Personal Reflections on Decolonisation of the Earth Sciences: Am I creating space? Or occupying space?

This commentary is an expansion on my presentation at the 2022 session on Scientific Neocolonialism.

 

Thank you to EGU for creating the space for this vital conversation, to the organisers and to my fellow speakers, and to all of you for coming.

I would like to start with a statement on positionality.  I have white privilege.  Male privilege.  Cishet privilege. I did grow up in rural poverty; we were farmers and we were poor, and I was a first generation University student. But I did have access to education, and I certainly am no longer working class, no matter how deep the roots may be.  Perhaps of equal importance is my institutional privilege.  I work in a discipline – the geosciences generally and organic geochemistry specifically – that has been built on a legacy of exploitation and extraction; and I work for a relatively stable and secure University that inherited and built – and arguably still builds – its wealth on the back of colonial practices.

As such, I was invited by the organisers to use that privileged position to speak honestly and forthrightly about the historical and ongoing failings of our discipline.  And to acknowledge my own failings.

I do, however, have some ambivalence about participating.  I think it is the obligation of those with privilege – especially those like myself – to do the labour, especially the risky and emotionally taxing labour in talking about difficult topics.  However, I also recognise that in doing so, I am occupying a seat that might have been better filled by someone who lacks my privilege and would benefit from this platform.

Am I creating space? Or occupying space?

I’ll return to this.  And it is an important theme that has pre-occupied me in every role I have taken – from accepting or declining conference invitations to joining NERC’s Science Committee to becoming Head of School . But for now let me say to my colleagues who share my privilege ‘get use to this feeling of discomfort and learn to live with it.’ This discomfort is essential to the decolonial efforts, as is taking any criticism with dignity.

**********************************************************

I am not an expert; I am a geochemist.  Like many of us who are struggling with the colonial aspects of the Earth Sciences, I am here as one who has not done as well as I should, wants to do better, and expects all of us – especially the senior leaders of the field – to do the same. However, I have been fortunate enough to learn from colleagues across disciplines. Due to the dearth of expertise in STEM subjects I have often been invited to serve on panels such as these, including the NERC/AHRC Hidden Histories Advisory Group and Bristol’s Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group.  I have also learned from more grass roots radical movements at the University of Bristol, from staff who demand our institution more actively confront its colonial legacies. In all of these, I have tried to be honest about the limitations of my expertise, my genuine desire to learn and my commitment to sharing what I learn from the actual experts.

And the one thing that I have learned is that the legacy of colonialism is pervasive, and that our decolonisation journey will be long and challenging.  And necessary.  @Jairo_I_Funez is a powerful scholar in this space and I hope he does not mind me borrowing a quote of his from Twitter: ‘In practice, the world isn’t divided in silos: colonial, racist, capitalist, & patriarchal silos. These are entangled & distinctly expressed according to geography. Analytically we can try to separate them but in reality they are entangled systems of domination and exploitation.  People seem to really want straightforward manuals for this stuff but that in itself is part of the problem. It isn’t simple or fair because reality isn’t simple or fair.”

So let us talk about the entangled systems of domination and exploitation, in my own career and in our discipline.

**********************************************************

I owe a lot to my supervisors and colleagues who helped set me on a strong path during my PhD training.  They taught me to respect other disciplines and expertise, in particular warning me away from scientific hubris and thinking that my new fancy analytical toy can solve the problems that others have struggled with for decades.  Or if we do solve them, to acknowledge that we could not have done so without that previous labour.  Building from that, it is inescapable that we recognise that science is a community, with the vast majority of successes achieved not by a single genius but by a community of scholars who sometimes argue but always centre a constructive and collaborative approach to building knowledge. This is particularly true of the Earth Sciences, where we must collaborate to drill a core through an ice sheet, send a seismometer to Mars, or build a decades long field campaign.

But this inevitably demands that we ask “who is that community?”  Our discipline has been profoundly guilty of helicopter or parasitic science, sometimes cynically so and sometimes with good intentions.  But regardless of the motivations, it excludes scholars from the global south, marginalised groups and indigenous peoples.  Robyn Pickering spoke powerfully about this in her presentation.  So here I want to share that I have made these same mistakes.

You can look through my publication record and find many examples of these: collaborations with New Zealand colleagues that failed to acknowledge the Māori peoples on whose occupied land we worked; collections of samples from exotic locations with which I calibrated palaeoclimate proxies but failed to include local collaborators.  Perhaps the most striking example is my work on arsenic contamination in Cambodian aquifers; this is work that I am very proud of as it helped resolve the biogeochemical mechanisms underpinning As mobilisation.  But our earliest work included no local collaborators, to the detriment of the science, to the detriment of the uptake of our findings, to the detriment of colleagues in Cambodia working on these issues.  [I no longer work in this area, having ‘passed the baton’ to my postdoc who is now at Manchester, but I am glad to see that this group now works in thriving collaboration with Cambodian colleagues.]

There have been times that I have engaged more appropriate practice in terms of collaboration and co-production.  Our palaeoclimate work in Tanzania featured strong collaborations with Tanzanian geoscientists, especially the wonderful Joyce Singano.  In doing so, funding was passed from the UK to Tanzania and prestige was shared, benefitting their careers and their institutions.  This is not theoretical – these decisions have real and immediate consequences and impacts.   So why do we not do it all the time? I have been as guilty as anyone of using the argument that ‘there are no scholars in that area in this country’, but surely that should prompt a number of questions: i) how hard have we really looked; ii) if not, then should we not have a long-term vision of collaboratively building that community; iii) should we not work in an area or a topic if we cannot do it equitably and inclusively?

But I suspect that much of our current neocolonial practices arise from naivety.  We just do not think about these issues.  But naivety is not an excuse for those of who work in institutions of wealth and privilege, are funded by intuitions of wealth and privilege, and work in countries made wealthy by colonial exploitation.  We cannot afford the luxury of being ignorant of our power and influence.

I think that helicopter or parasitic science is the most obvious manifestation of neocolonial practices that persist in our discipline. However, decolonisation is an act of continual reflection, self-critique and learning and that means understanding the complexities in even some superficially strong local collaborations.  I increasingly work with scholars in Panama and Colombia, but often those scholars are part of their own nations’ colonial legacies with their own problematic relationships with indigenous peoples.  Complex legacies of colonialism persist in Africa. Geopolitical complications haunt my collaborations with China, especially in places such as Tibet.

Having said that, I am drifting dangerously close to whataboutery, and I refuse to allow that; I raise these issues not for deflection but to set myself on a path towards ever deeper reflection. The complexity of these issues must not stop action today, and there is nothing preventing us from engaging directly with the colonial sins in our own house.  (For these reasons, Hidden Histories chose to focus solely on British colonialism.)

**********************************************************

Decolonisation is about more than diversity and inclusivity, although there is certainly a strong connection between our decolonial and EDI efforts and I do not think one can be legitimate without the other.  Decolonisation is ultimately about agency and power, and addressing that entails challenging the assumptions deeply embedded in our practice and that of our discipline. Our discipline is based on extraction and exploitation.  We pillaged fossils from all over the world, a practice that continues to this day, often in direct violation of the laws of that country.  Our discipline can display an appallingly arrogant and patriarchal view towards the Earth and land, often in direct conflict with those who live on it.   Mary Anning was funded by the enslavement of people – Henry de la Beche, her sponsor and first President of the Palaeontological Association, was an apalling person who acquired great wealth through his slavery inheritance.

Our entire discipline has been instrumental in the exploitation of fossil fuel and mineral resources and the people who live on that land, and we still are.

We must constantly explore and engage with that.  And we certainly must not try to create artificial silos that we pretend can exonerate us from those obligations. I am an organic geochemist, with colleagues, friends and former students who work in the oil and gas sector. I ended my own research collaborations with those industries about 15 years ago – but that was driven by environmental and climate change concerns rather than decolonial ones.  This was a dangerously narrow view that elevated some forms of harm over others.  If we do not include decolonial aspects in our thinking and our science and our practice, we are going to replicate past harms and perpetuate new inequalities under the banner of biodiversity preservation and renewable energy.

It has become quite trendy in our discipline to talk about the necessity of geology – especially economic and resource geology – to a post-fossil fuel future dependent not on oil but copper, cobalt and lithium.  This is true.  But we cannot build a green future on green colonialism (and arguably such an effort, in discarding indigenous knowledge, would be doomed to failure).

Moreover, I cannot simply ignore the deep entanglement of my research practice with colonial and neocolonial histories. My techniques were built by my academic predecessors with industry support.  I can do what I do because of the investment in organic geochemistry fueled by the global exploitation of oil resources (Chevron built first GC-IRMS) . That extends to so may of us, from biostratigraphy to palaeogeographic reconstructions to palaeontology, all built on global extractivism.

I am not saying that we should not work with industry or you have to be anti-capitalist (but many experts do convincingly argue that view).  But I do not see how decolonisation can be compatible with unbridled free marketeering.  It certainly is not compatible with uncritical engagement with any industrial partner.  I leave that to each of you to discuss where those boundaries lie.

And in doing so, we must be quite open-eyed about the fact that most Western Universities, regardless of their taxation status, operate in a pretty damned capitalist and colonial manner themselves. My own University’s logo contains four symbols – a sun, a ship, a horse and a dolphin – each one of those the symbol of a great family in Bristol that built their wealth entirely or in part by the enslavement of people.  That dolphin is the symbol of Edward Colston. But let us not pretend that colonialism is an artefact of the past, ‘Hidden Histories’ alone.  My University, like all UK Universities and many across the West, remains financially dependent on exorbitant fees paid by international students; my salary and my lab and my career are funded by the ongoing extraction of wealth from across the world to the University of Bristol.

We must be awake to these issues and engaged with the harms they have caused – and our complicity with them and continued dependence on them.

‘They are entangled systems of domination and exploitation.’

**********************************************************

What can we do?  As with many challenges we face, we must recognise the need for structural change.  In doing so, we must learn, share and act with a certain degree of kindness for ourselves – all of us are somewhat trapped in these colonial structures.  I have colleagues who are seeking research funding from new, less problematic sources who also feel severe institutional pressure to win grants; they feel trapped.  As Head of School, I often feel complicit in enabling their entrapment. Collectively, we must demand structural change.

However, just like tackling racism or climate change, the need for structural change does not exempt us from individual responsibility.  And of course, our individual actions can collectively and joyfully become a movement that drives that structural change.  So here are some suggestions.

Read, listen and learn.  Most of us will not become experts in this topic, but we can all devote time to learning.  I recognise that we are all overworked, but this is an obligation for our discipline.

Have humility for those who do the work, whether they be geoscientists who choose to focus on this area of those outside the discipline.  And then celebrate and reward this work.  Liberate time for our colleagues who do devote time to become experts, and recognise this work in their promotions.  Pay external experts.  Pay marginalised scholars to speak or advise. Pay for their time as we would pay any other consultant.

Accept discomfort and learn from it.  Be thoughtful, continuously thoughtful and with intellectual commitment comparable to how we do the rest of our job.  Be honest with ourselves. So treat yourselves with kindness. But that is no excuse to not challenge and continuously interrogate ourselves and one another.

Most importantly, collaborate and co-produce knowledge. Work with brilliant and inspiring scholars from all over the world. And although this is an important path to reparation, it is also wonderful and joyous.

Finally, build on your learning and experiences to make that structural change.  Demand institutional support – and when you have the privilege to do so, challenge institutional behaviour. Advocate for new policies, from EGU Awards to staff promotions processes to criteria for grants and publications.

**********************************************************

Ultimately, however, we must never forget that this is not an academic exercise.  It is part of a wider process of reparation of harm and reconciliation.  It must be a dialogue and it must be tangible. Frantz Fanon wrote: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”    These conversations are important for our field, but they do not stop colonised people from being exploited, robbed or killed.  Our work must ultimately commit to an agenda that restores wealth, respect and dignity.  And by extension, it must restore stolen agency and power, because these reparations of harm cannot happen using our current structures: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Given that end goal, was I right person to contribute? Did I make space or occupy space? On reflection, I think it was it a mistake for me to agree to speak at this session rather than advocating for a speaker from a non-Western nation or from a marginalised group. I hope that I’ve moved our conversation forward, but I am not convinced that I was best suited to use this forum to also achieve reparation.

Instead a speaker from the global south or an  indigenous speaker could have used this opportunity not only to speak honestly and forthrightly about the challenges they face but also use this as a platform to reclaim some of their scientific agency. They could have come to this EGU session, spoken about decolonization but also talked about their science – their ambitions, their findings and the types of collaborations that would strengthen their careers.

I apologise for occupying that space.

This is not white liberal guilt, an emotional response that is often passive and used as an excuse to withdraw. Nor is it performative emoting that continues to centre us at the expense of those who have been harmed. It is a demand that we – I – reflect, listen, learn and improve and to accept that many of us who hold privilege will now have to live in a degree of emotional and intellectual discomfort that will never be resolved.  That is a small price to pay for our many other privileges.

So then, looking towards the next conference or next year, can we all agree that we must do this work and that we do not need someone like me to create this space?

Instead, we should pack this panel with the voices of minoritized and indigenous voices, while also giving them a chance to prominently showcase their science throughout the wider EGU program.

While the rest of us pack this hall to listen to what they have to say.

Some resources:

There are many emerging articles and resources in our discipline; see the following as an example:
Recently, I have been inspired by the writing of @Prof_FSultana, including her fantastic article ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Coloniality‘.  Here is an example of her writing: “To decolonize thinking/approaches/solutions, we need to address the fertile grounds where colonial & imperial wounds are not minimized but recognized as part of the necessary driving forces of collective liberation. This is particularly true for decolonizing climate justice.  Given the significant insights of feminist, anti-colonial, decolonial & post-colonial scholarships, there is much to be incorporated into empirical & policy-oriented work. Purely technocratic, economistic, or financial solutions will not address the root causes of problems.” And read: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096262982200052X?dgcid=author

And for a life-enriching immersion in the topic, please consider Kathryn Yusoff’s  ‘A Million Black Anthropocenes or None.’

 

 

 

 

Fog Bridge (and the Coming Storm)

As part of its contribution to Bristol 2015, European Green Capital, the In Between Time Festival commissioned the Fog Bridge by internationally renowned artist Fujiko Nakaya. I was invited to co-curate the exhibit, due to a shared vision of environmental uncertainty in the face of climate change and climate action. In particular, those conversations contributed to the themes explored during the Festival: Enter the Storm, including a focus on living with uncertainty. I also joined the Festival’s Uncertainty Cafes, where I was asked to throw out ideas – some well informed and some more adventurous – and then partake in the fascinating conversations this artwork had stimulated.  Here, I share the unabridged transcript of what I spoke about at the Uncertainty Café on 13 Feb 2015.

Although it was an honour to participate and an experience from which I learned much, I read this several years later and realise I would write something quite different today. I regret nothing that has been included but there are some striking omissions.  Most significantly, I would have specifically explored the racial dimensions of uncertainty.  That seems particularly remiss given that the Fog Bridge was Pero’s Bridge, named after Pero Jones, enslaved in Nevis and brought to Bristol in 1783. Nonetheless, I still enjoy reading this provocation about what it does have to say about art and slow contemplation during times of crisis.

***************************************************

Fujiko Nakaya has shrouded Pero’s Bridge in fog, eliciting a combination of delight and introspection – as well as befuddling the occasional commuter.  The Fog Bridge stimulated debate, criticism, celebration and interest. The most interesting of those debates, that I hope are only starting, revolve around its impact. Like all great art, Fog Bridge should be and is a bit dangerous, in that it causes us to consider – if even for a while – some alternatives to our perspectives.  But who saw it and engaged with it?  Has it affected belief systems and values?  Has it changed behaviour and, if so, of whom?  And is that all a bit too much of a burden to put onto a single piece?

Fog bridge
Fog Bridge in Bristol from BBC

Our world has always changed.  I have spent over 25 years studying the history of our planet’s climate and environment, and one of the most recurring themes is that on long enough timescales, change rather than stasis is the norm. But the coming changes to our climate, arising from our lifestyles and consumption, are distinct in their speed.  They are nearly unprecedented in Earth history and they are certainly unprecedented in human experience.  The Earth is warming, the oceans are acidifying, sea level is rising, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent – and we as a people are being challenged to adapt to these changes.  One of the most profound challenges is not the higher temperature of more frequent flood but the uncertainty associated with those.  Change, almost by definition, imposes uncertainty and we must discover how to live in this increasingly Uncertain World.

We live our lives informed by the power of experience: the collective experience of ourselves, our families, our communities and our wider society.  Our weather projections and crop harvesting, our water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation that inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. Now, however, we are changing our environment and our climate, such that the lessons of the past have less relevance to the planning of our future. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing value every day.

This is how I am provoked by all of Fujiko Nakaya’s art and especially her wonderful Fog Bridge.   Yes it makes me think about our changing weather. Yes, it serves as an enigmatic warning of the Coming Storm. But more, the image of fog, the obstruction of our vision, the demand for a more careful navigation over a bridge that is normally one of our most reliable paths, makes me think of an Uncertain World.

Uncertainty is a challenge.  Uncertainty makes it harder for us to live with our planet and with each other. But there is something gentle about the uncertainty evoked by the Fog Bridge that invites alternative perspectives. Is an environmental disaster the only possible outcome of the path on which we walk?

Fifty years ago, between 1962 and 1966, J. G. Ballard wrote a trio of seminal environmental disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.  That is why one of the Cabot Institute’s themes this year is The Uncertain World. But there is a more nuanced lesson from Ballard when it comes to change: ‘I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.’  In many ways, that statement, like the Fog Bridge, challenges the idea of uncertainty being solely negative. I think much of what is embedded in that statement is reflected in Ballard’s post-disaster novels – from Crash to High Rise to Cocaine Nights, all dealing with the tedium of late 20th century, bored lives, gated retirement villages on the Costa del Sol, manicured lawns, 99 channels with nothing on.

And what a tragedy that is for our species. Our most unique and exceptional characteristics are adaptability, imagination and creativity.  Most of our achievements and many of our sins are a direct consequence of our incredible ability to adapt and create.  We can live in the desert, in Antarctica, in space.

If we return to Ballard’s environmental disaster novels with this perspective, they take on new shapes.  The protagonists in those novels – and especially the Drowned World – are not destroyed. Nor do they overcome.  They are awakened and they are transformed.  And in the end, they embrace those transformations:

“By day fantastic birds flew through petrified forests, and jewelled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown.”   – The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard

Catastrophic change can be beautiful and it can startle us out of complacency, it can challenge us, it can demand of us that we embrace the entirety of human potential.

But there are limits to this train of thought.

Taking that perspective towards global environmental disaster is the rather unique luxury of the upper middle class, privileged western European.  Those who might die in floods or famines or whose way of life is not changed but obliterated by rising sea levels will have a different perspective.  Let us never forget that those bringing about climate change and those likely to suffer most from it are not the same.  That is true globally and it is true in Bristol: if the price of food doubles, I will grumble; others will be unable to feed their families.

And in that is a deep and unsettling irony.  Those of us who perhaps would benefit most from embracing the challenges we face are profoundly reluctant to accept any change, whether that be to our sources of energy or food, to our way of lives or to our growth-based economy. And our inability to envision societal change is imposing potentially catastrophic environmental and climatic change on others – those who are most poor and most vulnerable.

That is why the Green Capital conversations must focus on issues of inclusion, empowerment and social justice. We must avoid unfair, unequal, unethical change. But if we can do that, then maybe change can be a catalyst for something fresh and exciting.  Fujiko’s Fog Bridge is beautiful. Fog is beautiful.  A storm is beautiful.  This does not have to be a Disaster Story.  We can change how we live, thereby mitigating the most dangerous aspects of climate change.  And when we fall short and change does come… we can fight it a bit…. But we can also embrace it.

And what might that look like?

We must be radically resilient. If radical uncertainty is on the way then our response must be radically flexible. Our buildings and roads must be able to change.  Our railroads and our health service. Our laws. Our jobs.  Our economy.  Our businesses.  Ourselves.

Our response must be fair and equitable. Those who can barely afford the rent or who work two jobs to put food on the table have less capacity to be flexible. Some of us will have to bear more of the burden of change than others.  Ultimately, I believe we will have to achieve a more fair and balanced society: It is difficult to imagine how grand challenges of resource and planetary sustainability can be achieved if billions are held back by poverty*.

And we need political inclusion.  If difficult choices are to be made – if our sacred cows are to be sacrificed or compromises are to be made – then we must rebuild a universally owned political system.  We will not weather any storm by hectoring and lecturing nor if mired in apathy and cynicism. I sincerely hope a new platform for more inclusive decision making is a major outcome of Bristol 2015.  It is certainly the ambition of the Green Capital Partnership.

If we share these risks and the costs, then perhaps we can collaborate with our changing planet to achieve something exciting and new – lifestyles that embrace rather than stifle the very best of our creative, dynamic and resilient nature. Maybe we walk across the Bridge a bit more slowly, maybe we don’t cross it at all, maybe we just stop and stare. I don’t know.  Nor do I know if we will make such dramatic changes. But I know that we can.

* The above paragraph was the most difficult to express in only a few words during the Uncertainty Café and I want to expand on this here. Everyone in society has great assets of imagination and creativity.  All communities and all individuals can make a positive difference and should be encouraged to do so – and supported in doing so.  And in the future, as throughout history, some of the most exciting ideas will come from some of the poorest on our planet.  At the same time, however, we must understand that poverty steals time and lost time means lost ideas. And that is a tragedy at a time when we need a proliferation of new ideas, and especially those that run counter to ‘conventional wisdom’.  Inclusion must be more than simply welcoming alternative perspectives; we must actively seek, fund and support a more diverse community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How engaging citizens can help to shape green cities

This blog was written by Daniela Patti (Eutropian) and edited by Amanda Woodman-Hardy (@Enviro_Mand) and Professor Rich Pancost (@rpancost) from Cabot Institute for the Environment.

In order for European territories to be more environmentally and socially sustainable the involvement of citizens is key. Experiences throughout Europe show us that developing strategies to improve the engagement, collaboration and communication with local stakeholders – across diverse realms and thematic domains – is essential to ensure an effective outcome. During European Green Week, a workshop organised by DG Environment, was conducted to showcase some inspirational experiences in terms of sustainable urban development, health and waste management from different European cities.

Speakers included Mauro Gil Fournier (Estudio SIC), Professor Rich Pancost (Director of University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment), Silvia Moroni (AMAT), Paola Robalo (Centro Ciência Viva do Alviela), Sietse Gronheid (Wasted Social Enterprise) and Igor Kos (City of Maribor).

Rich Pancost speaking at EU Green Week. Image credit BristolBrussels.

[Rich Pancost contributed on a variety of issues, largely arising from Cabot Institute and Bristol City engagement, but spoke primarily about the Green and Black Conversation and Ambassadors programme.  He emphasised the importance of engaging with marginalised groups, the fact that they have much to teach ‘established’ organisations, and the fact that inclusion requires far more than good will but hard work and appropriate financial investment.]
There was much feedback from the workshop as to how citizens could help to shape green cities which included:

  • We need to consider different levels of citizens’ involvement: consultation, participation, co-creation. For this reason we always have to consider who is involved and who is excluded from every process.
  • People are involved in topics they care about, so in order to get out of our elitism we need to address issues that really matter to most people, especially those people that are often not actively engaged. This is what was experienced by the Green and Black Ambassadors during the Bristol Green Capital year, where a community radio station with a focus on the local African-Caribbean community (Ujima Radio) framed environmental discussions and training around the perspectives of local community members.
  • Topics such as air quality, circular waste management or water pollution are hard topics to get people involved in, whilst topics such as food or green spaces are often more recognised by people because the feel ‘closer’. For this reason Milan, which is taking part in the Air Quality Partnership of the EU Urban Agenda, is working on developing an Action Plan that will actively address citizens’ involvement through a concrete toolkit.
  • For people to be engaged we need to involve them throughout the process and not just at the end to show the results. This is what has been experienced in Portugal by the Science Centre in Alcanena that is involving the local community in monitoring water quality, polluted by the local industry, in order to understand the roots of the problems and develop together possible solutions.
  • In order to get people involved in long term change we need to deliver short and medium term results that they can appreciate. This is what is being done in Maribor, that is developing a long term circular economy strategy and is creating festivals, schools events and fairs to get people involved and experience some of the changes taking place in the waste, such as for the biological waste turned into compost for community gardens.
  • Participatory processes that really get people committed, beyond a consultation, require people with professional skills of moderation and community engagement, which should therefore also be economically remunerated in order to ensure long term commitment. This is what is experienced by in Amsterdam, where through the Wasted project circular waste cycles are an opportunity to create complementary currencies in partnership with local enterprises.  The same is true for engaging with marginalised groups who have to sacrifice precious time to contribute; we cannot extract free labour from anyone but especially groups that are already marginalised by structural inequities.
  • For environmental and societal transition to take place we need to ensure that it also affects economic and financial models in an inclusive and participatory way, otherwise large parts of our society will keep being left out. This is what has been done in Madrid through the MARES project that develops social economy cooperatives around sustainable mobility and energy production.
  • Skills around social media and communication tools need to be addressed in order to reach out to people, yet they might be more effective tools for consultation rather than co-creation.

——————————–

A Statement on Equity and Inclusion from the School of Earth Sciences

Statement by the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Community Committee, adapted from Head of School Letter for the Athena SWAN Action Plan (2018)

We are immensely proud to be part of a discipline based on understanding our planet, how we live on it and our shared future. We are likewise proud to be part of a discipline that is inherently global and international, that not only invites but demands collaboration with all cultures.  However, it is a discipline partially founded in 19th century adventurism and it has long struggled with the legacies of toxic masculinity, colonialism and exploitation. Few departments had female academic staff until the 1980s; and even when appointed, they had to navigate a frequently toxic environment of harassment, microaggression and often overt aggression. Women were only allowed to join the British Antarctic Survey’s field station from 1986, emblematic of being locked out from many opportunities and pathways to academic achievement. The discipline’s track record with respect to racial and minority ethnic diversity and equity is similarly flawed, with no significant progress in racial diversity over the past four decades.

Consequently, we are pleased to see recent progress in our discipline, making important steps in diversification and gender balance and evolving from exploitation to co-production.  And we are especially proud to be part of the School of Earth Sciences at Bristol, where we have supported women, at all stages of their career, through PhDs and PDRAs to esteemed Fellowships and into Lectureships.  We now have near gender-parity in every part of the professional, technical and academic part of the school, and at every career stage, from students to the most senior staff.  Nearly 50% of our Professors are women, a balance surpassing the vast majority of STEM departments in the country.  Similarly, we have a large and visible LGBTQ+ community, embraced by our colleagues, and transforming the image of our discipline.

However, the legacies of our discipline’s origins run deep; and, of course, gender diversity is only one aspect of a challenge that is profoundly intersectional. We refuse to be complacent and our successes in some areas highlight our shortcomings in others. We therefore commit to four main Themes for Action: Visibility, Equity, Agency and Anti-Racism.

Visibility: Our female staff are global leaders, serving as Presidents of international societies, winning accolades and advising governments. They are also visible in our teaching and leadership. But we must enhance the visibility of the specific issues they face; it is astonishing that only in the year 2019 has our discipline begun to publicly discuss the challenges of having periods during field work.  Similarly, we need to raise their profile amongst young people, ensuring that the Earth Sciences is seen as an inclusive destination for young women choosing their degrees.

Equity: Just because we have achieved gender diversity does not mean we have achieved equity. We recognise the unwritten hierarchies of academia and how that stifles debate, protest and progressive change. We will empower the voices of all staff and students in the School to advance their careers and safely advocate for change. Our governance will be open and transparent.

Agency: Intellectual freedom is often touted as one of the great benefits of an academic career, but true agency and independence can be reserved to the most senior and privileged of us. Early Career Researchers, especially in a highly competitive job market, feel that they have little power; even Lecturers feel compelled to prioritise some efforts over others in order to be promoted. We have created fora and representation for our PDRA community, helping them initiate change and create their own opportunities. And we have led in University efforts to reform the Promotions framework, such that it will soon recognise a wider range of contributions.

Anti-racism: Despite our gender and sexuality diversity, we have very low BAME diversity.  It is a well-documented problem for the entire discipline – as well as the wider environmental community. We have few BAME staff and no permanent BAME academic staff. Our support for BAME staff and students has been inconsistent. We are committed to engaging more broadly with society, diversifying our recruitment at all levels, and ensuring a safe and empowering environment for our students and staff.

The EDI Committee and the School are proud of what we have achieved, from developing the careers of many amazing women to creating a safe environment for our LGBTQ+ colleagues and collaborating with race equality champions in the city of Bristol.  However, we recognise that much remains to be done and we are committed to that positive action.

We will do this through culture and process, through training and policy change. Where we lack the power to directly change policy, we will advocate for that change with the University, government and funders. We commit to this as individuals and as a School.

Complex Cities in an Uncertain World

My contribution to the Festival of Ideas sponsored Festival of the Future City 

Photo by David Iliff. License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Half of the planet lives in cities. By the middle of this century, that number will rise to nearly 75%, nearly 7 billion people. The decisions we make today will dictate whether those future cities are fit for purpose, whether they are just, sustainable, vibrant, resilient and pleasant. But those decisions must navigate an increasingly perilous web of urban complexity and global uncertainty.

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr famously said,  ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,’ a quote that recognises and subverts the very nature of the scientific endeavour. Scientists aspire to understand something well enough that we can predict what will happen under certain conditions in the future, whether it be a chemical reaction or nuclear fission – or administering a drug or raising interest rates. In fact, prediction is the basis for all decision makers, not just doctors and engineers but mayors, CEOs, teachers and you. Whether it is predicting when you will run out of bread or predicting whether a residential parking scheme will bring about a net positive change to a congested city, we all make decisions based on what we think is about to happen or will happen if we take an action. In a simple world, we barely need to think about these things because the pattern has been reproduced numerous times or the solution will clearly address the challenge.

But we do not live in a simple world. We live in a complex world – an astonishingly complex world in which the landscape is changing faster than our ability to map it.

People are complex: our emotions, motivations, desires and fears make us notoriously (and wonderfully) difficult to understand and predict. Society is complex: our communities, whether they be geographical, historical, ethnic or religious, interact in marvellously messy ways. And most of all, our cities are complex. Beautifully, fantastically, unpredictably, frustratingly and vibrantly complex. Cities represent tens or hundreds or even thousands of years of ad hoc expansion, destruction and redevelopment; the accumulation of technological and infrastructural strata, from ancient paths, to great roads, to modern electrical grids, to smart city digital networks; and vast demographic changes including an aging population, migration, globalisation and a frightening increase in social inequality.

That is just the complexity within a city, but cities are not isolated from the rest of the world. They are nodes within a vast and increasingly complex global supply chain on which we depend for everything from our food and electricity to our culture and entertainment.

And adding yet additional layers of complexity are our global environmental and societal challenges. We are warming the planet and depleting it of vital resources. Those would be challenging enough given the complex interdependencies that now define 21st century society. Unfortunately, global warming could change our planet in ways that are unique in human history and possibly geological history. We have not experienced and our models cannot fully constrain this uncertain world. Forecasts for rainfall patterns, extreme weather events or food production are fraught with uncertainty – and by extension, so are forecasts for political insecurity and financial markets.

How does the complexity intersect and overlap, how do these systems merge, either dampening or enhancing their collective impacts? How will climate change and food insecurity, for example, exacerbate inequality? We do have tools for navigating these complex systems – ranging from cognitive shortcuts in decision making to community histories to sophisticated models. However, those are almost all based on experience, and experience loses value when the ground rules are changed. Our vast experiment with the Earth’s climate and ecosystem – making our world not just complex but complex and uncertain – makes it harder for scientists to predict the future, decision makers to plan and individuals to act with creative and empowering agency.

Of course, complexity need not be bad. Complexity and change can bring about positive challenges, shaking us out of complacency and inspiring creativity. Perhaps even more inspiring, complexity could be harnessed as a tool for connection rather than isolation. Although our interdependence makes us particularly vulnerable to conflict or instability on the far side of the planet, it also makes us all invested in one another’s lives. This also applies to the urban scale as exemplified by Bristol is Open, in which an additional layer of complexity – a publicly shared digital infrastructure managed by a smart city operating system – could generate new platforms for social cohesion. It could be a new set of cross-city linkages, a digital commons, or a shared lab for city-scale experimentation in which all of us are the scientists.

Ensuring how our complex cities thrive in an uncertain world is a rather exciting challenge that will likely require a range of solutions. During the Festival of the Future City we will explore both what it means to be a citizen in a complex city, how we navigate that complexity both on a personal and societal scale, and the new technologies that create both new challenges and new opportunities. In some cases, we should avoid unnecessary uncertainty, such as potentially devastating climate change. In others, we should harness the social and economic opportunities it presents. But in all cases, we ourselves must change. A more complex world requires a more resilient citizen or community, one that is empowered to learn, to improvise and to create.

The Environment Movement must centre equity, inclusion and our emotions (mainly love but not only love)

Weekend pondering at 420 ppm CO2 as COP15 starts and COP26 is on the immediate horizon. I’m  not an expert on theory of change, but here are my best guesses at tackling the #Ecological Emergency and the  #ClimateEmergency

1) If we do not centre equity, justice and decolonisation, our zero carbon lifestyle will be just as destructive as this one.

2) We will need to upscale current technologies and develop new ones; but it won’t be enough. Tech bro wannabe saviours need to check their egos.

3) Many of us must change our lifestyles; but we must ask that with empathy. It will be liberating for some and painful for others.

4) I trust communities more than politicians to lead the way. I trust cities more than nations. But we’ll need all of them.

5) I do not think capitalism can get it done. I don’t. But it’s the prevailing ideology now, so I expect those institutions to fucking try. Businesses.  Investors.  Political Enablers.  Media Enablers.  Educational Enablers.  If you are not ready to throw out the system, then you have the primary obligation to ensure the system does not kill us, does not destroy the environment, does not perpetuate racism.  We’re all locked into the system – for now – but we do not have to be complicit.

6) Even if you’re not protesting, thank those who do. The changes needed are too bold, too big to achieve without determined activism.

[I think there is much to unpack here with the word protest. But I would like to make one based on the theme of this entire list. There is no single solution. Similarly, there is no single form of appropriate protest. All protests have happened across a spectrum of disruption. Arguably, the most disruptive protests force the establishment to engage with the more polite ones. I do not know. But I think if our premise is there is a right and a wrong form of protest we do not understand how a movement collectively affects change. This is especially relevant given global efforts to criminalise and control protest, which is why we wrote this: theguardian.com/environment/20]

7) This challenge is so pervasive that everyone can contribute by doing what they love – science, art, journalism, politics, music, finance.

8) Love will be the most important driver. But we’ll often need to embrace the power of our anger and sorrow.

9) We’ve all got something to offer. Conversely, no one person or one idea will be the saviour. Set aside ego and embrace community and inclusivity.

An even 10: We cannot stop environmental destruction without a love for humanity. We are as much of nature as ants, trees, lichen & bacteria. Our lifestyles cause harm, but we’ve also created beauty and discovered wonder. All of us and all yet to be born are worthy of saving.

Image
Wildflower Meadow on the campus of the University of Bristol, specifically designed to support pollinator biodiversity. Beauty is everywhere, if we choose to see it, if we choose to nurture it.

 

A message from a working class academic

Still a working draft, but thought I’d share anyway:

Friends, I think it is long past time for those of us from working class backgrounds but have been lucky enough to find success to start sharing our stories.

All of us have witnessed tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, with the poor always being most impacted. We know that most if not all of these tragedies could have been prevented.  And we know that prior to these tragedies, the concerns of the poor were ignored or mocked. From the lead-contaminated drinking water of Flint to the Grenfell fire to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, poor suffer our society’s greatest tragedies not just because they have fewer resources to escape these conditions but because society has systematically ignored their concerns and actively failed them.

These examples are the norm not the exception, and in one form or another they impact every single person living in poverty – or trying to escape from it.

Those who have not experienced poverty do not understand the numerous ways in society holds back the poor.  How our systems exacerbate rather than ameliorate this inequality.  How talent and beauty thrives amongst all parts of society but is only uplifted for some, is marginalised for others and for many is ultimately snuffed out.

And when the poor go onto success in academia, industry, the media or politics we too often hide it.  Or we are held up as examples that ‘the system works.’

So I am going to share some of my own experiences with you.

I grew up on a farm and we were poor. We had third-hand clothes, second-hand cars and periods without hot water. To make ends meet, my dad also had a part-time job and my mom had a full time job. But – and this is so very very important – we had it better than most people living in poverty. On a farm, you have food. And long-term housing. We had some relatives who were better off financially and that helped (My Aunt Barb and Uncle Roy got my brother and me wonderful and essential winter coats one year…)

Also: I’m white.  And a male.  And straight. And grew up in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

In other words, these examples only scratch the surface of the challenges faced by many in poverty.  I had it relatively easy, had a lot of luck, a huge amount of support – and I barely made it.  And this is what I learned on the way.

 

Poor lives are expendable

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America.  While I was growing up, I knew an Amish kid who suffocated in a silo.  A family friend lost his hand.  The father of a friend lost his arm.  One of my brother’s friends died when his arms were torn out, caught in a silage shredder.

And once.

My mom’s hair was caught in the tractor’s power take off shaft.  She was working alone.  In a field.  A mile from home.  It pulled out all of her hair and separated her scalp from her skull.  It was a miracle she survived. I remember coming home from School and finding her alone in bed, the lights off, the window shades drawn… a bag of her hair on the dresser.  I made sure she was okay. And then I went to do my homework.

Small family farming is not a great career from which to draw examples of worker’s rights – on a small farm, you are CEO, foreman and labourer.  (But industrial farming certainly is – it is profoundly exploitative and hides behind the family farm myth to justify it.) But it illustrates that when you are poor, you live on a more dangerous edge.  You compromise on safety because if you don’t, you cannot pay your mortgage.

So when wealthy landlords or employers or city councils or politicians cut corners, exploit their workers, ignore contaminated water, or burn up health and safety regulations, I see people who put profit above lives.

Of course, they can only get away so much.  They can only get away with putting profit above some lives. Over poor lives, nomadic lives, black lives.  But trust me my privileged friends, they’d do the same to all of us if they could.

 

Health Care

Health care in the United States is a disgrace. But the government does have schemes to help farmers purchase health insurance, a small sacrifice to ‘big government’ in order to feed your population.  My Dad also had Veterans Insurance due to his service in the Army. And that health care was essential for my family to survive those numerous accidents.

That health insurance, however, is associated with large deductibles, large bills, often thousands of dollars, that you have to pay before the health insurance kicks in.  And this means you do not go to the doctor when you are in pain or have a lump.  Of course, you also do not go to the doctor because you cannot get off work or you have to work two jobs or you have to milk the cows. So you wait –  often until it is too late.

My dad waited when he had a sharp abdominal pain.  The family debates the history of that, my dad suggesting he went to the doctor after 2-3 weeks and my mom suggesting it was months.  Regardless, he waited.

He had gall stones.  Or rather his gall bladder had been nearly completely replaced by a single massive gall stone.  And infection had set in.  The doctors said that if he waited another day or so, it would have likely become gangrenous and infected the liver.

Poor people do not go to the doctor until it us sometimes too late. And afterwards live under a cloud of bills, anxiety and harassment.

 

Dental Health

The consequences of poverty on dental health is scandalous.

I had a few cavities as a kid.  Not too many – Mom taught me good habits.  But I had a few and that costs money and there was no health insurance for that.

One day, I was dropped off at the new dentist’s office after school.  I had an appointment at 3:30 to get a filling.  I sat in the office for hours. Patients arrived and left.  I was vaguely aware that the dentist was looking at me, there was a phone call, there seemed to be some tension.  Eventually my dad showed up, told me to come with him and we left.

We had not paid our bills.  We couldn’t afford it. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for my father, the embarrassment and rage, to have to go in there, pick me up, knowing that I would not get the treatment I needed.  At the same time, I knew that the dentist was a young woman, probably just out of school, trying to start a practice. She couldn’t afford to take on patients who could not pay their bills, and I cannot imagine how it felt to her to send away a 12-year old farm kid.  I’ve never felt more powerless and angry.

I never saw her again.  We went back to our older dentist, further away, but more established, more able to be flexible in billing.

I am now very well off financially, but some legacies never go away. My teeth are crooked. I lost a filling.  That led to an infection. Then a root canal. And then a deep extraction and implant. I get headaches most days, where the implant aggravates my sinus.  My second root canal failed, leaving a gap.

My parents lost most of their teeth.

 

Time

Poverty is not just economic, it is time.

One of the few times I saw my mom really angry was when she was called out for not contributing to the school bake sales. My mom, who was working in purchasing at a local factory all day, doing farm chores each night and on the weekend, and cooking, cleaning, doing everything else to keep the house functional did not have the time to bake fucking cookies for your fucking bake sale.

Fuck you for asking that and fuck you for shaming my mother.

Poor people are smart, creative, wise and beautiful.  But we do not have time for your shit. We do not have time for *your agenda*.  When you ask us to contribute, try to engage us, even try to help us, know what you are asking.  We don’t have time for your town halls, your focus groups, baking brownies.

This is also why poor people eat pre-prepared meals. It is why my mom had a crock pot, so she could start something cooking and leave it.  It is why we had mushy vegetables – she would bring them to a boil, turn the temperature to a simmer and then go out to do the evening chores.

Our time is precious and it is ours.

Remember that when you are engaging marginalised communities.

 

Fear

You can’t fuck up when you are poor.

I saw friends sucked into alcoholism and drug abuse (and this was before the current opioid crisis ravaging rural America).  More often, I saw friends, cousins, friends of cousins getting pregnant or knocking a girl up.

When you are poor, an unplanned pregnancy means that your hopes and dreams are fucked.

There are exceptions – lots of exceptions.  But in my world, when you got pregnant, that was it.  You tried to finish High School and got a part time job and that was the end of your dreams of college, sports or a band.

Everyone knows you live at the margins.  Don’t get knocked up.  Don’t get in trouble with the law.  Don’t take drugs. Everyone deals with it differently – some steer into the risk, some live large, burn out, burn bright.

I… I lived… I cannot really describe it.  It was a long time ago. Saying I lived in fear is over-stating it. But I just continuously – continuously – tried to avoid any possible mistake that could ruin my life. I was terrified of getting a girl pregnant.  I did not have sex until I was 20.  I followed all the rules.  I did argue – with everyone, all of the time – I’m rather proud of the fact that my desire to walk the straight and narrow did not stifle my activism or values. But I never took risks and I never broke the rules.

[As an aside, I did fuck up once.  And…. it was not the end of the world.  The point is not so much about the consequences but the fear.]

I guess what I am saying here is that when you are poor, you live in fear of fucking up.

Rich people fuck up all the time.

 

Education.

My parents did not go to college but they recognised early on that I was rather smart and studious.  And so they pushed me; Mom pushed me so hard, endlessly.  And then, when those good grades in year 1 stopped being a success story and started becoming the norm, they either got out of my way and let me excel or stepped in to support me.  Farm kids have to do LOTS of chores.  My brother and I had rather modest chores – my parents wanted us to prioritise our homework.  My dad drove me to debate tournaments on Saturday mornings, after milking the cows, before other chores and sometimes through ridiculous Northern Ohio blizzards.

So when I was thirteen and two of my friends persuaded me to apply for an elite private school in the area, my parents supported me.  The school was all about excellence.  They claimed that they were value-driven. They wanted to support the community and the best and brightest.

I had higher standardised test scores than my friends.  I had higher grades.  They went to the school and I did not.  I was admitted.  But when it came to the fees, their values disappeared. No grants.  No loans.  No advice on where one might get loans. They led my parents and me, naively perhaps, down a path suggesting that they would be supportive.  I suspect they never thought some poor kid could get the grades to get in.

Not going there was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  Fuck them.

Fortunately, four years later, I discovered that Universities, despite extortionate tuition fees in the United States, do their best to match financial support to need.  Every university I applied to provided an impressive variety of support.  I attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and they did right by me.

But:

College still cost my parents $3000 a year.  And when my brother also went to college, they had to sell the farm.

And I had to work part-time for my final three years.

And I still finished with $10,000 in loans.

And to get those scholarships, I had to have a 4.0 GPA in High School and the highest SAT scores in its history. (Not bragging; I am test savvy.)

So fuck ‘social mobility,’ where we claim to have an equal society just because a very few lucky, smart, hard-working kids can escape structural poverty, inequity and racism. If a society genuinely wants to excel, to thrive, to innovate, it invests in all forms of education at all levels for everyone.

 

Life Choices

I love the American liberal arts university system.  I went to CWRU to study Physics, aspiring to be an astrophysicist, but also loved politics.  Eventually, I decided to major in Geology, fulfilling my passion for science, but intending to go to Law School afterwards and become an environmental lawyer.

But law school costs money.  And PhD students get paid.  Not a lot – but a lot by my standards.

I do not regret my choice to do a PhD in geology.  I do resent the fact that it was not fully my choice.

At 22, after years of success after success after success. After years of hard work and sacrifice, after excelling in High School and University, after being Presidents of clubs and societies, after continuously working part-time jobs.  After doing everything right, it was not my choice.

 

Poor people do not like cops

Yes, even poor white people. Which is why it is so infuriating that some poor white people seem to “love the blue” when it is Black people protesting their murder by police.

As a teenager, my brother once got busted for blowing up mailboxes. It was a stupid thing to do – the kind of stupid thing that kids do in the boring midwest. But what was really stupid is that he did it in the posh township instead of our own. Cops do not like poor people coming into their towns and causing trouble.  So they did him for everything they could, including charging him with corrupting minors since he had turned 18 a few days before and all of his Senior classmates had not.

I have been pulled over for ‘looking like I was in a hurry.’ Our town set up speed traps to catch late-night commuters, factory workers driving to the night shift. My mom told me to hide my long hair in a hat.

During my Sophomore year at Uni, I got a job. So I needed to use the beat up and old family car that summer.  It was okay; my college did not care and it was in a pretty working class area. However, to drive home, I had to drive through the wealthy Cleveland suburbs.  And the cops always shadowed me in and out of them.  One time, they pulled me over and gave me a ticket for every. single. thing. they. could.  It was $500, more than I made the previous two weeks.  If my professors had not been supporting me with some part-time work, I would have had to drop out of college.

Lots of police are nice.  But the police as an institution exists to keep Black people and Latin people and poor people in their place. It always has. It exists to protect capital.  Police do not harass people because of irrational fears about the threats posed to the safety of those posh communities. That might be part of it. But mainly, they harass Black people and the homeless and those driving rusty cars to protect property values.

They are wealth protectors and they never let you forget it. And some of them will kill Black people because of it.

 

Poor people do not trust you. We especially do not trust the government.

And we have reasons for that. We’ve been let down and betrayed. We have been demeaned.

And until the well meaning left understands that, the far right will weaponise those experiences against the same poor people who need government support.

 

A lot of working class academics are alone

When I first posted this blog, a lot of us talked about this privately.  We talked about our disconnection with the academic world but also the world we have left behind.  We all know that academia makes us move about geographically.  It also causes us to move about culturally and politically.  And emotionally.  And that is not all bad but on some days it hurts more than you can imagine.  And I’m not ready to say any more about this yet.

 

So what do I think we should take from these stories?

First and foremost, I must again caveat this blog with the fact that I had it pretty good. There are so many people, even in my own High School, let alone in poorer parts of the country or from marginalised minorities, who had it and still have it much harder.

And I sure as hell am not looking for pity. I’m doing really well. And once you overcome the barriers that society puts in front of you, your working class upbringing makes you strong.  When my mom had her hair ripped from her scalp, she managed to climb back onto the tractor, drive it home and call the doctor herself. If I have one-tenth of that strength, then I am fine.

And of course, poor white people can get rich. Poor Black people can get rich but will always be black in a structurally racist society. Read up on intersectionality, y’all.

Second: Don’t you dare cast this as a narrative ‘that with a bit of pluck and hard work’ anyone can make it.  Fuck that.  I did not work my ass off because I am such a noble worker; I did it and my family did it to survive.

No, the real point of these stories is that I got lucky.  I am smart.  I am good at my job, have authored or co-authored hundreds of papers and taught thousands of students.  Science is better for having me participating in it.  I was the Director of a world-leading environmentally-facing research institute and am now the Head of one of the top Earth Science departments in the world. And the only reason any of that happened is that I got lucky again and again and again.

I got lucky being born white and male, and have benefited from that my entire career. I was adopted by parents who were supportive of my ambitions.  We might have been poor but we had food and shelter and stability. I happened to go to one of the top public schools in Ohio, by dumb luck of geography, and happened to have some of the most amazing teachers. I got lucky during my PhD and Postdoc, who I worked with (amazing supervisors, mentors, colleagues and friends), the lab equipment we had, the discoveries we stumbled on, the grant that barely got funded.

We pretend to live and work in a meritocracy, where everyone has a chance and excellence and hard work is rewarded. We especially believe that myth in academia. And I think we do so because we do work hard but also because we need that story to justify the sacrifices we all make.  But we do not work in a meritocracy. Some people are born into wealth and some into poverty.

And the success of a few poor kids does not change the truth of that injustice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building Interdisciplinarity

From an article for GW4 on Innovative approaches in SW England. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute is an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together researchers from across the arts and humanities, sciences and technologies to address global environmental challenges. We hear from its Director, Professor Richard Pancost, on the lessons he has learned from leading the institute, from the importance of building trust between academics, to the value of managing expectations and eschewing ‘checklist targets’.

 

Nine years ago, many of us at the University of Bristol set out to create a new kind of research institute, one that would draw together multiple disciplines to tackle society’s grand environmental challenges. It was supported from the ‘top’ of the University, with an ambition to foster cross-disciplinary research; but it was led from the ‘bottom’, by those already leading diverse themes while also recognising that something larger, bolder and more creative was necessary. Those conversations led to the launch of the Cabot Institute in 2010, the University of Bristol’s first (of four) University Research Institutes (URIs), of which I have been the Director since 2013.

At the time, both interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were popular but contentious concepts.  Many organisations were pursuing them but perhaps without a robust intellectual justification or an understanding of their ultimate purpose.  This was particularly challenging because classical but constrained concepts of interdisciplinarity were being challenged as insufficiently ambitious. No longer was a collaboration between a chemist and physicist worthy of special recognition; the new and challenging aspiration was to join scientists, social scientists, engineers and cultural scholars.

At the same time, interdisciplinary research was being critiqued as too frequently treated as an end in and of itself by individuals, funders and organisations.  Instead, interdisciplinary methods, like any other, should be deployed only when they are appropriate to the challenge or question.  And when done so, they have great power, drawing together the different disciplines required to tackle grand challenges and co-producing energising new ideas. This was the rationale of Cabot – we could not tackle challenges like climate change within a single discipline or within academia alone; nor could we tackle climate change as an isolated challenge given its connection to social justice, energy policy and food production. This challenge-led motivation for interdisciplinarity – and more fundamentally the co-production of knowledge – is the inspiring force behind Cabot.

However, there is some risk that we have swung the pendulum too far towards the ‘problem-solving’ rationale for interdisciplinary research.  Just as applied research best thrives in an ecosystem that includes fundamental research, so do interdisciplinary endeavours.  The joy of such research and the benefit it brings is not simply new solutions but new ideas, new ways of thinking, even new disciplines. Many of these new ideas arise from the friction of interdisciplinary research and many arise from the new processes created to facilitate it. The intersection and clash of perspectives and different forms of knowing creates an environment in which new ideas can germinate and thrive. It does not always lead to new proposals, papers or solutions; instead, sometimes it infects its participants with new perspectives on their own research and new ways of interrogating old problems.

For example, Cabot now has extensive scholarship associated with the cultural understanding of natural hazards; some of that will help us mitigate risk but much of it more fundamentally helps us understand the human condition and how we conceptualise our relationship with nature. My own research on past climate has thrived within Cabot not because of how it has informed better climate model predictions but because it has allowed me to reframe conversations around uncertainty, decision and anticipation. This in turn has created new avenues for engaging with policy makers and our community.

Holding those competing intellectual values in tension, the Cabot Institute has experimented, facilitated and catalysed, with both successes and failures, the former often surprising and the latter sometimes predictable in hindsight.  And during that time, we’ve learned a great deal that elaborates on these themes of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Below I describe four values that I have found particularly important.

BRINGING DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES TOGETHER IS INTRINSICALLY ABOUT BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER

Of Cabot’s many objectives, the first and most essential is to build new communities of scholars, within and beyond the University. These comprise both interdisciplinary efforts that genuinely sit in new intellectual spaces and multidisciplinary ones that represent a mosaic of classical disciplines. This ethos imposes a range of secondary considerations. The inter- and multidisciplinary thrives best when the disciplinary thrives as well; some of our greatest successes have emerged from strong disciplines coming together as multidisciplinary efforts that then give rise to a new interdisciplinary way of thinking.

Community building also requires a diverse form of support activity.  We can bring groups together to discuss a particular challenge, but we also need to bring people together in more creative and less prescribed frameworks.  The Cabot team needs to have 1-2-1s with our community, so that we are sufficiently informed to be match-makers.  And we all need funding to nurture these ideas, allowing them to thrive to sufficient maturity to attract external funding.

Moreover, a truly intellectually diverse multi-disciplinary environment is one that it is not limited to academics. Cabot has thrived via strong partnerships across the city, UK and world, supported by the traditional mechanisms (a brilliant External Advisory Board chaired by Chris Curling, then Sir John Beddington and currently Dame Julia Slingo; secondments into the Government Office of Science; partnerships with Rothamsted Research and the Met Office) but also creative collaborations that have created the space for our esteemed University to be more humble and learn from the brilliant civil society organisations and incredible individuals in Bristol.

Of course, we have also been opportunistic, using Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital to host events and support others, prominently putting our ethos of equal and collaborative partnership on display.  This has led to participation in the Festival of the Future City, co-sponsorship of the Coleridge Lectures, partnership in inspiring Arts Projects,  the Green and Black Ambassadors, and support for our City on the world stage at COP21 – all as equal partners, respecting and valuing the diversity of perspectives and wisdom in our city.

When we have drifted from those values is when we have failed. One of our initiatives was to create a ‘Corporate Club’, VENTURE, in which corporate partners, via a subscription, would fund staff, who in turn would help build collaborations and develop research projects. It was a legitimate effort towards co-production, based on shared resourcing. However, trying to procure funding from our partners undermined the message of collaboration, partnership and support.  Would we not provide the same service to those who did not join?  Would we not support those organisations with fewer resources?  Of course we would. Partnership was not just a way of working but a Cabot value. VENTURE could work for other organisations, but for Cabot it revealed itself to be inconsistent with our core mission. It is to the credit of our partners that this dialogue, through shared learning and deeper respect, led to stronger relationships – even if VENTURE failed.

THE VALUE (OR NOT) OF HAVING A RESEARCH THEME

The Cabot community has resisted calls to be the Institute of the ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘risk’ or all of the above. As soon as one of those words is imposed, it would begin to define and constrain our purpose. And Cabot was created to disrupt silos not to create a new one. We would not have been able to engage in a rich dialogue with our city around social justice, co-create the Green and Black Ambassadors, support smart city initiatives, sponsor the International Conference on Anticipation, or explore the challenge of food security if we had an overly constrained remit.  Associated with this, we view our membership and partnership as permeable, with nearly 1000 academics and other colleagues engaging with us over the years, more or less, off and on, depending on the opportunities, challenges and potential for creativity.

On the other hand, it is essential to have some broad thematic focus.  There is already an entity that should support all multi- and interdisciplinary research – it is called the 21st century University.  Therefore, Cabot’s value arises from having a loose thematic remit that provides some guidance of what colleagues and partners can expect us to offer, who they might meet at a Cabot event, what we might be prepared to profile.  Moreover, having some common themes, such as low carbon energy, food security and environmental change, allows us to build added value, partnerships and communities as our projects accumulate and diversify. Of course, we can never fully anticipate where such dynamic and creative conversations might take us – and that is part of the fun!

EMBEDDING COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY IN INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH  

One of the great pleasures of Cabot has been not only drawing in new ideas from our academics and partners but also our professional services. Breaking down silos is not limited to the silos that exist between Schools or disciplines: we all live in a world of structural and administrative silos. And building bridges between them reveals great pools of experience and knowledge. Our estates team is a world leader in sustainability and has fostered new discussions around everything from district heating and sustainable procurement to the carbon footprint of our research. Collaboration with our Press Office led to the creation of the Press Gang, in which we train postgraduate students keen on developing their communication skills and connect them to partners; in return they help us produce blogs and press releases.  A partnership with our Centre for Public Engagement led to the Engaged MSc Research projects, which connect postgraduate researchers with external organisations who have a wealth of ideas but limited resource.

Crucially, this fosters not just the creation of new research directions but new ways of working, new ways to support and enable the academic community, and new learning experiences. We have brought in external provocateurs, run sandpits, workshops, mingles, and all the activities one might expect.  But we have also fostered conversation through curated peer-to-peer learning.  We have worked with artists – who have served as collaborators, facilitators and enablers. We have connected UGs to academics, PGRs to community organisations, citizens to councillors, academics to MPs. We have run conferences and curated discussions on behalf of city partners.  And all of that has been fostered by an ethos of partnership and learning, and fuelled by permission – or perhaps more accurately, a mandate – to try new things.

METRICS: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

Cabot’s budget is small but powerful given that our mission is not to deliver but to be catalytic. But more important is the conditionality of that funding. We are not assessed against a checklist of targets or how much of a specific activity we deliver – how many workshops we have organised or events we have hosted. Instead, we are assessed against a more challenging but vital target – how we have added something new to our research or teaching portfolio. This permissiveness is the foundation for experimentation and creativity.  It is the foundation of collaboration rather than competition. And therefore, it creates the environment in which new ideas can thrive. These new ways of working might or might not solve climate change or any other grand challenge; however, a diversity of new ideas inspired by a diversity of perspectives, whether from Bristol, GW4 partners or others, likely will.  As such, Cabot’s ambitions transcends our initial ambition to facilitate problem-driven interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research; we aspire to create an environment where we challenge one another to think, learn and conduct research in exciting new ways.

These perspectives do not represent the only approach – and certainly not the only rationale.  My comments have arisen from the many who are part of the Cabot community. And not all of them would agree with what I’ve written or omitted. For example, I see no need for a physical space and in fact view it as a threat to creativity and adaptability; others would have good reasons to disagree. As such, these observations are not meant to be lessons but rather provocations; and as such, I hope they help catalyse the conversations of others pursuing similar initiatives – even if they make different choices.

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Prepared by the School of Earth Sciences Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (NOTE: This version has not been finalised. Consultation with the wider School and Faculty EDI Committee will be done before this is finalised).

Summary

This document was prepared at the request of staff and students to provide resources to help them build a more racially diverse, equitable and inclusive School. As such, it comprises three sections: an introduction; a list of Actions that individuals can take, including references and resources; and a summary of the University and School Action Plan, showing what actions the School is taking. The first two pages are a summary of the more exhaustive information provided on pages 3-11.

Introduction: We all have a role but our roles will differ.  We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment. But we recognise that those of us in formal and informal leadership roles have different capacity to create positive change.  The introduction also summarises the key resources we drew upon to create the Action List, including a University racial equality ppt presentation: file:///C:/Users/cordp/Downloads/NV%20U.Bristol%20Nov%202019.pdf

Summary: Twelve Actions that Each of Us Can Take:

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting our presence in a racist society. Useful resources include White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society.  And discipline specific resources include the following Nature Geoscience articles: No Progress on Diversity in 40 years and Race and Racism in the Geosciences

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  Some recommended books include:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and academia. In doing so, we also recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we must not create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can invite them to our seminars, advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes and nominate them for awards.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation: when a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for debate and a time for empathy, understanding and support.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will make mistakes, mispronouncing someone’s name or making inappropriate assumptions about culture. We must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve. Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. If we have created the environment that we want in our School, marginalised colleagues will feel safe in calling us out on those. When that happens we aspire to be reflective rather than defensive; thoughtful rather than dismissive or argumentative.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it. Crucially, in the competitive and challenging environment of academia, acknowledging privilege can feel like it detracts from our achievements. It does not. But it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in the Common Room, on social media, in seminars. Be a good ally https://guidetoallyship.com/; be an active bystander https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/; be an advocate for change in our discipline.

11) Do something. Anything. Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  Start a journal club; focus your outreach on marginalised schools; suggest more speakers for our seminar series.

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time. Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.

University and School Actions: Although this document focuses on the actions we can all take, we recognise that it is ultimately the legal and ethical responsibility of the institution to ensure that our School is a diverse and equitable place to learn and work.  We have included a partial list of the actions the University and School are taking in the second part of this document but summaries of these can be found on the University and School EDI websites.

 

 

 

We All Have A Role but Our Roles Will Differ

We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment.

However, our legal responsibilities, influence and visibility will vary, such that our potential – and tools – for affecting change will also vary. Those of us with formal roles, such as the EDI Director, Head of School or Institutional Representatives, have the capacity to advocate for structural change in laws, systems and policies that promote or reinforce inequalities in the University. All of us who serve in formal roles in the School have obligations to embed EDI principles into our delivery of those roles. Colleagues involved with UK or international geoscience organisations or members of esteemed societies will have power to influence these institutions to take a more active role, thereby strengthening our discipline.  Some of us do not have formal roles, but still have leadership obligations arising in informal ways, including from our profile and visibility in the School or our discipline.  All of us can lead by example, amongst our peers and friends, in the School and in wider society.

Crucially, all of us have the capacity to improve our School for racially marginalised groups, to help create a more equitable working and learning environment and ultimately a more diverse community.

This document collates principles and advice to help us, adapted from a number of resources, including the following:

For those keen to further explore the topic beyond the geosciences and STEM links below, a compilation of UoB academic research on racism and anti-racism is available on the Univeristy EDI webpage. The BAME Staff Network have produced a statement in relation to Black Lives Matter which has more information and resources for staff.

Notes:  This document was completed during the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter.  Many of the resources below, however, are broader.  Some focus specifically on the experience of black people; others on broader groups of racially, ethnically and religiously marginalised groups.  They draw on international resources, referring therefore to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), VME (Visible Minority Ethnic), POC and WOC (People of Colour and Women of Colour) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). These terms are more or less appropriate in different contexts, but it is critical to note that each of them conflates a great variety of marginalised groups, each with disparate histories, experiences and forms of marginalisation.  As such, we recognise the limitations of their use.  Further commentary on the sometimes problematic conflation of different marginalised groups is in this essay by a colleague in the School of Law: https://folukeafrica.com/the-only-acceptable-part-of-bame-is-the-and/

Actions That Each of Us Can Take

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting your presence in a racist society. A powerful book on this topic is: White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, written by Kalwant Bhopal and published by Bristol Policy Press – https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/white-privilege

It is not enough to have a superficial understanding, our motivation fuelled solely by events deemed newsworthy or that provoke outrage.  The violence by police against black people or the shockingly higher Covid-19 fatality rates among some BAME populations are terrible and therefore catalysts to act. But a focus on only those can obscure the fact that they are only the most shocking and appalling examples of racism in our society, much of it invisible to those with privilege.

The racism and marginalisation that permeates society includes the Earth Sciences and academia.  Not a single permanent member of academic staff in our School is Black or Minority Ethnic, a pervasive issue in the Earth Sciences discipline:

No Progress on Diversity in 40 years https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0116-6?proof=trueMay

Race and Racism in the Geosciences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?proof=trueMay

Those both explore the issue using USA data and perspectives. The situation is no better in the UK or Europe, but comparable studies cannot be done because the data have not been rigorously collected and the data we do have has not been made public.  More recent UK trends were explored in a Leading Routes study which revealed that from 2017 to 2019, of 19,868 PhD funded studentships awarded by UKRI research councils collectively, only 245 were awarded to Black or Black Mixed students, with just 30 of those being from Black Caribbean backgrounds.  https://leadingroutes.org/mdocs-posts/the-broken-pipeline-barriers-to-black-students-accessing-research-council-funding

Some of us have asked NERC if we can explore this further, via discipline centric data, and we cannot.  There are so few NERC-funded Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students that they cannot disclose numbers without violating privacy data. However, HESA data reveal that only 10% of geology undergrads are from a BAME background and just 2% of geology undergrads are Black. There are no published data, but these numbers will drop at PhD, postdoc, and faculty level; an unofficial survey by Tanvir Hussain reveals that of current PhD students (June 2020), only 1% of NERC students are BAME and 0% of STFC students. There are two Black geology professor in the UK.

We must accept that this is a problem – not just in society but academia, in science, in the geosciences, in our School. We must accept that it is in part a consequence of our own action and inaction, that we have not sufficiently appealed to diverse society to join our discipline nor created an environment that welcomes those who do. We must accept our responsibility to act. Finally, to our BAME students and colleagues we commit to changing this in our own School and our discipline through advocacy and via our privileged roles in, i.e. NERC, the Royal Society, GSL and other organisations.

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  This is a great reading list provided by Leanne Melbourne:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. This is a really detailed discussion on white privilege and structural racism. It is also available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Akala- Natives – Akala uses his experiences to discuss the structural systems in place today

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science – This is an excellent book which talks about how science has been used to fuel racist motives.  (Saini also wrote the excellent Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story).

Adam Rutherford – How to Argue With A Racist – A similar topic to Angela Saini’s but not as detailed.

David Olusoga – Black and British: A Forgotten History – This book is a large one but covers a lot of black history in Britain (and by someone with a strong connection to Bristol)

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene – Slay in Your Lane (The Black Girl Bible) – This book gives an excellent insight into what it is like to be a Black woman in the UK

Candice Braithwaite – I Am Not Your Baby Mother – Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth die as a result of complications in pregnancy than white women in the UK. Candice’s book discusses this and also more about being a black mother in the UK.

Colin Grant – Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation – Different stories from the Windrush generation told in their own voices

There also many excellent documentaries.  They will not offer the forensic examination and critical advice that the books above do but they do help understand the black experience, both historical and contemporary: https://www.standard.co.uk/stayingin/tvfilm/netflix-uk-movies-shows-documentaries-racism-a4459721.html?amp

Our colleague Foluke Ifejola Adebisi in the School of Law has written this powerful summary of the history of slavery in the city of Bristol and how it is embedded in the financing of our University and still expressed in the names of our buildings and our logo: https://folukeafrica.com/decolonising-the-university-of-bristol/

Beyond the inequities in academia and society, the Earth Sciences has its own problematic history. An extensive reading list on the colonial history of geology can be found here: http://mineralogy.digital.brynmawr.edu/blog/geology-colonialism-reading-list/

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and our own systems, the extra trauma experienced by marginalised groups and the extra labour they will have had to invest to achieve what they have. In doing so, we recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

Institutionally, this means we take care in how we ask community partners to help diversify our institution, i.e. for our recruitment and outreach projects.  At a School level, we must take care in who we ask to serve on committees. And at an individual level, we must take care in asking friends or colleagues to explain racism.

This is not a simple rule. As an institution, we do seek guidance from community partners, but then we must compensate them. As a School, we can ask marginalised groups to serve on EDI committees but only if we ensure that service is truly recognised and rewarded to the same degree as other contributions, within the School and the University.  As an individual, maybe our friends want us to ask, to talk to us and share experience, but we must not expect them to do so and we must respect one another if we are instead requested to reflect, do our own research or read a book instead.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we do not want to create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can:

Invite colleagues from marginalised groups to present in our school seminars or at conferences.

Advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes.

Nominate them for fellowships and awards.

Celebrate them and showcase them on social media.

In doing so, respect them for who they want to be.  Please do not ask Black scientists to speak in Conference diversity sessions but not in scientific ones.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. We are a community and we are committed to diversity in every respect.  We are committed to every single one of you.

But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation and sharing experiences requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation. When a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”  These conversations are challenging, but you can be guided by:

Reading the room: What is the nature of the conversation, what is its context? If we are discussing School policy, then of course we discuss all dimensions of marginalisation.  But if we are discussing a specific issue – sexual harassment in the field, the murder of black people by police, or the harassment of our overseas students – then our focus must remain on that issue. Conflating other issues can dilute the cause and the conversation, undermine the quest for solutions, and undermine the voices of the victims.

Not centring yourself: There are moments where we might wish to share our own experiences as an act of solidarity. It is perfectly natural to do so, to make a connection and build empathy and understanding. But do so with care and consideration. Question your rationale – is it compassion and reinforcement of your colleague’s concerns or is it deflection? If you do so, ensure that any such sharing is quickly followed by a return to the concerns that started the conversation in the first place, to those who have experienced the trauma. Do not allow the conversation to become recentred on yourself.

Recognising intersectionality: The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw  as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. Since then, the term has expanded to include the intersection of any minoritized characteristics (although that wider definition is contested, with many arguing it should only be used as originally intended). Truly understanding this concept – on a deep personal level – is essential to balancing our own personal experiences of repression with our privilege. Many of us come from a poor working-class backgrounds, but we retain privilege from our white identity; we have had setbacks and faced unfair obstacles, but we have also been afforded privileges that our black colleagues have not.

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for that.  There is a time to discuss and debate government policy over Prevent, Windrush, Grenfell, austerity or military interventions.  But consider the origin and context of such conversations and especially if they have been initiated by a colleague’s pain, arising from their concerns as a person impacted by those policies.  If someone is concerned that Prevent targets them or their family, that is a moment for solidarity and understanding not a debate about government policy.

Or course, this applies to a huge range of issues beyond just policy, including forms of activism, appropriate climate action, sports, current events, the jobs we will seek after graduation and even how we conduct science.  There is a time for scholarly debate and a time for empathy.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will misread the above situations.  I have, time and time again.  We mismanage or misread the situations articulated above. We mispronounce someone’s name and then try to laugh it off.  We make assumptions about culture that are inappropriate. We laugh at racist jokes and can be poor allies. But we must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve.

Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.  We must engage, accept the discomfort that comes from not knowing, accept that we will make mistakes, learn from them, apologise, and improve.

One might argue that these attributes are also those that we aspire to as scientists; there is little excuse to not embrace them in an EDI context.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. When we engage with these issues, we will make mistakes.  But if we have created the environment that we want in our School and our society, marginalised people will feel safe in calling us out on those.

Reflect when that happens. Do not deflect, make excuses or become defensive. Take a moment to think about it.  In academic environments, we are quick to argue. Instead, become quick to listen.

This tendency to defensiveness is also socially embedded. “Socialised into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in or conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world as a challenge to our identities as good, moral people. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white often triggers a range of defensive responses. This includes emotions such as anger, fear and guilt…These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium…I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo from White Fragility 2018.

Further Reading on this includes:

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race by Robin DiAngelo

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

A counterpoint to defensiveness is empathy for the experience to those challenging inappropriate behaviour. It is difficult to speak up to a friend or mentor when something they have said is inappropriate.  No one wants to be uncool and take offense at a joke. No one wants to start another argument.  No one wants to see their concerns dismissed again. Therefore, often when someone calls you out it is an act of friendship and trust. They are doing so because they trust you, they think you will listen, they care about you.  It takes little effort to just listen, to ask more questions, to ask for some time to reflect on what they have said.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it.  The term white privilege has a long history can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century; it came into contemporary fashion following a 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf  She defines it as: ‘an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day …. An invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques.’

You can find many more contemporary discussions on it, such as this one: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really It helps explain what white privilege is, why it is important to recognise, and crucially it empathises with the reluctance some have with the term: “The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.” The http://www.carryourweight.org/reflect website has resources focused on reflecting on these issues.

Crucially in our hyper-intensive academic environment, understand that your privilege does not take away from what you have achieved. In academia, every single one of us has overcome a huge number of obstacles to achieve what we have. It is hard to be admitted to our School, hard to get a degree, hard to get a PhD, hard to get a job, hard to get grants funded, hard to become a Professor.  And aligned with that, we like to believe that our field is a meritocracy, that we have earned our success.

Academia aspires to be a meritocracy, but it is not one (see Superior and Inferior, above). Our privilege helped us, and our success is partly conditional upon that.

But that does not undermine our achievements.  If we can acknowledge the role played by our parents, or our teachers and our mentors, then we can also acknowledge the role played by our privilege. It takes nothing away from us, but it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in meetings and on social media, in invited talks and award lectures, in conversations both private and in the coffee room. We must all learn to call out problematic statements and learn how to be a good ally; from https://guidetoallyship.com/, to be an ally is:

In more serious situations, be an active bystander. There are excellent online resources:  https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/ and The University has put together an Stand Up Speak Out online training toolkit to guide you through how to be an Upstander.

We can advocate for change in our societies, either through the official roles we have or as visible members of our geosciences community. We can advocate for change in our own School, in our own committee meetings, in our hallways.

Sometimes the most effective course of action is a confidential mail or a private conversation with a colleague in a senior role; sometimes it is by publicly calling out an individual or an organisation for insufficient action.  However, if those of us who are privileged only pursue the former, our allyship and support is invisible to those who need it most. Our actions must – a significant amount of the time – be public and visible. Members of our community from marginalised groups must see the rest of us make a stand and commit to solidarity.

Crucially, in doing so we must resist the temptation to centre ourselves. We use our influence to sometimes protect others from further trauma and sometimes to create a platform on which they can stand. We do not do so for our own reward and we are vigilant against White Saviour complex.

We will make mistakes. But by publicly and vocally advocating for change, we share the labour with marginalised groups. And we create an environment where they feel empowered to raise their own concerns and speak for themselves.

11) Do something. Anything. Get stuck in.  Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  All of the above are starting points. By understanding these issues we can speak more confidently.  By speaking publicly we are implicitly committing ourselves to act.  And by taking small action, we are building the capacity to take stronger ones.

Here is a list of ten further actions you can take to make academia a more inclusive workplace, by Jacquelyn Gill: https://contemplativemammoth.com/2016/01/07/ten-easy-ways-to-support-diversity-in-academia-in-2016/ These can serve as ideas or stimulate your own: Start a journal club or a discussion group; focus your outreach on marginalised schools or wards; suggest more speakers for our seminar series; when you are invited to speak elsewhere, ask how diverse their seminar series is; discuss a statement on behaviour, values or code of conduct for your lab or group (https://ecoevorxiv.org/4a9p8/). Some of these are actions that we are taking as a School but many of these can be taken by individuals or by groups, they can be formal or informal.  And of course your actions can and should include challenging the School and University.

Finally, you may wish to engage with anti-racism issues in wider society. In Bristol, Beyond the Hashtag has been established by Black campaigners; it is full of resources on Bristol’s history – including the activism that has transformed it as well as tools and advice: https://beyondthehashtag.co.uk/resources/

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time.

Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.  Create an action plan or a checklist. Put a note in your diary for six months time to reflect and refresh your actions: you can revisit the outrage that motivated you to speak up today; book a day off to read one of the above books; or simply audit what actions you have taken between now and then.

 

Finally, if you wish to financially support Black Lives Matter projects in the UK, there is a compilation here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/10iIz_pFB8DzPkwddc8dcmJdJ0ZMITfTs7lvs4uyusZk/preview?pru=AAABcpk9kiI*KXe1KQSnVEDy_8YpzJtp8A

It includes various campaigning groups, educational links, petitions and even a sample letter for sending to an MP. The School does not officially endorse it given some links to political parties, but it contains many useful resources. Thanks to Frances Robertson for sharing.

 

 

What Actions Has the University and School of Earth Sciences Taken and Will Take

In early 2020, the University of Bristol published its Institutional Race Equality Statement which sets out the key areas of focus for our evolving race equality strategy, establishing our direction of travel for the coming years.  Central to that have been the following actions:

  • Undertaking our first Ethnicity Pay Gap Reportand taking action to address any inequalities;
  • Establishing a BAME Staff Networkwhere people can share a sense of community and work with us to ensure that our BAME staff have a consistent and positive experience at the University;
  • Participating in the Stepping Upinitiative, a positive action programme aimed at improving the representation of BAME people, as well as other groups, in senior leadership roles within Bristol and the wider region;
  • Launching an apprenticeshiptalent pipeline to drive ethnic diversity while taking into consideration the skills gaps present in underrepresented groups in industry demand areas such as Finance, IT, Human Resources, Engineering and the Creative Industries;
  • Working with schools and colleges and local community groups and leaders to ensure that our recruitment opportunities reach potential staff from diverse backgrounds;
  • Delivering role and application workshops in the local community;
  • Participation in city-wide events – such as St Pauls Carnival and the African Caribbean Expo – while sharing employment opportunities at the University and helping people become more aware of the range of jobs on offer.

University-led initiatives aimed at supporting students include:

  • Launching the online Report and Support service that offers students and staff a quick and easy way to tell us about specific incidents.
  • Funding research internships which provide paid experience in research for new graduates, in order to increase the number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students progressing to postgraduate study.
  • Setting a target to eliminate the BAME awards gap at the University by 2025 and developing a comprehensive action plan to address this, informed by research done by Bristol SU.
  • Beginning the work of decolonising our curricula, led by academic colleagues with expertise in this area. It is only one of two UK Universities in which this is explicitly included in our strategic plan.
  • Working closely with Bristol SU and the student BME Network to understand and improve BAME students experience at the University.
  • Providing staff training in race equality; harassment and hate crime awareness training delivered by SARI; and intercultural awareness training delivered by Kynfolk.

At School level, we endorse all of these. Most of the actions we have taken or will take as part of our 5-year Strategy are included in our Athena Swan Silver document and action plan (soon to be available on the School EDI website). The Athena Swan process and data collection focuses on gender issues; as such, we deem it incomplete with respect to racial diversity. However, our School survey identified BAME diversity as a top priority and our Action Plan specifically addresses that, including:

  • Build an influential EDI Committee and empower the EDI Director. We have a large EDI Committee that is empowered to drive the school’s social and community building agenda. The Director sits on School Board, ensuring a voice comparable to that of our Research and Education Directors. As a result of our survey and action plan, the Committee and Director are mandated by the School to devote specific effort to BAME diversity and equity.
  • Ensure that support for BAME diversity is embedded in our staff recruitment and appointment. Our commitment to diversity is included in all advertisements and all core academic staff appointments require a diversity statement. We are currently expanding this for PDRA recruitment.
  • Require all Staff to complete the University EDI Training module and advocate for its improvement. The UoB-provided training module centres gender issues and is somewhat less developed on wider EDI issues, including those around BAME equity; we have advocated that the University commit to a more comprehensive training approach as part of their commitment to the Bristol Equality Charter and this will be introduced in the autumn.
  • Ensure our School outreach and UG recruitment reaches BAME groups. Our outreach programmes, including the Bristol Dinosaur Project, are increasingly engaging with Schools from Bristol’s most marginalised wards. We are working with UK organisations, civic partners and the University to ensure that the Earth Sciences is promoted in Schools from across the UK where our discipline has traditionally had low visibility. This has resulted in an increase in BAME student admissions over the past two years.
  • Fully fund all travel for undergraduate field courses, so that no one is excluded due to personal financial constraints.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students, regardless of background, to buy field equipment and fully enjoy our field trips.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students to access summer internships. In doing so, we will expand on the Palaeobiology Group’s Bristol Summer Diversity Internship.
  • Diversify our Seminar Series. We currently require a gender balance in suggestions for School Seminar speakers and encourage suggestions of BAME speakers. In the future we will require at least one BAME School Seminar speaker per term.
  • Lobby UKRI to allocate additional funding and create targeted schemes to recruit racially diverse PhD students and Fellows.
  • Support and reward staff who lead on diversity initiatives within the University and geological societies
  • Ensure that our social events are welcome to those from all backgrounds, including all racial, ethnic and religious groups.

This remains an incomplete plan and revising it will be a priority in 2020-2021, with a focus on taking bolder action on outreach, recruitment, curriculum review and diversity training.

The Machine’s Scar on Humanity and the History of Life

We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.

It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change.  But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.

A scar in the history of life

Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment?  The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky.  Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.

But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.

Related image
The End Cretaceous Boundary, from New Zealand (GNS)

It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse.  The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts.  We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.

Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal.  We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives.  And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.

We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm.  The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.

I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope.  Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.

We have failed to prevent extinction and loss.  But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.

But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves

The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.

The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change.  But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency.  It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.

Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  Far more.

This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice.  Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality.  It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest.  And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity.  My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide.  And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.

So we will struggle.  With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.

But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future.  They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it.  But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts.  They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.

I have hope that they will not choose the latter path.  The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms.  And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege.  A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.

And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices.  The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature.  We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.

Bristol Youth Councillors March for Climate Justice in advance of the Paris COP21 negotiations