SUMI: All planning, interviews and recording for this episode have taken place on Ngunnawal Country.
This is The Grass Ceiling, a guided tour of sustainability. Sustainability is ever-changing and complex, so join us as we break it down and figure it out. My name is Sumi, I’m one of the hosts of this show.
NICK: And I’m Nick, and I’m one of the other hosts.
SUMI: In episode 1, we sort of tried to give a history, context, and definition of the word “sustainability”, and I think the conclusion was that there’s no one definition of sustainability that can apply to every single person or every single context. But, in a way, that’s the beauty of the concept.
NICK: It started with a pretty simple story about environmentalism and environmental concerns, and then sustainability morphed out of that into many, many other things. And that’s why we ultimately landed on “it depends” as an answer as to what it is, because it concerns a lot more things today – and that’ll be relevant in today’s episode, just keeping that history in mind.
SUMI: So in the previous episode, we talked a bit about the three pillars of sustainability. And those pillars interact with one another in a way that, maybe we could say, it’s a check-and-balance of sorts, to make sure that social outcomes are not compromised in the name of an economic goal. And that’s great for business and policymakers, but sometimes those three pillars may seem a little distant to the rest of us.
NICK: Sure, a bit abstract.
SUMI: So the question is, how can the rest of us make sense of it?
BRETT: … yeah, okay. My name’s Brett, Brett McNamara. I’m manager with the ACT Parks and Conservation Service.
SUMI: Alright, Nick, you know this about me: I love national parks.
NICK: [laughs] Yes, you do.
SUMI: So it was really exciting and awesome to be able to sit down and chat with Brett, who’s been involved with parks and conservation for a very, very long time. And not just in the Australian Capital Territory.
BRETT: I suppose I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a very long association with both ACT Parks, but also more generally the Conservation Commission in the Northern Territory. I’ve basically, over the last 36 years, had this association with conservation management – or park management, as we call it today. I suppose I’ve seen a lot of changes over that time; the art of park management has evolved over that time.
Perhaps, to give you a bit of context about that, what do I mean by “the art of park management”? When I first started as a ranger, it was all about plants and animals. National parks was all about plants and animals. Parks were declared and set aside for the ecosystems – the plants, the animals that evolved there. And over time, we then expanded that concept to involve things such as heritage and huts. We then also expanded to include the Indigenous involvement in terms of that landscape, the cultural landscape that’s out there.
But in more recent times, I’ve come to form a view that park management is really more about people management, and ultimately, at the end of the day, what we do as environmental custodians – park managers, as we call ourselves – is really about people management. What do I mean by that, what is this concept of people management? Well, if you think about it, well prior to 1788, when Europeans arrived on a very ancient landscape, the environment was looking after itself. It was doing a pretty good job, too – in fact, it was doing a marvellous job. It’s only in the more recent time, the last couple hundred years that we Europeans, through the touch of the human hand, have had an adverse impact on the environment.
That’s the causation and the consequences of what we now deal with in terms of being park managers. In very simplistic terms, today, rangers are out there controlling weeds. But where did the weeds come from? Weeds came as a result of the touch of a human hand. We’re out there controlling feral animals: pigs, horses, deer, goats; where do they all come from? They came as a result of what we humans have done.
So this job, as a park manager, particularly here in the ACT, would be the easiest job in the world if we didn’t have to have people in the equation. It’s the people side of things which is what we do today. Park management is really about people management. One of the things I certainly advocate, for people who are studying in environmental backgrounds who want to be rangers, who want to have some sort of involvement with the environment – which is a wonderful cause to be involved with – you really need to understand the people. You know, what makes people tick? How do people interact or not interact with the environment? It’s almost like 101 People Management, you need to understand to actually be able to apply some of those principles to what we do.
SUMI: Earlier, in what Brett said, there’s just something I wanted to bring up really quickly. He mentioned that the environment can manage itself, and the touch of the human hand is what has led to adverse impacts on the environment. I think ultimately when we talk about things like the management of physical places like parks, it’s important to think about what the ultimate goal is, and what we consider to be positive or negative impacts. What he said about the environment can take care of itself, and that it was taking care of itself, implied that prior to European colonisation the Aboriginal people who have been here for millennia didn’t have that much to do with the management of country. Which isn’t entirely true.
Just now, in that story you were telling about environmental custodianship, you mentioned 1788 – and that, of course, the time when the First Fleet arrived here in Australia and colonisation began. But the landscape has been managed for thousands and thousands of years prior to that. So I’m wondering, what is it that might have been different with the European way of managing things upon arrival in Australia, from the First Peoples – the Indigenous people – in Australia?
BRETT: That’s a wonderful question. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to turn back the clock to be there in 1788-1790 as we Europeans were venturing onto this landscape and say, “You know what? Maybe we should stop, look and listen, and learn from what was actually happening with the Indigenous landscape. You know, looking at their ways, their practices – their way of moving across the landscape.” I sense that we didn’t, and that we brought European thinking to a very ancient landscape. You can see that with the animals we brought; the fox – why did we introduce the fox? Because we felt like the foxes were good back home in England. So the foxes were introduced. The pigs, the deer, the goats …
It’s easy to say all of this with hindsight – obviously 20/20 hindsight there. But you would like to think, if we did have that time over again, maybe having a little bit more compassion, a little bit more empathy, a little bit more of an open-mindedness as to what was occurring prior to 1788 … things might have been a little bit different. But that’s in the past, and we can’t, obviously, change that. My message is one of looking towards that future. There’s a classic like of, “Learn from the past, to inform the present, to guide the future.” And that really, I suppose, is a concept that’s always on the top of my mind: learning from the past, to inform our present, to guide our future.
SUMI: When Europeans came, they brought this impression and understanding of what the environment should be with them, and attempted to apply it wholesale to a very different environmental context.
NICK: A different way of managing the land, too, I’d say.
NICK: It’s not just that they were coming over with European style of thinking, it’s also that they lacked a sort of – you know, he talked about “stop, look and listen”, right? But that would have implied a fundamental rethink of how they even thought about ecological management, which itself wasn’t much of a formalised concept back then. But even if they had those direct conversations, with those First Australians back then, they wouldn’t have fully understood it. Does that make sense? You’ve got two civilisations evolving in very different ways, with some pretty fundamentally different ideas about their connection with nature.
SUMI: If we think back to the three pillars of sustainability – once again: ecological, environmental, social – at first it seems pretty obvious that park management is primarily concerned with the environment. So if we conduct the right tests, and know everything about the right plant and animal species, we can’t go wrong, can we?
NICK: Well, not exactly, ‘cause you’ve got to remember what Brett said about park management being about people management. He’s talking about social values, the way we as humans relate to and understand our natural environment.
SUMI: On social values, it sounds like you’re talking about something that might be considered to be a fourth pillar of sustainability, which we’ll go more in depth into in a future episode. And that’s culture. Culture has to do with the way that people relate to one another: their beliefs, their values, the sort of paradigm that they’re in with knowledge.
NICK: So you’re looking at the three pillars – societal, economic, and environmental – and there’s something about the world “social” that doesn’t quite capture culture. You might look at, say, sociology to understand society, but there’s going to be elements of sociology or anthropology that don’t provide you a full account of culture. For that, you might want to look at literature, poetry, visual arts, history, philosophy … Culture’s a very tricky thing to describe. When we talk about it in that future episode, it’s based on some work by an Australian academic who wrote a whole book on the subject. He spent like the first three quarters of the book just trying to define and hammer down what culture is, before he even got to the point of making an argument about it. Yeah, that’s the idea in a nutshell: you add a fourth pillar, as what you were saying, because the social alone doesn’t fully capture it.
We’ll see a lot of arguments about sustainability out there, and within them we’ll see a lot of logical fallacies. One of those is the false dichotomy, which essentially presents you with a false situation where you have to choose between A or B. In reality, there may be C, D, E, F, and so on down the alphabet available to you as well. But a false dichotomy presents it as a binary choice between one or the other.
The reason I’m talking about this is because we see this a lot when these different disciplines or areas of interest come into contact. So, the social might conflict with the economic, or the environmental, in particular, might conflict with the economic. We often hear that we cannot afford to pay for so-and-so environmental program, and this is often presenting a false dichotomy between paying for it or going for … Or, more broadly, we might see this in the ongoing war between arts and the humanities versus STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math); on one hand, art contributes to the culture and social side of things, whereas contributes more to the economic or environmental.
There’s sort of a philosophical war being waged at times between these two camps, because both of them claim – in their own way – to be “arriving at the truth”. Not everybody believes in that problematic way, but you can come across an engineering student, for example, who thinks that philosophy is worthless. You can come across a philosophy student who thinks that without some underlying philosophical understanding of the world, engineering is useless. This is all a good example of a false dichotomy; we don’t have to choose between the two necessarily. In most cases, we don’t have to, and they can be complementary or supplementary.
The knowledge from each different type of inquiry you get is going to change as well. Under a STEM-type approach, you might be much more quantitative, so you might care more about numbers and raw data. Whereas if you’re doing a sociological or anthropological thing, trying to get your answers about society or culture, you might be more qualitative – you’re talking to people about their feelings, their thoughts, their preferences, their behaviours, their beliefs, their values, and so on. So there’s parts of each discipline that contribute to a greater synthesis of the truth, rather than it being a zero-sum game where two disciplines enter, only one discipline leaves.
SUMI: Right, so in making decisions on something like managing parks, we need to draw from an understanding from various disciplines. Maybe it has to do with earth system sciences understanding how the physical processes that shape our natural world, might influence human behaviour over time. Or how maybe a new internet trend might affect people’s behaviour and how they interact with nature. Back on what Brett was saying about park management being about people management, we need to think about how society and politics are shaping people’s behaviour, and how people may interact with or make decisions on parks over time – just one discipline is not going to tell us the full story.
It’s obvious that we live in a time where there is a lot of change that’s happening. Any work that takes place in conservation needs to be adaptive and recognise that we need to act quickly. How does the ACT Parks and Conservation Service respond to new information that you get? What is your process of learning and implementing new facts that seem to come out on almost a daily basis?
BRETT: Yeah, again that’s a wonderful question. It’s one of those things about being open to that information. Sometimes as organisations, we operate within a little bit of a silo, where we only hear our own voices. We need to be able to have an open mind, and see these new and emerging trends.
The other thing I want to touch on here is around the relevance of parks as well. It’s something I’m very conscious of. Traditionally, as a parks service, we’ve spoken to community groups, bushwalking groups, people who have empathy towards the environment. We’ve been very good at talking to those groups. What I think we need to do as a parks service, is be very mindful of new and emerging communities. The city today that is Canberra is different to what it was when I grew up here. So how do we then make the environment that is the bush capital relevant to those people, to take away the mystique of it all? And they then become the environmental champions. But it’s a wider base than just a narrow focus in terms of traditional community groups there.
That’s probably one of the big things I see as a park agency, that we really do need to be relevant to our community. If we’re not relevant to our community, our community will turn around – perhaps at the ballot box – and say, “What’s parks all about? Why is that important to us?”
SUMI: Actually, this was something that was brought up at an event that you and I attended some time ago, which was organised by the volunteer-run National Parks Association of the ACT. We spoke to the 2018-2019 vice president, Cynthia Burton, after the event.
NICK: What would you say are some of the key takeaways, or observations from today? You specifically mentioned engaging younger people and so on, but I guess more broadly, that’s an almost strategic-level goal, which is to keep that organisation going. A community, largely volunteer-run – isn’t it?
CYNTHIA: Yup, hundred percent.
NICK: Hundred percent volunteer-run, right! So yeah, there’s this challenge in keeping that ball rolling. What would you say, just after running this event today, are some of your takeaways in terms of that community management and organisational management aspect?
CYNTHIA: I think the main takeaways for me personally would be, first of all, the importance that we develop some new strategies in terms of how we engage with not only younger people, but people of all different backgrounds – whether that be cultural, by age, or any other way that people identify themselves. We need to have more creative outreach strategies, and to map out where do different groups of people gather and enjoy themselves and do the things they believe in together. And tap into that network and see if they also have a shared interest with us, and a shared belief with what we’re doing, which is about protecting our national parks.
SUMI: That ties in really closely with what Brett said about keeping parks relevant to people, recognise that there is a diversity in the ways that people may value and relate to protected areas.
NICK: And it ties into that broader point we’re trying to make here, about bringing different disciplines together and recognising that a single discipline is not going to get you there. The problem that both the National Parks Association of the ACT and Brett are facing here is a communications problem. That requires an understanding of human psychology, it requires an understanding of best practices in communication – not just science communication, but press released and engagement more generally. You know how he was talking about, it should be people management, right? So there should really be somebody on his team who’s really savvy with social media, who understands memes maybe. I think we’re still seeing these organisations kind of trapped beneath the grass ceiling, to use the central theme to our research. This idea that they’re stuck too much in the environmental.
CYNTHIA: No one organisation or group has perfect knowledge of current issues or future issues. It would be very arrogant of any organisation – and the kiss of death, too – to get stuck in its old ways, and not think that there are other opinions out there and points of view and issues emerging. One of the reasons we brought so many groups together was to have that diversity of knowledge and experience to inform us on issues we may not have even thought of that someone else has been dealing with. The other is to learn more, again, about what are new and emerging issues from the point of view of different organisations and different age groups as well.
This organisation started with a mission to create a national park in the ACT 60 years ago, and it was successful. That’s the reason we have, for example, Namadgi [National Park]. Clearly, that’s an established institution now, that park, but there are many needs it has for future protection. There are issues arising all the time in a changing political and environmental landscape; we’ve got to get a good grasp of the implications of climate change for the future of our parks and the future of our city and the whole ACT area. And we also need to get a good grasp on a whole new range of issues that we didn’t have to deal with in the past, which is the growing urban landscape of the ACT.
How do we support good decision-making and government, and support community voice to come out and have a really robust, genuine conversation about what is a good, clean, green future for our city? And to share that knowledge and experience, and have conversations with people who may not be familiar with environmental issues, so that they come on the journey with us to understand why this is going to be important for their lives, their work, their children, their grandchildren, and so on.
SUMI: So yeah, as Brett and Cynthia have mentioned, there needs to be a conversation across disciplines and different parts of society in order to plan for a sustainable, long-term future. The question is: how do you actually make that happen? It’s all well and good to know that you need to be talking across disciplines and you need to have a broader, transdisciplinary understanding of how things relate to one another, but how do you actually make it happen? Well, according to this next person, you’ve got to do a Nike, and just do it.
The Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment is an independent statutory position established in 1993 by the ACT Government, and much of their work involves investigating and reporting on matters relating to the environment and sustainability. Hi, Kate.
SUMI: Kate Auty took up the position in 2016, and she’s been on many advisory boards and councils, and was also the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria before coming to Canberra. One way that Kate’s office makes sure that they’re not stuck too deep in one silo discipline is by making sure that their staff don’t all come from one disciplinary background.
Kate’s a lawyer by training, they’ve got a water ecologist who’s done lots of fieldwork in environmental reporting, they’ve got an environmental engineer, a spatial mapping and analysis expert, an environmental law graduate, and a human ecologist, who had –
KATE: – just left to go on maternity leave, and she’s the first person in the office to ever take maternity leave ever since 1993. Which tells you we’ve change some of the demographic.
SUMI: That interview was done quite some while back, so that staff member’s probably returned from maternity leave by now.
KATE: I’ve been really struck by the raft of fantastic young people that are coming through, and it makes me feel pretty gratified about the need for a succession plan, to know that we’ll be handing the work on to people who have a real commitment to what we need to see happen about the environment, climate change, human interactions with the environment. So it’s really nice to have that bunch of young people working in the office, and they are a relatively new crowd in the office. And they’re bringing fresh ideas, which is what we want to see. We can’t keep repeating what we’ve always done, which is big, dense reports with recommendations, hoping – with your fingers crossed – that people read them. We’ve got to find innovative ways of getting the material into other people’s ways of understanding the world, and this crowd in my office are really up for that challenge.
SUMI: Before we move on with talking a bit more about the work that the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment does … So far, in this recording, you and I have used a term a couple of times over, and that was, I think, “transdisciplinary”. I know there are also two other words that have to do with working across or between disciplines, and those are “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary”. I get very confused by definitions, so I feel like we should break that down, just explicitly, for a second.
NICK: We have multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. Now, if we want to be as technically correct as possible, multidisciplinary would be the combining or involving of several academic disciplines, to a single topic or an issue. Interdisciplinary would be relating to more than one – typically going between two – so, say, biochemistry, is interdisciplinary because it transcends disciplines. Transdisciplinary, again, relates to more than one. All of these words essentially get confusing because they all mean more than one discipline. But trans- means across all the disciplines.
If you were to ask me what’s the difference between transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, I wouldn’t really be able to tell you. But I think it’s important to flag the way that we’re using these terms, they’re all kind of synonymous in our parlance. There is a more academically rigorous discipline out there that is much more exacting with these words, and uses them in more specific ways. For everyday language, which is the language you and I want to be conversing in, it’s enough to say that this is about the bringing together of multiple disciplines.
We might say interdisciplinary, which is technically meaning only two, but for our intents and purposes it’s the same as transdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Hopefully the scholars in that area won’t hate us too much for that.
SUMI: The Commissioner’s office have got some level of understanding of working across disciplines, but in order for the work that they do on understanding the sustainability needs and concerns of broader society to be relevant to people, they’ve also got to reach out beyond their own knowledge and expertise within the office.
KATE: I also take the view that we need to be consulting really actively with NGOs, peak bodies, people who want to talk to us about the work. We have to think creatively and constructively about what we’re hearing and find ways to incorporate that into the material that we’re producing. One of the other reasons I do that, apart from finding it absolutely critical for making a report, tell a story of a community and its environment, is that it assists people to become a bit of an advocate for what we’re doing, if they’re think that the story is also their story. And we’ve found that extensively across a whole range of discussions. When you involve people in the conversations you’re having, and the reports you’re doing, they become a bit of an advocate or conduit for the message, which I think means that everybody is engaged. It’s a way of making sure that we’re “doing” (in inverted commas) community engagement, without seeming to do it in what I might describe as a really formulatic manner.
NICK: To return to what I was saying earlier, there is this common thread between what Cynthia Burton in national parks, Brett in parks and wildlife, and what Kate’s trying to do with her office. All of them have this problem of engagement, I think – or this challenge of engagement, if you don’t want to problematise it too much. They have this challenge where they need to engage people and yet, with respect to each of those groups, there’s not really a strong presence in any of their teams of somebody whose job it is to do that. They have a human ecologist, for example, in Kate’s team, but that’s very different from somebody who knows exactly the best ways to reach people via social media, for example. If you go and look at the Commissioner’s Facebook, it doesn’t get a whole lot of traction, which is a shame because they’re creating all of this beautiful content.
As Kate was going through her list of the disciplines she had on her team, I was struck by two thoughts. First of all: wow, that’s a small team! They’re producing these massive reports, but they’re also massively important reports; they’re reported on widely in the media, they influence policy – and we’re talking about just a handful of people here. I was surprised by just how small the team was. Obviously, as she said, she consults with NGOs and brings other people in, but still, if I was Prime Minister*, that would be a 50-strong team! And on that team I would make sure we had people who understand their way around social media, who understand their way more theoretically and conceptually around communication more broadly, drawing on other disciplines like psychology: what are the best ways to get people to respond to a message, what are the things that you should avoid, and so on.
It struck me that she’s talking about the need to find innovative ways to engage with people, and this is falling upon a spatial mapper, an analysis expert, and environmental engineer … It’s sort of outside of their discipline. I’m not saying that they can’t do the job well, but – yeah, again, if I was PM*, there would be a 50-strong team, it would have people who were savvy in communication, but then it would also have lawyers … I would love to have to have an economist on that team as well. I think it’s really surprising that you have a body that’s providing reporting to an MP** or a Minister, and there’s nobody there crunching the numbers. You would think that would be the number one reason why they refuse to follow through on a recommendation – “ah, can’t afford it, costs too much”.
Anyways, just a thought there on the composition of the team and the size of it. And just that general thread running through all three of these interviews is: that there’s a challenge of engagement, and what it would really look like on the ground, I think, would be those teams looking quite different.
SUMI: Obviously you would have an understanding of how the work that you do relating to the environment extends beyond the environment. And that’s shown by the staff that you have working with you. That’s shown by references within your reports that talk about things like the importance of community and social aspects of sustainability in the world that you do. But in the way that organisations tend to be set up, they tend to have a funding body that gives them a certain focus, and they’re expected to produce something within that. Therefore, working across disciplines or organisations may prove to be a bit of a logistical nightmare for them. What do you have to say about that, how do you think we could potentially better operationalise this sort of collaboration between our institutions and organisations?
KATE: Just on the first point you made: funding’s always difficult, there’s no question about that. What I am always struck by is that funding is a limiting factor in certain ways, but volunteering always picks up and runs with it. It’s always been my experience that people are willing to contribute work to the causes that they care about. So that’s the first thing I’d like to say.
Working across disciplines is potentially quite difficult for people who are working in the way we always used to work. As a lawyer, which is my background, I could be quite obviously just doing a lawyer’s work: I could be thinking about going to court, advocating for people, maintaining a reference to the precedence and making sure that every i is dotted and every t is crossed – and that’s what you have to do. But there are things that come through even in a lawyer’s practice which tell you you’re going to do better if you’re thinking outside the square: thinking about not just your client’s mental health but maybe their housing issues; not just their housing issues but how they get to court for instance, and that brings their transport issues up. So it’s got to be an individually-driven thing, where we say to ourselves, what are the systems issues here.
My method of operating to include other disciplines is just to be really open to it, and most of the time I find that my networks are of use to people because I just take it so seriously. There isn’t a person I speak to that I don’t know how they might link to other things. It means that I am, in a way, quite exploitative of knowledge, there’s no doubt about that. But I think and act all the time to network, and I think we have to be prepared to say to ourselves that we don’t have to be central to that network. We can be really good at delegating and saying to people, “You need to speak to X, you need to speak to Y.” And as long as you’re surrounded by other people who are excited by the prospect of broadening their knowledge and doing a better job, they will always take you up on that.
SUMI: I have a bit of a bone to pick here, and that’s that Kate’s approach really relies on the individual to take action. That doesn’t inspire much confidence that that sort of networking and interdisciplinary – or multidisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, I don’t know which one’s the right term to use here – that that collaboration is going to be something that stands the test of time. What if, say, the next person who comes into Kate’s position doesn’t really care too much for networking or just hasn’t built up those networks over their long career like she has, and then that really affects the work that they do in the Commissioner’s office. I feel like there should be more of an institutional focus, within institutions, to guarantee and commit to working with one another and building those long-standing networks, rather than just relying on the people in those positions to do that.
NICK: I couldn’t agree with you more there, Sumi. This year I’ve been sort of volunteering my time as the Environment Officer at the university here, at ANU. This is the problem that we’re facing as an organisation, and I’m facing as one of the leaders of that organisation, because I very much empathise with Kate’s approach. I like the idea, personally, of just being somebody who has their fingers in many pies but isn’t necessarily committed to any of them, and so somebody comes along and says, “Hi Nick, I want to do so-and-so project, or I want to learn more about this,” and I can say, “Hey you should go and talk to this person.”
I think there’s real value in that, and I think it takes a certain sort of mentality to be that kind of person rather than the person who takes more involvement on a given thing. I like to facilitate, myself. And the thought occurred to me, as what you just mentioned. What happens when the next person next year comes along? What if they’re not into that networking and relationship-building that I am? I’ve started building relationships between our organisation and many, many others this year, and yet all that could fade away next year unless we bake it into how the institution works. Is that what you’re getting at there when you’re talking about that?
SUMI: Yeah, but when you were talking about your role as the Environment Officer, a thought just occurred to me. If we were to bake it into the institution as you say, what if the next person who comes along has an entirely different conception of the sorts of networks that they might focus on? What if they come from a very different disciplinary background?
NICK: Well, that’s what’s already happened. So, I had one kind of approach to the networks. I was reaching out to environmental NGOs and so on – this was through the first half of this year, we’re about halfway through the year  now, just for context for people listening. In that first half of the year, I was very focused on local community organisations, that focused on environment and sustainability. One of the criticisms I’ve received in more recent times is that that’s left out really important stakeholders, one of them being Indigenous advocacy groups, who a lot of people justifiable argue should have played a more central role in that first half of the year. I think that ties into what you’re saying; what if somebody comes along and they have a very different idea about what that networking should look like?
It’s a bit of a cop-out, but I think the more people that get involved, the more networking that’s happening and the more that’s encouraged at an institutional level – not by any particular individual, but more baked into the culture of how an organisation works – the better you’re going to be overall. So we’re changing tack for the next half of the year, and giving a bit more of a leadership role to the people who want to build those kind of relationships in the community, and have that kind of a networking unfold. I’m just taking a step back and doing what I always did, but kind of a bit more behind the scenes, while we more proactively and publicly build those relationships elsewhere. It’s about bringing more people in as an organisation, rather than as a leader or as an individual, and encouraging that culture of networking and transdisciplinary, different views, different values … It’s very complicated, it’s very tricky, I’ve got to say, having to navigate that myself. It can be quite political and quite fraught at times.
SUMI: Yeah, I think that networking isn’t ever something that there’s a right or wrong answer to. Every way that you could approach it, every person who decides to take a different approach and stance on which are the relationships that should be prioritised and how should those relationships be used and practised, how involved should another organisation be in the decisions of your organisation … The levels of engagement can really vary, and I think it’s really up to those networks to figure out how they relate to one another and to what extent do they want to take what the other person is giving.
In my conversation with Brett, he raised an example of a collaboration that … it was one of those relationships between two parts of the ACT Government that I never really thought I would see come together. And apparently it’s yielded some really awesome results. I’m just going to play what he said real quick.
Every couple of months, or once a year or so, I see things in the news, in The Canberra Times, about these people going out to the dirt roads and doing doughnuts and things like that. You’re always going to have people like that who are not going to respect the landscape. What does parks do about those people?
BRETT: That’s something again that I’ve seen involved in the art of park management being about people management. We have a remarkable relationship with ACT Policing. Within ACT Policing there’s a dedicate unit called Rural Patrolling; their whole charter is basically is to have a police presence out in the parks and rural areas. Eventually, we do catch up with this antisocial behaviour and you’re right, it has increased dramatically in the last maybe ten years or so – particularly four-wheel driving activities, pig hunting activities, illegal hunting within the park. But again, through the ACT Policing, we generally catch up with these offenders.
What’s really important, and what’s happened in the last few years, is the restorative justice process. While these people are dealt with in terms of offending under the Nature Conservation Act – and they’re obviously a police matter there – they’re then referred to the restorative justice process. Restorative justice is basically a roundtable conversation, where the offender sits down with the victim, if you like – the park – and there’s a conversation we’ve had. I’ve been involved in a number of these over the last ten years, and from personal experience, they are incredibly powerful. Initially, the offender goes, “Well, I didn’t have any idea. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just thought I was about to go four-wheel driving.”
But through the conversation – similar to what we’re having here today – understanding the values that we as a community have set on these areas there, it’s been my experience that most of these offenders have turned around and said, “Look, I had no idea. I’m terribly sorry,” to the point where they then volunteer their time through the restorative justice program, and come out to work with the rangers. They actually spend a couple of hours fixing up whatever it might be, working with the rangers, and having an understanding and empathy for what we do.
Yes, there’s a compliance element to it and legislation; there’s police enforcement. But that restorative justice program in terms of that education and awareness is incredibly powerful. It’s something I think, again, as a community here in the ACT, we’re very progressive with, in being able to say to people who do have environmental vandalism offences, “Just spend some time, walking in the shoes of the ranger, picking up the mess you made, dealing with that issue there.” Through their circle, their peer group, there’s a communication that happens there. And that is very, very powerful.
So yeah, through that restorative justice is one way of actually dealing with people. Again it comes back to where we started the conversation: it’s not about nature – nature looks after itself – what we do is about managing people, and that’s a very good example of that.
NICK: It’s a great example, I think.
SUMI: Alright. So far, all the examples that we’ve been discussing seem to have been looking at government or policy-focused solutions: park management, sustainability reporting … But sustainability solutions can take place at different scales and with different focuses.
NICK: We can take the example of plastics. There was a class that Sumi and I took a couple of semesters ago, and we worked on dreaded group projects where we had to come up with a solution that would reduce plastic packaging on fresh produce, essentially. The two of us were in different groups, and the class itself I think was split into four or five. You could see, between the different groups, all the ways we approached our solutions exemplified what we’ve been talking about in this episode, and goes beyond that to deal with issues of scale and focus.
SUMI: Right, so Nick, would you talk a bit about the approach your group took?
NICK: Our group, at my urging, took a very top-down, high-level, high-impact (or we hope it would be high-impact) approach, and very global scale. We wanted to have an international plastics convention. By convention I don’t mean like a Tupperware party, I mean we wanted to have a treaty or a binding international agreement on reducing and tackling plastics. Sumi, what did you group come up with?
SUMI: My group came up with this thing called the “soupermarket” – I know it sounds a lot like supermarket, but it’s not. It’s soup, like S-O-U-P, and then “-ermarket”; so, you know, it’s a pun. Our solution was a lot more small scale. We focused on these smaller communities of plastic consumers who would buy their produce that would have plastics on it, sort of encouraging people to … rather than buying plastic-packaged stuff, would … No, wait. What was the solution?
NICK: I thought it was to reduce food waste, so –
SUMI: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
NICK: Food that was going off would be turned into soup that you could eat in the soupermarket.
SUMI: Yeah! You know my solution better than I do. One of the reasons why we decided to go with what we did was that, one of the ways that plastic packaging is so-called “good” for fresh produce, one of the reasons used to justify its use, is it protects the stuff that it’s encasing. It prevents damage from it.
NICK: And it’s not necessarily just protecting it from the outside atmosphere, but also within that inflated bag, you could have an artificial atmosphere too. That’s why apple slices can last for a whole week while still sliced, sitting in a bag, while on your kitchen counter they would go brown in like ten minutes.
SUMI: With the soupermarket solution, what my group ended up finding out, was that the problem that we were trying to tackle didn’t only relate to plastic packaging. It also would have to do with: why weren’t people buying the oddly-shaped carrot that had three or four bulbs sticking out of it? And I know there are a lot of community groups, people preventing this fresh produce waste by turning them into products. You don’t know what shape the carrot was once it’s blended up into a soup.
NICK: Yup, that’s a good point.
SUMI: Do you think that one of those two approaches – the international plastics treaty or the smaller scale supermarket – do you think one was better than the other?
NICK: No, I don’t. I studied this quite a lot. Our group work actually inspired me to do my final end-of-semester essay on an international plastics treaty, which I then got a really good grade for and then turned into a journal article that was published in ANU’s undergraduate research journal. I spent quite a lot of time and effort looking at this idea of an international plastics convention.
I focused on the work of two proponents out of a Belgian think-tank – whose name escapes me right now. Looking at what some of the biggest and well-known proponents of an international plastics convention are saying, they’re actually not saying, “This is the one idea to rule them all.” They’re actually quite explicit in saying we need bottom-up stuff to happen at the same time, we need responses from civic society, we need responses from governments, from businesses, outside of – above and beyond – a binding convention.
In fact, one of the most telling things that they said, that I found in my studies, is that before a treaty happens, before a convention or anything like that happens, first we’re going to need a whole lot more effort from civic society, from government, from business. They create the necessary preconditions. Before it’s even possible to have an international plastics convention, we might need to have a soupermarket. These are kind of stepping stones, and this is one of the big end goals we could strive for.
SUMI: With many sustainability challenges or issues, the reasons as to why unsustainable practices are at play … there isn’t just one reason for it. The reason why people might be using plastics may have to do with the fact that plastic is cheap at the moment. But it may also have to do with the fact that plastic is a material that meets their needs; maybe they need something that’s waterproof. And it’s only by coming at it from various different points of intervention that we can really get to understanding what those reasons for the use of, say, plastics is, and therefore flipping that around.
NICK: Absolutely. In more humid countries, for example, plastic packaging tends to be more important than in more dry ones like ours. Even something as simple as that.
SUMI: To come to a broader, more abstract question that has to do with what we’ve been talking about, is this idea of individual change or structural change. Does me not eating meat have as much of an impact, or is it important to focus on that or is it more important to focus on putting pressure on corporations to stop their polluting activities when it comes to the environment? How do we weigh up those two? What if someone has to go further out of their way, or it’s more expensive to obtain something that may seem to be more sustainable, but that is at the expense of another, maybe more structural level goal that they might be working towards. That they may have spent more time driving a couple of extra miles to get the non-GMO soy or something … I don’t know.
NICK: This is a fundamental and recurring issue in sustainability, I think. So we’ve got two ideas ultimately in conflict here. There’s one idea, which is the prioritisation, we do need to know what’s the most effective thing to do; is it top-down, strategic stuff or is it bottom-up individual stuff? Is it structural change or individual change; what should we prioritise? In some cases, we do have to make a choice. It might be a choice of where we’re putting our money, it might be a choice of where we’re putting our time, or where we’re devoting our passion, or what we’re supporting, and so on. That’s the first idea.
In conflict with that idea is that earlier we mentioned false dichotomy, which says, no we don’t have to choose, it’s not a zero-sum game, we can do both things at once. Whether or not you’re in one situation or the other, changes all the time depending on what you’re looking at, and on what scale you’re looking at it. This is what I see again and again in sustainability. I see people who all agree that something good should be done, and then fundamentally disagree and go at each other like enemies with hatred in their heart, talking about systemic versus individual change and so on. It’s a very polarising argument – sometimes it should be because we do need to prioritise, and sometimes it shouldn’t be because it’s a false dichotomy and both this can, should, must work together, kind of meeting in the middle. You need the top-down stuff – the international treaty – and you need then the civic advocacy and whatever might be happening through, say, a soupermarket-style initiative.
But yeah, this is a fundamental and recurring thing. If you load up any Reddit thread, any Facebook comment thread, and if you’re feeling bold enough, any YouTube comment thread, you will see this same argument happening again and again and again. People arguing, “Oh, it’s the corporations we need to hold to account,” or it’s the laws or the economic system that needs to be torn down – you know, people going for the big structural stuff. And then you’ll see other people saying, “Well, the corporations have millions of customers and that’s us, so it’s an individual-slash-collective responsibility that we have, and we need to change our behaviour.” Going vegan, for example, is one of the singular most effective ways to reverse climate change, so they’re not without an argument either. This is going to be a recurring theme in our discussions, in our conversations, this individual versus systemic, or top-down versus bottom-up approach.
SUMI: Solutions to a sustainability issue can take many different forms, and there are many different ways that we could approach it, as we’ve already discussed. How we end up doing it might depend on a couple of considerations or factors.
NICK: Time pressure is ultimately a driver of that issue that I was talking about before. When we have to make a choice between prioritisation and just being all-inclusive, it’s usually time that’s one of the key drivers, because if we only have a week to solve a problem then we can’t be all-inclusive, we have to whittle it down to the bare bones of the problem. Similarly with feasibility – affordability being a key one. Certainly at some point we’ll be discussing in some depth a project called Drawdown which attempts to provide a prioritised list of ways to effectively combat and indeed reverse climate change. That prioritisation is based on some pretty simple criteria: it just looks at emissions reductions, and then it looks at net savings and net costs. So it’s factoring in there feasibility. And that has to be a core consideration for any kind of a solution, because we can have a technically beautiful, scientifically elegant solution, but if it’s going to cost the sun and the moon, then it’s not going to be a political reality. Or if it’s going to require something that perhaps goes against social norms – and I think a great example there is not eating meat, and switching to a plant-rich diet. That goes against norms, so it’s not a very feasible thing to expect the world to go vegan. It’s more likely that we’re going to see a meat alternative become popular as a way of that happening, rather than people adjusting their behaviours.
SUMI: That relates to another factor or consideration that might affect how we approach sustainability solutions, and that is innovation. Like you said, because telling people to stop eating meat might be a bit of a challenging thing to convince people to do, having convincing meat alternatives that might taste a lot like the real deal may allow us to still get people to reduce their meat consumption, while not having to give up that habit –
NICK: Or that tradition or that culture. Absolutely. This ties into that broad theme, that topic, of this episode, which is bringing different disciplines together. You might think, if you want to change culture, you should bring in science communicators and culture changers – artists, marketing people, whatever. You might think that’s the best way to convince carnivores to eat less meat. Yet another approach might be, let’s just use technology and engineering to create a beef patty that bleeds. We’ll get this hormone, and we’ll pull from the root of the soy plant, we’ll chuck it in with some other things, we’ll kind of mish and mash it together in this mad scientist lab-looking place, and out pops this veggie burger that actually bleeds and convinces people. That’s another way of changing culture that has nothing to do with what you traditionally associate with culture, like poetry and art and whatever. This is a bunch people sitting in a lab mucking around with soy proteins.
So there’s different ways to go about a given problem and given solutions. Sometimes the best solution comes from where you’d least expect it. Maybe a poet solves it when you were expecting a physicist to. Maybe a food scientist solves it when you were expecting a poet to.
SUMI: With sustainability, it’s almost necessarily about looking at the long term and thinking about where are we going to be in, maybe 50 years, maybe 1,000 years. And where do we want to be; what sort of world do we want to be in; how do we want people to relate to one another? I think a bit of a problem with that is that it’s kind of hard to predict things like maybe the impact that technology might have on us, or even the way that people’s cultural values or norms change, the idea of morality, the idea of what’s appropriate or not appropriate for people to do. Is it okay for governments to have some powers that may allow them to intervene in people’s personal lives? These are all tensions that might affect the feasibility of a sustainability solution taking place that we can’t necessarily foresee into the future. We can know what the situation is now, and we can – maybe with a certain level of accuracy – predict what might happen in the next week or two – and maybe sometimes we can’t even predict that. But if we’re talking about sustainability, which is something so necessarily long term, that may be hard to plan for.
NICK: Yeah, I think so. History’s littered with examples of good-intentioned solutions to problems that ended up having bad outcomes. Back in the early 1800s there was a competition held to create a new synthetic molecule that could replace the ivory used to make billiard balls. Ivory was a pretty finite resource, having to come from the tusks of elephants, and that’s what they would make all of the billiard and snooker balls with in those days. Anyone who could come up with a synthetic replacement like ivory would win a fairly sizeable chunk of change – I think it was like $10,000, which was quite a lot back then. And so, somebody came up with that. This was the invention of plastic.
At the time, it was kind of heralded as an environmental saviour because it wasn’t just the ivory that we no longer needed to make the billiard balls; it was the tortoise shell we didn’t need to make the tortoise shell hair combs and sunglass rims and all that business. There were all sorts of natural resources – even just wood, and certain sorts of rock. They could all suddenly be replaced with this new and amazing cellulite and bakelite, and these early forms of plastic. And that was true for a time: it transferred one natural resource draw on things like ivory and tortoise shell that were very highly impactful, to a much smaller resource draw. For a time, that was a good solution. But now, a 100-150 years later, that same tortoise has now got a plastic straw in its damn nose, and it’s like the whole problem’s just come full circle. Now, plastic is killing the nature it was once sparing.
SUMI: It’s like the premier killer of the environment it seems like.
NICK: Pretty much. So yeah, that’s an excellent example to illustrate exactly what you’re talking about, with the long term problem. We cannot see the future, we cannot know what we don’t know.
The Grass Ceiling is hosted by me, Nick Blood –
SUMI: And hosted and produced by me, Sumithri Venketasubramanian. Thank you to Brett McNamara, manager of ACT Parks, Cynthia Burton, the vice-president of the National Parks Association of the ACT, and Kate Auty, the ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment, for their time in speaking to us. A special thank-you to our supervisor, Edwina Fingleton-Smith, and also to the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, for letting us use their recording studio. For more TGC content, check out our website at www.thegrassceiling.net.
Just wanted to add on two more thank-yous. Firstly, to Jackson Wiebe, for the music used in this episode. And also to the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, for all their support in making this project happen.
And now, it’s blooper time.
CYNTHIA: And we also need to get a good grasp on … I lost it. [laughs]
SUMI: You can go from, “need to get a good grasp on,” and I’ll edit it out.
CYNTHIA: Okay, what am I grasping for here? [laughs] There’s things like climate change and um …
*Nick said “Prime Minister” here, but the CSOE is under the ACT Government, not federal. So it should technically be “Chief Minister” [of the ACT].
**Technically, “MLA” (Member of the [ACT] Legislative Assembly), not Member of Parliament (MP).