Episode 2: Parks, plastics, and problem-solving

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Full transcript available here. 


In this episode, we’re looking at the idea of working across disciplines. What are some of the challenges, opportunities, and examples? Below are some notes from the show.

This episode was recorded on 5 August 2019. We had the honour of speaking to Kate Auty on 21 March 2019, Cynthia Burton on 6 April 2019, and Brett McNamara on 3 May 2019.

“Parks management is about people management”

  • Introducing Brett McNamara, Senior Manager at ACT Parks & Conservation Service
  • 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
  • Aboriginal and First Nations people have cultivated, managed, and lived with the land for millennia, as written about by Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu, 2016) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth, 2012)
  • 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
  • False dichotomies are a logical fallacy that is present in some discourses about sustainability, where the arts and STEM are pitted against each other
    • 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

Working across disciplines

  • Introducing Kate Auty, then-Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment
  • 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?
  • Brett: Restorative justice for vandalism in ACT Parks
    • Exchanging values, mutual learning, and building empathy

Scale and focus

  • When tasked with coming up with a solution to plastic packaging on fresh produce for a uni class, some vastly different examples emerged
    • Nick’s group went with a global plastics convention, while Sumi’s came up with a soupermarket
    • Neither one is necessarily better than the other, but in fact have to work hand-in-hand in order to work
    • There’s a whole range of reasons why plastic is so pervasive in our lives
  • Prioritisation of responses: Top-down, or bottom-up? Global or local? Individual or institutional?
    • It may be a false dichotomy in some cases, but due to scarcity of time and resourcing, sometimes we do have to make a choice
    • Feasibility, affordability are key factors. Culture can play a huge role in the feasibility of a change (e.g. reducing meat consumption)
  • Innovation is a key driver of change, but the effects are not always clear from the get-go

Key philosophical concepts

Sustainability from Two Sides

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them. This episode explores various philosophical ideas and their implications for how we think about and practice sustainability.

We often think of things in terms of a binary or a dichotomy: black and white, right and wrong, left and right. Binary thinking often puts two ideas in opposition or competition with one another. In a situation where one idea’s success comes at the other, we often call it a zero-sum game. Two ideas that are argued to be incompatible (such as it being either daytime or night-time) are mutually exclusive.

These ways of thinking are often at odds with the kind of broader approach we’re taking in this project, as we try to incorporate multiple perspectives at once. The discipline of informal logic, a field within philosophy, has developed a list of what it calls logical fallacies – common argumentative mistakes that people make. One of them, relevant to these ideas, is that of the false dichotomy, which argues that some things should not be compared in a binary way. For example, comparing only two options out of ten and pretending they are the only two? That is an example of a false dichotomy. Once you become aware of this type of thinking, you begin to see it everywhere.

Illustrating this are a few examples of common and relevant binaries within sustainability practice, and theory, some of which often spawn false dichotomies in the way we talk and think.

Objectivity vs. Subjectivity

Like the difference between rationality and empiricism, the difference between objectivity and subjectivity relates to knowledge; specifically, to our levels of certainty. Subjective experience refers to our personal perspectives, lived experiences, emotions, opinions, biases, and internal thought processes. By contrast, objective experience (especially in the sciences) aims to eliminate that “human” element of observation, and through that, arrive at “hard facts”.

As an example, consider the relatively straightforward task of measuring a tree’s height. Using scientific instruments, we can obtain what we could consider the objectively-knowable height of the tree. Contrast this with asking someone how happy they are. That is a far more subjective question, more difficult to know with the same level of certainty as the height of a tree.

When it comes to sustainability, we typically prioritize objective knowledge: the information science and other experts give us, over subjective knowledge: the stories, feelings, and emotions of individuals and groups. This bias can lead to negative outcomes because a great deal of valuable knowledge is subjective. Indigenous stories and culture are intrinsically related to lived, deeply personal experiences. The fears and anxieties of a society, even though they can be represented by proxy statistics like a Consumer Confidence Index and reflected in our cultures, still don’t fully capture the totality of subjective knowledge.

In our studies here at university, we are pushed towards the scientific and academic model of knowledge; the peer-review and journal publication process, held aloft as a paragon of objectivity. What is telling is that in this increasing age of neoliberal, corporatized universities, we are seeing the truth motive of academic publishing replaced by the profit motive[1]. Objectivity and the relative value of academic knowledge is being eroded here as it is elsewhere (the “post-truth era” being a good example).

The implication is that objectivity is an idea that can be called into question: to what extent is academic knowledge worthy of the attention and support it receives? How do other factors such as the profit motive and commoditization of academic knowledge affect its value?

Even empirical observation can be “tainted” by subjectivity. To return to the example of the tree height measurement, we face the issue of measurement error, a human-induced (subjective) influence on what was supposedly definitive (objective) observation. In science, reducing measurement error often means doing as much as possible to eliminate human mistakes and biases.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Dovetailing from the concept of objective and subjective, are the ideas of qualitative and quantitative knowledge.

Quantitative information is something we can put a number (a quantity) to. The height of a tree is quantitative data. How that tree makes me feel when I look at it, that is qualitative. Measuring the two requires different approaches.

These concepts match with ideas of subjectivity and objectivity. Quantitative data is typically objective, and empirical. Qualitative data is typically subjective and rational (or emotional). This binary between what we feel and what we see again drives much of our thought about sustainability. Just as we bias objective knowledge, we often bias the quantitative – numbers, statistics, and “what we can all see”.

The potential implications here for sustainability are considerable: how much important knowledge is de-prioritized because it is qualitative?

Arts vs. STEM

The war between Arts and Humanities, and their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) counterparts exemplifies the culmination of these previously mentioned ideas. STEM is the domain of objective and quantitative knowledge, whereas Arts and Humanities embody the subjective and qualitative. Separating the two like this, however, is an example of what I consider a dangerously stupid false dichotomy:

When it comes to sustainability, it becomes hard to disentangle the cultural from the ecological, or as the Ancient Greeks framed it, the scientific from the artistic. They really are two sides of the same coin. When looking at future challenges and opportunities for our species, potentially any discipline is relevant. One key challenge therefore lies in finding as many ideas as possible, and then prioritising them. Under this kind of approach, you become far more hesitant to disregard contributions, regardless of the discipline they originate from.[2]

[1] Gill, R. (2009). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.

[2] Blood, N. (2018, August 8). Art vs science: A facile and dangerous debate. Et Cetera.