How did you become interested in environmental issues?
In retrospect I can see that my interest in environmental issues originates from having been taken on camping and mountain walking holidays in England, Wales and Scotland when I was a child and teenager. Each year I resented not being able to join my friends on the Costa del Sol, but once the tents were up I loved it. We went on these holidays because my father is Tasmanian and a serious bushwalker in his time; he wanted us to be competent in remote areas, and to share something of the respect he acquired through bushwalking in some of Tasmania’s heritage wilderness.
Until I gained a better understanding of global economics and geopolitics, it seemed ironic that my father had such intense feelings about wilderness heritage whilst working in the petroleum industry, though he always reminded us that the Society of Petroleum Engineers were one of the world’s first conservation organizations. More recently I’ve come to understand that it’s not a contradiction so much as an example of how people can naturally hold multiple points of view: be idealists and pragmatists simultaneously.
When I was in my teens the family moved back to Tasmania, but it wasn’t until I was at university that I started bushwalking in the state’s wilderness areas. It’s impossible to be a bushwalker and not be acutely aware of how Tasmanian politics is shaped by the tension between those who would conserve and preserve the diminishing old growth forests, and those who see the forests and the mineral reserves beneath them as primary resources that ought to be exploited for jobs and a strong economy.
It’s hard to convey the sense of despair and anger I felt when I realized that Tasmania’s irreplaceable temperate rainforest (irreplaceable because of the effects of climate change), which share truly ancient species of flora with parts of Chile, Patagonia and New Zealand, could be gone in within a generation. In response I did some volunteering with the Wilderness Society, but recognized that whilst I could contribute as an administrator, tying myself to trees and bulldozers was not for me – I don’t like confrontation, but, moreover, I found the politics of resistance were too black-and-white for me to just ‘buy in’.
Later, when back living in the UK, I did a part-time Master’s degree in Science, Culture and Environment. The environmental ethics modules enabled me to understand the intellectual history of environmental conflicts around the world, as well as the complexity and breadth of thought bound up with environmental concerns. When I went back to university full-time, to do further postgraduate study with OU Geography, I was able to learn more about how environmental issues are intertwined – and often in conflict with – the needs of social and economic development. Being able to understand the multiple points of view has freed me from the paralysis of despair and anger I felt all those years ago.
A key moment for me occurred in 2001, when I realized just how much my own life would span a major transition of human life on the planet. Before coming back to the UK, when I was trying to find a meaningful way to engage my environmental sensibilities, I spent time studying at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the USA.
On my instructor assessment expedition in the Rockies Wind River Range, Wyoming, our route took us across a mountain pass that was the point of origin of two glaciers. From a permanent snowfield in the pass one glacier flowed down the eastern side of the range whilst the other flowed west. NOLS has been teaching and running expeditions here since the 1960s, but ours was the first to be present when the ‘join’ between the two glaciers melted out; the ‘permanent’ snowfield was divided by a gap of about a metre, which hadn’t been there the previous summer.
As I looked down at the recently exposed dusty rocks underneath, and at the dripping, paper-thin edges of the glaciers melting away from each other, it hit home that these rocks had been covered since the last ice age and that the glaciers would not reconnect until the next ice age; there, in front of me, was the evidence that I was living through a major environmental transition. And it made me sad.
What are you most interested in relation to environment at the moment?
As mentioned, how environmental issues are intertwined and often in conflict with the needs of social and economic development are at the heart of my thinking now. My PhD, which I completed in 2012, involved studying the moral economy of global-level water governance, and it was a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with how a key environmental resource – water for domestic use – has become such a political ‘hot potato’ from an international down to the local level. It matters to me that the social and cultural activism around access to water, especially in urban and peri-urban areas, hasn’t necessarily brought access to improved water to more people (and in some cases may have acted against the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable).
It also matters to me that the media tends to promulgate the black-and-white political orientation of many well-meaning but economically-naïve social activists. It’s just as well, then, that much of the real progress in improving access to water goes on behind the scenes, with media-shy pragmatists from both ends of the political spectrum ‘just getting on with it’. Balancing peoples’ needs for food, employment, public transport, medical care and education with affordable water provision is complex and entirely dependent on the specifics of each situation. I feel that many environmental issues revolve around these kinds of complexities and specificities, and that solutions require multi-perspective and multidisciplinary understandings – along with a strong dose of pragmatism.
What do you think you will be doing in 1 year, 5 years and 10 years’ time?
My own attitudes have definitely changed as a consequence of learning more. I expect that this will continue, provided I keep putting myself in learning situations. I’m already of a generation that has grown up with environmental issues at the forefront of our concerns about ‘the now’ and the future, but I also feel that I have little control or impact over what will happen; in my lifetime at least (and I’m only 40) I can’t see anything other than catastrophe changing the course determined by the current political-economic status quo.
As for younger people, they’re growing up in a world in which climate change and other significant environmental concerns aren’t new ideas. I reckon some will be enraged about the legacy they’ve inherited and will act accordingly, or it’ll be so normalized that they’ll be indifferent. Where you’ve grown up, whether your sense of ‘the environment’ is something abstract or tangible, whether you can even afford to care and act upon environmental concerns (in the sense of balancing individually important needs for food, jobs, a decent quality of life etc.) all makes a difference.
What makes you most optimistic, and what makes you most pessimistic about the future in relation to environmental issues?
I vacillate between optimism and pessimism with regard to environmental issues. Comparing the global political economy to a super-tanker best encapsulates the pessimism I feel with regard to the amount of time it will take to change course, towards sustainable energy solutions not based upon fossil fuels, towards industrial and farming practices that don’t irrevocably pollute our diminishing supplies of accessible fresh water, towards curbing excessive consumption and waste production, towards a means for developing countries to improve their socio-economic situation without deforestation and other primary industry degradations.
And that’s based on the assumption that global political-economic forces are even concerned to shift course… and at the local and regional level, again, the overwhelming complexity of balancing environmental concerns with the multitude of daily pressing needs, compounded by the local effects of short-term greed and corruption, makes substantive change unlikely any time soon.
A chink of optimism arises when I think of the myriad small-scale ideas, endeavours and technologies being pursued by those less pessimistic than myself. I’m also aware of how the generation after me is already beginning to have an impact.
It makes me realize that whilst I might be aware of my place in a moment of transition, the transition itself will take generations – it won’t just be my generation that has to find solutions and enact change, as much as I would like to see that happen. More importantly, my generation has to try not to add to the challenges faced by those that follow.
This diary is featured in the Creative Climate Learning Journey Neither Land Nor Sea.