa Monica College. You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook, and you can listen to Sustainable Lens for iTunes and other places for free. That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.




This conversation was recorded in May 2016 at Santa Monica College.


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.


education geography urban

Technology as a tempting narrative

Josefin Wangel

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

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

Talking points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This does come very close to greenwash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Activist) I used to be.

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

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

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

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


Inspiring community engaged sustainability scholarship

Abby Reyes

The role of the scholar, the engaged scientist and the engaged citizen are compatible, complementary, and in fact necessary.

Director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University of California Irvine, Abby Reyes on creating opportunities for community engaged sustainability scholarship.

Talking points

We work to make community engaged sustainability scholarship integral to UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching and service campus. We do that so our students, faculty and staff have the tools, training and resources they need to take bigger roles in addressing the critical sustainability challenges in our region and across the globe.

We’re doing that because the University of California of which we are part has a drive, a purpose, to accelerate the shifts we need to see to decarbonise the university and accelerate the shifts in other areas of our lives to reorganise how we relate to the planet and each other.

Re-imagining economy and tackling the big questions we face.

Sustainability leadership training…new set of skills that we belive the rising generation of sustainability leaders need to be able to be the knowledge brokers…the interpersonal skills and mastery to work together across traditional divides on these cross-cutting issues where what can make or break progress is how well people relate to each other and how outside of our own positions we can move to get to our underlying interests which are more often than not common about what kind of future we want to see for our families and our extended communities and our planet.

The approach we use is strategic questioning – a form of inquiry to enable young people to lead change processes in their community, from focussing on what’s concerning us most, through what do we want to see instead, through to what needs to change to get there, and then designing action for change.

We’re living on the front lines of a changing climate.

My mother raised us with an ethic of service and conservation.

Service is the path to freedom, to liberation in the spiritual sense, closer one’s self.

What we’re doing is offered in a gesture of creativity and joy and not a lot of attachment to the outcome. Very focussed on getting to our desired outcomes, but also not attached.

Inside the classroom students are definitely understanding the scale and pace of the deterioration of our critical life support systems in the planet. Outside the classroom we build community, then we draw upon tools to express fear, emptiness, sorrow and anger about the state of the world, we allow that some airtime, because they’re not getting that in the classroom and because our way of relating with these issues through social media is online and solitary endeavour even though it has the illusion of being connected with others it is often ill-processed or partially processed at best.

So we give that airtime, then help students see that the energy of anger is the same energy that drives passion.
The same energy that drives emptiness is the energy that enables us to work with equanimity and the letting go. The same energy that drives fear, the flip side of it is hope.

We help students go through that transition, then we get into what are you going to do about it?

I developed the analysis that carries me today – the inextricable relationship between environmental and human rights.

If we are working for protecting the earth, we also have to be working for protecting people.

Scholars and communities together, enabling the shifts that we need.

Working with solidarity and integrity with indigenous communities

When we talk about creating circumstances for young people to be the knowledge brokers, I’m thinking “what does it take to unleash the capacity of more young people to go out into the world and stand with the truth?”.

To stand in our knowledge of what it will take, right now, to transform our current systems and cultures of our industrial growth society into new systems and cultures of a life sustaining society. That is an unprecedented agenda, and it is one that is squarely on the shoulders of young people.

We train the workforce, and the more they have a sensibility of their place in the larger scheme of things, the more likely they are to place themselves in their organisations to step up and make transformational shifts.

We create circumstances to light the light about the roles people take.

We’re teaching people to look for windows of opportunity.

Academic freedom for faculty, but all students in both curriculum and co-curriculum.

Rolling this out 250,000 students is new, and people are excited by it, taking it to scale.

We find with young people, even the ones who are not yet activated, when we ask the right questions, the introspection and reflection is there – the awareness is there. It doesn’t take that much to get it to come to the surface in a students own words – in his or her own community and family’s relationship to the complex global

What does it take to awaken that conversation for all 29,000 students on our campus?

Campus as a living laboratory

What I’m finding now, is the under-current is not so far under we’re at a tipping point of conceptions of ourselves

(Sustainability at UCI…) has a long legacy…scientists here found the ozone hole, and went beyond their science to make sure it was addressed.

Our purpose…community engaged sustainability scholarship integral to UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching and service campus…what this means to us is engages our students, faculty and staff in the understanding that the role of the scholar, the engaged scientist and the engaged citizen are compatible, complementary, and in fact necessary.

Resilience…is not an effort of bouncing back, but bouncing forward. The key elements are not only mitigation and adaptation, but also deep democracy.

The story we tell is simple: eco means home; ecosystems are relationships of home; ecology is our study of home, our knowledge of our relationships of home; economy is our management of home; our economy our way of managing should reflect our knowledge of our relationships of home; our fundamental relationships of home are interdependence; it is time for our economy to reflect our interdependence; it is time for us to do the work of releaving humanity back into the web of life; that means a lot of creative work to create new systems and cultures of a life sustaining society.

The American Dream is being constantly redefined. The version with the white picket fence and every man has his castle didn’t turn out to work for many people at all. The coyote trickster beauty of this moment of ecological transition is that we are talking about distributed power, we’re talking about people coming together to figure out their waste management and their food production, and their water gathering and energy storage, and when communities need to reorganise in this way then they need to know each other, they need to talk with each other, get in each others’ business and this is where the personal mastery comes in.

It needs a spectrum of strengths: people work to change the systems and cultures of industrialised growth society through actions like service, resistance, governance and reform, and people also dedicate themselves to create new cultures of life sustaining society. Transformation happens over time, and the most effective communities I have seen have people working all parts of the spectrum of strengths and knowing their location on that spectrum and that of other…so people aren’t working in isolation.

It is not my place to answer if what we are doing is radical enough, we do the training to set up young people to know how to ask the questions.

(Success?) We’re in the middle of the process, successes are around conversations. Some high points of success, Obama speaking about sustainability and climate change at UCI, the Dalai Lama.

(Activist?) I’m a life-long activist.

There are ways to walk in the world, characterised by action, without a stickiness around the outcome. Doing this work from a place of joy and integrity so that we can be here for the long-haul no matter what the long-haul brings. Our understanding is that if we do this work right now, we are developing the strengths of relationships and of inter-being that we will need to call on later if and when systems move towards collapse.

(Motivation?) I am here on this planet, I am alive, I am lucky enough not to have had my life taken already, there are plenty of people who are similarly motivated whose lives have been taken – if I’m still here the only work worth doing is work that enables people to have the space to life in freedom and live in the right relationships with each other and the earth.

(Challenge?) (UCI has set…) aggressive targets with lots of moving parts. But if we do it right it could be the blueprint for how to do it nationally and internationally. How to integrate South and North. Deepening students’ understanding of interdependence.

(Miracle?) Authentic engaged dialogue with communities. The shift I’m most interested in is what happens when we do the hard work to build communities right where we are to accelerate the shifts we need to see.

(Advice?) The perspective I would invite listeners to entertain is how would your life be different if you truly believed you belonged in the web of life, and how would your actions be different if you saw you had a critical role in the web of life to weave humanity back in.

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

education systems

Transforming education

Stephen Sterling

Professor Stephen Sterling is of Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the University of Plymouth. His argument that education needs to both transform and be transformative has transformed Education for Sustainability, both in the UK and internationally.

Talking points

I was an environmentalist before the term was coined

I read a book Teaching for Survival, about the time of the first big environmental conference in Sweden… and I thought, I’m going to get into environmental education, because that’s what’s going to make the difference.

(When did it become sustainability as we know now?) There was sent discussion pre-1987 but the Brundtland report was the turning point…the debate shifted up a gear and sustainable development became part of the currency.

1992 was a key point with the two streams really coming together

(Masters programme developed by WWF) Originally called Masters in Environmental and Development Education, it brought together the two streams, later it changed its name to Education for Sustainability.

“What’s your definition of sustainability?” is not a sound bite kind of a question. I tend to get round it by saying it’s the sorts of approaches (to education and learning) that we need if we are to assure the future economically, socially, and environmentally.

I see sustainability as a set of system conditions…conditions that for all intents and purposes can last forever, whatever system you are talking about. Sustainable Development is a pathway towards those conditions, but it’s a dynamic state.

I remember Crispin Tickell…talking about those three dimensions…not just in terms of having the three dimensions – because people think if you’ve got the three that’s it – but in terms of “seeing them in terms of each other”.

I make the distinction between the weak and strong sustainability diagrams. I go for the strong sustainability diagram – a systems diagram with concentric circles – economy being a subset of society, society being a subset of environment. The Venn diagram is good as a teaching tool – asking what is right and wrong with it? – but in terms of representing reality we have to go with a strong systems diagram.

Recently I’ve been working on, if you’ve got the philosophical ideas, how do they apply in a practical setting. The application of the ideas and their implications…is a challenge…how to reorient (higher education) towards sustainability.

I think one of the key problems with our western psyche is a reductionist mindset

People think that’s something that geographers and scientist should do, but we put it into yet another box

Sustainability is not the key issue…the problem is unsustainability

The key issue is why is a lot of what we do unsustainable?

What informs worldviews and mindsets…what does the required change in mindset mean, and what is the role of education in getting us there?

Education itself is not necessarily a solution unless we look at the assumptions and paradigms that influence educational policy and practice.

How can we rethink educational paradigms, policy and practice so that it is more amenable…the challenge of unsustainability and the opportunities of sustainability?

We need transformation in learner and process

We need learning processes that go deeper than content…engagement of deeper parts of our beings…requirements for teaching contexts

Getting people to think about deeper questions, their own assumptions and social assumptions…that’s where reflexivity comes in, and you can’t achieve a level of reflexivity with learners unless you have teaching and learning situations that stimulate that kind of reflection.

Always it’s a matter of bringing in sideways views and surprises in teaching methodology. For people to think “oh, ok, well..” and starting thinking and questioning and making enquiries that they wouldn’t otherwise not have made.

A lot of it is focussing on issues that are not amenable to standard solutions, maybe present ethical dilemmas and so on. That demands a deeper level of reflection than simple factual stuff.

Different disciplines will have different content bases, but sustainability demands a deeper response, making connections which otherwise wouldn’t be made.

I’ve made a career of trying to encourage teachers and learners to think in more holistic ways.

(How much do you need to front-load with gloom?) Not an easy question to answer – differences of opinion. Reality or disempower? Tendency…is to front-load too much around big issues and trends.

I think we need a degree of realism…there’s enough research reports to refer to…but balance that content around all the considerable initiatives, positive, driving forward that sustainability is inspiring.

Relational thinking.

Adjectival education…all about trying to improve relationships with something – relationality. ‘Education for change’ movements are all about trying to change relationships for the better.

Gregory Bateson in 1972 said we are governed by epistemologies we know to be wrong – objectivism, materialism, reductionism, dualism and so on. These ideas are part of the western intellectual legacy. These ideas cut us off from each other and from the environment. What we need to do is what Peter Reason calls an extended epistemology: embracing the other. Our relationship with others, our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with animals, our relationship with future generations. That idea of relationality is key to sustainability. A lack of relationship – a lack of identification, a lack of empathy – at it’s heart underpins unsustainbility, because we’re left with individualism.

We live in a systematic world

Everything is highly interconnected, and that’s been exacerbated by the technological revolution and globalisation, we need modes of thinking that are adequate to that highly interconnected world. If we think in a reductionist and individualist way, also an aggressive and competitive way, that’s going to cause more harm than good.

We need to think in a way that we are more aware of systemic consequences because they happen anyway

We need to use everything we’ve got at our disposal, some people are dismissive of social marketing “that’s not proper education”, but we need to use everything we have, time is short, if you can give people financial incentives to ‘do the right thing’ then that’s a start, and they might go beyond that to ask why they are encouraged to do that.

There’s no single answer to any of this.

All the issues tend to be related, we can’t just tick off climate change and say ‘well that’s done’, it has huge links with other issues, that was pointed out by Club of Rome, 40 years ago. We need to see issues together. That aside, the issue that worries me that doesn’t get much attention which I think is addressing biodiversity.

People tend to think biodiversity is ‘just a few plants and animals, very nice but we can afford to lose a few’, but that’s the web of life that supports everything else.

Quite apart from the arguments for the intrinsic value of nature – they have a right to exist in their own right – that’s whole idea of ecosystems services. The functions the ecosphere performs are vital, if that breaks down you can forget economic growth.

Clearly putting everything in terms of what nature does for us is important, but it shouldn’t be the only reason we’re looking after nature – intrinsic values not instrumental values

The Future Fit thinking framework is a practical guide

Focus on problem solving worries me

We live in a culture…coming out of our scientific legacy…we tend to think if we can define a problem then there must be a solution.

Clearly a lot of problems are amenable to simple problem solving…but not all problems are, and sadly a lot of sustainability problems are not of that character – they are complex, wicked problems that are not amenable to simple problem solving.

Learners need to be given a range of problems, from simple problems right through to complex issues – and get them to think how they should be approached differently, and that gives them an intellectual toolkit – to recognise that there’s no single category called problems, and that there’s a whole spectrum of different problems of different nature that require different approaches

Wicked problems can be approached…we can take actions which have beneficial systemic consequences. But if you take ill-considered unwise actions you start having a number of negative consequences that you didn’t foresee.

Critical thinking, but then what? What is your response to that? If you manage to raise someone’s critical awareness about an issue, but then don’t offer them a way of taking that inquiry forward, allowing them any form of engagement – that’s a bit of a half step – leaving the inquiry half way through

(Motivation) From when I was a kid, I’ve felt part of the whole, I’ve been outward looking, been aware of others – nature, animals, people, people and my place in relation to them – I’ve always felt that way and wanting to make a change for better

(Activist?) In a kind of way, yes, but not in the way that term often implies. I can look back over the last 30 years and know that I’ve enabled quite a lot of change to happen. To that extent yes, but I’m not out on the streets with barricades.

(Challenges) I find myself in a fortunate and privileged position, I want to use it wisely and well because it’s a responsibility.

I don’t write a lot of academic journal papers because I don’t think they make much difference, I’m in this game to change thinking and action.

(Miracle) What’s been frustrating has been a lack of real understanding by government and senior civil servants…if governments really understood the depths of challenges we’re facing nationally and globally over the next 20-30 years, maybe they would be more supportive the changes in education that I’ve been advocating

The reason governments don’t respond is for one of two reasons, one is that they don’t understand it, the other is that they do understand it. Because if they do understand, it means a radical shift in policy…and they’re not necessarily up for that.

(What could we do to simplify sustainability narrative?) An extremely good question, we’re stuck in a semantic problem, for some people we need to get away from the sustainability narrative itself and put it in terms people can come to terms with on their own terms.

Systems thinking is a way of getting people to recognise the dynamic nature of things, and their place in it, and the importance of taking note of consequences.

(Advice) Get informed, and get involved. There’s so much people can do at any level. At lot of it is possibly difficult but it is in many ways exciting.

Note: this interview was recorded in the week of the Scottish Independence referendum in early September 2014.