There are many ways of looking at this idea of “sustainability” and we’re here to take you on a guided tour of some of them. Below you can find some extra show notes, resources, and other goodies.
This episode was recorded on 21 and 24 January 2019.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
Different ways of looking at it
Often defined narrowly: As environmentalism. Conflicting studies or viewpoints. Less often a conversation happening with everything taken together: Integrative, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary.
Trying to bring together different ideas, voices, perspectives, practices.
Out of the green movement comes these conferences on “sustainability”
1972: Stockholm Declaration: Majority are environmental, but some important non-environmental concerns (freedom, dignity, etc).Starting to see, even from the outset, that it is something about more than environmentalism. Sustainability is about more than the environment.
Brundtland Commission: At this point talking about environment even less, and when considering humanity does so intergenerationally, from the perspective of current and future “needs”.
Sustainable Development: “Sustainable Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Sustainability as a concept tied to time.
Tied to more than just our environment: tied to concepts of justice, equity, and society.
Three Pillars theoretical framework that is practised explicitly: Triple Bottom Line
To what extent does it mirror sustainability? To what extent is this a good framework for practicing sustainability? It depends: corporate social responsbility varies according to the case you’re looking at
Individual action as consumers? Structural change? Broader questions here about how to best achieve sustainability: Who practises sustainability? Is it just environmentalists? What about intersections between other progressive causes?
Do a simple Google search of the word “sustainability” and see what you find. A sea of green: plants, leaves, the famous motif of the hand holding the plant. What we’re trying to challenge here is the dominance of an environmental perspective when it comes to sustainability.
Because we want to embrace complexity. Because we want to learn about other perspectives, especially those outside the mainstream.
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. I’m Sumi, one of the hosts –
NICK: – and I’m Nick, one of the other hosts.
SUMI: We’ve talked about some philosophy in the episodes before this, and something that came out pretty prominently was the importance of communication. Sustainability’s something that’s kinda hard to wrap our heads around, because of the massive time scales and physical scales on which it operates and exists. So, how we talk about it can make all the difference.
We had a chat to someone who did her PhD in this very topic. Her name’s Elizabeth Boulton. Well, Dr. Liz Boulton, actually. When this interview was conducted, she was still doing it, but she’s since submitted it – congratulations to her. Our conversations touched on some really interesting and important things about neuroscience, psychology, and communication. Check it out.
Elizabeth Boulton is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society. Her work looks at how humans perceive climate change, threat and hyperthreats, and the need for a change in framing for a more adequate response to this potentially catastrophic phenomenon. She’s joining us today via Skype. We’ve had a couple of technical issues so far, but we’ve all gotten this running …
Hi Elizabeth! So, if you could just give us the quick backstory to your research: what interested you in this topic?
ELIZABETH: I guess career-wise, from 1994 I’ve been working in the field of emergency logistics, and it wasn’t until 2004 that I read a book that really alerted me to climate change. In my memory, a particular experience that really sticks in my head was: I was working in South Sudan, among those camps for the severely malnourished. So when I heard about the descriptions of some of the impacts of climate change – terms like food security, infrastructure fail – I had a really visceral response. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve seen some of the impacts and what that actually means.” To think of that, the prospect of that happening on a much larger scale … I undoubtedly saw that as a devastating threat in my own mind.
So that really led me to this big question of: Why aren’t we responding to something that’s going to be that devastating, with the same sort of urgency and resourcing that I had seen the security sector use for other sorts of threats? I’ve seen how we mobilise quickly – we can really turn things around so quickly when we think that there is a threat. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a similar response to the climate.
I suppose that’s the first step. Once I was obsessed with that question – why aren’t we responding to this threat? – that threw me into this whole area of neuroscience. As it turned out, in the climate space, they’d started investigating that same question, as to why aren’t we respond to this. At the same time, there had been a real advance in neuroscience, where we were really starting to discover more about how the brain makes decisions and the role of the subconscious, and so forth.
There was about a ten-year body of research in that area, that points to the idea that our deep frames – which are these neuron pathways – form a sort of “cognitive software” in our brains, sort of a philosophical worldview, which influences us from the subconscious level and is formed over a lifetime. What these scientists concluded was that we didn’t have a software package that allowed us to understand that this was a threat, and that this was the main problem. My research focuses entirely on how to solve this problem (that we don’t have the right software).
SUMI: You talk about the idea that we have software, and neuron pathways … I don’t have a background in neuroscience or anything, but could you give a run-down, if that’s possible, of what you mean by “software”?
ELIZABETH: I should say that I’ve got a literature background, I don’t have a science background either. One of the scientists, David Eagleman, he investigates human sensory systems – sight, sound, hearing, and so forth. What he’s said is, something that’s different between the human species and a lot of other species is, as a baby, we’ve born with what is called a very “mushy” brain, in that we haven’t formed our software – or neuron pathways, which are electrical signals that connect emotions to sight, sound, and so forth.
For example, when a horse is born, within a few minutes it can stand up on its own and walk. All its brain functioning gives it a concept of how to walk, which allows it to send electrical signals down to its feet and the hooves can move. But for a human baby, our neuron pathways which tell our bodies how to react and think aren’t actually formed. We have to even learn how to use our eyes, and that’s why we have all those little things for babies to work out depth perception and so forth. The reason is, Eagleman says, the thing that makes us unique is that our software is designed to be built in response to our environment, into the signals we get from it – that’s why it takes a long time to build. This is our main survival feature, and this is why we can work out how to live in an Arctic environment or a desert environment. We’re very adaptive.
These neuron pathways, I view them kind of as fingers; they take a while to grow … If you think about how you learn to drive a car, or learn the ABC – it’s repetition. You learn the ABC though a lot of repetition and hearing and seeing the sounds, practising them and so on. Gradually, as you learn the ABC, a neuron pathway – like a physical thing, like a finger – forms in your brain, that helps you to know what the ABC is, or how to drive car. It take a while to develop these. Once we know them, like we know the ABC, then it goes into our subconscious. It becomes an automatic thing, we don’t have to think everyday, “What is the ABC?”, you just naturally know it. In the way that we’ve learnt the ABC, we’ve learnt the concept of threat and a concept of of how we live and exist, that sits in the same way in our subconscious. It’s a sort of operating system of how we think and of how we see the world and how we perceive threat. So I like to think of them as a whole lot of fingers with electrical signals that tell us how to feel, and how to perceive things.
I’ll give you an example of a simple neuron pathway: when we watch a movie and we see the hero saves the victim, we feel happy. That’s a storyline that we watch again, and again, and again. Hero saves victim, feel happy. Or it could be, see fire, feel scared. That becomes very sophisticated, there are millions of neuron pathways intertwined, and that’s our worldview. What we used to think was that we just know stuff, we didn’t realise that we actually needed to have these neuron pathways to be able to know something.
The knowledge that climate could be a threat, we don’t have a neuron pathway for that yet. Say, we see a cyclone that damages to a food crop. We don’t have an embodied experience to go, “That means starvation.” We just go to the supermarket to buy food, so it doesn’t really affect us. We don’t have what’s called an embodied sensory understanding of the threat.
NICK: One of the things quickly worth unpacking is a word she used, subconscious, and she uses it in a way that maybe isn’t fully intuitive with the way you might think she means. So, she talks about this idea that we’re very adaptive, and that we learn these skills … She uses a really good example – kind of useful example – of learning how to drive a car. Takes a while to develop a skill to learn how to drive a car, but once you know it then it goes into your subconscious, as she says. Maybe subconscious isn’t the right word for that, because it’s more of like, it’s just not conscious. Subconscious maybe comes with a lot of baggage in psychology. I think – again I’m not an expert on this – I think it’s invented by Carl Jung, or was popularised by him, and is a somewhat contested idea.
Regardless of all that, it’s an idea worth thinking about because, to go back to the example of driving a car, there exists this thing called highway amnesia, which is where you’ve been driving from A to B and you have no recollection of doing it. Could have been like a three hour long car drive, and you can’t really remember anything of the drive there. Or this can happen while you’re walking, or while you’re riding a bike, and so on. The point is, as you’re walking along, it’s become such a learned skill at that point – subconscious, as she describes it – that you can do other things, while you’re walking around. You can think about how you look today, or something like that.
That’s interesting to think about, like, how our cognition works, and how our cognition hides those basic things from us – and how it kind of has to, or there would be so much noise in our everyday life, just thinking, “Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out.” It doesn’t work that way. Well, it can, but it’s not very efficient.
A lot of what’s become subconscious, or invisible, to us and to our cognition, which is a big theme in her work, is driven by these ultimately evolutionary processes. It results from us, at the end of the way, being biological beings subjected to these evolutionary pressures. The point of all this being that it may not be that optimal to work in that way, and to have a cognition that functions in that way.
SUMI: Another thing I wanted to bring up really quick was an example that she brought up just then, and it was a cyclone damaging a food crop. We aren’t able to perceive of that damage, because we just go to the supermarket and buy our food, therefore we’re not cognitively able to think of what the effects of increasing cyclone activity due to climate change is, and things like that. But a part of that may not necessarily have to do with the fact that we, as humans, our brains can’t thing about it. Rather, with the system that we’re in, you know, you and I, we go to the supermarket to buy our food. If we’re a farmer or someone who grows our own food, then we would have a very different relationship to cyclones, we’d have a very different relationship to food production. So I did just want to bring that up, that it may also be about context, and the way our societies function, as well as, if not instead of, cognition.
NICK: All of this stacks up to pain a picture, basically, that human cognition is very limited. Not just biologically, there’s not just biological constraints, but there’s societal constraints as you’re kind of saying.
What you’re describing there seems to dovetail nicely into another concept in your work, which is hyperobjects and hyperthreats. These are threats that exist on timescales that human cognition isn’t evolutionarily adapted to understand very well. Is that a fair summary, you would say?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that’s a great summary! In academic terms, this object is a bit of a fancy word for “thing”. So, a hyperobject is like a hyperthing. The philosopher, Timothy Morton, with his concept of hyperobjects, got the idea that we can’t really sense this threat, and can’t make sense of it. So what he’s tried to do to help us get over that hurdle is to try and materialise climate change to turn it into something physical. He describes it as a massive thing, and has a whole book that describes all these different ways that this thing moves and feels and how it operates. It’s a thing that humans have never seen before. So, like a kid in school, it takes us quite a bit of time to go through all the facets of this thing and how it works. If you’d like, I can describe a couple of those metaphors, because it helps us understand what this “thing” is.
NICK: Sure, that sounds great. Tell us what climate change looks like.
ELIZABETH: One of the metaphors refers to those Russian dolls, do you know them?
NICK: Matryoshka dolls, yeah.
ELIZABETH: A little doll in another doll, in another doll, in another doll … Morton says that humans are the littlest dolls, encased in all these bigger dolls of this “thing”. One might be a water system, one might be a nutrient cycle, these are all planetary cycles and stuff. But because we’re just a tiny little human, we’re encased in all these big cycles. What this means is that we can’t even get out of the problem, to be able to see the problem. So the Russian dolls metaphor is one part of understanding our relationship to this thing.
SUMI: Just a question about that metaphor. You have one tiny doll, and then you have a doll that’s a bit bigger, and another doll that’s a bit bigger. One thing that that metaphor may not lend itself to is the idea that rather than having a doll within a doll within another doll, you might have several dolls that all overlap, and that we’re within all of them. So, for example, you might have different ecosystem cycles and processes that do interact with each other, but its not necessarily a linear or vertical relationship between those things. So, are there other metaphors that address that?
ELIZABETH: Morton’s got five distinct things that he describes. That particular dynamic that you were just describing then, he calls that “phasing”. A simple way to understand phasing is, you know how we see the cycle of the moon? it goes from a quarter moon to a full moon and so on, and depending on what phase we’re in. Similar to what you’re saying there, he says, this thing operates on so many phase cycles – like maybe thousands of them – that we never know what phase state we’re in, or which part of the phase state we’re seeing.
Another one that’s quite interesting is the concept on time. He says that it operates on a system that humans can’t understand, so you’ve really got to think like a planet. As for the the way that a planet would think … We’ve got to use a lot of metaphors here, because a metaphor means that we’ve already got the cognitive software, but we just apply it to a different thing. If you can imagine a pile of bananas on your kitchen table, in our lifetime we can easily see how, if they’re left there, they start going black and they go off. For a planet, to understand how rubies develop from being a rock and turn into a ruby stone, it’s the same for them as us understanding a banana degrading on the kitchen table.
Change that takes place on planetary time frames, we struggle to get our heads around. So we have to think at a different scale, which is a hyperscale, and “think like a planet” – which is the catchphrase here.
NICK: You wrote about an example of that in your article in The Conversation, the one about 60,000 artists. You described a project in which somebody stands still for five minutes, and then they see how far the earth has rotated in that time and essentially carried them. Is the point of these projects to build those neuronal pathways, so that we can start thinking differently?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, exactly. The guy behind that – in fact – is an Emeritus Professor at the ANU School of Art, John Reed, and that was exactly what he was trying to do. One of the big criticisms of Morton is that he has all of these dark concepts, saying that it’s like being buried alive, and it’s very pessimistic. What I love about the human spirit – and I was reminded of it by you guys doing your technical problem-solving at the start of this interview – is that, the moment we realise that what we’re facing is a hyperobject, and we know how it moves and operates, once we get the software in our heads of what we’re dealing with, we think, “OK, we’re not done an dusted yet, now we can think at a hyperscale.” And we can come up with ways to deal with it. This has been a big thing for me in my research, and it’s something that many of these artists are doing. They’re saying, “Oh, we can’t perceive this thing. So let’s get to work and think of ways to start helping us to do so.” That’s the gift of this concept, it opens up a whole lot of pathways that allows us to get into problem-solving in a different way. The key message is, if we keep thinking of it with our old software and keep trying to solve it that way, we’re never going to get anywhere. We have to build a new software, and once we’ve got it, I think we’ll have the potential to harness this incredible problem-solving ability … Which you guys just demonstrated at the start there.
SUMI: … with our technical issues!
NICK: I want to talk, in a roundabout way, to just reinforce what she was talking about so far, by talking about video games and art and narratives more generally, and the role that they can play in building that new software, that new kind of thinking. So she talks about, for example, learning to think like a planet. Arguably, there are some video games out there that could help you achieve that in a way that a book never will, a YouTube video never will, and so on. And that’s because unlike pretty much every other narrative medium out there or artistic medium out there, video games allow you to become part of that world and that becomes an interactive, two-way process. To an extent, this does exist in other mediums, I’m not saying that, but it’s really pronounced in video games in particular.
Through being part of that experience, you can have that visceral reaction to it. To open this whole interview, Elizabeth talked about what sort of got her to understand climate change, which was experiencing it. She was in South Sudan, she was seeing people who were malnourished and so on. That experience grounded her perception of everything, in a way that without that experience, she wouldn’t think about it in quite that same way. Video games can develop those experiences very easily, very quickly, very cheaply, compared to a plane trip to Sudan. You could just buy a game for fifty bucks or five bucks, or whatever.
SUMI: Or even having to lose your house to a flood before you recognise how devastating a flood can be.
NICK: Yeah, absolutely! As a vehicle for delivering experiences, I think art, more generally – we won’t just talk about video games – as a way to deliver experiences is really important, and can shape our cognition of things. There’s probably many good examples throughout history of art creating moral panics. There’s that Matt Broderick 1980s film War Games – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, it’s so old school now – it’s wonderful. It’s set in that Cold War, atomic age era, and he’s hacking into the United States Defence Department main frame and launching all the nukes and stuff. He’s just some 14-year old kid who thinks it’s all just a video game, but it’s all really happening.
After that movie, everybody started freaking out about hacking into nukes and stuff. There’s probably a million other examples of this. It can capture our imagination but it can also reframe our perceptions of things, whether they’re threats or opportunities or whatever. A lot of what she’s saying supports this. Pointing to art in particular, she literally says, “It’s something that many of these artists are doing. They’re saying, ‘Oh, we can’t perceive this thing, so let’s get to work and think of ways that can help us do so.’” That’s a really confronting and counter-intuitive conclusion to draw, that art has a massive role to play in helping combat climate change. It’s just not part of the mainstream discourse, when we talk about combatting climate change. We talk about recycling and plastic and straws, we don’t talk about a deeper philosophical problem of our very old school approach to thinking about this.
SUMI: I guess art makes us feel things, and when things touch our emotions then we’re probably more likely to act. Because we don’t like the way that, say, seeing how many coffee cups we use in a day, you know, it makes us feel uncomfortable so we’re more inclined to do something about it. Whereas seeing a graph and just seeing numbers may not necessarily invoke that same reaction.
NICK: Absolutely. One of my favourite speeches of all time, this guy delivered it at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and he was saying to the incoming students who were going to be learning music and going to be doing music for a career, “I want you to treat this really seriously, because just like someone’s going to stroll into an emergency room at three in the morning with an appendix that needs fixing, somebody’s going to come to you with a soul that needs fixing,” or something like that. And he talks about how music can put into feeling and capture something that is invisible and unable to be vocalised in any other way. It’s like a way of expressing ourselves that no other media provides, and that’s art and culture and a big part of humans in general, I think.
It’s getting kind of far from what she’s was saying but I guess the core point here is that it’s a bit of a problem that art has such a huge role to play and doesn’t play it, and there’s so many different reasons for that. Looking at this as a STEM problem, not a humanities problem, is a big part of it, I’d say.
SUMI: Yeah but at the same time, I think about how important climate modelling is in our urgent policy reforms for addressing the impacts of climate change or preventing it or whatever it is. One of the most impactful ways of presenting the findings of climate modelling is through art, through imagining what things are going to look like. Maybe it might be a painting, or something that really shows, this is what your city will look like, if we don’t address climate change or something like that.
NICK: National Geographic did that, you know. They created this great map of the world after it’s flooded and stuff, so Australia has an inland sea –
SUMI: Yeah, I saw that.
NICK: You’ve seen – so you know the one I’m talking about. So we’ve both seen it. It goes far and wide when they do that visually. Storytelling.
SUMI: And in some ways, climate modelling is kind of like those video games you were talking about. Because you create these scenarios, you manipulate a simulated world, and then you see what happens. So they kind of have very similar principles. You have to have both art and science in order to create realistic simulations, whether in video games or in climate modelling.
NICK: Nah, that’s true. And that’s actually a very funny point, where the industries, the economies, the disciplines really do dovetail – and dovetail hard – is in that simulation emulation kind of environment.
SUMI: I have a question about what you’re saying about we need to build our software so that we can problem solve and think in a way that we haven’t before to address this problem that is way bigger than anything we are capable of dealing with, with our current capacities. If it’s so big that we’re unable to conceive of it until we make a change, how do we know that the strategies – or even instruments – that we have to problem solve are going to be sufficient as well?
ELIZABETH: It’s like a survival drive for us to get over all those hurdles that you described; this is actually how humans have survived all through our history. Humans have always faced dangerous and chaotic things that we didn’t really understand, but we keep problem solving and thinking and debating and interrogating stuff until we work it out. And then we adapt and change. I think we have got the capacity to overcome all those hurdles.
SUMI: A practical question on this whole idea: we’ve got organisations and institutions that may be resistant to changing policy to allow society to adapt to climate change. In order for this so-called shift or development of new software to work, given the existing institutions that are embedded in our society, we’re going to need to convince some very powerful people to accept that they’ll need to rethink the way they see the world. How can we see people who are so stubborn to change being open to all this?
ELIZABETH: That’s one of the things that stands out in the framing research, is that we’ve been dealing with communication in a very basic and simple manner. For example, the concept now of communicating to people via facts, when you understand how the brain formulates and so forth, there’s no way people can understand a fact if they haven’t got all this software in place. The research on framing shows that you have to address these issues in a very sophisticated, multi-layered way, including a whole discussion about people’s philosophy, their social identity, their human identity, their understanding of existence, their narrative components to build those storylines … and there’s also what’s called “effective understanding”, which takes place at an emotional and sensory level. That’s one of the key things that’s come out of neuroscience: the wrong approach is to go straight to the cognitive side, because you need the senses and sensory signals before you can form the cognitive pathways.
NICK: So again, this is just reinforcing that earlier point, that experience, sensory stimuli, is so critical to formative opinion changing, paradigm shifting, changes in how you view or perceive something. And it has to take place, as she says, at an emotional and sensory level. Your average infographic or news article or – dare I say it – podcast probably isn’t going to achieve that. She says, we’ve been dealing with communication in a very basic and simple manner. It’s not an approach that is well-adapted to how the brain actually works. Also, she kind of reinforces your point earlier, that you make, about how context is so important, how it’s not just the biological constraints on cognition but also the societal ones as well. God, it’s going to be so complex, just trying to communicate sustainability with all of that different thing in mind. [sighs]
ELIZABETH: Basically, to that question you had then, we have to approach this in a far more sophisticated way and harness the very best of our communicative skills in our society, which is our best film-makers, our best orators, using metaphors to have a comprehensive communication strategy – it can’t just be a report with a couple of facts. The reason that some facts work with some people is that they may already have a framework, having come from a family or community which already values environment and grew up surrounded by that. But for someone else, who comes from different framework, where perhaps economics is more viable at that particular time, it’s going to be more difficult.
One of the solutions that I come up with is that we need to have a “hyperconversation”. It’s so multilayered, making this threat tangible and real. We have all these intelligence agencies, and we could use them to help us make sense of this problem, and make it more mainstream. To illustrative the importance of claiming the narrative: recently, since the Paris agreement, we’ve been seeing these reports from so-called new influence organisations on how the fossil fuels sector has spent over a billion dollars in narrative strategies to dissuade the population, saying that it’s not that urgent, and that they’re doing their best to transition to renewables – which, in fact, they’re not, because it’s only three percent of their budget. So they’ve invested one billion dollars in trying to shape how people perceive this problem. But if we look at the climate sector, have we invested that level of effort to help people perceive and understand the problem?
Ultimately, what I’m trying to point to is how big the task is. It’s got to be bigger than just a few dot points on a brief.
NICK: That ties nicely into that The Conversation article again, where you lamented the fact that we were assembling these huge teams of 60,000 scientists to look at the physical dimensions of the problem, when those are already pretty well-explored depths and avenues. Instead, we need 60,000 artists and poets and philosophers to come together and start communicating that in an effective way that people can understand. The question that I had, when I read that, was, is it also possible that we should bring scientists into that side of it too? It’s not just that the artists that are missing from the equation, but also that we’re not using scientists and people in STEM more broadly as the communicators. We’re not encouraging them to think beyond measuring and modelling, and instead to look at community psychology and communication and so on.
ELIZABETH: Undoubtedly, it has to be an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary thing. Leaving the burden of communication entirely on scientists is not the smartest thing, because telling an effective story through art requires a lot of skill and particular talent. If you’ve seen the statistics on how many people write novels a year, and how may actually get published – it’s millions of books that people write, and they think they’ve got a great story to tell. But only .02 percent of books get published, and only ten percent of those published books go on to sell over 5,000 copies. What that tells us is that there’s only some people who have the ability to be those great storytellers and write those Harry Potter books.
NICK: J.K. Rowling?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, not everybody is a J.K. Rowling.
Some people have got a real talent or expertise at communicating things – and they don’t have to be an artist with a paintbrush, they could be someone like Waleed Aly or those media commentators who can distil stuff into ways that resonate with people. They’re very sophisticated communication skills or writing skills or imaginative skills. Not everybody’s a Steven Spielberg, not everyone can make a blockbuster film. Of course, we can bring scientists in – who’ve spent their lives growing to become great scientists – to suddenly have an idea about creative communication. Some people are great scientists and great communicators, but a lot of them won’t be and they simply won’t have that skill. So it’s about using the talents that we’ve already got across our whole society.
NICK: I think it’s a really good point that she’s making there, that we all have different skill sets, and not everybody’s going to be a J.K. Rowling or something like that. But it’s also worth pointing out that in the context of what we’re talking about, which is combating and reversing climate change, and rising to the challenges and opportunities of other sustainability issues, not everybody needs to be a J.K. Rowling. Like, success here is defined a bit differently than we’d probably define artistic success in other contexts.
So a win here is not necessarily fame or recognition, but understanding and changed attitudes or beliefs or behaviours, even. And that’s worth pointing out; that’s kind of not the usual approach or the usual context you’d see in narrative, or entertainment, or anything in this kind of field. Usually the goal is financial and artistic success, rather than societal improvement and deeper understanding.
It’s funny, because when you see games, or media, or movies that try to have that deeper moral theme, they’re usually insufferable. They hit you in the face with the sledgehammer with it, with their moralising or whatever. Or it’s like the movie, which tries to be educational, and it’s just like lame or boring.
SUMI: I didn’t come here to see a documentary.
NICK: Yeah, exactly. Still thinking about different ways to communicate stuff, and it’s just interesting, what’s she’s talking about. And also makes me think of another thing. There’s this science fiction writer, who used to be a scientist, in a past life. He brought all of that experience and knowledge from his science background, and with considerable natural talents for creative writing, created a really beloved cult classic science fiction book, that is shedding new light on cognition, consciousness, neurophysiology and stuff. This is Peter Watts, who I think we’ve talked about before – a guy who asked a question, not “What is consciousness?” but “What is consciousness good for?” And by trying to answer that question, took us down to completely new paths, and he did that in a weird hybrid mix of science and science fiction. STEM and humanities, if you want to think about it in that dichotomy.
Not everybody has that skill, just to reinforce what she was saying. It’s mind-blowing, reading that book, and it comes with – almost as long as the book – an addendum at the end, with links to scientific papers that explains this, that and the other thing, and how he thought, “Should they work this way or that way?” and his thought process in designing these things. Oh my god. It’s mind-blowing, the world building. It’s like J.R.R. Tolkien building the Lord of the Rings level of detail. Not everybody can do that, but the people who can, and who have that specific skill – she describes Waleed Aly’s ability to explain really difficult concepts… Peter Watts explained consciousness in a way that was so simple to understand, and just terrifyingly scary concepts, the way he delivered it was beautiful and perfect. That’s something that scientists can’t do, and a thing that we need artists to do. I know I’m kind of just repeating myself again and again with the theme of this episode, but it just seems to be like such a huge overlooked part of the whole sustainability formula.
SUMI: Just like not all of us can be awesome communicators like Waleed Aly, or Peter Watts, or J.K. Rowling, or Steven Spielberg, not all of us want to be communicated to in the same way. Rather than thinking we should put all of our resources into getting these people who have obvious success and an obvious talent, also thinking about different ways to approach communication, noting that maybe some people like reading, whereas other people like watching movies, and other people like video games. Kind of having a multi-pronged approach to it.
NICK: She says, “God, it’s so multi-layered,” or something like that. Nah, absolutely.
ELIZABETH: Let’s get JK Rowling, let’s get the very best that we’ve got – just like we’ve got the best people doing science – on this communication problem. Because it’s a phenomenally difficult problem, and not something that just anyone can turn their hand to. We’ve been struggling with this for twenty years, I think we should have some respect for how difficult the issue is. And that means mobilising the very best people.
NICK: It’s interesting you say that, because it reminds me of the documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, where they’re trying to communicate various environmental or sustainability issues, and the people they bring onto the show are storytellers! – famous actors, comedians, and so on – not so much the environmental scientists, who might get five minutes of showing in the show. Do you think that sort of thing is indicative of the sort of direction you think we should be going in?
ELIZABETH: Definitely. Possibly the person who’s had the biggest breakthrough in global communication of climate change was Al Gore. Because he is a masterful communicator, and I don’t know if you remember that film and his presentations –
NICK: An Inconvenient Truth?
ELIZABETH: Yeah. He walked up that step ladder to present graphs, and used stories himself, growing up, I think, on a tobacco farm, from memory. He used a lot of those good communicative skills, because he’s a politician so he’s got that sort of skill. And he was able to have that break through. He’s an example of that sort of thing.
Another thing – and it’s quite a basic thing – to go back to talking about learning our ABCs, the repetition thing … If people just see one really good film once, but then they go back home and are swamped with a whole lot of other material 99 percent of the time, no matter how good it was, if the messages aren’t being reinforced regularly, they’re not going to have as much salience. So that comes down to that sort of volume thing.
SUMI: Another thing that just came to me is that there is an opportunity here for religion. We talk about sustainability about something that has to do with science, that is supposedly undisputed, like 97 percent of scientists believe that climate change is real … I don’t know, is it at 100 percent yet? Anyway.
NICK: I hate that stat.
SUMI: This can be your major world religions, or it can be the spiritual belief systems of Indigenous peoples. Whatever it is, religion and spirituality is something that is very closely tied to the decisions that people make – those who believe in them. For example, if your religion believes that you shouldn’t eat animals, then people won’t eat animals. In a similar way, if religion and religious leaders were able to get in on this idea and this movement of sustainability, to basically say that, you know, there is a thing and maybe they talk about how God relates to sustainability. Possibly there is a sphere of influence that scientists may not be able to access at this current point, because sometimes science and religion seem to be opposed to one another.
NICK: What about Indigenous Australians and their spiritualism towards the land and Country?
SUMI: Exactly, that’s what I mean!
What sorts of platforms and resourcing do you think are needed to make this creative presentation of these urgent issues happen? What’s it going to take – do we need more grants, do you think it’s a much bigger thing than that, like global collaboration?
ELIZABETH: It’s really multi-pronged, and I’m not just saying this because I think so. People have actually studied how to grow these neuron pathways, and what they understand is it’s a whole bunch of things that contribute, it’s not really just one thing. But, one thing is social identity. Humans have this thing where they really like to think the same way as their social group, and there’s actually a whole lot of subconscious feelings about safety around this, because if you think differently from your tribe, there’s this idea that you can be ostracised. You could lose job opportunities, you lose connection with family and friends … There’s a lot of very significant risks of thinking differently from your tribe, whatever your tribe is.
If we understand that people are very scared to go out on their own from their social group, and the way that tribes change their thinking is that they all have to move together. So from that there has to be group discussions, and the whole group has to go together. And leaders in those communities have a very key roles. Rather than having experts talk at people, then, you work with groups, in sessions where they’re able to discuss. The opportunity where where people can come together in groups, be presented the problems and have these discussions, with their community. That’s just one part of the prong.
Another is dealing with emotions like fear and threat. Initially, there was a big thing about, don’t use a fear narrative, because you’ll be accused of being alarmist and people get put off by fear narratives. We now have a much more sophisticated understanding of the role of fear, and again this comes from evolutionary psychology. Fear is a helpful thing, because it triggers a lot of things in us which help us escape danger and go into active problem solving. If we don’t get a sense of fear, it doesn’t precipitate those sorts of reactions.
SUMI: Like a fight or flight response, and those kinds of things?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, but it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. Sometimes it just allows us to really focus, and get into a really serious problem-solving mode.
So yeah, it has to be a hyperconversation, but those community conversations need to be facilitated by really clear graphics of how we’re tracking so that we don’t infantilise people with the problem, by not telling them how bad it is. We have very clear graphics can show that by 2020, this is what the IPCC is saying, we have to have a very dramatic, steep reduction in greenhouse gases. If we give that problem to everybody and we say, “For the City of Melbourne or this region, can we achieve such a steep trajectory?” and we have a whole lot of problem-solving forums, keeping it really simple and not complicate it with 3,000 facts on soil salinity or millions of disparate little facts that confuse and overwhelm people.
If we had very simple metrics that every community and city were able to quickly look at and see where their town’s tracking in terms of that deceleration, they could almost get competitive and excited about it … We could bring in people like sport psychologists, who know how to motivate people to persist on a really difficult goal. This is our goal: to keep these the emissions down, so how do we keep that goal in mind and motivate people to keep persisting with a difficult goal? We know that people like to track a goal and see how they’re performing, so some sort of metrics to help us understand how we’re progressing, honestly, I think would help a lot.
NICK: Again, harping on these same points, but interesting how they’re central and recurring throughout the whole interview. There’s this idea of metrics that track your sustainability score, and you becoming competitive with that, with maybe a neighbouring town or your friend, or scale it up or down how you like. That’s something called gamification, and it really works to change social behaviour, we’re discovering. It’s just goddamn addictive, it taps into some real lizard brain cognition stuff. Stuff that’s just really basic human nature, so to speak. We like to compete, we like to compete not just with other people, but with ourselves. And compete not just in a zero sum kind of thing where it’s like you and I lose, but also we both win, but we both push each other.
I’m really interested in this idea of gamification of sustainability. There was an example, I think it was in Sweden, where they turned good, safe driving into a game that was tracked via an app, or something. It halved the speeding fines in the month after it was introduced.
SUMI: Oh, wow.
NICK: Everyone was getting on it. It’s kind of like, your passenger rating in Uber, or your Amazon seller rating, where it’s just these little competitive, status-y, prestige-y things.
SUMI: Like Duolingo, the language learning app?
NICK: Yup, that’s gamified learning personified, a really excellent example of it. A really famous example of gamification. I love it. It’s a fun little app.
Another question for you is: when you look at and talk about threats, is it climate change that you’re focused on, exclusively, or are you also looking at others? Part of the reason I ask is because, in my own studies on sustainability, every now and then I come across an academic or someone else who’s saying climate change isn’t the real threat – and then just pick your pet issue about what it could be about. It could be water, it could be biotechnology, it could be artificial intelligence, it could be runaway technological progress in some other area … You spend a lot of time looking at threats and fears around threats, how do you think it’s helpful to think about the range of threats?
ELIZABETH: You’re right. I guess the approach that I’ve taken acknowledges that climate and environment things are all intricately interconnected, so I’ve just put down climate and environmental change as one threat, acknowledging that they interweave in so many different ways. That’s probably just the short answer there.
NICK: I’m thinking about the idea of the hyperobject, and climate change as an example of that, because it extends on these vast timescales that we’re not really used to thinking about. Conversely, we have threats that are almost exponentially fast. If you look at how quickly some technological progress can sweep across –
Can I interrupt myself? So, another point here –
SUMI: You just interrupting yourself?
NICK: Yeah, interrupting myself. We talk about the limits of cognition in terms of the perceptions of time. You’ve got to think like a planet if you want to think on geological time scales, and understand the change patterns in climate change. You’ve got to think like a planet. But that’s how you deal with, say, climate change. But if you’re dealing with some other existential threat – potential existential threat, we’ll say – like, artificial intelligence or anything like that, it’s not a like a planet you’re got to think about, you’ve got to think like a self-teaching, rapidly accelerating artificial intelligence. You’ve got to think in a completely different paradigm. You’ve got to think in terms of exponential change, where on a day-to-day basis, there’s not really much of a change, it’s only in the eleventh hour, fifty-ninth minute, fifty-ninth second that everything suddenly doubles. And that doubling of things leads to a graph where change is really imperceptible for the huge majority of the time and suddenly it’s all, “Oh, crap. Things are changing rapidly and profoundly and, potentially, irreversibly.”
SUMI: I guess that means we’ve got to train ourselves to think at a variety of different scales and in a variety of different ways –
NICK: – to deal with a variety of different threats. Yeah.
SUMI: That presents a really big challenge for communication. Wow.
NICK: This is part of the reason why, I think, we focus so much on climate change. Because we’re just like, okay, look, this is obviously a really big deal, we need to deal with it. There might be some other really big stuff, but we’re a pretty one-thing-at-a-time kinda species, it feels like.
SUMI: And that might be the reason for our downfall.
NICK: It might be. But, who knows. May not be.
I’m thinking about the idea of the hyperobject, and climate change as an example of that, because it extends on these vast timescales that we’re not really used to thinking about. Conversely, we have threats that are almost exponentially fast. If you look at how quickly some technological progress can sweep across. You have a past in the military, you’ve probably seen some military applications of this – say, the proliferation of land mines or something like that. We have, there, a really negative outcome driven by technology, where the threat has come in on very human timescales, but is still significant.
ELIZABETH: This gets into the later part of my research, where I do apply some of those military methods for analysing threat. So, step one is defining this climate and environmental threat – which is multi-faceted, but putting it together here. Step two is to consider that threat in the context of other threats, and how they interact with each other. A couple of things come out of that. One is, the narrative that goes out to the community as a collective for us to evaluate ourselves, what is the greatest threat? Again, this is something that humans have done since the dawn of time. Part of whether we survive is our ability to correctly interpret the range of threats that we face, and choose our response to all those ranges of threats.
So, then, you have to consider, like, let’s compare a cyber threat to the threat of climate change – and its different dimensions. This decision about how we’re going to compare these kinds of threats has implications for us in terms of resourcing and prioritisation. My assessment is: if you line up climate change alongside a whole bunch of other sorts of threats, it is far more destructive than the others have the potential to. Even something like cyber warfare, or, dare I say it, nuclear warfare, which may be one of the worse ones out there … Even with nuclear, there is some possibility of remediation – although it’s very messy and yuck, and could take a long time. But for dangerous climate change, there really isn’t any remediation possibility.
NICK: So just to be clear, you’re saying it’s the difference between looking at sub-optimal future and one in which we’re annihilated entirely.
NICK: What I’m teasing out there is Bostrom’s framework, essentially. His definition of existential risk, which went one of two ways: you’ve got annihilation, where you’re just splat, boom, bug on a windshield; and the other one is drastic curtailing of our potential. So rather than everyone dying, it’s like we’ve got nuclear war and now we live in nuclear sludge. We’re still here and we endured it, but we’re never going to fully recover from that.
ELIZABETH: I think it’s the time for us as a community, to look at these ranges of threats and say, well, which is the biggest and which is the most important, and we have to prioritise. When you look at all of them together – this is what I’m discovering – through us addressing the climate and environmental change one, we ameliorate some of the other threats. Some of those other threats that you’re describing … Say, for example, we start getting a real scarcity of resources, and people then want to go to traditional warfare. The reason they’re going to traditional warfare is to get these resources. So if in the first place, we make sure that the resources are secure – and I hate to talk about the environment in that way, because that embodies the idea that the environment is only good for resources for human use, which I don’t like. But just for the sake of this argument …
Let’s have a look at Lake Chad in Africa. This enormous lake that used to provide livelihood for 81 million people. It’s shrunk dramatically over the years through not just climate change but poor environmental management, irrigation, etc. No surprise, we now have Boko Haram and a massive human security problem in that area. Because the environmental has fed into that scarcity, which has then exacerbated other security problems. When we think of the climate threat and addressing that versus other threats, we have to actually understand that if we don’t address the climate threat, it’s actually going to exacerbate the other threats.
NICK: That’s a great point. Sounds like you’re doing some fascinating research, truly, you’ve touched on about six different topics that we were going to cover ourselves.
SUMI: This reminds me of the example that you gave of The Handmaid’s Tale in a previous episode, where you were talking about how everybody was trying to save the planet, or do something good, but then that had this really dystopic outcome.
NICK: Right! I don’t know if I’m being really obvious here in saying this, or if I’m tapping into something a lot of people don’t realise about the show; I really have no idea. When I watched The Handmaid’s Tale – and, you know, I’d read reviews about it, and they all talked about it through the lens of gender and dystopian literature and stuff, and it’s this horribly violently misogynistic world. I saw all that in the show, that narrative, and it isn’t what really messed with me, what baked my noodle and kept me up at night. It was the little snippets of the world beyond the walls of this hive of misogyny. It was this idea of a dying world out there. And this horrible world that they’d built was a response to an even more dire threat, so it was in some ways justifiable and more desirable than the alternative – which is what the other countries were doing, which was dying.
SUMI: The lesser of two evils.
NICK: The lesser of two evils, but man, some serious evils. I guess what I’m saying – and I’m not sure if this is a really obvious point to be making or if it is kind of subtle – to me it seems like Atwood is telling this beautifully subtle, gut-wrenching, visceral story about climate change or sustainability more broadly, and how we respond to it. Allowing us to see how we could mess that all up, create a really bad system, and that could be worse than everybody just starving to death.
It’s so obvious and weird to say, but the environmental problems we see aren’t just going to pose environmental problems or the impacts of them aren’t going to be felt just in environmental ways. Sounds so obvious to say it, I know, but … It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to watch it as the show unfolds, or to read it going through the book. Again, I think, returning to that same point of art’s ability to capture the imagination and allow you to change your perception of something. Think like a dying planet. [laughs]
SUMI: I was just talking to a friend yesterday about how there are actual bunkers being sold for millions of dollars, basically for people who are trying to save themselves from climate change. There are these underground bunkers, fully stocked with like, I don’t know, 20 years’ worth of food and things like that. The fact that the only people who can afford them are the people who can fork out millions of dollars … But on top of that, within those bunkers, they’ve only stocked up 20 years of food. What happens as you come to the tail end of those stores? The one thing that I thought of was, yeah, maybe the people who couldn’t afford the bunkers would be fighting for our lives and struggling way before any of these people in the bunkers had to, but it’s going to come to that point anyway. Because you’re still going to have those same issues of scarcity. So it’s kind of a stop-gap measure. For them, they’re just prolonging the inevitable.
NICK: There’s a fantastic article about all of this, and it makes a couple of pretty cool points. The first is: you look at the zombie movies, and that’s us, in the climate apocalypse with the faceless, nameless, seen-on-screen-for-two-seconds thing that gets mowed down by the person riding past on their motorcycle – the person on the motorcycle is the rich person, you know. On a helicopter flying above it all, to their little bunker.
The second thing that’s interesting is this whole siege mentality. You’re exactly right, it’s a stop-gap measure, and maybe there isn’t anything that won’t be, but typically it’s like, here’s a bunker for me and my family. And then you read, in this article for example, about the more elaborate plans, and they start to build a community. Instead, it’s a doctor and a security team and a school and medicals and police and … Well you’re just building a whole society now. This is Noah’s Ark type stuff for the rich. If you know anything about genetics and population bottlenecks, and minimum viable populations to maintain genetic diversity and stuff, it’s just like, this is not a good approach to resilience whatsoever!
SUMI: This is the kind of scenario in the world that’s presented in another Margaret Atwood book, Oryx and Crake, which I strongly recommend, it’s a really good book. Basically, they had these massive communities, but within those communities there were gated complexes, and people lived in their own safe bubbles and they had these tube trains that would go from one rich community to another rich community. But between them, there was just the world out there, which was a world of conflict. You had these two worlds coexisting – in some ways we can say it already does exist in the world that we’re in, but it was just very pronounced. No child from the rich world would be allowed into the other world, or anything like that.
NICK: She’s very good at capturing class-based identities, societal class-based commentary wrapped up in a whole environmental dystopian literature. Not everyone can be a Margaret Atwood, sadly. But she has that role to play, right, and I think it’s a really important role. Underrated role, supes underrated.
SUMI: All the topics that your research focuses on seem pretty meta, pretty large-scale, and – like you said – the whole point of it is that it’s hard for us to conceptualise. How do you navigate that yourself, in terms of your everyday life? I guess my question is, does it mess with you in any way, and how do you deal with that?
ELIZABETH: I have to say, I’m in a state of excitement at the moment. I think I’ve got through that phase of coming to terms with a hyper threat, because I’ve been immersed in it for so long, I think I’ve built some of that software package. I feel immense hope. It’s like as soon as I’ve got this new software package, or as soon as I’ve put these new glasses on that can see, I suddenly see a whole stack of amazing opportunities, and solutions and pathways out of this problem. I’m now thinking at a hyper level, and all I feel is this sense of urgency. I think it opens up a whole lot of ideas we haven’t even touched the surface of. There is vast potential. Occasionally when I feel overwhelmed or exhausted … I’d have to say, the school kids striking has filled me with a lot of inspiration.
My memory of that woman I’d met in South Sudan, who was severely malnourished, and – to describe it, I’m trying to pass on a visceral understanding of what starvation and food security is – like a skeleton but the skin’s like cellophane but the eyes as moving. And you honestly can’t believe that you’re talking to a human being that’s alive, because everything you understand of what a human being looks like is not there. I remember having a conversation through an interpreter with this woman, who was very close to dying of starvation, and I’ve been very haunted by that conversation and that woman ever since. Often, I think of my nephews and my nieces and I think of that woman, of that image of the savagery of starvation, and it gives me quite a lot of drive.
Even at the worst point, I would think: if you frame it as a threat that we’re up against, there is sort of a sense of human fighting spirit that comes out. And you think, well, even if we are up against this phenomenal monster, I would rather go down fighting, and I’ll fight ‘til I die.
NICK: Rage against the dying of the light.
ELIZABETH: Yeah. Because it’s the only honourable thing to do, in terms of the future generations, and generations in the past have fought to the death for us, essentially. And now it’s our turn. I guess it rallies my fighting spirit.
SUMI: Cool, I think that we might wrap it up there.
NICK: That’s a beautiful way to end it, I think. I just think you’re touching on so many important points, Elizabeth. It’s a shame you’re not a lecturer here at Fenner, because you could teach a very interesting and important course. There’s a bit of what you’re getting at missing from the education I’ve got so far.
SUMI: Leave Bendigo, just come to Canberra!
ELIZABETH: Well, obviously I’m looking for something to do after my PhD, so …
NICK: Yeah you can pop into academia!
ELIZABETH: Whisper in anyone’s ear that you want to!
NICK: “The Grass Ceiling podcast is hosted by me, Nick Blood –“
SUMI: “– and hosted and produced by me, Sumithri Venketasubramanian. Thank you to Elizabeth Boulton, for taking the time to chat with us and for bearing with our technical issues! Our project supervisor is Dr. Edwina Fingleton-Smith. The Grass Ceiling is made possible thanks to the technical support of the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. As always, a big thank you to the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society for all their support in helping make this project happen. All music used in this episode was produced by Jackson Wiebe. For more TGC content, including articles written about some of the topics we’ve talked about today and in other episodes, check out our website at www.thegrassceiling.net.”
SUMI: All planning and recording for this episode have taken place on Ngunnawal Country.
Hi, it’s Sumi, one of the hosts of The Grass Ceiling podcast. This episode’s a little bit different from what we usually do. So, The Grass Ceiling is a project that comprises both podcast episodes as well as written articles. The articles are all on our website, and they explore in depth some of the concepts in sustainability that maybe were too long to cover here, or are just better read than heard.
A lot of time and research have gone into writing them, and they’re really mind-blowing. I know, because I’m still recovering from having my mind blown by some of the stuff Nick’s written. Our supervisor, Edwina (shoutout!), can vouch for that too.
Today, we’ve got a bit of a live reading-slash-discussion, that follows on from some of the philosophical stuff that we talked about in our last episode. Nick’s going to be reading from one of the pieces he’s written, and we’ll kind of have chats here and there if things come up.
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. Nick, take it away!
NICK: This section I’m reading from is Chapter 17.3, Drawdown: A Case Study in Prioritisation. Essentially, what I’m doing in this chapter is, looking at this project called Drawdown, which was led by Paul Hawken. Hawken was essentially overseeing a huge army of scientists. The purpose of the Drawdown project was to find ways to reverse climate change. Hawken gave a talk on this project at ANU, and that’s where I’m drawing a lot of the knowledge about it from – really good to get it firsthand from the man himself. There were a lot of things he said in that talk that were a bit more hard to find online, so that’s kind of what I wanted to share and what I wanted to focus on.
As I said, they were looking for solutions on ways to reverse climate change, and Hawken made a specific point about this. He was like, he doesn’t understand, philosophically, the idea of mitigation – why would you mitigate something that’s trying to destroy you? You want to reverse that process; you never want it to even happen in the first place. With that in mind, that’s sort of what the purpose of the Drawdown project was.
SUMI: What’s mitigation?
NICK: Mitigation, as opposed to reversing, would be to reduce the effects of, rather than stop the process from happening. So you might lessen the worst impacts of climate change, as opposed to reverse the whole process entirely.
SUMI: Is it like making earthquake-resilient buildings?
NICK: Exactly, as compared to stopping earthquakes entirely. Not really possible for us to do right now, but that’s a great example that illustrates the difference between the two. I’ll launch into what I’ve written, and maybe paraphrase as I go along.
The purpose of the Drawdown project was to identify a range of potential methods to reverse climate change, and then prioritise them according to certain criteria – in this case, emissions reductions and costs. Emissions reductions is the key component of reversing climate change, and so this was considered the critical factor of a given solution’s potential impact.
The inclusion of costs is intended to act as a proxy for feasibility in general, suggesting that projects with economic gains are arguably more feasible – although in many cases, as Hawken noted during his talk, ascertaining costs in some areas was really difficult, often times too difficult to put a dollar figure on, at least for this first version of the project. He also stressed something, it’s worth pointing out here, which is that various co-benefits existed with these solutions that go far beyond just purely economic considerations or considerations about emissions reductions. For example, empowering women to choose how many women they want to have, educating young girls, delivering rooftop solar, and regenerating our natural environment – these are all examples of ways to achieve emissions reductions that may generate economic value, but they obviously also come with some pretty profound other benefits. Allowing women the same kind of freedom and autonomy that men get is something that goes far beyond just economic or environmental considerations. It just so happens to have huge emissions reductions benefits as well.
In the essay, there’s a comic included. It’s a very famous cartoon, but the artist Joel Pett. It went viral before the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, and it kind of helped promote this idea of simple yet powerful co-benefits that come along with some of these things. So, just to visually paint a picture for you, if you’ve not seen the cartoon – I’m sure some of you already know the one I’m talking about – there’s a guy up there delivering a PowerPoint to a big crowd at a climate summit. There’s a bullet-pointed list of things and it says sustainability, green jobs, liveable cities, renewables, clean water, air, health children, et cetera. And somebody in the crowd stands up and goes, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” It’s like, even in the process of trying to combat climate change, even if it was a hoax, we would still create all these other huge co-benefits. That’s just an important thing the point out, it’s not strictly related to this chapter.
The key focal point of this chapter is that Drawdown demonstrates something we can call prioritisation. Prioritisation feeds into a larger idea, which this whole chapter is about, which is triage. Triage is, in a nutshell, the idea that you should treat the most severe problem first, and then go on down the list. It’s a way of doing treatment that is based on prioritisation, and that prioritisation is based on the severity of a condition.
SUMI: This is something that they do in the emergency room at hospitals?
NICK: Right, exactly. Triage typically belongs in a medical context. You might be a triage nurse working, say, in an emergency ward, and people come in and present with different problems. Your job – and it’s quite a tricky job, it’s quite a skill – is to figure out who should see treatment first. What complicates this job, what makes it more difficult is that you might have somebody who’s very vocal about their problem, but they might not be in a life-threatening situation. You might have somebody who’s very quiet, and they might be quietly dying in the corner. So you need to be very good at identifying risks in ways that, when the behaviour or symptoms that those risks exhibit aren’t as obvious as they might be.
Obviously, it’s very easy to deal with somebody who has a toothache versus somebody who’s wheeled in with a gunshot wound to the head. But when two people are wheeled in and both of them are dying from poison, and you don’t know what it is, it’s very hard to figure out who to treat first and so on. That’s the analogy I use to describe climate change and sustainability more broadly: we lack a triage-based approach to sustainability. If we’re going to have a triage-based approach to sustainability, the one of the first things we need to do is get really good at prioritisation. That’s the whole reason I’m looking at this Drawdown project is, this is a really good example of how to go about prioritising something.
The only problem, if there is a problem here, is that Drawdown is focused just on climate change. What if we had, instead, a model of sustainability focused on all the different risks facing us, and then it prioritised that. It used some sort of criteria – Paul Hawken’s used net savings, net costs, and emissions reductions, to prioritise all the candidate solutions for reversing climate change. What would be the metrics that we use to rank and prioritise how we deal with different global existential threats?
Drawdown demonstrates prioritisation, but not triage: The focus is on prioritizing solutions by their effectiveness, rather than ranking threats by level of severity. This isn’t to say Drawdown is bad, however. This isn’t lazy thinking, it’s just different. Different approaches should be encouraged because each framework is going to lend different strengths. A Drawdown-type approach can be good for identifying lesser-known problems: for example, refrigeration management. That’s a surprising number one on the list, is refrigeration management. If we did better at cooling and heating homes around the world, we would have massive reductions in global emissions. And that’s the beauty, I think, of doing a number-crunching thing that prioritises in that way, because it can lead you against your own intuitions, and take you to places you might not otherwise have found and identify solutions that you may not have prioritised otherwise.
As I’ve said to you once before, Sums, I think that more so than the results of Drawdown, this methodology, this prioritisation that they’re doing, that might ultimately end up being the greatest achievement of this project. One key point here is to examine what that project is doing at that high level, because it’s quite instructive in highlighting a process that might resemble triage or something on the first steps towards a triage model. The first step is to identify candidate issues for consideration. The next step is to develop criteria, so that you can rank them. And then, the third step is simply combining the two; you apply that criteria and you develop a ranked list.
As I mentioned though, the problem with Drawdown is it’s only focused on climate change, and even then you could say it’s focused on an environmental issue – it’s still stuck beneath the grass ceiling. What if instead there was a work comparable to it that identified existential risks, it developed a criteria for prioritising them, and it produced a ranked list – kind of like Drawdown has. What would that look like?
SUMI: Before you launch into it, could you define what an existential risk is?
NICK: We’re on our way to understanding what that is, and it’s very difficult to explain all these concepts because they’re interrelated. Just a working definition until we get to that definition is “global existential risk is a risk that threatens to either annihilate humans, or to drastically curtail our potential”. It doesn’t necessarily need to annihilate us, but just leave us in a really dire situation.
SUMI: So it’s necessarily a human-centric idea, existential risk?
NICK: Yeah, pretty much. Although, it can take a non-anthropocentric perspective insofar as if we destroy the planet, then it will also destroy all humans. But yeah, it is very anthropocentric, it’s worth noting.
This sort of stuff enjoys less mainstream attention than, say, the attention that climate change gets. But it’s worth noting and giving due credit that there has been a lot of work done already, in attempting to create a kind of ranked list of global existential threats. An example of that might come from a 2015 report called “Global Challenges: 12 risks that threaten human civilization – The case for a new risk category”. This comes out of a group called the Global Challenges Foundation. I’ll talk about them briefly in a second, but I just want to talk about the list of 12 risks that they identified, because it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It features some familiar things, you know, nuclear war, meteors, climate change, but then it also features some lesser-known stuff, such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) development, synthetic biology, nanotechnology – basically the bad fruits of unchecked modernisation.
I’ll just read quickly. We have extreme climate change, nuclear war, a global pandemic, ecological catastrophe, global system collapse, major asteroid impact, synthetic biology, super-volcano, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and future bad global governance. And then another one, just represented by a question marks, “unknown consequences”. We’ve talked about this at other times, how the development of plastic was originally the saviour of the environment, and then had some unknown consequences, unintended consequences much later down the line. Then it became a kind of bane on the environment.
SUMI: A lot of existential risks that you’ve just listed there, that that article talked about, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what some of those are. Like, I have no idea what you mean by nanotechnology, for example. Do you want to talk a bit about some of them, or do you just want to talk about what unites all of these different risks?
NICK: There isn’t really a common theme, other than the fact that their impact can be so severe, that it constitutes a global existential risk; it could either annihilate us, or it could drastically curtail our future potential.
In terms of nanotechnology specifically, there’s actually kind of a laundry list of all of the things that could go wrong with nanotechnology. Just to give one example… nanotechnology is essentially just working with things at very tiny scales – that could be biotechnology, that could be us modifying crops or livestock, for example, or it could be genetically modifying humans and so on. It could be the creation of an engineered virus, so an engineered pandemic rather than a naturally-created or naturally-mutated one.
Nanotechnology could also involve things like, say we develop a new robot, kind of drone that can go through your bloodstream – it’s like the size of a red blood cell – and it goes around zapping all the bad stuff. But what happens if somebody hacks that and we have 60 millions people with these things inside of them and suddenly they go rogue? There could be some serious problems there. Or what happens if there’s just an unintended consequence from having these things running around inside of us? So that’s at least part of the problem of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology typically integrates with other sorts of existential risks. So, you often see it, for example, in dystopian science fiction, combining with the idea of artificial intelligence gone bad – either intentionally bad, or unintended consequences bad. A kind of famous example is called the “grey goo scenario”, where you have tiny little self-assembling robots. But somebody hacks the off switch, and so they never stop self-assembling. And it’s this nanomolecular goo just ends up covering the earth in this grey mass of nastiness … Anyways! [laughs]
So there’s lots of different ways – that probably wasn’t the most convincing or compelling argument against nanotechnology’s risks – there’s probably some more pragmatic threats that they pose in the nearer term, but I didn’t actually look at that section on the paper.
Quickly, a bit about the Global Challenges Foundation, because I think they’re a good example of a sustainability-focused think tank that also focuses on risk. One of their board members is Johan Rockström, who’s a bit of a pioneering figure in sustainability, he pioneered the concept of planetary boundaries and he’s been quite influential in sustainability. Just his presence alone indicates what kind of a level of influence and profile this organisation has.
For this report, the GCF – the Global Challenges Foundation – worked closely alongside a similar outfit, which is the Future of Humanity Institute, and they’re based out of Oxford University and led by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose own work I’ve looked at in quite a lot of detail and who is quite an influential thinker in terms of this space of sustainability and how it relates to risk.
Just briefly, I think it’s interesting to note a few details from that report, the 12 risks report. You’ll notice in the title of the report – “Global Challenges: 12 risks that threaten human civilization – The case for a new risk category”. What do they mean by a new risk category? They don’t talk necessarily about global existential risk, they instead talk about infinite risk, and this is what they want to be a new category.
As the report’s title suggests, they’re focused on developing a new definition of risk, and that includes a new category, infinite risks. The term “infinite” here refers to their potential impact. They have this figure, which is just Risk = Probability x Impact. Very simple formula, Risk is the same as Probability times Impact. This is essentially how they calculate risk, and it drives their entire approach. It’s this criteria-driven classification system that I think we need if we’re going to have anything resembling a triage system. This is how you get to triage.
SUMI: Could you give an example of how that formula might be used to compare, say, two different risks?
NICK: Right, so, a high probability event with a low impact isn’t as risky as a low probability event with a high impact. To put that more simply, a 90 percent chance of a common cold isn’t as serious as a one percent chance of terminal cancer. Probability is an important thing, how likely is this to happen, but also impact is the huge thing, you know. Just because it’s highly probable, if it’s low impact we don’t really care about it, but if it’s really high impact and even has a tiny, little bit of probability of happening, then it’s something that we need to be very serious about.
This ties into the idea of the precautionary principle – this is an idea we see a fair bit in sustainability, where it’s like, because what’s at stake is so high, because the impact is so large in other words, it doesn’t really matter so much the probability. The precautionary principle is a slight rephrasing of that. It says, we shouldn’t let the fact that we don’t have a hundred percent complete scientific knowledge stand in the way of us taking action. The reason why that is, is ultimately an argument – or you could rephrase it as an argument – about the impact, because the impact could be so severe that we need to take action, even if we’re not 99 percent sure that we need to take it.
SUMI: What about those unknown consequences, then?
NICK: Well, we look at those in terms of their potential impacts, but we don’t really have a clear idea about probabilities. That’s, I think, the value of having a formula like this is because, if one part of the formula is really hard to complete – say, probability for example – we can still get some idea about how to rank it, at least based on its impact.
This kind of strikes most people as common sense; I’m going to care more about something that has a high impact regardless of its probability, than I will care about, you know … But the point is, in our everyday calculations of risk, we don’t really behave rationally like this formula, we don’t do a little calculation in our head when we think about risk a lot of the time.
SUMI: When you’re driving on a 100km/hour road on a daily basis, if you crash into someone, that’s a massive impact.
NICK: Right, and you probably aren’t scared of that. If you’re a typical American, for example, you’re more likely to die in a car accident, but you’re definitely more scared of terrorists. Statistically, based on rigorous sampling of the American population for example. I open this whole chapter by talking about that. Americans are more scared of the governments taking away their guns than they are of gun violence directed at them, but they are statistically way more likely to die of gun violence than they are of … the government’s never done anything to take away guns, you know what I mean? Part of what I talked about is how politicians and the media get a lot of value out of stoking certain fears. And we know this, this is tale as old as time, you know, when a politician wants to win an election, he’ll bring up something for everybody to feel scared of, and I think Donald Trump is a good example of this. The xenophobia that he demonstrates is a good example of stoking up fears that aren’t necessarily rational.
To get back to this paper, why it’s good to have it written down – even if it’s completely blindingly obvious – Risk = Probability x Impact, because if it doesn’t get much traction in the real world, it’s good to just have it stated out loud from time to time. Maybe something else has occurred to you, thinking about this formula, which is that some calculations don’t quite boil down to numbers. The impacts of some risks are essentially infinite. To illustrate this, the report actually starts with some history, and it’s a very interesting story worth quoting in full. So this is the story.
It is only 70 years ago that Edward Teller, one of the greatest physicists of his time, with his back-of-the-envelope calculations, produced results that differed drastically from all that had gone before. His calculations showed that the explosion of a nuclear bomb – a creation of some of the brightest minds on the planet, including Teller himself – could result in a chain reaction so powerful that it would ignite the world’s atmosphere, thereby ending human life on Earth.
Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, halted the project to see whether Teller’s calculations were correct. The resulting document, LA-602: Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs, concluded that Teller was wrong. But the sheer complexity drove the assessors to end their study by writing that “further work on the subject [is] highly desirable”. The LA-602 document can be seen as the first global challenge report addressing a category of risks where the worst possible impact in all practical senses is infinite.
So yeah, there’s a pretty scary moment in history where we were going to test that first nuclear bomb and somebody’s back-of-the-napkin calculations said, “Uh, this could theoretically ignite the atmosphere of the planet and kill us all.” Which is a new kind of risk that we’d never really seen before. The idea from this scenario is a great example where the impacts would be so far-reaching and devastating that they’re basically infinite, for all intents and purposes. The end of the earth is not something that we can really quantify with a number. It’s an impact with no upper limits, and so the impact is infinite, in the authors’ minds.
This idea of infinite risk is really useful if you want to build a triage model of sustainability, because it’s inherently focused on the severity of impacts as a determinant of a risk’s importance. In this model, a broad range of threats is assessed using a new definition of risk and then using a criteria – probability and impact, that’s the criteria – we can then determine what to prioritise. This is essentially that three-steps model of triage mentioned earlier that Drawdown kind of showed, you know, identify candidate risks, develop criteria, and then apply those criteria. This is essentially what this group, the Global Challenges Foundation, is doing. What you get out of that, that list of threats, is quite different to something like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
The SDGs, they imply risks. SDG number one is to eliminate global poverty. That would eliminate risks, the personal risk to a person from being poor, and it would eliminate larger-order societal risk – it would avoid social disorder that could come about from poverty. But the SDGs aren’t really about risk reduction at the end of the day, are they. They don’t mention anything about nanotechnology, for example, or meteors, and only indirectly talk about the risk of an ecological collapse or the risk of global governance collapse.
To go back to the report, another notable point is the communications challenges – this is going to be a recurring topic as we discuss the grass ceiling, but – another notable point is the way that they approach communicating sustainability and communicating existential risk. This does represent, I think, a unique kind of challenge. When you talk about existential risks, it can easily lead into kind of negative messaging and that can cause people to disengage, it can cause people to be scared and create a raft of undesirable outcomes. How you communicate this is particularly important, and the authors clearly recognise this. I’ll just quote from the report here.
The idea that we face a number of global challenges threatening the very basis of our civilisation at the beginning of the 21st century is well accepted in the scientific community and is studied at a number of leading universities. However, there is still no coordinated approach to address this group of challenges and turn them into opportunities.
So there’s an interrelationship here between danger and opportunity, and it’s worth identifying, as they have, and targeting, as they have, because I think that’s present in a lot of sustainability challenges. This idea kind of echoes an old truism – I think it was famously stated by US President John F. Kennedy – he said, “In the Chinese language, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One representing danger, and the other representing opportunity.”
I actually looked that up and he’s not quite correct, and it was a bit of a white boy misappropriation of the language. But the point here is, regardless of whether or not it’s true, it’s a nice way to think about it. Within every crisis, there is both a danger and an opportunity. If that mode of thinking is good enough for JFK then it’s good enough for me. Focus on positive messaging, finding opportunities from the crisis ahead … that is a better starting mindset than one focused on impending doom.
SUMI: When you’re talking about things like risk or crisis or opportunities, a question that I have here is: to whom, for whom, and by whom? Is it considered an existential risk if it threatens to absolutely decimate the population of an entire continent, for example, or is it only an existential risk if every single human is killed? Is it considered an existential risk if, say, the planet is destroyed, but we have developed the technology to fly off onto Mars and build a colony there? And also, when we talk about crises and opportunities, does it really matter who – is it going to be the rich people who are going to have those opportunities? Is it going to be everybody, how do we make sense of the fact that society and the world is unequal, within all that?
NICK: Excellent question, and it leads perfectly into that next section. At this point, I stop taking us too far down the rabbit hole and I say, hey, okay, first of all, we need to nail down a definition of risk that can answer those sorts of questions. When I got to this section, I realised how foundational and important that was, because there’s a lot of work that’s going to go into defining risk. That in itself is a huge step, and it’s a necessary first step before you can do any of this other stuff. You need to have a clear definition of risk, but the act of defining risk is itself very important. It’s kind of a meta task, too, because if you don’t define risk sufficiently well, then you open yourself up to risk. It’s very meta. Anyways –
SUMI: I’m still trying to wrap my head about that. If you don’t define risk well, then you open yourself up to risk … Is that because you’re less likely to recognise it as a risk?
NICK: Exactly! So, it’s a very meta task. It’s a philosophical undertaking to worry too much about definitions, and that’s typically what the work of a philosopher is, to tear their hair out wondering about what the correct definition of something is. But this has real, practical implications, and really high stakes implications too. Because if we define risk too narrowly, then we risk getting blindsided by something that we didn’t include in our definition, and then it’s game over for the species.
SUMI: Right, so if, say, the physical bodies of humans were to still be in existence, but we were to not have the same autonomy or control over them as we might right now, does risk encompass that kind of loss of humanity? Or is it only the absolute and total decimation of – like our hearts no longer beat and our brains no longer work?
NICK: Yeah, again, I think that’s going to depend hugely on your definition of risk. I’ll take us through to the last chapter that I’ll share, and that’ll talk a lot to this idea and what I think is a good definition of risk.
It starts with a quote, from Carl Sagan, who said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” The point he’s making there is that, before you can make the apple pie from scratch, you first need to invent gravity and you need to invent atoms, and you need to do all this other stuff first. Even just making the apple pie is a much more complex task, and same here with building a risk-based model, you first need to do all this other stuff. You need to build the universe underneath it.
Quickly return to that high-level framework we talked about for building a triage-focused, risk-based model of sustainability. Step one: identify candidate issues for consideration. Step two: you develop criteria to rank them. And then step three: you apply that criteria and develop a ranked list. If you wish to build that list of risks, you must first define what you mean by risk. In that GCF report, they brought in their definition; they redefined risk to include a new category, which was infinite risks. They demonstrated the importance of areas previously underexplored.
Let’s look at another definition that’s sort of similar to that but also different. This comes from Nick Bostrom, who, as you recall, led up one of the groups – the Future of Humanities Institute that co-operated with the Global Challenges Foundation on that report. I think there’s few better to call in for this job than Nick Bostrom. He’s written at length on existential risk, and he’s quite influential in this space. He’s been talking and developing on this idea of risks since a paper back in 2002, and more recently back in 2013 he revisited that idea and throughout that time, he’s been trying to come up with a comprehensive definition of risk that speaks to those questions you’re asking.
Here’s a figure that’s kind of visually hard to describe, but along the top-to-bottom axis, the y-axis, is scope. You can think about scope also as scale – personal scale, local scale, and global scale. Then, going along the horizontal axis, the –
SUMI: X –
NICK: – the x-axis, you have the intensity or the severity of a certain risk. It could be an endurable risk, something like, your car gets stolen – you can survive that, it’s not going to completely annihilate your existence. Whereas if that stolen car drives over your face, at 100 kilometres an hour, that is not an endurable risk, that is a terminal risk.
So we’ve got variants in scale, and we’ve got variants in severity. And we can superimpose onto that a third thing, which is probability. I’ll just flag that we can do that; I won’t disappear too much into the discussion of that, but I talked before about how risk equals probability times impact, right? Well, this is a different conceptualisation of risk as a combination of things at different scales, things of different impacts, and then you can superimpose onto that the probability aspect.
SUMI: I have a question about the y-axis and you go from personal or individual, and then you go to regional, global. What if, say, there is a risk that threatens to affect one person or one group of people – and it’s a very, very small group of people – but that kills a whole host of knowledge that they may have that could unlock the secrets to saving a really important ecological species? Or what if the one person that you kill is someone that has a lot of power in the world?
NICK: That would be an example, then, of a risk that appears to be endurable, but is actually terminal. I think that’s what you’re trying to argue is, a group of people might drop off the face of the planet, and we’ll say, “Ah, the human species can endure that. That’s not a problem.” But it turns out that they were going to play some key role that would have helped all of us avoid existential annihilation. In that case, what we do have there is a tricky situation where something looks endurable but is actually terminal for us.
SUMI: Right, and sometimes you may not know that until you have hindsight.
NICK: Exactly, and this is sort of what Bostrom is trying to get at. I’ll come to that in a bit, but he points out the fact that we’re not going to be very good at dealing with these kinds of terminal risks because typically nothing survives them, so there’s nothing around to learn the lesson. If you think about this as a biologist, or if you think about this in terms of evolution, typically, nature selects for an advantage and whittles away something that is disadvantageous by comparison. So nature, and natural selection, teaches organisms over time. In this account, there’s nobody left to be taught, so there’s no way that we’ve evolved biologically to deal with these problems. As Bostrom argues, we haven’t evolved culturally, to deal with these problems either, because we’ve never seen problems that are global existential risks before.
I’ll just read his definition here: “Existential risks: one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate earth-originating intelligent life” – notice how that’s not necessarily anthropocentric – “or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” You asked earlier about how anthropocentric it is and, with that in mind, reading that quote out, I realised it’s not actually necessarily anthropocentric. “Annihilating earth-originating intelligent life” could mean that we stick around but the rest of the biosphere is gone, and we could consider that to be an existential risk.
As Bostrom argues, risks in this sixth category are a recent phenomenon. This is part of the reason why it is useful to distinguish them from other risks. By sixth category, I mean – sorry I should clarify here – existential risks are ones that are global in scale, and terminal in impact. Their probability is less important; the fact is that they have such a large scale and such a high impact, that they are essentially global existential risks – sometimes just called X risks, but that’s such a tongue twister.
SUMI: Even if the probability that something might happen is 0.0000001 percent, that fact that –
NICK: It’s still a global existential risk. It’s just a very low probability risk. As Bostrom argues, risks in this sixth category are a recent phenomenon. This is part of the reason why it is useful to distinguish them from other risks, say, a local scale terminal risk, or an international scale terminal risk.
We have not evolved mechanisms, either biologically or culturally, for managing such risks, Bostrom says. Evolving and developing these mechanisms is no easy task; there’s no place for the trial and error approach we often use. We cannot learn from a mistake, when its consequences are fatal, simply because nobody’s left around to draw any lessons from it. Our approach, therefore, is going to be inherently and unavoidably speculative. It’s going to be a process in which we’re trying to anticipate an unknowable future and trying to build our capacities for foresight that is accurate. Additionally, Bostrom says, the institutions, moral norms, societal attitudes and national security policies, that developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks, may be less useful in dealing with existential risks, which are a different type of beast.
This is sort of demonstrated, I think, by the work that, for example, came out of the Global Challenges Foundation – which Bostrom himself is speaking from a position of personal experience and authority on, because that was partly his work. If you look at these so-called exotic threats like molecular nanotechnology, for example, that’s not really something the UN really talks about – or not, certainly, when it uses its most mainstream frameworks of sustainability, such as the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. I think this is what Bostrom’s getting at when he’s saying these traditional institutions, these traditional norms and whatever, they’re not particularly well-equipped, in every case, to handle these new types of threats.
So it’s got to be these new emerging institutions with a fundamentally different philosophical approach, different starting point, about how to conceive of sustainability as a response to different threats. They’re going to produce and create information and responses that are not only important, but are going to exist on the periphery, outside of the mainstream. And that, in itself, represents all kinds of problems with engagement, and profile, and influence, and so on.
I think that’s just a good glimpse of the underlying philosophical ideas about risk, and what they mean pragmatically in terms of what kind of perspective on sustainability you get out of them. It’s very different than a lot of the mainstream conceptualisations of it. When you look at, say, climate change right now, climate change kind of dominates the discourse on existential risk. If we are having a conversation right now, a high-profile, influential, mainstream conversation about global existential risk – and we are – like 99 percent of the time it’s about climate change.
SUMI: Why do you think that is?
NICK: I think it’s part of the grass ceiling, we’re still trying to break through the grass ceiling. It comes from that history of sustainability being rooted in environmentalism, the dominance of environmentalism, I think that’s a huge factor in it. That environmental agenda still dominates when we talk about sustainability. Climate change is, obviously a pertinent issue – it’s really hard to tell without a ranked list, but – it would surely have to be a top three in terms of severity, in terms of impact, in terms of endurability… It’s a big question mark on how endurable it is. In your interview with Will Steffen, for example, he talked about how –
SUMI: One second. The interview with Will Steffen that Nick’s mentioning here was conducted before this episode was recorded, but it’s not been released yet. So no, it’s not missing from your feed and Nick’s not just returned from the future, it’s just a scheduling thing. Alright – back to it.
NICK: In your interview with Will Steffen, for example, he talked about how, if we continue down on a business-as-usual approach, then there’s going to be about a billion people left on the planet. That’s about the most that we could sustain according to some study he’d looked at. You might say, oh, well that’s an endurable threat for us, but that means six billion people die. And what that collapse looks like could also just be awful, how we respond to a collapse situation might itself present existential risks of its own.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – and I don’t know about the book, because I haven’t read it, but the TV show – I think it’s explicitly trying to make this point that this nightmarish world of hyper-misogynistic, religious authoritarianism didn’t come out of a vacuum; this was people trying to save the planet from ecological collapse, and what they reached to was this ugly, violent, horrible world. It’s a really hard show to watch at times, but every now and then you get this glimpse of the world beyond and why they’re doing it, and you suddenly realise, “Holy crap, as bad as these people are, and as rotten as this society is they’ve built, they’re literally trying to save their species. That’s what’s at stake here. And this is the dark path that they’ve had to take in response to that challenge.”
I guess the point there is, we haven’t annihilated human life, in that example. This is the other definition that Bostrom provided, this is the drastic curtailing of potential. The same way that a billion people being left instead of seven billion people is a drastic curtailing of our potential. It’s the curtailing of the potential of six billion people and their offspring to come.
SUMI: In understanding existential risk, how do we understand how, maybe, different existential risks might relate to one another? Or identify the costs and considerations of addressing and avoiding existential destruction?
NICK: That’s really difficult to answer. The costs are practically infinite; if the impacts are infinite, then the costs are infinite. With understanding existential risks, Bostrom’s made the first steps, but when I read his papers, I am very mindful that he’s not the final word on this. I do, at some points, criticise this idea that … he’s got it very neatly categorised on paper, but the reality is always going to be way messier. He has a very clear black and white line going between the word endurable and the word terminal, but it’s not always clear cut.
For example, if you look at dinosaurs, from one perspective, the dinosaurs suffered from a terminal existential risk – whether it was the meteor or some other incident, or what have you. That drastically curtailed their potential, if not annihilated them. It didn’t technically annihilate them, because birds are still around. Birds aren’t descendants of dinosaurs, they’re just dinosaurs, still living and chilling and flying around like they were all those millions of years ago. So from the birds’ perspective, it was endurable. From one dinosaur’s perspective it was endurable, and from one it wasn’t.
And this ties back to your starting point about risk for who, and your recurring point you often make, in sustainability we often talk about progress – progress for who? Risk, risk for who? That question, I think, hints at broader questions about class, societal power, status, and the humanity we either give people or deny them, human rights and so on.
SUMI: Okay, let’s talk about The Handmaid’s Tale. I haven’t read it, but from what you said, it seems like the pursuit of avoiding ecological destruction, in that pursuit –
NICK: They’re trying to save the species, right.
SUMI: – they end up in this really, otherwise dystopian environment where there’s a lot of sexual violence and all sorts of other awful things. It makes me think and question, what is in the moral or ethical paradigm that we’re in now that we think is so unalienable, and what might existential risks push us to in terms of … Like, for example, the majority of us – I’m not saying every single one of us – but the majority of us wouldn’t wake up one day and say, “Alright, today I’m just going to go out and kill a person.” But living in a risk-conscious society, would it make us see everybody else as our enemy and a sort of every-man-for-himself kind of mindset, and we’re constantly in fight or flight mode? I’d imagine that existential risk would fuck with us psychologically and affect our relationships with other people.
NICK: It can, it can create that kind of siege mentality. And that ties back to the importance that the authors of that report identified, in reframing it as about finding opportunities and turning those challenges into opportunities as much as possible.
Yeah, it’s this really tricky conflict between two priorities here. On one hand, we need to face facts, we need to look at what the reality is out there, and that includes looking at some pretty confronting challenges ahead. And then we need to counterbalance that with what we know about human psychology and how we respond to those confronting things. We’ll be talking about sustainability communication in future episodes, but this discussion about the philosophy underpinning sustainability and frameworks for sustainability already just shows how critical and foundational that challenge is. We’re dealing with what is ultimately a communication problem, and psychology problem, at the end of the day.
We don’t want to alienate people, we don’t want them to be under siege mentality all day. Although, we’ve also seen how well fear motivates people, and we’ve seen how easy it is to plant certain fears in people’s minds. So if we’re manipulating people in one way already and it’s not a good way, can we manipulate them in a more benign way maybe?
Just to quickly backtrack to your idea of a “risk for who”. It’s interesting that in that graph, and in the discussion of that graph in the paper, Bostrom at one point talks – and this, I think, is one of his biggest mistakes in the paper – he’s trying to give an example of an endurable risk for a national or a smaller geographical scale, and he talks about a loss of cultural heritage. As an endurable risk for a community. And that just immediately struck me as wrong. Because I’d been dealing with the issue at the time, I thought about the people in Wilcannia, which is a remote down in –
SUMI: Northwest New South Wales.
NICK: – northwest New South Wales. Like many remote towns connected into the Murray-Darling Basin, it’s been running out of water –
SUMI: Might be central-west, I don’t know. Anyway, yep.
NICK: Okay. But there’s a bunch out there, you know, Collarenebri … Ah, I’m trying to think of some others.
NICK: Walgett, yeah that’s right, Walgett’s another one. So there’s all these remote communities, and typically, predominantly, Indigenous Australians on these communities. And the river’s drying up. The river’s drying up for many reasons, we won’t get into too much for now, but the long and the short of it is – to oversimplify a little bit – because of colonialism, you know, white people came and fucked up the river. There’s this powerful line in this article I read about the people in Wilcannia, and they we saying they’d lost the water from the river and that was their cultural heritage. They’d taught, through countless generations, they’d passed on their stories and history by using the river. It was a way to teach future generations. When the river died, so did that ability to pass on that heritage.
Now, according to Bostrom’s table, in the way that he describes it, that’s an endurable risk. But it’s not. That’s terminal, pretty much – or it certainly threatens to be terminal, for those cultures. For their way of life, and for their sense of self and identity. That line that really struck me from that article was, they were saying, “I can’t get culture from a bore pump.” They’d been provided with another means of water, you know, this bore pumping up water from the ground. But that wasn’t the culture, that didn’t replace that. That was irreplaceable, it comes from the river and the river alone. And so, it looked to me like a terminal risk.
What this reveals, and I talked about this in more detail later on in this essay, is this sticky relationship – this really intractable, messy, murky relationship – between risk and personal values, and culture, and history, and … It’s a lot more subjective, and I think, wishy-washy and hard to pin down when you really get into who’s being impacted and why.
SUMI: Yeah, I guess, what is the relationship between sustainability and social justice? What’s the value of levelling the playing field in comparison to – for one, do we have to compare the two – but how do we weigh that up against the long-term goals or pursuits of human society more broadly? Can we even define homogenous goals of human society more broadly?
NICK: One mistake a lot of people do, and I think this might be the mistake Bostrom’s doing is, slipping into species-level thinking. Like, thinking of us kind of as an organism. And that organism has to persist over time and if we’ve achieved that, and we avoid all the icebergs along the way in our boat, then we’ve achieved sustainability for a time. But it’s obviously about more than that.
In our first submission of essays to our supervisor, Edwina, we came up with a definition of sustainability that talked about it in those very simple terms, those kind of organistic terms. It said, “the ability to persist over time”. And Edwina was like, “What about flourishing?” [laughs] Like, I don’t want to just persist in life –
SUMI: I want to live!
NICK: Yeah, I want to live! I think it’s such a simple question, but it illustrates a) the challenge of finding a good definition of sustainability that’s going to fit every scenario and every way of thinking about it, and b) I think it shows that sticky relationship between personal values and closely-held personal beliefs that are kind of inarguable – it’s like, well I believe what I believe and I have the values I have, these aren’t facts that we debate back-and-forth – and then how you reconcile those personally held beliefs with a consensus idea of what constitutes an endurable or terminal risk. Because I could say it’s an endurable risk, but you might disagree entirely.
SUMI: It presents a bit of a challenge to Bostrom’s definition of existential risk as being terminal but also at a global scale. Is an existential risk still an existential risk if, say, six billion people die, do you have to look at where those six billion people were geographically in order to be able to –
NICK: Or are you just looking at a number, six out of seven billion.
SUMI: Exactly. If the only people who are left standing are the people who are, I don’t know, in the Middle East region or something like that, then basically you’ve lost a whole host of knowledge, of culture, future potential in achievements, technological understandings, trade, all sorts of things thinking about the global production of things generally. What sort of life is that going to be, if six billion people were to be wiped off the face of the earth?
NICK: To go back to The Handmaid’s Tale, it doesn’t even have to be annihilation that happens. We can survive the first hurdle, but then, how we manage that, how we tackle that, the society we create as a response can be a nightmarish world in which nobody would really want to live anyways. In that case, it’s not annihilation that made it the existential risk but the drastic curtailing of potential, as he describes it. That, in itself, you can already tell just from the way that’s worded, that’s going to be up for definition and up for debate. What’s potential, and what does curtailing it mean? What quantifies curtailing versus drastic curtailing, and so on? There’s lots of wiggle room here, I think, to describe a broader problem.
We talked about, if you ask the birds, the meteor was an endurable risk, but if you ask the triceratops, the triceratops says, “Nah, it was bad.” So if you ask one of the one billion people left on earth after everyone else dies, if it was endurable, they might say yes, but, you know. It’s a contested definition, but it’s certainly a good definition to start thinking about sustainability in a different way.
One other final point is, you can think about annihilation as a whole other concept. Say, one day, we can just upload our brains to computers and all leave earth and shoot ourselves in lasers across the cosmos or something, and the human species goes out of fashion as a result. Was that an endurable or terminal risk for the human species? Because the species isn’t around anymore, but something’s still carrying the torch in the form of an “us”. Annihilation itself isn’t a clear-cut concept. Again, to look at the bird versus the triceratops, “annihilation” doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
SUMI: To look at the different ways that different cultures might deal with their dead, some people believe that there needs to be a very specific set of rituals to follow in order to preserve the knowledge and value of the person that’s passed. Whereas others believe that in order to do that, you bury them in the ground. Others believe in cremation … If we are to think about the wiping of the human race, it’s important to consider the ways that different people value life, and what life means and how to respond to –
NICK: Yeah, I mean, if you believe in reincarnation or something, you might have a very different perspective, right? Is that what you’re sort of getting at?
NICK: Different views on death are going to change that annihilation definition even further aren’t they, yeah.
SUMI: There’s this assumption that someone’s spirit and words have to live on, and … Okay. The invention of the dictionary has been associated with the stymieing, to an extent, of the evolution of language. When you take something and sort of write it in stone, then you don’t allow it to evolve as quickly or in the same organic way as it used to. So if we were to take all the knowledge of all the living human beings at this current moment, what does that mean for a seemingly inherent thing about humanity that –
NICK: Their potential, or –
SUMI: – that has to do with us evolving over time, us changing, you know, having a different understanding of morality over time, having emotional memories. What do you choose to keep, what do you choose to give away? What if there’s something that’s particularly private to someone, but that private memory really guided everything that they said and did in their entire life? It’s to hard to wrap your head around that.
NICK: Well I think this is a philosophical question at the end of the day, right, we’re asking, kind of, “What is humanity?” What makes a human “human”, what makes them worthy of being treated as a human? I’m studying that – it’s one of my courses right now – what is humanity. The reason I’m studying it is literally so that it can inform my sustainability stuff. It’s an elective, and it’s frustrating; this should be part of any transdisciplinary study in sustainability, it should involve these philosophical discussions. It’s frustrating that it’s seen as outside of the discipline, in a degree that’s supposed to be interdisciplinary. There’s a lack of understanding, I think, in a lot of talking about sustainability about those deeper philosophical issues and what the implications of them are.
SUMI: Remember, you can find that article in full, as well as more great written content on the TGC website!
The Grass Ceiling podcast is hosted by Nick Blood, and hosted and produced by me, Sumithri Venketasubramanian. Our project supervisor is Dr. Edwina Fingleton-Smith. The Grass Ceiling is made possible thanks to the technical support of the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. For more TGC content such as written articles featured in this episode, check out our website at www.thegrassceiling.net.
A big thank-you to the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, for all their support in making this project happen. All music used in this episode was produced by Jackson Wiebe.
NICK: Along the … top-to-bottom axis, the x-axis, he has –
*Although it is mentioned in the episode that this is a reading of one article, this content has been published as a number of separate pieces, all here on our website. Links have been included where relevant.
SUMI: Okay, so, shall I read out the little Acknowledgement line? All planning, recording, and interviews for this episode have taken place on Ngunnawal Country, within which sits the city of Canberra.
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, and I’m one of the hosts of this show.
NICK: And my name is Nick, and I’m the other host.
SUMI: Alright, Nick, can I be real with you for one second?
NICK: Sure. [laughs] Yep, absolutely. Sorry, I thought it was rhetorical. Be real with me.
SUMI: I’ve been feeling really stumped and overwhelmed by all this climate change stuff; it feels like the earth is dying, and we’re not acting fast enough. I would just lie in bed and think to myself, “What’s the point of all of this? What are we even fighting for? What’s the goal?” You feel me?
NICK: I do feel you; I go through the same thing myself. I think it is an unspoken and under-addressed issue in sustainability. Not just within climate change, but within the broader sustainability issue. What are we really trying to do here, what’s the goal? – have we talked about that enough?
SUMI: So far, we’ve talked about the history of sustainability and how we’ve come here, and the need for sustainability and working across disciplines. But I think, fundamentally, underpinning everything is … What’s the reason for sustainability? What’s it about? We could talk about definitions and what “sustainability” in itself means, and underpinning that is the philosophy behind it.
NICK: Mm-hm. That’s an interesting way to look at it. We’ve got all these different definitions, and I think in previous episodes we’ve talked about that. Say, for example, one definition of sustainability is the three pillars framework. Sustainability in that context is looking not just at the economic bottom line, but also the social good and environmental good that comes out of what you’re doing, whether it’s practising actual business, or just running any kind of organisation.
You can look at another definition, like intergenerational equity, which says sustainability – or, in this case, sustainable development, which is kind of like one practice of sustainability – is meeting the needs of people today without compromising the needs of people in the future.
For our project, we’ve provided a much simpler, starting definition, which is almost circular, referring back to itself: sustainability is the ability of a society or environment to persist over time.
SUMI: Earlier, when you were talking about intergenerational equity, which is one possible principle of sustainability, you were talking about the future. My question is: when we talk about the future, how far in the future are we looking? We can think back to how long humans have existed on this earth, then we can think forward to how long we might exist into the future, and to what extent past generations have an obligation to us, to what extent do we have an obligation to people living a million years from now – we can’t even really conceive of what the world will be like then!
NICK: Yeah, it’s a huge question for me personally. I think a lot of people walk through life with this assumption that humans will always be around, that we’ll be here forever. You see that assumption and belief echo in a lot of popular culture; you look at science fiction in particular, and there’s humanity out colonising the stars – they’ve been around for thousands, hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions of years! There’s this assumption that that’s just a painting of the future that’s ahead of us. It’s usually very technocratic; it’s usually driven by the idea that technology will allow us to exist far, far into the future.
But then if you look at the basic facts of ecology, there is a cycle of life and death. For pretty much any ecosystem on earth to work, things need to die.
SUMI: The circle of life.
NICK: Yeah, the circle of life, man! To what extent are we not being ecologically-conscious, or grounding ourselves in our environment, when we imagine ourselves persisting over such long timescales. The futility of aspiring towards an infinitely-long existence, and that ties into a favourite quote by the author Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the fairly well-known novel – and subsequently turned into a movie – Fight Club. In Fight Club, one of the characters has this wonderful line; he says, “On a long enough time scale, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is kind of questioning that narrative that we’ll be around forever.
Sometimes, when I’ve given talks on sustainability and on this idea, I get the room to put their hand up if they think we’re going to be around in 50 years. Keep your hand raised if you think we’ll be around in a hundred. And I just keep ramping the numbers up: thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand, a million, a hundred million, a billion, a hundred billion, a trillion … On a long enough time scale, it’s very hard to imagine that we’re going to be around.
We can talk, maybe a bit later, about the nuances or subtleties of what “we” means in that; so, humans might have died off, but we may not have been annihilated, we may have just transcended – or ascended – to another species. We might be brains uploaded into robots or something, at which point we might not be “human” and the human species has fallen away, but something is still carrying the torch for us … who knows! Don’t want to get too side-tracked into that but the point is that, yeah there is a cycle of life and death. There is this idea in at least some aspects of sustainability, and human culture more broadly, that we’re going to be around forever. And I think we need to question that.
If we question it, if we sort of agree, “Okay, yeah, we’re not going to be around forever,” then the question is, what’s the expiry date on this whole experiment? What is an acceptable time to just cut it off and say, “You know what, we’ve had a pretty good run.” To bring it back to intergenerational equity, to what extent does that represent an ethical or moral obligation to future generations being ignored or shirked – you know, people who don’t get to exist or experience the amazingness of life.
SUMI: Just recently, I was at a botanic gardens exhibition walk thing, which was talking about – it’s in far north Queensland – how the plants evolved over time, from the period when all the continents were one in … what was it called?
SUMI: Pangea, yeah! It was talking about how ferns evolved to be, and which plants came first. Just looking at that massive time scale, and thinking about when humans sort of, came into that. The physical world that we have today has taken so many millions and billions of years to be what it is, that if, say, we were to do time travel to a billion years ago or something… if we were to look at the world around us, it’d look so different. Is there a fundamental assumption within the word “sustainability” that assumes this level of being static? And is that a problem?
NICK: There is that kind of static element to it isn’t there, that the unchanging constant is us. That’s what remains static, is that humans are still around, and that we’ve found some way to stick around, to persist – and maybe not only to persist, but to thrive. Yeah, it’s a hell of an assumption, and it goes under the radar in a lot of sustainability discourse. I don’t think people like to talk about the end of the species. And if you do, you’re typically labelled an alarmist or a defeatist or a nihilist, all these sorts of things.
There’s a lot of positivity that we can draw out of this idea. I’ll just take a segue here for a moment. So, the idea of euthanasia is this idea that what matters, at a certain point when you are terminally ill, is the quality of your life, not the length of it. So if we are terminally ill as a species, then we have a species-wide euthanasia question to ask ourselves. Rather than flutily trying to eke out another couple of years, should we instead focus on the quality of time we have left? In that sense, it can be – still sounds kind of pessimistic but – it still does have an element of positivity to it.
SUMI: Sure, but we still do have a certain level of control over how long that timeline is. We can say, “All of human life is going to die within the next fifty years, so let’s have a big freakin’ party, and ruin everything within that time, because this is the timeline that we’ve set for ourselves.” But we could also say that, “No, we want to last a hundred million years,” and then the story is very different.
So, while we can say that there may be this finite timeline that does exist, and we need to acknowledge that it does exist and we need to bear that in mind, we also do have a fair bit of wiggle room as to how long that timeline is. And that’s determined by the actions that we take.
NICK: Here’s an idea: maybe it’s not hypothetical, this idea that you threw out, “let’s have a big party before the end of the world”. Maybe that’s exactly what we’re doing right now. I look around the world, and it feels like a lot of people have – maybe not consciously but at least subconsciously – made that decision already.
SUMI: Yeah, I agree.
NICK: If you let actions speak, instead of words, I look around the world and I’m just seeing people say, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s just enjoy the time we’ve got left. I like my cheeseburgers, I like my SUVs, I like my international flights; I’m not willing to give these things up. I’d rather the quality of life that these things give me, even if it means I have less life left.” We might look at those people and say, “Well that’s really unethical, it’s immoral of you to make that decision because you’re dooming future generations,” but within the context of the conversation we’re having, maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. Maybe we can’t fault them too much, if we are terminally ill … and it’s hard to tell! We can’t tell whether we are or not, you know, we don’t know the future. But, if we are terminally ill, then maybe there is some justification for their decision to just enjoy the time that we have left.
SUMI: Alright, let’s take this “terminally ill” … would you say it’s a metaphor, or do you think it’s more concrete than that?
NICK: Well, I don’t know, it could be a metaphor or it could be –
SUMI: Okay, so I’m just going to scale it down to something that maybe might be a bit more conceivable. Let’s talk about a really polluted city. A couple of decades ago, that city may not have been as polluted because it wasn’t as industrialised, and it didn’t have so many cars and whatever it is. But, the people in there might be a lot more rich, in terms of they might have higher incomes that they did prior to the cars and everything being brought in. Maybe there are more buildings, and there are banks that are thriving off the business in that city and all that sort of stuff.
But then, on a physical level, having a really polluted city causes health problems for the people who live within it. The people who are old now may have had to live the past thirty to forty years of their live with the pollution. The kids that are born now, are going to have to live probably their entire life with this pollution, unless something is done about it.
So when we talk about the quality of life, it can also vary a lot depending on what we consider to be a good life.
NICK: True, absolutely. Quality of life is a very important idea to define when you’re discussing terminating life, certainly in philosophical discussions of euthanasia and so on. I’ve done a little bit of this in philosophy courses, and you do spend a lot of time worrying about that kind of question. What constitutes a good quality of life? I think that’s an excellent point – and for who, as well.
SUMI: Like who gets to decide?
NICK: There’s all these issues of colonialism and patriarchy and so on, baked into the ideas of sustainability. So it might be a good quality of life for a rich white man, in those dying fifty years for the species, but it might still be just shit for some.
SUMI: I think there’s an important binary we need to address in this case, and that’s this idea of immortality versus an-annihilation? Is that how you pronounce it?
NICK: Yup, sure. Yup.
SUMI: Annihilation. So it’s this assumption that we either live forever, or we’re absolutely gone.
SUMI: Where does this transformation space fit into this?
NICK: Mm, yeah. To what extent is that a false dichotomy, right. To what extent do we have other choices than either dying or living forever? On one level it’s hard to imagine that there is a third option, because physically we’re either going to be here or we’re not. But, as I was getting at earlier, maybe annihilation can mean different things. And also maybe immortality and annihilation can kind of be the same thing; we annihilate ourselves in a way that allows something of us to persist on. Maybe sustainability isn’t about living forever, and again that doesn’t get addressed or talked about by sustainability scholars and so on, but maybe they just want a bit more time. And that’s not a hard argument to make, I think.
I personally feel like we’ve got a lot of great horizons ahead of us as a species. I would like to see us continue, because I think it’ll be interesting and exciting and awe-inspiring. It’s pretty cool, what humans get up to, and we should encourage us to continue to innovate, continue to build things, continue to try to build a better society tomorrow than we had yesterday. I think that’s all great, and I think that’s really noble, to fight for that in the face of what looks like a pretty impossible challenge, whether that’s climate change or sustainability more broadly.
But again, we have to circle back to, “Okay, well if it’s not a forever thing, and if we do want to fight against annihilation then how long? How long is long enough?” And everybody’s going to have a different answer. Another thing to tie this back into colonialism and so on is, if you’re a rich, white family and you’ve been wealthy intergenerationally for seven generations or whatever, you might be like, “Yeah, I’ve had a pretty good run.” But if you’ve just lifted yourself out of poverty or some second generation immigrant family, you’d be like, “No, we’re just getting started! We just got to the party, we want to have some more time to enjoy this ride. It just became a fun ride for us, you know.”
SUMI: And for some people, they may feel that they’re point of doom happened at the point of colonisation, where the agency to be able to take control of their own fates was no longer in their hands. Then what happens is, you’re kind of working within this sub-optimal existence as a society, as a community. When we talk about annihilation or whatever –
NICK: Annihilation has already happened for a whole lot of people, a whole lot of cultures. I think that’s a fantastic point to make, and that’s just me showing my white bias, to be quite honest, talking about annihilation as if it hasn’t already happened. It has already happened, it’s happened for species on a massive scale, but it’s happened for people too.
SUMI: Now would probably be a good time to touch on what we mean by “us”. We talk about how humans are screwing up the earth, and we as a race should be wiped out to save all other species from our ridiculous, destructive shenanigans. It’s well-known that some people’s actions have more of an impact than other people’s actions. You have a few corporations and companies that are responsible for so much more pollution than millions and millions of people. I’m not saying necessarily you and I, but I hear from other people who have this sense of despair around the climate. I hear people saying that humans, we’re too greedy, we don’t know how to care for the world around us, and we should all just die. Is this a problem at a species level?
NICK: Yeah, fantastic point. It’s pretty rich to say we’re all too greedy when eight men have more wealth than half the people in the world. If you and I, Sumi, have access to US$2,250, that makes us richer than half the world. Half the world doesn’t have access to that amount of money; that’s how poor half the world is. So when we do say it’s a species level responsibility, it’s kind of unfair to a lot of people, because they’re just trying to get out of grinding poverty, they’re just trying to feed themselves. Typically, disproportionately, it’s the rich, white, industrialised countries that have the biggest ecological footprints; the poorer you are, the smaller your ecological footprint becomes.
SUMI: But I guess poverty by a certain measure, right? We’re talking about this GDP, monetary income-focused idea of wealth.
NICK: Yeah, income and wealth inequality.
SUMI: Some people may be physical in poverty, and they probably struggle to make ends meet. But that is also within a system that sees a good life with a certain –
NICK: It assumes a good life requires a certain amount of money. Absolutely. I’m loving that you’re calling out all these assumptions, it’s fantastic.
SUMI: I mean, it’s the political economic system that we’re in. And that legacy, we could say, arises from colonisation, where most, if not all, communities and peoples in the world, are either forced to participate in this capitalist system, or ostracised and you know –
NICK: Just cast out, absolutely. Yeah, if we’re going to have a discussion about who’s responsible and who bears the biggest burden, we also need to be mindful of what you’re talking about. It doesn’t just come down to money; for a lot of people, money isn’t the important thing, family is, having a health environment is … all these things that aren’t really economic, that in a western, liberal global economy, these are the things that we often commoditise. The environment, in particular, we commoditise. So, we view it through that capitalist, economic lens, but they don’t necessarily do the same thing. And that’s worth keeping in mind, when we’re having a discussion about who’s rich, who’s poor, what does a fairer world look like. It may not just be about redistributing the wealth, it might be about some deeper structural things – just rethinking our whole worldview, too, what do we value?
SUMI: How important are humans in the world? I know that we’ve had a great, big impact, and a lot of the changes that are happening physically in the world can be attributed to human actions, but in the grand scheme of things, how important are we, really? If we were to disappear off the face of the earth, right now, yes there will be some ongoing issues due to our actions and the impacts that we’ve had, but there is this new point of equilibrium that the earth is likely to come to. It may not be optimal for our existence and maybe not for some other species’ existence, but …
I guess if we think about the evolution of species to adapt to the current climate, you know, through ice ages, through hot periods and cold periods, through volcanic activity, there is going to be some form of life, likely. It may not be recognisable to what exists today, but I think that the possible death and annihilation of human existence may not necessarily mean the end of the earth, it may just be the end of the earth as we know it.
NICK: There’s a terrible tragedy in this idea of annihilation to me. Again, I could be being very anthropocentric, but we are special. As Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the universe to experience itself,” and that’s a pretty profound thing when you think about it. I remember when I read that, I had to put the book down and chill for a couple of days. It kind of blew my mind. We are special, and for all we know, ants can do the same thing, I’m not trying to get at that point.
I’m just saying, if there is a future for us, and that future involves us leaving this planet and expanding out into the cosmos, then we have to entertain the possibility that we may be the only people out there with that ability. If that were the case, and we’re the smartest thing in the universe, then for us to be annihilated would be kind of a terrible tragedy in a way, because what amazing things could have happened if we were able to stick around?
To take it back to ethics and morality and duty and obligation, maybe it’s not just future generations of humans that we are responsible for, but the environment more broadly. I’ll give you a wild, far future example. Say there is some sort of mechanism to cause the universe to collapse back on itself in a billion trillion years, and we can stop that, and maybe through stopping that, we allow countless more life to flourish and experience the cosmos and –
SUMI: But isn’t that messing with the way that the universe has existed and worked for billions and billions of years?
NICK: Well, “messing with”, if we assume that we aren’t part of nature, and that what we’re doing by changing these forces isn’t also – I mean otters, for example, will dam up a river, so are they messing with nature of are they part of nature? It’s a great question: are we interfering with nature or are we nature interfering with itself as Sagan said, we’re a way for the universe to experience itself. So maybe we’re a way for the universe to modify itself, too. And if we are, if we entertain that possibility, then the idea of us getting annihilated it is deeply tragic. We were the brightest, greatest hope for the universe to achieve something special, and we died off, because of bloody fossil fuels or something! What a tragic, pitiful ending. What a terrible ending to that story that would be.
SUMI: A concept that’s central to the idea of species survival and species thriving and adaptation is the theory of evolution. It’s interesting to think about humans’ use of technology as being a sped-up form of evolution, in the sense that we – as physical species – haven’t grown more eyes on our head to be able to see more predators, but we have things like surveillance technology to be able to watch our eyes can’t physically see at a particular point in time –
NICK: Or even just fences to be able to keep all of the things we want to prey on in … you know, keep all the cows in an area so we don’t even need to hunt them anymore. Something as simple as a fence changes the game entirely.
SUMI: Yeah. Tools are something that throws a bit of a spanner in the mix when we talk about evolution, because then it’s no longer about what humans physically, intrinsically, biologically are, but rather what our capability to do things with the things around us is.
NICK: That’s what I mean, we’re a game changer, in this whole formula, this whole equation. And a game changer unlike anything else that we know of. So given that, do we have a responsibility to persist and stick around, because we’re the only people who can potentially stop something calamitous from happening further down the line? Yeah [laughs] it’s a big one.
SUMI: I can’t help but think, it’s kind of a saviour mindset, isn’t it? The idea of, we have the capacity to stop something that we perceive to be bad from happening, therefore we should stop it. And it makes me think of colonial narratives of “floods are bad, fires are bad, we need to stop them from happening. Let’s build dams, or let’s put out fires and let’s not manage Country in the way that it has been previously”. But then there are flow-on effects. It’s hard to think of taking action in the future when there are unknown unknowns.
NICK: Yeah, totally.
SUMI: We don’t know the impact of us, say, stopping an asteroid hitting another planet might be. Because what if that changes the initial trajectory of that asteroid, and that causes so much more destruction elsewhere.
NICK: But we also equally don’t know what the consequences of inaction are. Again, to bring it back, we don’t know that in a million years we might have some important role to play in the cosmos. So if we just make the decision today to have the big party and let it all fall to hell in 150 years or whatever, there’s this unknown unknown that we didn’t realise was happening out there – that if we’d known about, we’d be like, “Oh no, we’ve got to survive, so we can be there in a million years to, you know, stop the universe imploding.”
SUMI: ‘Cause we’re so important.
NICK: It’s not necessarily about our importance, but our capacity as you were getting at before. I realise that it paints us as this big saviour but, maybe that’s the truth. Maybe we are the only saviours. Or maybe not. I’m just trying to entertain this possibility that if it were true, then there is this huge question about ethical responsibility. And also, it would change how we feel about how long we should last.
SUMI: When we’re thinking and talking about the idea of human importance and do we have an obligation to protect other species or the universe more broadly or whatever it is, we’re fundamentally being anthropocentric. Anthropocentrism is this idea that we put humans at the centre, and we see everything through – whether it’s morality, whether it’s prioritisation of various issues – it’s always with the human front and centre in mind.
NICK: One of the roots of anthropocentrism is this idea of what separates us from everything else, that’s sort of the starting point of anthropocentrism. You have to have an anthro-, a human, and why are we singling out humans, what’s so special about humans? In almost every case, what it is, is our mind, our consciousness. If you go back through the philosophers over the last millennia talking about consciousness and the human mind, it’s just a recurring theme whether you’re talking about some medieval philosopher or about an ancient Greek, whether it’s Plato or Thomas Aquinas.
What makes humans special is out minds, and our ability to possess consciousness and rationality and reason, and this is why we are a light on an uncivilised world and so on… Shades of colonialism starting to re-enter, again because the colonisers typically looked at the indigenous peoples as less conscious, less than human. And so we use this consciousness idea as a differentiating point between us. From that flows everything, the bias towards humans and so on.
But then, if you look at it, there’s evidence from all sorts of angles that suggest maybe consciousness is a bit more common than we originally thought it was. That, then, turns the anthropocentric argument on its head. It’s like, oh, maybe other things are conscious too, it’s just we don’t have any way of telling or we don’t have that special access to be able to tell. This has baked the noodles of philosophers for millennia: how do you test for consciousness, what is consciousness? They get really caught up in the whole problem. The point is, if that’s not the thing that makes us special, then it changes the whole equation, really, doesn’t it.
SUMI: We know that humans are conscious. We know that other people within our species have the same worth as every other person. Therefore it’s not right for us to do violence to those people. Then we enter into these other philosophical questions of, what if someone is mentally incapacitated, and they don’t have the ability to make decisions on their own part. Is it therefore moral to make decisions on their part? We come back to that example that you gave of euthanasia. If someone is terminally ill, and doesn’t have the physical ability to talk or even think – maybe their brain function is incapacitated … Where do we draw this line?
We can just say everything that we recognise to be human, that’s our starting point. Everything we look at and point, “This is a human, that’s a human, that’s a human,” then we can say, okay, we have this obligation to people that we classify as human. Once again, there is this question of, who is we? And then everything else, is something else.
If, say, we’re genetically closer to a dolphin than we are to that plant over there, do we therefore have a greater moral obligation to the dolphin than we do to the plant? Or do we just say, there’s humans and there’s non-humans, or does it end up being a more graded scale?
NICK: The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said a lot about that idea you were talking about before. Say, you have a disability, and yet you also have a legal right to vote in an election. What she’s saying should happen in this case is that a guardian sort of takes on that role for you – and again, this is bringing in the whole saviour narrative. So the guardian, recognising that you don’t have the cognitive capacity or capability to perform this action, does it for you in your best interests – or what they can surmise are your best interests.
In that same way, you can argue that that’s what we do. Well, that’s what we sometimes do with the environment, right. It’s certainly what environment advocates try and do for the environment; they try and speak on its behalf because it doesn’t have a human voice that carries into human spaces. It does have a voice in other ways but, it doesn’t have a human voice. And so they speak on its behalf, which is an interesting idea.
SUMI: When humans die, we might have a will, which says that you get my house, you get my car, and you get this, you get that. Sounds a bit like Oprah if you ask me – “you get a car, you get a house, you get this, you get that”. If what we’re saying is the environment can’t talk, then how can we read the environment’s will?
NICK: I’m not sure that question makes sense. If we’re at the point where the environment has died, what’s it going to be leaving us? If the environment’s dead, we’re probably dead along with it. And here I am separating us from the environment – which is a whole other thing we should really be talking about, if we’re going to talk about anthropocentricism is that, it’s used to differentiate us from the environment, and that’s deeply problematic according to some people.
There’s this neo-Marxist theory called metabolic rift. Marx himself – this is Karl Marx – talked about this idea of metabolic rift, which is the separation of man from nature. Well, humans from nature, but he said man because you know, back in the day –
SUMI: Women didn’t exist? [laughs]
NICK: Yeah women didn’t exist back then! Even by coming up with that separation of humans and nature, we’ve already started down the path of ruin, because by separating ourselves from nature, we’ve suddenly justified the subjugation of nature. We’ve suddenly justified the commoditisation of nature. If we see ourselves as separate from nature, then it’s certainly possible that we can destroy nature, and we’ll continue – you know, nature will leave us a will. But it’s not the reality. The reality is: if nature dies, we die, because we are nature.
I’m guilty of it. We’re all guilty of it. It’s so deeply baked into our language, and it’s so deeply baked into the way we think, our cognition, this idea that we are separate from nature. And to an extent we are!
If you look at the population of yeast in a petri dish, and you feed yeast sugar, the population will just go up and up and up; it’ll just rise exponentially. It actually looks quite similar to the human population graph, you can track the two things. The yeast will consume all that sugar and precipitously just drop off, the population. That could be the future for us too.
But there is a chance, that it won’t be. In that sense, we aren’t nature – or we’re not like some forms of nature. We’re maybe nature plus.
SUMI: What if the yeast had tractors and they could farm sugar?
NICK: Right! The yeast is too simple, it’s not conscious enough to invent agriculture, so it just consumes the sugar and makes alcohol and dies. So, in a sense, we shouldn’t think that we are separate from nature. And in a sense, we really should recognise that we are separate from nature, because in doing so, we can say that nature would just overpopulate and ride itself off that cliff. We can see what’s happening, we can see into the future, we should be avoiding that. In that way, we sort of become non-natural – well, maybe not non-natural, but different from other parts of nature. Still natural, but natural in a different way.
SUMI: Let’s say that we’re separate to nature, and therefore we define our relationship with nature. We can choose how we want to use it. We can choose to value nature based on how useful it is to us, or based on how much value we think it has within itself. Making that distinction between instrumental versus intrinsic value is quite important because that defines our relationship with the environment around us.
NICK: Let’s tease out those two definitions. We had instrumental: if something has instrumental value, then that means it’s useful – you know, an instrument. So, a fork, or a car, you might look at that and draw the primary amount of value from that thing, the value you see in it is to pick up the food and put it in your mouth! Or to drive you from point A to point B.
But then you look at something like a sunset, or a work of art, or just a beautiful little bug. And you might say, that sunset isn’t doing anything, it isn’t an instrument, but it’s beautiful. It has some value in and of itself, and that’s what we’d call intrinsic value; the value is just inherent to it. We might say the same thing about humans: humans can be instrumentally useful – they can do things – but they also have value in and of themselves. The human life is just precious in and of itself.
SUMI: And that’s where morality sort of stems from.
SUMI: That’s interesting. You said, under the instrumental category, you said cars, and under the intrinsic category, you said art. But at the same time, someone who’s a car enthusiast may think that cars are absolutely beautiful, and has a car physically sitting around in the garage which they tinker around with – they never drive it around. They don’t change the … engine? I don’t know, what do you do with a car?
NICK: They’re seeing intrinsic value in something that others would see instrumental value in.
SUMI: Exactly. Similarly, with art, may make a piece of art in order to –
NICK: Look at advertising – that’s art that’s being used in an instrumental way.
SUMI: Yeah, to make people change their behaviour and do something.
NICK: Yeah it varies.
SUMI: So, things can have both an instrumental and an intrinsic value. We might think that seeing something instrumentally – seeing it as having a use to us – we could see that as an exploitative relationship. But does that mean that it’s necessarily unsustainable?
NICK: Fantastic question. A lot of the time, we get facile. I love the word facile. Facile means oversimplified. We get oversimplified arguments about sustainability, and you see this a lot when people talk about the instrumental use of nature. They will make the argument – fallacious in my view – that nature is just purely intrinsically valuable, and to think of it in instrumental terms is to take the first step in the path towards ruin, because the second you see it as something to be used, you start commoditising it and exploiting it and so on.
It’s a fair argument. It’s not an argument without a lot of really good points. But, say, an ecosystem service: an oyster can be valuable in and of itself, but it’s also instrumentally useful for cleaning the water. I mean, that’s what an oyster does, is it sucks the pollutants out of the water. Or, you know, sphagnum moss soaks up the water … Ecosystem services, the idea of an organism providing some sort of instrumental value to the greater ecosystem that exists, just shows you quite clearly that we can value things for their instrumental utility without necessarily exploiting them.
We can even find intrinsic value in that instrumental value – we’re getting really meta now, but we can look at the oyster cleaning the river and say, “That’s beautiful, how it all works.”
SUMI: “That’s art.”
NICK: Yeah, it’s art! And I kind of do, I think it’s kind of beautiful when I learn about all these tiny, little ways that everything all works together. Man, it’s beautiful. I find it more beautiful than a sunset, frankly. So, we can see the intrinsic in the instrumental. We have to be careful when we use these definitions – first of all, we have to be mindful of these different ways we value things. From that, I think we have to be careful about not judging too harshly this idea that things have instrumental value.
SUMI: For example, we could take tourism – or eco-tourism. So, you go out into a beautiful tropical rainforest that’s a national park or something. You’re walking around and you’re admiring how beautiful it is. But you’ve got to pay an entry fee, which allows the national parks department – or national parks and wildlife service, wherever you are – to maintain it, to keep invasive species out, to be able to make sure you don’t have massive bushfires, and all these sorts of things that they need to do.
It’s interesting, because eco-tourism gives some people business; it brings in incomes for some people. In that sense, it’s instrumental to those people. It might be intrinsic to those people as well; maybe they have a spiritual connection with the landscape. Sometimes that spiritual connection may be practised instrumentally through ritual, or whatever it is. To the person visiting that place, it may be instrumental in that you get a break from your boring desk job. So you’re having some use for yourself, to your own mental and psychological well-being – and maybe even physical well-being – but also, that place is intrinsically beautiful, and you appreciate it for what it is.
You might interact with it in different ways to other people … It’s really complex, because it’s hard to just look at one thing and say, “This is absolutely instrumental,” or, “This is absolutely intrinsic.”
NICK: It very rarely is, because it’s going to vary by the context or the perspective, who is making that value judgement. It’s going to vary so much, I think that’s why it’s so important that we be mindful of these things and that we be open-minded to the idea that nature can be instrumentally useful. Eco-tourism is a fantastic example of that.
SUMI: Mining is an extremely political and forefront environmental issue that, environmentalists are like, “Don’t dig the ground,” and you have Indigenous communities that are like, “Don’t dig our Country.” These companies and the government, by standing behind these companies, is going to say, “We need that stuff.” A lot of the things that we mine are useful for us: we can’t have these smartphones if we didn’t have the precious materials that we get through mining.
In that situation, you can see a tension between the instrumental versus intrinsic value in the sense that some people may believe that the land has something that is so important that you can’t mess with it too much. You also see a use for what’s under the ground. But at the same time, if you do mine a certain place, then you’re taking away other instrumental uses for that place.
NICK: I worry about that a lot of the time, with fossil fuels. We use them so much today, but what if in a hundred years, we discover, ah crap, we could have used this for some other amazingly powerful thing, and we’ve used 90 percent of it. That’s a really good point, to think of potential future instrumental value.
We’ve had this conversation once before, you were talking about the idea that maybe certain species go extinct along the way due to human things, and it turns out – we discover down the line – the little weed we exterminated could have been used to cure cancer! Ah, bummer. So yeah, another interesting way to think about instrumental value, and how we can’t fully know what the uses of any one thing are at a given time.
SUMI: Something I tell myself, on a very personal level when I’m having a bad day or something is, “Do what you can do with what you have.” If I’m not feeling up to writing 50 essays today, it’s fine, I can just do the laundry and that can be my one achievement for today. Maybe we should think about that on a bigger scale. Like, on a species level, we’re doing what we can with what we have.
Maybe we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves by saying we should have really foreseen this thing that we couldn’t possibly have foreseen with the technology and knowledge that we have in this current day. But, at the same time, there’s also some other things that we do know, and we’re still not doing anything about.
NICK: One of the big criticisms about the whole fossil fuels use is, just like big tobacco knew that cigarettes were unhealthy well before the public did, the fossil fuel companies were talking about climate change in the 80s. They were talking about CO2 emissions back in the 80s, they knew where this was heading. They’ve burned all those documents, but we know pretty much for a fact that many of them did. Some of the memos have survived, and it’s quite damning to see that they realised all this. Certainly in some situations, you can say, “We didn’t see this coming and we’re doing the best we can,” but in others, we have to circle back to the global capitalist system that we live in, which perpetuates a lot of this unsustainable behaviour. Intentionally.
SUMI: We can trace back this Great Acceleration of environmental degradation, like ecosystem destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, all that, to the end of the Second World War. If you look at those graphs, around 1945-1950 or so, you can see this exponential increase. Some of these trends can even be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. What I mean by the Great Acceleration is the particular period where all the graphs kind of shoot up rapidly, like we’re using more water at what seems like an increasing rate like never before. That’s kind of intense to even just think about, holy shit, we’ve had this impact in just the past few decades.
NICK: We should probably mention, this phrase “Great Acceleration” refers to the work of Will Steffen, one of the people we’ve interviewed for The Grass Ceiling. In his paper, he just provides graph after graph – I think there’s 27 of them – just 27 little boxes, and they all look identical: this graph that has an exponential curve that starts skyrocketing upwards. Even though all the graphs are the same, the tings they’re graphing are wildly different. It’s worth mentioning that’s where we’re plucking this idea from.
SUMI: It’s also interesting to think about why this has happened at this particular period of time. What was so significant about the past 50 years, that we’ve had such a massive change that we can’t really detect in all of history, even prior to human existence. It’s unprecedented.
To link this to what I’ve been learning about in a development studies class, where we’ve been talking about the post-WWII development agenda. Colonisation has been taking place for centuries, and what was particularly significant about the end of WWII was that you had a lot of countries coming out of colonial rule. You had this push for the idea of development, and the US was really fundamental in that – this is because of the lead-up to the Cold War, and they didn’t want the USSR to win and all that sort of stuff. So they pushed this idea of development, and helping non-western countries to become rich –
SUMI: Yeah. And so you have this massive number of populations that are now adopting this new way of conceiving wealth and well-being and the economy, which might have been different to how they operated prior to colonisation –
NICK: Almost certainly was different, so –
SUMI: During that period – and I’m just taking a typical example of a country that was colonised – during that period of colonisation, they were seen as a part of a European economy. Right, so you take the British East India Company, you have an entire subcontinent that’s perceived to be one part of the British economy.
Even during colonisation, you have this integration into this capitalist economy, but after WWII when a lot of countries started gaining independence from the colonial powers, they began to take on these so-called development trajectories of their own accord. And that’s sort of where we can see the Great Acceleration taking place.
NICK: For me, the story of the Great Acceleration is ultimately a simpler story. It’s one about energy. If you look at a lot of these graphs – human population, industrialisation, GDP growth – when I’m looking at all this, it all boils back down to energy. The reason why it has been possible for us to build these massive cities and to create global international trade is because energy has become abundant and cheap.
Without oil, natural gas, and coal, modern civilisation just doesn’t exist. If we go back to about the 1800s, it’s just not possible to have a shipping tanker loaded with millions of tonnes of wheat, and take from Australia to India or wherever, unless you have coal and so forth. So, for me, it’s ultimately a story about energy.
Perhaps we’ll discuss this in later episodes, or for those listening, I’m certain that this episode or another one will include a written article by myself called “Oil Is The Cheat Code”. And in that article I talk about this Great Acceleration, all this progress we’ve made, is based on cheap and abundant oil. That oil has effectively allowed us to cheat; if life is a video game, then we’ve got the cheat codes, and the cheat code is oil. You plug that in and everything gets easier.
Then we look at all these sustainability challenges ahead of us, and then we look back at the past and we say, “Look at how far we’ve come, look at all of this amazing stuff we’ve done. We’re kicking ass and taking names at the game of life. We’ve got this. Doesn’t matter what the future’s going to throw at us.” My problem is, I turn around and look at the past and say, we got all this way because of oil and coal and natural gas. We’re not half as clever or inventive or resourceful as we think we are; we kind of just got lucky. Lucky in the sense that the dinosaurs died off and got geologically compressed, and created fossilised sunlight that we could tap into … A lot of things had to happen for us to be able to take advantage of that.
It’s unlikely that we’re going to get a similar break like that again the future, when we’re dealing with future problems. Maybe we’re less well-positioned to tackle future sustainability challenges than we think we are; maybe we have a cheater’s sense of skill at the game of life. We think we’re good, but really we’ve been cheating the whole time and our opponent has been playing with one less chess piece on the board or something. So when we’re finally playing the game for real, we’re going to be like, “Shit, we’re not as good at this game as we thought we were.”
Just an idea about the Great Acceleration. You can view it – and some people certainly do – within this context of energy. For example, Graham Zobel has written articles about this on resilience.org, and he’s talking about how you can explain a lot of human history in terms of energy consumption and usage. If you drill down, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the rise of the automobile or the rise of modern sanitation or agriculture – all of that has a deeper cause, and that cause is being able to harness more energy.
SUMI: This episode has been so philosophical, thinking about the future and what it all means, and what do we mean by humans, all these sorts of questions. Right now, we’re facing a big threat to our existence. We know, to an extent, why we’re here. We also know, what we’ve got to do to prevent doom in – maybe we’re not even talking about the next thousand years, maybe we’re talking about the next 50 years. Maybe we don’t want to die in the next 50 years, and we’ve got to do something about it.
I think the most important thing here is urgency. We’re all going to have different reasons for why we might be taking the bus rather than driving a car, or why we’re protesting big corporations that are drilling the earth or whatever it is. Does it matter that different people have different intentions if we’re all just doing the same thing, working towards the same thing?
NICK: It’s a good question. Depending on your model of ethics, it’s going to matter or it’s not; some ethical models really care about the intention, more than they care about the result. They might say, even, that the result doesn’t matter so long as your intentions were good. Other models, say, consequentialism – which, by its name, kind of tells you what it focuses on is the consequences – worries about what is the consequence, forget about the intention; it doesn’t matter if your intentions were good if the outcome was bad.
It’s a difficult question to answer, I mean, I can’t answer it. But it’s a good question to ask. You see this so much, say, in the environment or activist groups I’m involved in. There’s a lot of people disagreeing about what the best step forward is. Some people want to do activism, some people want to do advocacy. Some people want to tear the system down, some people want to work within the system. Some people believe in collective action, some people believe in encouraging individual action. So on and so forth – all these points of difference.
And then, to further complicate things, you can say, well, what matters here is what, their intentions, or the consequences of their actions? That’s a whole other way to look at the issue and complicate it even further. I don’t have answers for any of this stuff, but I think it’s important that we’re asking these questions, and at least exposing that deeper complexity to all of this.
SUMI: Actually, in our next episode, we’re going to be talking about philosophy in action – so, how do we make sense of all of the things that we’ve talked about today. About what’s important, how do we prioritise this, what do we mean by the future … How do we operationalise all of these philosophical questions when we talk about sustainability? Philosophy can be a bit of a mindfuck, excuse my French –
NICK: Absolutely, it can totally be one. And a minefield, too.
SUMI: – and it really helps to think about how we can take action on that, and to be able to make sense of everything.
NICK: Definitely. In our next episode, there are a lot of ideas related to what we’ve been talking about today. If we do have this philosophical grappling with how long should we be around for, then there are other implications for that. As I said much earlier in the episode, what does annihilation actually mean – it could mean the end of our species, in the sense of us all just getting incinerated in a blinding flash of light or something. Or, it could mean humans no longer exist because we’ve all uploaded ourselves into machines and flown off into space or whatever. So our species no longer exists, and has been kind of willingly, happily annihilated. The more you dig into this issue, the more edge cases you have to consider and stuff. And that’ll definitely be some of what we’ll be talking about in the future episodes.
The Grass Ceiling is hosted by me, Nick Blood –
SUMI: – and hosted and produced by me, Sumithri Venketasubramanian. Our project supervisor is Edwina Fingleton-Smith. The Grass Ceiling is made possible thanks to the technical support of the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. For more TGC content, check out our website at www.thegrassceiling.net.
Of course, a big thank-you to Jackson Wiebe for all 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.
NICK: Well, maybe not non-natural but different from other parts of nature. Still natural, but natural in a different way, if that all makes sense.
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).
The values in a landscape and what is considered to be “well taken care of” are defined by whoever or whatever is using the landscape – management is in the eye of the beholder
Many of the problems faced in national parks, such as invasive species, resulted from human actions especially following European invasion of Australia. So the key to effective management is managing human behaviour
When Europeans arrived, their way of conceptualising the human relationship with Country was fundamentally different from Aboriginal people here
The fourth pillar
Apart from the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainability discussed in episode one, there’s one more: culture. It’s a tricky thing to describe; it has to do with people’s beliefs, values, relationships, and paradigms
In fact, neither is closer to some objective “truth”, but instead build off of one another in interconnected ways
All knowledge – including that of sustainability – has to evolve with and adapt to new information
Brett: Parks needs to find a way to be and stay relevant to the people, as populations change and so do cultural relationships with conservation spaces
Cynthia Burton, then-vice president of the National Parks Association of the ACT: Creative outreach strategies across age groups and backgrounds, to build community, network, and empathy for national parks
Both the NPAACT and ACT Parks are facing a communication problem, which requires understanding human psychology, best practices in communication
In addition to knowing about conservation, people need to also believe in its value in order to care, and encourage others to do so as well
Their staff is made up of a lawyer, water ecologist, environmental engineer, spatial mapping expert, a human ecologist … people from a number of disciplinary backgrounds, all with the goal of thinking across disciplines in the work the office does
Most people there are young, so there are fresh ideas and perspectives coming in, especially about communicating beyond dense reports that they’ve always done
Even so, still stuck beneath the grass ceiling, and like Cynthia’s and Brett’s work, having issues with communication
Defining working across disciplines
Multidisciplinary: Combining several academic disciplines to a single topic or issue
Interdisciplinary: Going between two (or more) disciplines (e.g. biochemistry)
Transdisciplinary: Across disciplines
The difference between these terms is confusing, but the spirit is similar; “bringing together multiple disciplines”. We may use all three interchangeably (multichangeably? transchangeably?)
Kate: Networking, forming relationships outside of one’s disciplinary bubble is key to working across disciplines
Perhaps this puts the onus squarely on the individual within a role, with little view to longevity of interdisciplinary relationships within institutions. Or, could baking it into the institution mean that there’s less flexibility for successive position-holders?
What kinds of relationships might one build, and how might the choices of relationships to foster differ between people based on their values, knowledge paradigm, existing networks?
In the south of France lies Chauvet Cave. This subterranean museum contains some of the oldest and best-preserved paintings in the world, offering us a glimpse of life through an incomprehensible abyss of time, to some 30,000 years ago.
The world the paintings depict seems unreal and fantastical: bears and antelope and bison and horses and bulls and rhinos and on the paintings go. Back then, we lived in a much colder and drier place but the sun still shone, so there was still life in abundance and – as the paintings show – incredible diversity.
This art still tells a story. Not only of then, but of now, and of the passage of time in between. A story of changing climates. A story about loss of diversity. What I learned from Chauvet Cave was another story too: one about colonisation and imperialism. A story that questioned the idea of “sustainability” as I understood it.
And I thought I understood it well. I am studying that very subject in detail at my university. But even as a well-versed student in that field, fully immersed in that area, my virtual wandering via online research and YouTube documentaries revealed to me a huge gap in my knowledge.
So, there was a moment. Something I saw that changed me. Not inspiration, but realization. It flashed across my mind, connecting a thousand different thoughts, and asking a thousand difficult questions, inviting reflection on things I’d come to hold close. Things I’d believed in.
That’s the story I want to share – now that finally, I might have found a place to speak it, where others might hear.
It starts with Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, which is an utterly enthralling exploration of this place that I recommend diving into if you have the time. Their on-site film beautifully captures not only the art, but the natural artistry that frames it all. The cave itself is a thing of wonder: everything is crystalline from the slow accumulation of calcite so the walls, and stalagmites and other features of the cave all sparkle in the harsh light of the cameras.
The meticulously preserved grounds of the cave are littered with the bones of many animals, and they too are covered in a mineral snow that glimmers strangely. The camera lingers long enough on these scenes – away from the paintings – to encourage an appreciation of an even greater artist at work here. Quietly and out of view, this artist etched their own stories over the interceding millennia between human visits to this hidden gallery; one that I would argue rivals the Louvre in importance.
I say that because of two paintings there and the story they tell about an entirely different way of life that existed before colonial times. An awe-inspiring culture quite different from ours. The image is of two bulls that look identical, as if painted by the same artist, or around the same time period. Here is Werner, from the documentary, explaining what you see:
‘…there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. A striking point here is that in cases like this, after carbon dating, there are strong indications that some overlapping figures were drawn almost 5,000 years apart. The sequence and duration of time is unimaginable for us today. We are locked in history, and they were not.’
Werner Herzog, Cave of forgotten dreams
It’s hard to describe what those words and the art itself evoke, because it’s hard to wrap one’s head around this idea. Is it possible that life was so consistent, so continual, that for five thousand years not much changed at all? Is that what the paintings are saying? The questions alone invite a wholly different way of thinking about sustainability to the one I feel I’ve learned about so far. But surely this is one of the most profound examples one can see of sustainability, no?
Two near-identical pieces of art, overlapping, separated by five thousand years. A statement of cultural continuity spanning a frame of time we today – advanced as we consider our culture – would struggle to imagine.
If that’s a statement, it’s one hell of a statement!
From the perspective of this boringly typical member of a Western culture that is struggling to survive another year – let alone five thousand – this painting is fuckingstartling. Better yet, keeping in mind my ancestors once called themselves Settlers, I could describe it as unsettling.
Unmoored from the perspective of a civilization that appears all too fragile, verging on catastrophic, we can see another way of life that extended over timespans that feel impossible to us with all of these modern problems we’ve created for ourselves.
The writer and engineer Nick Arvin, whose blog post inspired me to watch the documentary, describes it beautifully:
‘They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.’
Nick arvin, Reading Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee
To help us wrap our heads around this idea, Arvin then points to another rabbit hole: a short story called Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M Coetzee who approaches the same idea from the perspective of the colonizing force. The book’s narrator is the magistrate of a frontier town in some unknown “Empire” that serves to represent imperialism more generally. Beyond the frontiers, the native people, known as Barbarians, exist in harmony with the land, as did the people who once decorated Chauvet Cave. Coetzee sums up the different worldview of imperialism, contrasting it against Chauvet’s “Two Bulls” in this way:
Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.
J.M Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
These two different conceptualizations of time speak to an insurmountable incongruity between cultures. The “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons” is contrasted against the “jagged time of rise and fall”. Coetzee’s gorgeously dense imagery transports a litany of ideas but one here rings loudest: the grounding of one’s self in the environment – the cycle of the seasons – the cyclical nature of life and death, set against the refusal to die. A belief in a self that is separated from nature, and thus, can conquer nature and its cycles. The “jagged time of rise and fall” – what we colonialists call history. Call progress. Call success. Call utopia.
Empire’s “submerged mind” has overlooked some things. We can sense it now, in the Apeilicene, as even the things we clutch for in our dreams turn to ash. Turn against us. Turn us against ourselves, and each other. “Save us from what we want”.
As the documentary later describes, these paintings were drawn by homo sapiens, in a time and space they shared with other human species like Neanderthals. The art, it is claimed, was a uniquely human endeavour; not something Neanderthals engaged in. That tells me that even back then, we must have realized (maybe even quite keenly felt) that we were somehow different from our fellow animals – even ones very like us.
And despite this, or perhaps because of it, these people managed to live for thousands of years in harmony with everything else. Bisons and bulls and bears.
Now, we see ourselves as fundamentally different and disconnected from nature – an idea that permeates our language, our thought, and our actions.
Stepping away once again from the cave art, we have to appreciate the even greater stories that this landscape tells us, and the questions it makes us ask. In one area of the cave floor there are two footprints: one belonging to a young boy, and another, to a wolf. What could these footprints, etched in calcite and the hardening of time, possibly tell us? Herzog plays out the scenarios: Was the boy being stalked by the wolf? Or were the two perhaps walking together? Perhaps instead, the two imprints – boy, and wolf – are separated by thousands of years?
We cannot know. Nature will not let us know.
She has her secrets, and this, we must respect.
In a sense, it’s easy to understand colonialism, imperialism, and colonisation at a kind of “surface” academic level because they are just ideas with characteristics and features. Ideas like any other. But when people encourage others to “decolonize” their understanding of something, it feels to me like they’re often talking about something else too; something that goes beyond just learning about a new idea and its characteristics. Part of that feels like it’s experiential; that learning about this stuff involves doing and being a part of something. Part of that feels like a radical questioning, where “de-colonizing” might resemble “de-programming”. Not just thinking about things differently, but doing things differently too. Embracing that knowledge over time. Recognizing that we cannot always find meaning in things, that we cannot know all. Camus might smile at that.
Closing thoughts – Resisting the Bliss of ignorance
There’s a scene in the film The Matrix that resonates strongly with me. If you haven’t seen it, the film is famous for its crazy gravity-defying fight scenes, and equally, for the way it popularized the aeons-old philosophical idea of radical scepticism and made it understandable, perhaps disturbingly so. The film made us question reality like Descartes once did. Is anything we see truly real? In this film’s setting, the answer is no: the world most people know is a fantasy concocted by a malevolent robot civilization, designed to deceive and placate us into being unwitting cattle that is harvested for energy.
Fighting against the killer robots is a plucky band of protagonists. They’ve all been “unplugged” from the Matrix and want to save humanity from this awful fate. Since this is a Hollywood blockbuster, you know they’re going to win, and it’s true, they do achieve a kind of victory before the film (and the trilogy it spawned) wraps up. What I found most interesting along the way though, was the traitor among them. A man named “Cypher” who, unplugged from the Matrix world, now lives a shitty, stressful existence that includes subsisting on a porridge-like gruel. See, Cypher is like that part of me I opened this discussion with; ready to get lost in the fantasy, rather than deal with reality. He wants to be plugged back into the Matrix. He wants to forget.
So, he plugs back into the Matrix for a moment and meets with the bad robots to discuss how to get what he wants. He’s sitting in a lush restaurant, speaking with the big bad AI as a lady strums a harp, and what he says is so stupidly simple, and yet such an unforgettable moment to me.
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.
I don’t say all this because I’m an unhappily sober undergraduate who’d rather be playing games and thus, decided to write about them as a distance second place. I say it because there’s something genuinely profound in my self-indulgent desires here that I think needs to be addressed.
If you think about it, what I’m really saying here is that instead of writing this and doing my part to be a constructive member of society who contributes their ideas for the betterment of all, I’d much rather the quiet life of a social parasite. That kind of phrasing makes the idea more damning, perhaps, but also more real; more accurate.
Maybe it’s projection, but I think a great many people aren’t too different. I think Cypher represents so many of us. It’s hard to view us as conscientious practitioners of sustainability when something as stupid as convenience drives so much of our problematic behaviour. Single-use plastic, cheeseburgers, and the personal car – I think many people would rather see the world burn than give these daily conveniences or indulgences up, even if they’re the ones accelerating our downfall. It’s poetic, I think, that Cypher seems to be ready to sell the entirety of humanity out over some steak. All these years later after a film from 1999, with our growing awareness of the link between beef consumption and climate change, our traitor Cypher here is basically your average Western consumer. We’re the villains, and if I’m frank, I’m not sure we really care that much.
Ignorance is bliss.
It’s painfully obvious to say, but maybe needs to be said regardless: We generally seem to prefer to meet our own needs and desires right now, than we care about future generations, or even other people alive today. This is, arguably, a bleak or pessimistic view of humanity, and yet, perhaps it’s a realistic one too. Importantly, this kind of perspective is often missing from how we think about, how we communicate, and how we practice sustainability.
We often go into this whole thing with some huge assumptions. Firstly, we assume that humans are worth saving from annihilation. Secondly, we assume that humans do indeed want to be saved, and will do what’s required, if only we communicate it the right way, motivate them the right way, design society the right way, and so on. This article is an excellent example, because it suggests that redesigning society towards a more virtualized existence would provide a way to reduce natural resource consumption, and thus maybe promote the longevity of our species. It assumes, as a starting point, that doing so is a good idea.
We assume that people don’t do the right thing now because they’re not sufficiently empowered, educated, or motivated. But what if, in addition to all that being true, there’s also this more basic problem? What if, at least some of us are perfectly willing to see our species end because the alternative, saving ourselves, is a real grind, a lot of hard work, and takes a lot of sacrifices? What if we’re genuinely happy just saying “fuck it, rather die”? This is an idea similar to “The Fall” mentioned earlier. How do we want to spend our time? If we’re not chasing immortality, then at what point is it acceptable for us to give in; to our desires, to our apathy, or to other things.
It’s not like this would ever be an overtly stated position for us; we’re not about to enshrine defeatism into a Universal Declaration at the UN. But maybe, just maybe, we signal that collective surrender through other channels. Maybe the way we act, and indeed the way we don’t act, represents those interests. Almost like another school of thought about sustainability – one that you won’t ever see raised at the UN, in academic journals, or in mainstream discussions – a philosophy that is only ever in the background as a common thread between many different societal failings.
What if this helps explain where we’re at right now as a society? It’s an obvious, well-trodden answer to explain the ills of our world on human apathy and indifference, and yet perhaps it’s because it has become so cliché that we have become numb to the truth of this reality? Is the biggest conflict of sustainability one between believers and non-believers; between say, science advocates and science deniers? Or is perhaps the biggest battle right now the one driven by these often-unspoken selfish desires we all have? A battle between the people who care, and the people who honestly just don’t. Importantly, sometimes, each of us can play both roles – hero one moment, and villain the next.
This is a largely philosophical point about human world views, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. It is ultimately a deeply philosophical question: to what extent should humans indulge their desires, and at what cost?
I mention it in closing because other, future work in this project will have to focus in more detail on the challenge of communicating sustainability, a topic I only briefly touched upon here. Often, in sustainability communication, we focus on human psychology and this underlying philosophical problem goes unaddressed. For example, we might focus on the ways that humans best respond psychologically to new information. This might help us communicate more effectively, and it might even engender the types of responses we want, but it doesn’t directly address the underlying question of how much we should be manipulating behaviours.
There is an ethical question here that recurs throughout my writing, about the extent to which we should resist the allure of blissful ignorance. How best should we spend our time? And how harshly should we judge the traitors, the Cyphers, amongst us?