On November 29th, 2019 I was awarded the prestigious Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) Gold Medal for my substantial contribution to ecology in Australia. The title of the Plenary Address was ‘Woman on Fire: Insights from an Elemental Career‘.
The slides and text following the introductory image below were used in the award presentation at the ESA conference in Launceston, Tasmania. Some additional information is provided in this blog, as well as links to the programs and publications referred to in the presentation. The post is around 5000 words in length, so find a comfy chair, grab your favourite drink, relax and read on.
This presentation is dedicated to my late parents Edna and Ian Williams and my dear friend Anka Makovec, a great lover of nature and people, and advocate for indigenous reconciliation.
As a reflection of the recognition of the deep history and culture of this island, I wish to acknowledge the Panninher and Leterremairrener, their past present and future peoples who are the traditional owners and custodians of the land upon which we meet today.
I would like to acknowledge and thank the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) for the Gold Medal award. I remember with respect my late colleagues and friends Professor Marilyn Fox and Associate Professor Jill Landsberg, the two previous female recipients of the Gold Medal.
The Society has been my professional peer group for almost 35 years. From my first presentation at the Adelaide Open Forum in 1987, to this Plenary address, the ESA conferences have provided outstanding opportunities for networking, honing communication skills and learning about the latest science. It is an honour to speak here today, at a conference where the theme is science for practical solutions.
My career has involved working across government, university and private sectors in Australia and overseas. Throughout the presentation I will draw on this diversity of experiences, positions, people and places that have shaped who I am. In doing so, the themes I will focus on will be connections, communication and change.
After distilling the lessons from my career as an ecologist, I will address the existential environmental crisis that humans have created and how individual and collective action can make a difference in addressing the unprecedented changes and challenges we face.
My first conscious connection with fire occurred over 50 years ago. I have a strong memory from the age of seven of a golden-red orb sitting just above the horizon, late one afternoon. The location was central Victoria and the cause of the vibrant colours was smoke from extensive fires burning across the State – not dissimilar to what many parts of Australia are currently experiencing.
Looking back over my career and life, and the fundamental role that fire has played in it, I wonder if this early experience ignited my connection to this elusive element.
The essential and ubiquitous place that fire holds in human experience makes it perfect as a metaphor and perfect for the title of my presentation. I have had the privilege to work with Indigenous fire managers and western fire scientists in Australia and the USA. This led to a number of monographs, publications and a co-edited book on fire ecology and management, as well as creating the first ESA Position Statement on the Use of Fire in Ecosystem Management during 1997.
The choice of the word “elemental” in the title of this presentation describes a career ultimately aimed at understanding the interplay of the natural elements/building blocks of life (earth, water, fire, air and ether/space) and human-dominated ecosystems. Of all the elements, fire has had the strongest pull, influencing as it did my choice of Doctoral and Post-doctoral studies and at times where I have lived.
In recent years my interest in the cultural dimensions of fire and the connection between people and nature has led me to Japan. Fire and water are used in many rituals and festivals in that country, including this recent Autumn festival and fire-walking ceremony I attended near Kyoto on November 10th this year.
The fire-walking was the culmination of two and a half years I have spent with Wani-ontakesan, a Shugendo group who undertake mountain pilgrimages in Japan. These experiences have reinforced how humans are part of, not separate from nature, the awe and wonder that nature inspires, the respect for the cycle of life, the power of the ego, and the value of a strong community and sense of place.
My participation in numerous Wani-ontakesan activities has highlighted the importance of understanding cross-cultural differences and similarities. My training as a western scientist has presented some challenges when spending time with a group that worships Japanese mountains and their associated gods. It has been refreshing and rewarding to be reminded of the value of learning from different knowledge systems and ways of being.
I would particularly like to acknowledge Doukan and Motoshige Okamoto, the two Shugendo masters wearing yellow in this image, for the lessons they have taught me. The ancient Japanese traditions they practice and keep alive remind me of the connections that Australian Aboriginal people have with country. Respecting their knowledge and working with indigenous people is another thread woven through my career.
There have been many other people who have influenced my career. I have selected four who have had a major impact on my professional life over the last four decades.
Dr David Ashton and Dr Siwan Lovett opened my eyes to how everything is interconnected, including people and nature. They taught me the power of humility and of the close observation of nature – David during my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne during the early 1980s, and Siwan since we first met at Land & Water Australia in Canberra in 1996. Their contributions have been fundamental to the way I see the world.
Professor Richard Hobbs and Dr John Dougill have been instrumental in creating the positions I currently hold in Australia and Japan, providing a springboard for recent activities.
Richard is the leader of the Ecosystem Restoration and Intervention Ecology (ERIE) Group at the University of Western Australia where I have held had an Adjunct Professorial position for the last seven years. In the late 1990s Richard and I worked together on behalf of the ESA to establish the refereed, international journal Ecological Management & Restoration (EMR). With the focus on linking science and practice, this achievement is one of my proudest.
Dr John Dougill is an historian, scholar and writer based in Japan who founded the group ‘Writers in Kyoto’ of which I am a member. He has written several important books on Japan and is the author of the Green Shinto (http://www.greenshinto.com/wp/) blog that examines the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of human – nature interactions in Japan and the east. John has provided opportunities for me to build networks and contribute to publications in Japan; opportunities that have enhanced my research and reputation in a different country and culture.
This new direction has been highly rewarding and expanded my understanding and perspectives on the spiritual and practical linkages engendering human appreciation and reverence for nature, and cultural factors underpinning environmental stewardship and sustainability.
Of my 150 or so publications, for this presentation I have chosen the first and most recent edited books that I spear-headed as illustrative examples from my career. They appeared 22 years apart and capture some of the changes in publishing over that period.
‘Eucalypt ecology – Individuals to ecosystems’ was published in 1997 by Cambridge University Press (CUP). The book was co-edited by myself and Dr John Woinarski with scholarly contributions from 26 scientists. Publishing the major synthesis on eucalypt ecology was a dream come true and filled a large gap in existing knowledge. Having conceived the idea, and driven it from start to finish, it is an achievement of which I am very proud. The launch of the book at the 1997 ESA conference, where David Ashton was present, is still engraved in my mind. David inspired me to become an ecologist so he holds a special place in my heart.
This book was followed in 2002 by ‘Flammable Australia – The Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent’ published by CUP – co-edited by Dr Ross Bradstock, myself and Dr Malcolm Gill with contributions from 30 scientists.
It is appropriate to acknowledge the insight and support of Dr Alan Crowden who, during his productive career at Cambridge University Press and beyond has been a strong supporter of the ESA and the publication of many scholarly ecological texts, including the eucalypt and fire books.
Most recently I have edited and designed an Anthology titled ‘Encounters with Kyoto’, published in June 2019. Working with 22 writers and poets mostly based in Japan, and 4 artists (including Corinne Costello in Hobart who created the front cover), the book was self-published through Amazon; it was a new experience requiring a steep learning curve. The Anthology is a fabulous collection of stories. What promised to be a seemless publication process to turn it into a Print On Demand book* and ebook turned out to be far from it.
These and other edited books, and my role as the Chair of the Editorial Board of Ecological Management & Restoration* for several years, demonstrates my penchant for editing. Even though it can be harder than writing a monograph or book, it is rewarding to bring people and ideas together where the sum is greater than the parts.
Synthesising and interpreting large amounts of material has been a feature of my career, especially at the national level. Examples include the monograph ‘Managing the Bush‘* and two complementary, comprehensive practical guides to research and resources on native vegetation management at the property and regional level, published by Greening Australia. I am now using these skills to synthesise and draw lessons from my research on the elements in Japan.
The coming of the digital age was predicted to be the death of printed books. While this has not eventuated, since 1997 the nature and reach of communications has changed immeasurably. To communicate effectively I believe that it is essential to keep up to speed with new tools and how people receive and respond to information, especially to bring about behavioural change.
The 11 years I spent working as an ecological consultant for Land & Water Australia (LWA) were both a highlight and a turning point in my career. Communicating research results to a broad range of audiences, in a diversity of ways, was an essential requirement of the two national multi-million dollar Research and Development (R&D) Programs I was involved with: the Native Vegetation R&D Program and Land, Water & Wool (LWW).
I was national manager of the former program and in the latter program, Siwan Lovett and I were members of a multi-disciplinary team working with scientists, economists and land managers around the country on biodiversity conservation in production lands. It was an exciting and stimulating time. I would like to acknowledge Jennie Ludlow for telling me about the management position at LWA and encouraging my application.
As a social scientist Siwan brought a different perspective to the table. Communication was and remains one of her key strengths. As she kept on reminding us, environmental management is fundamentally about people. We took that to heart. For example, the book ‘People, Sheep and Nature Conservation’ by Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick and Dr Kerry Bridle is an example of the publications generated by the LWW project in Tasmania that I managed. The research team also produced several scientific papers that increased the understanding of conservation management on private lands. A feature of the LWW program overall was the engaging fact sheets and brochures produced on a range of management issues. People still refer to their usefulness more than a decade after they appeared.
Dr Richard Price, who is in the audience today, is another important social scientist from Canberra who has challenged and expanded my perspectives. Our 2010 review paper on the impact of red meat production and other protein sources on biodiversity conservation has been widely read, especially with more recent connections made between diet, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
I continue to learn from and be inspired by Siwan. Eleven years ago she founded the Australian River Restoration Centre (ARRC) that has gone from strength to strength.
The ARRC combines science with experience to give people the confidence to act. Their values are built around three beliefs:
- Optimism – when people are given the opportunity they want to make a difference by caring for the world around them;
- Empathy – empathy and kindness are the foundations for shared problem solving, creativity and joy; and
- Connection – when people are connected to each other and to nature they are happier, more resilient and full of hope.
I highly recommend the ARRC website (www.arrc.com.au) to read more about community engagement and using science to provide practical solutions. The RipRap magazine is a highlight that features science, stories and practical insights about different river management topics.
In addition to their website, the ARRC communicates through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and blogs. Utilising the multiple ways people receive information today helps reach a wider audience.
I joined the world of the blogosphere five years ago when I started the blog Fire Up Water Down. In this blog I share my explorations of the elements across the globe with each post underpinned by extensive research. The most popular blog, titled ‘The elements at your fingertips’, has received nearly 20,000 views. It describes the connection between our fingers and the elements of earth, water, fire, air/wind and space/ether. As you will appreciate, these elements have been used by cultures around the globe to make sense of the natural world around them. The elements are expressions of energy and continue to be vitally relevant today.
In 2016 I started the complementary blog Elemental Japan that records my experiences in Japan. Each post tells a personal story about my impressions of a country where the elements are embedded in everyday life. They help keep a record of my experiences and share them with readers around the world. My most recent post shared my responses and feelings to being in the path of Typhoon Hagibis, one of the largest typhoons in 2019, as it approached Japan.
The most recent online version of the ESA Bulletin (September 2019) contains articles on blogs as a publication genre (by Dr Manu Saunders from the University of New England) and on twitter as a professional tool (by Richard McLellan from Charles Sturt University). These forms of communication have now become a mainstream communication tool for ecologists. As with all tools, the way they are used is instrumental to their effectiveness.
In the previous slides I have shared selected aspects of my career with a focus on connections, communication and change. Because each individual has their own aspirations and path to take I will keep the lessons I have learnt at a broad level. This is the person I have become today, through no small part because of my training as an ecologist and my association with the ESA.
First and foremost I believe that the powers of close observation that David Ashton unlocked have been heightened through my career. What began as an investigation of the fascinating interactions between plants, animals and their environment to elucidate ecosystem patterns and processes has evolved into a burning desire to observe, record and better understand how people and nature are connected.
Each day I am in awe of the world around us and the wonders that nature provides. Whether it be turning on a tap to drink some water, admiring a flower in the garden, or walking through an ancient forest, it is humbling to remember that humans are part of nature, not separate from it. This fundamental connection has been taught by indigenous people around the globe, it is one that is worth listening to.
Wherever I find myself I carry the words of Anka Makovec in my heart:
Yesterday is history
Tomorrow in a mystery
Today is a gift
That’s why we call it the present.
Anka more than anyone taught me to make the most of every minute and every day. Her love of life and nature was infectious.
The Japanese have an expression ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’. It is often translated as “for this time only,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” For me it is a reminder to treasure any gathering that I am taking part in as it will not be repeated. I also apply this philosophy to meetings with individuals.
I read and celebrate the stories of individuals and organisations that are making a positive difference to the planet. These endeavours are inspiring and, importantly, give hope to many people globally.
There have been times when I have felt out on a limb with my research and associated communications – for example the early work on climate change and my most recent explorations of the elements. My advice to myself and others is to follow and persist with your passions, to listen to the fire within.
Art has been an integral part of my career, through practice (drawing, painting and taking photographs) and engaging in science-art activities. Art is a powerful means to communicate science messages. This was the theme of the 2003 ESA conference held in Armidale, NSW where my presentation was enacted as a play, with local children involved. It was refreshing to think outside the box. It is pleasing to see the Symposium ‘Communicating Ecology through Art’ as part of the ESA program in Launceston.
My friend Dr Heidi Auman is involved in the Tasmanian Vanishing Point initiative, an inspirational and illustrative example of what can be achieved by artists and scientists working closely together. The program is a major art-meets-science collaboration that raises awareness about the growing issues of microplastic pollution in our oceans.
Some of my most rewarding experiences have been ones that ‘push’ personal boundaries and comfort zones. For example, my boundaries were pushed by the invitation to act as a Lead Author for the 1997 Report summarising the impacts of climate change for Australasia for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This was both an honour and a demanding international role undertaken whilst I was a full-time University lecturer. It was heartening that the participating authors were subsequently recognised in 2007 for our intellectual contribution to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC.
An example of going beyond my comfort zone was undertaking an ancient Shugendo purification ritual in 2018 by standing under a waterfall in winter in the mountains of Japan. For two months beforehand the activity played on my mind, yet it emerged as an invigorating experience and a unique lesson in focusing on the moment. The full 2018 winter pilgrimage is captured in my post ‘Shugendo now’.
Over my career I have developed deep respect for other forms of knowledge and cultures. It is clear to me that western environmental science does not ‘have all the answers’. By engaging and learning from different disciplines, and different views of the world, my view has been greatly enriched.
Change has been a hallmark of the decades I have been an ecologist. It is something that I have come to expect and learnt to embrace. The resilience these experiences have provided has enabled me to more decisively identify critical actions that can make a difference, and how these actions can be implemented more effectively.
Over the three and a half decades I have been involved with the ESA the world has changed beyond recognition. The global human population has increased to nearly 7.8 billion people and within 30 years is estimated to approach or exceed 10 billion. To me that is unimaginable.
Technology has also changed beyond recognition since the mid-1980s. My Honours thesis was written on the first Macintosh computers bought by the University of Melbourne. Like 3.3 billion people on Earth, I now have a smartphone that, over a short period of time, has changed the way we communicate, connect with others and source and share information.
At 9.4 billion, the number of mobile device connections has surpassed the number of people in the world, making it the fastest growing man-made technology phenomenon ever (Source: bankmycell.com blog).
Concurrently, resource human resource consumption has increased on an unprecedented scale and it is estimated that over 65% of Earth’s annual primary productivity is now appropriated for human purposes. Clearly, the scale of the human enterprise and its global impact is unsustainable.
Scientists, including myself, have been studying, writing and warning about climate change for several decades. It has now become a catch-all for the extreme and increasingly rapid changes to our planet, particularly forest ecosystems, the atmosphere and oceans (acidification).
The words ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate catastrophe’ and ‘climate emergency” are regularly heard in the media. In August 2019, the Australian Medical Association declared climate change as a health emergency. Earlier this month 11,258 scientists signed a declaration published in BioScience warning clearly and unequivocally that Earth is facing a climate emergency. Especially disturbing are the current trends in climate impacts based on a suite of indicators.
Fires, typhoons, floods, snowstorms and other phenomenon are becoming more extreme, frequent and unpredictable. The Climate Council (of Australia) website has, for example, extensive coverage of the recent bushfires in Australia, emphasising that they are not normal.
Many young people are aware and very concerned that there is a climate crisis and that urgent action is required. Today a Schools Strike 4 Climate is being held around Australia with a sit down in response to the recent bushfires being held in the Launceston Mall at lunchtime. Greta Thunburg’s actions on climate change have attracted global attention. Her address to the UN using the analogy ‘our house is on fire’ has helped galvanise action at a grass-roots level.
As well as leaving fossil fuels in the ground, Greta is advocating natural climate solutions (through protection and restoration of natural systems) on a massive scale as one mechanism to repair the broken climate. Her comments are consistent with what many leading scientists and informed commentators have long been advocating.
“Everything counts – what you do counts”.
These are the words Greta Thunburg uses to encourage individual action on climate change and sustainability. The decisions we make do count and from my experience can make a big difference.
I have chosen my sister Ruth, who is in the audience today, to illustrate this important point.
Ruth acts as a role model for her family, friends and community by reducing consumption and working with local groups and businesses on sustainability programs. I am very proud of her. She lives in Reservoir in suburban Melbourne and teaches high school children through the Victorian Government Distance Education Program. She and her partner have joined the recent climate strikes to show their concern for the future of the planet.
Ruth has a Vocational Graduate Certificate in Sustainability and is the co-coordinator of the Darebin Creek Sweepers, a community group that collects rubbish along their local creek. In this role she enjoys being part of nature, the community and preventing rubbish going to the ocean. Ruth has a blog called ‘A Change in Time‘ where she shares her musings on behavioural change – the small stuff and the big stuff.
Ruth and her friends are working to minimise resource use and improve sustainability in all parts of their lives. Examples include what to eat, drink and wear; what products to buy and use; forms of travel; and choosing appropriate technology for housing, heating and cooling. Ruth says that every individual action helps – such as using a Bokashi kitchen composter to create fermented organic matter from food waste, or solar panels for heating – and that if we all do a little bit more it will add up to a lot. It is excellent advice.
My father-in-law Trevor Norton, who turned 88 this year, is another exemplar of sustainable living that I have learnt much from. His minimal use of resources, of all kinds, is inspirational. Trevor’s lifestyle demonstrates that there is no need to buy the latest gadgets and gear to live a rich and fulfilling life.
At the same time as following my sister’s and Trevor’s example, I find the changes to ecosystems and the atmosphere around the globe confronting. The north and south polar ice sheets are melting at alarming rates. Impacts on biological diversity are profound, often irreversible and increasing.
In September 2019 a multidisciplinary team representing academia, business and NGOs – led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre – published the 2019 Exponential Roadmap. Reflecting the need for urgent action, the report focused on moving from incremental to exponential climate action, and presents 36 economically viable solutions to cut global emissions by half by 2030. Greenhouse gas emissions, and the solutions to reduce them, are grouped by six sectors – energy, industry, transport, buildings, food consumption, and nature-based solutions (natural sources and sinks of greenhouse gases).
The roadmap is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global average air temperature “well below 2°C” and aiming for 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
Currently, there is no sign of a slow-down, let alone a decline in global greenhouse gas emissions. On Monday the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported that the gaps between the Paris Agreement targets (to reduce emissions) and reality are ‘glaring and growing’.
The science evidence base underpinning knowledge of Earth’s climate systems is unprecedented. It has been systematically analysed, evaluated, and presented by the IPCC on behalf of the United Nations to inform international actions to avoid dangerous climate change and loss of biodiversity. Many eminent persons including Dr James Hansen, Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth), Sir David Attenborough, Dr Graeme Pearman, Dr Barrie Pittock, Professor Ian Lowe, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor Tim Flannery, Professor Stephen Schneider, and Professors Paul and Anne Ehrlich have informed and communicated our knowledge of the existential crisis that humans have created.
Drastic times require drastic actions.
As young people around the world now demand, it is imperative that measures such as those outlined in the Exponential Roadmap are implemented immediately.
A year ago today a statement was released by the Ecological Society of Australia at its 2018 conference on the Anthropocene calling for urgent action to address the “grandest of all society’s challenges”. This was identified as:
how to reverse the biodiversity crisis and ensure people and nature can thrive together on Earth.
The nine actions listed in the statement were directed at the Australian Government and State and Territory governments. On closing my presentation today I focus on important actions that the Society can take to address this and other challenges.
The theme of the ESA Launceston conference has been on the role ecological science and scientists can play in providing practical solutions to combat the current environmental crisis. We have a responsibility to do so, and urgent action is required.
In an important and illuminating 2017 paper in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability the distinguished ecologist and policy maker Professor Jane Lubchenco discussed the need to honour what she called ‘Science’s Social Contract with Society’.
Jane addressed the importance of scientists being more engaged with society, and how to do this most effectively. She emphasised the importance of telling stories and called for scientists to become ‘bilingual’ – to be able to speak the language of science, as well as the language of laypeople – to be able to translate very complicated things into something that is understandable and do so in a way that is credible. And the time to do this is now. Importantly Jane observed that this engagement with society is a two-way interaction. That it means listening, not just talking. Her experience and tips are important for ecologists here today seeking to inform public discussion and public policy on the environment and biosphere.
Ecology is one part of the story of sustainability; environmental scientists have much to share and learn from other disciplines and world-views. In this context the partnership the Society has developed with indigenous researchers is to be congratulated. As an inaugural member of the societies Indigenous Working Group it is rewarding to see how this has developed. Wellbeing and medical professionals, who are working to mitigate the impacts of climate change on human health, are one example of other groups worth engaging with.
Targeted, relevant, timely and accessible communications, across a range of platforms, are an essential part of the way forward, as is providing support and training for ecologists to become bilingual. This will make it easier to engage with people who use the science – including public or private land managers, politicians, policy makers, the general public or media outlets. In the context of the ESA 2018 conference statement on the biodiversity crisis, politicians and policy makers are the key audiences.
My experiences show that effective communication and action are the pathway to change. As the peak body of ecologists in Australia, the ESA is in a strong position to make science accessible and relevant to broader society. An encouraging development is the first annual workshop on conventional and novel approaches to science communication being held at the conference, under the auspices of the ESA Science Communication Research Chapter.
By reviewing and building on current initiatives such as scientific statements, Working Groups, Research Chapters, media releases and public lectures, the Society has the opportunity to lead by example – to lead the way – to raise awareness and provide solutions to the confronting changes and challenges we all face.
Four questions followed the presentation: the first related to the directions the journal Ecological Management & Restoration should take over the next 20 years; the second about the value of young ecologists gaining experience overseas; the third concerned observations as a scientist participating in spiritual activities in Japan; and the fourth about using art to communicate science.
The full questions and answers can be viewed on the video of the Plenary address on The Ecological Society of Australia YouTube channel. Please note that it can be difficult to see the slides. I would therefore recommend viewing the video in conjunction with this transcript.
Congratulations on making it to the end of the post! If you would like to read more, this is the third post I have written on the theme ‘Woman on fire’, the other two can be found here (the first post I wrote in 2014 for Fire up Water down) and here (the 60th post written for this blog).