climate change community geography

inspirational community movements

Sean Connelly and Doug Hil


 Imagine. Imagine if the world was like this.

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


Doug: I am, Shane, yes.


Shane: Where were you born?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Doug: It’s a huge issue in India.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam: Is Australia on the edge?


Doug: On the edge?


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


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


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


Sam: Presumably they’re aware of that tension?


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


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


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


Sam: Is it a young people’s movement?


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


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


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


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


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


Shane: How big is this movement now?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam: Do we know which ones work?


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


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


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


Sam: Geographers!


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


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


Doug: This your moment.


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


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


Doug: Yeah.


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


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


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


Doug: My superpower?


Sam: Yeah.


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


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


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


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


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


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


Doug: Yeah, maybe. Sure.


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam: What motivates you?


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


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


Doug: Personally or professionally or … ?


Sam: You can have both.


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


Sam: Does sustainability mean the same thing there?


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


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


Doug: Of course.


Sam: But, can we do it?


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


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


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




community geography

spaces of empowerment

Sophie Bond

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

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

Sophie:                 Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam:                      They have a great school I might add.

Shane:                  What school is that?

Sophie:                 Logan Park.

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

Sophie:                 My daughter studies there too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shane:                  Sounds very near anarchist.

Sophie:                 Very much informed by anarchist thinking, yeah.

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

Sophie:                 No.

Sam:                      Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie:                 Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie:                 Yes.

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

Shane:                      10,000 yeah, 12,000.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie:                 Time banks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie:                 I talk about alternative futures, probably.

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

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

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

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

Shane:                  Is it radical enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam:                  What would have to change?

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

Sam:                  They do pay you.

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

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

Sophie:                 Issues of injustice.

Shane:                  That was quick.

Sophie:                 It’s the biggest motivator.

Sam:                  Has that always been a driver?

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

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

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

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

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

Sam:                  In any particular community or just in general?

Sophie:                 In general, I think.

Sam:                  Starting with the whole world.

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

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

Sophie:                 Thank you

Sam:                  What would you see actively happen differently?

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

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

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

Sam:                  Is radical change some sort of luxury then?

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

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

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

Shane:                  What do we do about that?

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

Shane:                  That’s not going to happen.

Sophie:                 I know.

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

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

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

Sophie:                 Can I have two?

Sam:                 Yeah.

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

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

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

Shane:                  That was already three, not two.

Sam:                      that’s actually …

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

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

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

Sophie:                 Say that again.

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

Sophie:                 Talk to your neighbor.

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

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

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

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

Shane:                      That’s great, be the change.


geography urban

Place-based sustainability

Harvey Perkins

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

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

Talking Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are no simple solutions to complex problems.

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

Energetic people with vision have capacity to make a difference

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

Political will, vision…energy

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

(Motivation?) Connecting ideas with practice

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

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

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

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

development geography

Gendered inequality

Nina Laurie

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

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

Talking points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stopping poverty to stop the domino effect from Cuba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographers are born not made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not having voices heard is my take on injustice.

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

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

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


Professor with impact

Richard Morgan

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

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

Talking points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s values, every time.

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

Sustainability is a moral stance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Miracle?) Solution to sequestering carbon

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

(Advice?) Get a good night sleep.

botany ecology

Ecology: Connected science

Kath Dickinson

The essence of ecology is that it is all around us.

Prof Kath Dickinson is a plant ecologist at the University of Otago. She has broad interests particularly in plant-animal interactions. We talk with her about the science of ecology, and the role of people in ecological systems.

Talking points

It’s always a good idea to be very grounded in getting your feet wet.

I’m very glad I started with geography – the breadth can lead you in multiple directions.

Ecology is the study of interactions.

Ecology is a complex science, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to understand it. For me, ecology is inclusive of people.

It is easy to think in the linear way, but complexity means thinking in a non-linear.

We can think of a community as a spider web, hugely complex and very strong in some directions, but easily disrupted in others – by fast and slow disruptions.

If we look at ecosystems, there aren’t boundaries, but considering scale helps, we can say whether we are talking at scale of tree, or forest, or country level, or ocean level.

Ecologists as a field tends to attract people who are attracted to complex thinking, who are able to multitask – thinking about things across scales and in a non-linear fashion.

The term ecology is being taken widely…as a sense of understanding interactions, with respect to can we discern some patterns, some sense out of it. And if we can’t…what is the role of chaos?

That in New Zealand and Australia people are considered separate to the system, even in Australasian ecological science, probably represents the colonisation history…despite the integrated worldview of the indigenous peoples. But now we are increasing working with a message of integration – from mountains to the sea.

Social ecology is a recognition of the role of people in the system.

I talk with students about a play on words: a part from the system – two words – and apart from the system, one word. The writings stemming from the colonial, Christian ethic uses one word: apart from the system. The writings of sustainability, resilience, adaption, the ecosystem services approach all show a move to a part of the system.

(Can we describe the essence of a functioning ecosystem in terms that can be reduced to money?) In some situations, its a tightrope we walk, what economic value does one put on beauty? what economic value does one put on spiritual enrichment? what economic value does one put on a Cromwell chafer beetle?

We are starting to recognise the value of ecosystems…wetlands for example.

(But does this reinforce idea that nature is there for us to exploit?) If we look at the whole planet as a system, Gaia and the moon landings…ecologists might want to talk about integrating ecology with economics

Scale…whether timescale or spatial scale, getting understanding…means understanding scale. Be very aware of what question I’m asking, match the question to the scale. Not one scale fits every problem?

(Does ecology have an inherent ethics?) As a science yes. But it doesn’t necessarily require a care ethic.

Ecology is a continuum to sustainability. A broad philosophical debate.

As humanity becomes increasingly urbanised, the connection to nature becomes more distant. So we need an appreciation of natural history, a positive relationship with nature, rather than a fear or a distance.

Climate change is the biggy, but there are very rapid changes in land cover and oceans.

The rapidity of change is of immediate concern, this is not to dismiss the important and complexity of climate change, but the very rapid phase shift with systems around the world, much like the spider’s web analogy – it easy to destroy a spiders web, but try building it back up again – it takes time, even if it is possible.

There are several elephants in the room: history (decades, centuries, evolutionary) and often we don’t know that, what we see is what we can measure – usually 20 years if we are lucky…the other elephants: market forces; how particular decisions are affected by literal downstream effects – we need integrated land policy.

(Activist?) Out there waving a board saying no to nuclear power? No, but there people who are proactive in the sense of caring about whether it is a hydroelectric dam, or dirty rivers, or the quality of our soils. But as a scientist its a tightrope over maintaining credibility as a scientist and being out there wanting to make a difference. So endeavoring to make a difference.

(Motivation?) Endeavouring to make a difference. If you gather a group of people together to solve a complex problem, and you want to make a difference, it’s not the collective IQ you have in the room, it is the diversity that you have in the room. So there’s a motivation in listening to different perspectives, and valuing perspectives, which isn’t to walk away from fact that decisions can be difficult to make, and not everybody might agree, but the chances are that the diversity will lead to a more robust outcome.

(Challenges?) New courses starting. Interesting challenges of funding.

(Advice?) As individuals we can pull together to make a difference.

community geography

Communities at scale

Sean Connelly

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

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

Talking points

Local populations get caught up in global environmental movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are exciting and inspiring stories of people rethinking practices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

climate change communication policy politics

Shifting the paradigm

Nathan Argent

Nathan Argent is the Chief Policy Advisor for Greenpeace New Zealand. He says we need to challenge the current narrative, that fossil fuels are the future: “New Zealand can get back it’s Mojo, putting us back on the world stage for being the innovators of a smarter greener society, that’s the challenge for us”.

Talking points:

(Am I an activist) An activist largely depends on peoples’ definition an perception of what an activist does. The young me was definitely an activist, I’ve been with Greenpeace now for nearly 12 years. Am I active in trying to change the way we do business, the way we power our homes – that we do in in a much smarter cleaner way, that we reduce pollution? then yes, I’m an activist in that sense, But I think as I’m becoming older and my experience and knowledge has grown, I’m probably more of a pragmatist..pragmatic but in a disruptive sense.

I’m probably more of a pragmatist..pragmatic but in a disruptive sense. Thinking about the landscape, thinking what are the pragmatic ways that we can reach our goals, but ensuring that those goals are always pushing the boundaries of change. Trying to disrupt the ways we do things, trying to shift the paradigm.

One side to Greenpeace, we need to be out there agitating, and we are reliant on the vast number of people who come to us to volunteer to be part of the grassroots activist movement, but we are also an organisation that has to through necessity sit at the boardroom table and engage with business, and push business in the right direction – and sometimes hold their hand if need be.

Sometimes once we’ve put someone on the front pages if need be – if they’ve done something wrong, my job is to go in there to work them to get it right – to embed more sustainable ways of doing business.

We are an activist organisation, but there’s also a degree of pragmatism as well.

The lions share, 90% of our work is solutions focussed – thinking about he science, working with experts, academia to think about the best and quickest way that we can deliver those solutions to our environmental challenges, the greatest of all being climate change. A lot of our solution side work never gets any pick up. The media perception of us and that’s largely the lens through which people see us is all about us breaking the law or climbing onto ships to stop them coming into port, so we need to think about how we tell our story better, but sometimes the substance of that solutions is seen as not really newsworthy when I would like to see that it should be.

People on the phone think “oh no, Greenpeace is on the phone what have I done wrong”, when that’s not the case at all, I see them as an important stakeholder in the problem and want to work with them to try and find that solution.

Our role is to keep pushing the envelope. There is a real sense of urgency about the work we need to do. Not just as an organisation, but there’s a sense of urgency that we’re not doing enough as a society to deal with the problems we have. And that’s when we go back to being the activist organisation, we need to keep pushing the envelope, we need to keep spiking interest in those issues, so that we create the space for that conversations to be had and for those solutions to be found.

At the moment we (NZ) has got a government tat is very pre-occupied in investing all its political capital in resource extraction, typically oil and gas, and that’s largely overlooking that fact that New Zealand as a country has become very good at through several generations at generating clean green energy. We are also very good at pioneering innovation…(yet we’re investing in inviting oil and gas companies to come here).

Given that there’s a growing sense of urgency globally about climate change, and countries and businesses around the world are investing the types of technology that New Zealand is very good at…we would rather see the NZ government put its emphasis on supporting our own engineers and innovators now before it becomes too late.

We don’t endorse any party…we will work with anybody who is prepared to have a conversation about delivering those progressive policies that we need to embed. But, by the same token, as a lobby group we are politically active, and we will criticise a government for not doing the right thing.

The current government in NZ has been woeful on its efforts to tackle climate change, their rolling back of environmental safeguards across the board, our emissions profile is going up instead of down, and we’re not growing our clean energy potential in the way that we should be, so we will be critical of that.

We need to fundamentally challenge the paradigm, we can’t continue to grow and grow and grow infinitely and and just tweak it to a cleaner smarter way. Perhaps growth is too often used to talk about the economy. As part of a transition – this is the practical side of Greenpeace – the radical side of us would say we need to fundamentally address growth, and really think about how we sustain ourselves and embed the environment and understand that the environment is core to everything that we do and we are dependent on our environment. But I think that as part of the transition we need to position ourselves in the debate.

Climate change is the greatest challenge we face, if you look an environmental, or developmental challenges – even if you can separate the two and I don’t think you can – climate change will lead to displaced populations, lack of water resources, more extreme weather events – the impacts are very broad, very widespread and will have severe consequences for many regions or the world.

The way we see it is, all roads lead to dealing with this overwhelming challenge that is climate change.

Climate change is the symptom of everything we do.

The scientific community needs to become better at communicating what they do.

There should no longer be any oxygen for the climate denial debate.

Conversation is dictated by me trying to reason with them about the scientific certainty about climate change, when I’d much rather be talking about what we could all do to deal with the problem. Accept that there is a problem we need to get on and do something collectively, and dealing with the problem doesn’t need to be that painful.

In the longer term it makes sense to do things in a cleaner, smarter cheaper way. If we get locked into a high carbon economy, that’s going to cots you and I a lot of money – there’s going to be a lot of stranded assets. So why not start now.

It’s about putting in place those safe-guards so our kids have got a future to look forward to- that we don’t have oil washing up on our beaches, that we’re no longer inhaling pollutants in the cities we live in, it all makes sense, why would we disagree with it when the outcomes are better for everybody, and most importantly the planet.

Is it the neo-liberal ideology that the markets will come up with a solution? Markets are the problem. Climate change is an absolute market failure. And the market hasn’t come up with a solution.

Plans to feed the world from NZ with dairy product… completely fails to recognise the limits of our country. We can’t multiply our dairy industry by a factor of two or three to meet these needs. It would ruin New Zealand.

Until there’s a price on activity, and you can continue to externalise costs so that the rest of the taxpayers have to pay because we suffer because we can’t swim in the rivers of the taxpayer has to pay for clean-up programmes, until you start making the farmers pay for the resource use, then there’s no incentive for them to do things in a cleaner way.

(On carbon pricing increasing the cost to families) It’s a politically paralysing story to tell when it’s an incomplete story. There’s always a lack of political will to do something if it’s going to hit the taxpayer in the pocket and this is often a reason for not doing stuff. The cost needs to be kept with the producer, but the whole premise of increasing cost is to make them change their behaviour, but the system seems to be incomplete.

Our actions are often bourne of frustration – it’s the final tool we’ve got in our toolbox when dialogue has broken down.

We do have to put things in the public eye. Sometimes the most effective thing in moving a company is consumer pressure. Unless consumers know that there’s a problem with the products, and that through their buying power they can change the company’s policy, so sometimes that’s the most effective thing.

Companies are acutely sensitive to their brand. We use that a lot and we’re not shy about saying so. Sometimes putting a company on the front page of a paper is the most effective way you can get them to move – and move really quickly.

This can transform an industry, as a major player doing the right thing, and telling their customers they’re doing the right thing they get an advantage, and that can be the gravity or the catalyst for others to be doing the right thing so it has a positive knock-on effect.

(On criticism of anti-oil protesters driving cars) It is demotivating , because people think “Well, yeah, actually I did drive my car here. Does that make me a hypocrite?”, well no I don’t think it does. We all pay taxes, do we not have a right to say where our taxes should be spent, whether it’s on education or arms. The system is not working, it’s failing, pollution is an absolute failure of the current system we live in, does that mean we’re not allowed to ask questions and challenge that and ask that it be done in a better smarter way. Ideally we’d all drive electric cars to those protests, but currently we can’t because the system doesn’t allow that. But surely we’re entitled as individuals to ask that we do change the system. Then we won’t need to drive to protests, or banners on the beach, because there won’t be a need to do so.

Other Sustainable Lens conversations mentioned in this podcast:

Mike Sammons
Naomi Oreskes
Rob Burton.

climate change communication

Communicating climate science

Andrew Tait

I’m driven by the communication of science – how information is used – can it influence somebody? can it open people’s eyes to possibilities?

Dr Andrew Tait is a Principal Scientist in the climate team at NIWA. A geographer, he focusses on the application of climate information. We talk about his role and the challenges of communicating science.

Talking points:

Objectivity is needed rather than an emotional response

Denialism is beyond what a scientist can really handle. They’ve got a world view and if your information doesn’t fit that worldview the they’re just closed to it

Climate information is a part of the landscape of being able to do what you do sustainably

I’m impressed by the adoption of sustainable principles – as a nation we’re managing drought on a large scale – this has been a change in thinking

People appreciate the effort you make to try to connect with them, and saying if you want to be able to making the best decisions you possibly can then please take account of this information

The enormity of decision making such as sea level rise – boy oh boy – it evokes interesting and sometimes heated discussions with people concerned for the future value of their properties

Have to ask the question, would we be better off if we didn’t know, or didn’t attempt to know just because there may be significant implications?

There’s got to be a strategic push for people to actually start doing the work – seriously thinking about implications. We have a hesitancy to start doing that work because of perceived implications of what the results might show

I’m driven by the communication of science – how information is used – can it influence somebody? can it open people’s eyes to possibilities?

(Do you make a point of staying out of the political?) For sure. (safe is a politically charged term, should scientists use such terms?). To me is going beyond what a scientist should be doing, but there’s a frustration for a scientist who wants to provide the best information they possibly can for a decision-maker to use and seeing that the information isn’t being used well. There’s a big frustration there, and I can understand why others, particularly if they’ve got a global soapbox will, and have got into this debate – that of why isn’t more being done? From my perspective I’m not prepared to get into that area. I want to help as much as I possibly can. … We’re such a small community of scientists, that we do get involved in discussions with policy makers at all levels – and we can be at the personal level of talking to a minister, or a CEO. But they don’t want us to be telling them what to do. I don’t think anyone wants someone coming in from an ivory tower telling them what to do. But people appreciate the effort that we make to try to connect with them – to say, if you want to making the best decisions you possibly can, then please take account of this information and understand how it was derived and what its implications are. The scientist can do a lot to make that bridge.

The old model of scientist as the remote expert is gone, people are part of the system so they have to part of the research

heritage museum

Heritage: place, past and future

Neil Cossons (University of Liverpool - with permission)

Many of the best things have happened because of lunatics with fire in their bellies – I like to think I’ve been an animator of lunatics

Sir Neil Cossons is a leading authority on heritage and industrial archaeology. During his career he has led major museums – from 1983 to 1986 Neil Cossons was the Director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and for fourteen years Director of the Science Museum, London. He has served as a non-executive director of British Waterways Board. From 2000 until 2007 he was Chairman of English Heritage, the United Kingdom Government’s principal adviser on the historic environment of England.

Sir Neil was Director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum from 1971 to 1983. Sir Neil has published several books. He was knighted in 1994 for his work in museums and heritage.

Sir Neil was in Dunedin to help celebrate the 150th Celebration of the Dunedin Gasworks Museum.

Talking points:

All history is a form of myth, but accepting the inadequacies of the process you can get something back from the process

The real job is stimulating people to use their imagination

I regret not having been enough of a lunatic

I think the best thing I could do was support activists.

The role (of government heritage organisations) is in recognising the energy, intellect, knowledge and activist capacity of communities to do good things

One of the aspects that appeals to me, rather perversely, is where you see groups (as is here in Dunedin with the Gasworks) taking on what for most people would be either a lost cause or something where people say ‘why on earth would you bother – Gasworks – horrible places’ and really bringing them to life

Science Museum, London
Elgin marbles
Trent Lock
SS Great Britain
British Waterways
Bletchley Park
Preston Bus Station
Skansen Museum (Stockholm)
Plimouth Plantation
Queen St Mill, Burnley

geography history landscape

Prof Peter Holland


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

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

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

conservation biology tourism

Community service conservation

Imagine having lived near a forest reserve for years, finding that it isn’t a reserve but for sale and to be cleared, then convincing a few friends to join you in buying that forest, having it reclassified as a reserve and developing a heritage interpretive trail, and only then go looking for money to fund it (and, incidentally, find that money in the Rainbow Warrior retribution fund). Fergus Sutherland did just that – Shank’s Bush is now owned and managed by the Papatowai Forest Heritage Trust – and this is just one of his stories of community service in conservation.

Fergus and Mary Sutherland are pioneers of ecotourism. We trace Fergus’s amazing career bridging conservation, farming and tourism in one of the world’s most special places. Fergus and Mary now run run Catlins Ecotours.

We only have an hour but you get the feeling this conversation could go on for a very long time. We didn’t even get to talk about painting, or stone walls, or penguins, or gardening, or oral history, or the Otago Conservation Board, or Forest and Bird, or writing, or… (I think we’re going to have to have him back).

Some of the places we talk about (ex Sam via Flickr)

Shank’s Bush

“Possumer’s Track” Papatowai (through Tahakopa reserve)

Papatowai Catlins bush

Shane’s number of the week: 2.6% reduction in world harvest, which despite being the third highest on record is low enough to produce a global deficit of food.  Shane discusses George Monbiot’s argument that we may have gotten our understanding of the relationship between food and climate change very wrong.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking:  The 2012 report of Education For All was released today.

Train spotting: More pictures from the Catlins

Africa geography

Marginal sustainability

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

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

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

Train-spotting: we talk train-spotting!