Acknowledging Your Privilege is an Act of Community

So many failures of leadership and perpetuation of inequity arise from failures to acknowledge privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. Class privilege. Power privilege. This thread is not to explain privilege. It should be self- evident to anyone who observes society with open and unpolluted eyes. It permeates health, work, education, and our homes.  But it is useful to understand why many (not all) who understand and acknowledge inequities in society cannot openly acknowledge their own privilege and its contribution to their success.  It challenges their own self myths. All of us – and I think particularly men – have embraced some version of the heroic journey, the lone warrior, the self-made man. Our entire identity is wrapped up in real and perceived obstacles we have overcome… or held us back.
So I wrote this, drawing on some of my own emotions, to reach out and tell you that there is something better than this isolated narrative disconnected from the good and bad in society. And I hope that this persuades at least some leaders to acknowledge their privilege(s). And from that become more effective decision makers and more powerful advocates for action.


I get asked by a lot of other white men where to start with equity.

I’m not the one to ask.  Ask those who have been marginalised, minoritised and racilialised.  Read their books; follow and learn from their social media posts. If you are close, ask those who are in your life, your family or friendships, but if you do, understand that they are under no obligation to devote their time to your education.

Learn from them not me.

But when I am asked, I tell them what most of my own marginalised colleagues told me – acknowledge and understand your privilege. It might not be the step that brings about immediate positive action or policy change, but it is the process by which you build a foundation of empathy, community and allyship.

Acknowledge your privilege.  White privilege. Class privilege.  Male privilege. Acknowledge it and understand it.  And understand its intersectionality.  I am mainly speaking to other white men, as we have benefitted from the most accumulated privilege, but privilege is not reserved to us.


I understand how hard it is to acknowledge privilege.  I have white, male, cishet privilege.  Those are not easy words to write or to say.  Partially, that is because I feel guilty saying them, but it is  also because it challenges the story I tell about myself. I did not grow up with class privilege. I grew up poor.  My wider family still is very poor.  And I had to fight for everything.  I lived in fear of fucking up my grades, my life, my scholarships; I had part-time jobs to pay for my education; I worked absurd hours through High School and College to get the best test scores and grades to grab the few proffered opportunities for class mobility.  Debt and finances shaped my life choices, and so I worked hard to make the most of every one of those choices; I moved far from home, moved countries twice to advance my career; I compromised – and in some cases sacrificed – relationships.

That is a common story for many of us.  It is a particularly common story in academia when every opportunity is absurdly competitive, becoming moreso at every stage of your career, from University, to PhD, to postodoc to permanent job. I earned it.  You earned it.

And so I understand how acknowledging your privilege feels like giving some of that away.  I understand how hard that is when you have had to fight for everything; fighting for things teaches you not to give them away casually.  I understand that when you are told by society, the elite and your employers to be grateful for the few scraps you have, it becomes hard to concede that any of your achievements were anyone’s but your own.

I understand how hard it is to say that part of your success is due to luck or privilege, to say that it is partially due to a broken society and at the expense of someone else.

It feels like you are undermining the story of your self.  And for some of us, it feels like theft.


But it need not be.

But let’s pause for a moment.  Although this commentary is focused on our feelings and our identity, facts care for neither of those, and white male privilege in western society is a fact. I am tempted to direct you to any one of hundreds of studies explaining the facts of privilege.  The studies of unconscious bias and structural inequities; the clear factual evidence showing the glaring disparity in wages, opportunity, housing, education and health – and the structural racism that created those; the individual, institutional, and societal structural obstacles faced by women, by racialised and minoritised groups, by disabled or LGBT+ people; the consequential lack of diversity in politics and leadership, media, research and education; the evidence for inequities in our own discipline and the lack of progress for decades. But if you are reading this, I suspect you have read those studies (or at least know where to find them). They are true across nations.  They are true in the higher education sector in which I work.  They are true in the discipline I love, the Earth Sciences.  They are true in yours.

And in many cases, they are related to white supremacy – from which, through privilege, many of us have benefited:

“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.” From Black Reconstruction in America, 1935

But convincing the reader that white or male or abled or class privilege is real is not the goal of this essay. Those of us who have benefited from our privilege need to accept those facts.

Instead I want to explore the widespread reluctance and fear of acknowledging privilege. Not the reluctance from the racists or those who knowingly use their privilege to cling to power but by those who are committed to EDI and fairness and justice but seem unable to use the phrase white privilege.


By almost any definition, I am a fairly successful Earth Scientist, and I achieved that by being smart, working hard and leaning on my working class toughness when faced with obstacles.  That is my story.

But my achievements are also due to being white and being a man. They are due to the fact that I speak English and work in an international sector where English has hegemonic influence.  They are due to luck – in winning grants, in getting jobs in well-funded labs.

These privileges complicate my story but they do not erase it.

In my 30 years of being an academic, I have read a lot of acknowledgements.  I have read the acknowledgments in dissertations and those in papers.  I have heard so many speeches filled with thanks and gratitude.  We are obliged (rightly) to acknowledge our funders.  We freely acknowledge our students, collaborators, colleagues and technicians.  We acknowledge our mentors and our inspirations.

We acknowledge our families – those we are born with and those we find; and our friends and loved ones.  Parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles; wives and husbands; children; our friends back home and our those who endured our PhDs or postdocs or tenure with us.

We acknowledge a musician whose album was played on an endless loop while we finished off our PhD dissertation.  We acknowledge a poet whose words healed us through difficult patches. We acknowledge the club where we went dancing with friends to let off steam or the cafe where we hid with a coffee to clear our thoughts.  We acknowledge parks, forests, and museums; directors and actors and writers and painters.

And yet so many refuse to acknowledge our privilege.

Are we giving something away when we acknowledge these other influences and connections and support networks?  I suppose that in some sense we are.  We are yielding only a small bit of our story of individual success, but we are yielding it nonetheless, and yielding something that has been hard won.  But we are getting something in return.  We are giving away a sliver of the myth that we succeeded all on our own, due to individual brilliance, determination or grit.  But we are gaining community by recognising that we are part of something greater and we are acknowledging that we are not alone.

It is wonderful to acknowledge those we love.

And it is wonderful to acknowledge the music or poetry or comedy to which we connected when needed.  I think there is something beautiful in the idea that Miles Davis helped a self-doubting microbiologist discover a new form of metabolism or that a local cafe and its friendly staff were the safe havens for a social scientist exploring the effectiveness of a new education policy.  I envision Master’s students re-watching a favourite film or maybe just re-watching that video of Tom Holland Lip-Synching to Rhianna’s Umbrella and using that joyous dopamine hit to carry them through another paragraph of their thesis.

Acknowledging the things that help us reinforces our connection to the world; and so does acknowledging our privilege.

Of course, acknowledging our privilege means acknowledging a sinister rather than joyous aspect of our world.  It requires us to acknowledge that we have not only benefitted from loving family or friends, but from racial prejudices and sexist biases, that we have benefitted at the expense of others.

If we are intellectually honest, we interrogate this through an intersectional lens. There are facts.  I overcame the obstacles of my class and lack of wealth, while benefitting from the privileges of my gender and colour of my skin.
But emotionally, it is challenging to attribute some of what we achieved, some of what we value about ourselves, to something that is so abhorrent and from which we asked no help.  It complicates and darkens our story.

But it does not erase it.  It does not erase what we achieved and our associated personal narratives any more than any other acknowledgement. It contextualises, elaborates and contests, but it does not take it away; and by contextualising our achievements it insists that we understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Acknowledging our privilege insists that we are part of a community and a society, and it insists that we accept the associated obligations to understand and rectify the harms that our society inflicts; but in doing so, it also affirms that we are not alone.


I know that these arguments will not persuade all.

Some are too indentured to their own myth of greatness and achievement.  Their self-story is too much of ego and rugged individualism to allow for collectivism. For them, it is likely that their acknowledgments of family and friends are performative and said through gritted teeth.  You know these men.  Some of them have built tiny homes on this myth, while others have built vast empires; but all are built on a foundation of fragile ego and all can become dangerous if that is threatened. Others are unwilling to accept the responsibility that such a realisation imposes.  Acknowledging privilege inevitably leads to reflection, engagement and learning; and that must inevitably lead to change, both within ourselves and within our sphere of influence. That requires work, and consequently many hide away from the concept of privilege not because it seems wrong to them but because they are unwilling to change.

I have little sympathy for either.   I do not trust such people to have empathy and so I do not trust them to lead.  I do not trust such people to change and so I do not trust them to get out of our way.  I certainly do not trust them to place a community – any community – above themselves; their generosity is contingent, their service obligatory, their altruism self-serving.

However, I truly believe that they are in the minority.  I truly believe that most of us can look at ourselves and recognise that we have been shaped not only by the struggles we have faced and obstacles overcome, but also the friends and family, luck and privileges that have aided us.  I believe that most of us can look out at the world and see others who have shared our privileges and others who have been cruelly and viciously denied them.

Acknowledging your privilege – verbally, publicly, honestly – is an act of empathy and love.  It will not tell you what policies are effective, train you to be a strong, active and interventionist ally, or bestow the resources necessary for structural reform; alone, it will often mislead you into white saviourism, motivating you to speak out when instead you should step back; it alone will not make your workplace or community more diverse or equitable. But it will be the foundation for reflection and learning how to do all of those things; it will be the motivation for action; and most of all it will provide the empathy and humility to cede to others the opportunities and platforms that they have been denied.


Further reading the origins of the term ‘White Privilege’.  Finally, although Dr Peggy McIntosh is credited for giving enhanced prominence to the term, the intellectual foundations are widely attributed to W.E.B. DuBois, and so I leave you with this final provocation from him:

“There is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know.”
― W.E.B. DuBois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept

Climate Scientist Activism

Scientists advise and governments govern.  Long portrayed as a clear division of responsibilities, it is increasingly clear that this is a weapon for silencing criticism from those most aware of the crises we face.

When the scientists in ‘Don’t Look Up’ discover that a meteor is bearing down on Earth, their first instinct is not to tweet nor appeal to the media, but to engage the President of the United States.  And? They are told to ‘Sit Tight and Assess.’  Regardless of one’s opinions of the movie, that single scene is an acute summary of 30 years of the intersection of climate science and policy – tens of thousands of publications, six major IPCC reports (each comprising 100s of pages and thousands of references), a multitude of smaller UN and International climate risk assessments. A historical amount of sitting tight and ‘assessing.’

It would be unfair to claim that those phenomenal efforts, a very tiny bit of which includes my own 30-year scientific career exploring the nature of past and ongoing climate change, achieved nothing.  There has been recognition and investment, and it now seems likely that the ‘Business as Usual’ scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions have become ‘Worst Case’ scenarios.  But we are far from avoiding the meteor, far from enacting policies that will prevent catastrophic climate change, a sixth mass extinction, the death of millions if not billions and the collapse of our civilisation. We are far from avoiding an asymmetrically unjust collapse that will disproportionately impact the poorest and most marginalised in our society.  We are far from avoiding a racist and classist collapse, a genocide by indifference.

Our pleas for action have been met with nods, incremental steps and recognition of our labour, and for many that has been sufficient to slake our thirst for action, sufficient to convince us that we are doing all we can.  But if we listened closely, those incremental actions inhabited a wider, more conservative worldview characterized by dismissive and condescending comments about what is “realistic”. We would have understood that the range of policy options is dictated not by what is necessary but constrained by  what the ruling class perceives as possible.  We would have further understood that the realm of possible system change is even further constrained when defined by those who profit most from inaction – not just politicians and their electorates and corporate lobbyists, but also the media, think tanks, pundits, authors, schools, research institutes and universities. And ourselves.  Because we are part of that world, academic elites working in privileged institutions, we have always been predisposed to accept those realistic truths and fearful of losing the small amount of political and cultural influence we did enjoy.

And so many of us, including me, operated under the prevailing dogma:  Scientists provide evidence; governments make policy.  And the scientist who crosses that line is derided as an activist, their objectivity is questioned and the small amount of influence they might wield is lost.

This constraint under which we laboured is superficially logical.  We are defined by our expertise; do we not lose credibility if we venture beyond it?  If we want our own expertise to be valued, should we not respect the expertise of others?

But isn’t that argument rather convenient?  Are we compromising or are we complicit? Surely, we were never so naive as to believe that any government would acquiesce to radical system change without a fight?

In any case, these are old debates, old constraints, old rubicons we should have long-since crossed.  Too many of us had accepted these truths for too long, with too little action, and we are now too angry.  As individual environmental scientists and as a community, we have come to realise that the lines were never lines at all and the scope for expert activism, although still treacherous terrain, is far more nuanced with possibility than we had allowed ourselves to believe.

Stay in your lane

One of my primary responsibilities as Cabot Director was to build links to policy makers.  We assembled an Advisory Board with representatives from government agencies and chaired by the former UK Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington; we hosted workshops with MPs, MEPs and their advisors; we built strong links with Bristol City Councillors and both of our elected Mayors. I am proud of the work I did with four different parties to inform and empower climate action, including two declarations of Climate Emergencies, and I am proud of how those links have allowed my colleagues to contribute to local, national and international policy.

These partnerships also offered powerful advice on how to build partnerships and build trust.  We were given practical advice that I still value.  We were advised to engage the Opposition Party because they had more capacity to build new relationships than the Party in power and far busier governing (and they will not be in opposition forever).   We were advised to avoid working with single issue organisations, because no amount of expert advice could ever influence them.  We were advised to understand when to engage and when it was too late (invariably after the government had already planted its flag).

However, other advice should have revealed the limits of our influence and the limits of our approach. I was told – repeatedly – that the role of scientists was to provide expertise and never to advocate for action and certainly not any specific action. I was told not to offer scientific advice but to be prepared to provide it when asked. I saw criticism met with defensiveness; I saw experts who challenged government policy dismissed and derided for breaking some unspoken pact (see David Nutt).  I saw electoral politics dictate policy rather than leaders attempting to build consensus.  Politicians were keen to meet with engineers promising technological innovation but dismissive of social scientists wishing to discuss justice and institutional colonialism. But mostly I saw entrenched neoliberal conservatism.  Faces blanched when we discussed zero growth approaches or anything with a whiff of anti-capitalism.  I was told not to work with Caroline Lucas, because she was a ‘loon’; and yet here we are seven years later, and everything she has ever said is now mainstream thinking, precursors to Climate Emergency declarations and Green New Deals.

And this conservatism is embedded in all aspects of academic practice, no matter what one might read about the lefty university. Academic research is now encouraged to reach beyond the ivory tower, engaging with society and achieving impact.  In fact, ‘impact’ is now enshrined in UK research via both research funding and the Research Excellence Framework.  But not all impact is equally valued….  A series of papers that helps the oil and gas sector discover new reserves of destructive carbon would be celebrated as world leading impact; a series of papers that led to the demise of that same sector never would be.  Academic engagement is rewarded for enriching or preserving the establishment.

Scientists advise and governments govern.

This was a deception. Academics have always been activists.  Universities have always been centres of revolution. And not just amongst the Marxist scholars or the humanities; activism was persistent across the entire academic spectrum.

Something perverse happened in the relationship between research and policy in the 90s and early part of the 21st century.  First came a narrative that Universities were ‘ivory towers’, disengaged with citizens and their cities, noodling away on topics of limited interest, comfortable in our labs and libraries untroubled with the challenges facing society.  That was true to an extent, but never as true as the narrative either within or beyond universities and research centres.  Nonetheless, it was a sufficiently compelling narrative – especially when paired with researchers’ and their funders’ persistent quest for government funding – to create a new drive of engagement and impact. That was fantastic.  It recognised and rewarded a whole range of academic activities, including community engagement efforts that were disproportionately delivered by marginalised groups in the sector.

But it came at a price.  It came with rules and expectations.  It came with norms that were profoundly conservative and anti-revolutionary.

Our expertise was valued – when needed, when requested, at the “pleasure and convenience of the King”. And in that context, activism was at best counter-productive and at worst unseemly and destructive to your credibility.  As such, very few scientists (James Hansen, Kevin Johnson) were actively challenging government inaction on climate change.

There are alternative forms of activism – how the UK Climate Change Act, COP21 and Institutional Pledges changed the landscape

Over the past ten years, climate scientists have become increasingly activist.

I do not know if that is frustration and fear; or a new generation of more engaged scientists.   I would argue, however, that the very first step towards that change arose from the persistence of providing evidence and engaging policy makers. Despite all of the failures of the climate movement to bring about real change, we have had one major success.  We have forced all of the governments of the world to acknowledge that Climate Change is a Threat and forced them to promise to act on it.  In the UK, the Climate Change Act of 2008 was passed nearly unanimously with cross-party support and committing the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050; in 2018, in one of Theresa May’s last acts, that ambition was increased to 100% reduction.  At COP21 in Paris, nearly every country in the world committed to keeping warming below 2C and aspiring to keep it below 1.5C.

This activism has continued in local organisations, accelerated by COP21, a multitude of disasters, the worrying 1.5C IPCC report of 2019 and of course Student Strikes and other protests (but more on them later).  In my own immediate sphere of influence, coalitions of staff and students led to the University of Bristol pledging to carbon neutrality, prioritising environmental teaching and research, divesting from fossil fuels (the first UK HEI to achieve this) and declaring a Climate Emergency.  The City of Bristol was the first city to declare a Climate Emergency and has been joined by hundreds of others around the globe. Organisations like Preventable Surprises have challenged inconsistent shareholder governance with respect to climate action, while others like CERES have built global coalitions of businesses pledged to action.

Words. Pledges. Promises.  Blah blah blah.

They have not resulted in action – or at least adequate action.  That is true.  But they have changed the rules of engagement.  Greta Thunberg is not advocating for any particular policy; I’m sure she has strong opinions but she refuses to share them.  Instead, she demands that nations act according to the promises they have made, and she holds them accountable for when they do not.

The same is true for climate scientists.  See… in the past, scientists would have been scolded for demanding a particular global warming target.  We were advised to provide the evidence of sea level rise, extreme weather, coral bleaching and food security crises, but it was the job of politicians to tension those risks with need to address other challenges, the setting of priorities, and the costs of climate action.

But they have now done it.  The UK government has committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and that is a target to which we can and must hold them accountable.  We can bring scientific rigour to proposed solutions, such as excessive carbon offsetting, and we can bring our expertise to stop projects inconsistent with this target.  We can join lawsuits to prevent airport expansions and we can lobby to stop peat extraction.  We are ‘staying in our lane’ of expertise, not venturing into the sticky and complicated realm of politics, and simply holding the government to account to its own loudly stated ambitions.  And we can do the same with our cities and our employers.

This has made some forms of activism easier.  But has it empowered the type of activism that we need? Are we still afraid?  Have we really broken free from the system or are we merely enjoying an incremental increase in our latitude to speak and critique?

Disruptive Activism

I am not sure what sort of activism will be most effective to bring about transformative change.  I certainly cannot speak to where you will be most effective in your activism.  All of us, but especially those from marginalised groups will have to navigate a fraught legal landscape with care, especially as states bring in increasingly draconian anti-protest laws. Those who do have political influence – real influence – should recognise what a rare commodity that is; they should neither casually discard it nor should they waste it.  The climate movement must be a thriving mosaic of approaches, with each leveraging the successes of the others to increase cultural, popular or political capital and drive a Just Transformation.

What I can say is that the climate and ecological crises are so profound and so unjust that there can be no constraints on non-violent activism other than your own.

What now going forward

I don’t know.  But here are some lessons I have learned over the years.

We must find what activism is most effective, is most genuine, for each of us – but be self-critical when doing so. Given that any activism can be justified as part of a diverse movement, it would be easy to succumb to an easy path and retrospectively justify it. Some of us DO need to engage governments, some of us must be IN government.  But let us not be complicit in our own deception. After all, engaging politicians is difficult but activism is hard. You sacrifice more than your time, but also your reputation, job prospects, even your freedom.  Sometimes the logical choice is the right choice; sometimes it is just the easy choice.

But you do have to make a choice. We cannot have our cake and eat it too.  We cannot be the vizier to the king as well as the court jester.  We cannot participate in civil disobedience and still serve on government advisory boards.

At the same time, climate scientists have been relentlessly advocating for change for decades and do deserve some credit.  We must have genuine conversations with ourselves about next steps, but we’ve earned our prickly defensiveness when others dismiss our motivations and our (few) successes. It is infuriating that the catastrophic failures of a multitude of governments, at every scale, in every nation, over decades, have been attributed to a generation of scientists who did their best and certainly did far more than most.  Moreover, such attacks are bad tactics. They are often driven by ego. They are divisive. And worst of all, they miss the great opportunity for leveraging complementary approaches to collective benefit the movement.  Our past efforts have not been enough, but they have created the foundation on which we build today.

Activist scientists must also be humble and remember that we are not experts on what is effective.  We might have opinions and we might have anecdotal concerns from our own experiences and interactions.  But we are not experts on radical and just social transformation.  This humility should have been self evident, but we now have no shortage of evidence for it. We did not know what would be effective when we allowed ourselves to be bound by others’ rules of engagement, when we allowed ourselves to be captured by governments and by extension the lobbyists and special interests who influence them.  Because we are not experts on how policy is made, we were tricked.  So perhaps rather than deciding who and how to engage, we should join those who do know.

Finally and most importantly, I would urge you to consider that maybe we should stop partnering with governments and start partnering with communities. And I implore all of us to bring a decolonial, equity-centered and anti-racist approach to our research, advice and activism; what an astonishing failure it would be to wean ourselves off of the power of fossil fuel energy by transitioning to a green economy that replicates all of its extractive and exploitative injustices.

Ultimately, any movement is a mosaic of complementary (and sometimes competing) factions.  Given that Climate and Ecological Action will require one of the greatest social transformations of the past millennium, our movement will likely comprise the most complex, diverse, radical and surprising mixture of actors in history.  It will involve those centered on justice and labour; technology, infrastructure and finance; protesters, marchers, disruptors and enablers; community leaders, unions and civic organisations; lawyers and scientists; plumbers and electrician, gardeners and farmers; politicians – yes, still politicians, and often from unexpected political homes; those filled with hope and those with despair.

In finding our voices, we will also discover that we are not just scientists.  We are people.  And we fit in not just one but many of those categories.  And our activism will find its voice in unexpected ways.

A closing thought from “Zen & the Art of Saving the Planet” by @thichnhathanh and @sistertrueD.   “If you don’t maintain a spiritual practice during the time you serve, you will lose yourself, and you will burn out. And so we learned to breathe, to walk, to release the tension so we could keep going. You do it not only for yourself. You are preserving yourself so you can help the world.”  

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:

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:]

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.

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.


Working Class in Academia

A few months ago I wrote this, about the challenges of being working class and the obstacles we face in our careers. I wrote that with one purpose – to explain that those of us who have “made it” did so with some intelligence and hard work but mostly luck.  I wrote this to dismantle the flawed and perniciaous myths of social mobility and meritocracy.

Today I write not about how us lucky ones got to academia but how it treated us once we arrived, once we’ve “made it”.

That’s the other myth – you never “make it”.  The legacy of working class never leaves.  It manifests in all sorts of different ways – from overcompensation to forever feeling an outsider.   But it persists.

I need to be careful here.  The white working class male will certainly pass in academica, and our working class upbringing can eventually fade into an upper middle class income and lifestyle.  I might have dodgy teeth and be betrayed by accents or manners, but even working class social awkwardness can be disguised as academic awkwardness.

We can pass.

So let’s not pretend our burdens are the same as black scholars or women or any minoritised group who cannot simply change the nature of their ‘otherness’ in academic circles. Let’s not pretend that working class obstacles persist and shape our careers to the same degree as race and gender and disability, when many of our obstacles are eliminated with job security and a promotion. Let’s not ignore the intersection of those prejudices.

But nevertheless, no matter what happens in your life you never fully escape your origins.


The academic career is unusually precarious.  Financial precarity amplifies that.  Dramatically.

But it is complicated. My meager PhD stipend was actually the most money I had my entire life; for the first time in my life, I had disposable income.  For the first time in my life, I could go out to eat and join in social activities.  Because I knew how to save money and knew how to get by on inexpensive food or cheap accommodation or was willing to house share, I knew how to make that stipend last.

I was also very lucky in avoiding the precarity of the academic bottleneck between PhD, postdoc and permanent job.  I had my post-doc arranged when I finished my PhD; I had procured an assistant professorship post before I finished my post-doc. But I was lucky.  I was lucky with those jobs and that job market.  I was lucky in that both my PhD and Postdoc supervisors were well-known, respected and well-funded – providing a financial safety net as I navigated the challenging job market. And also, let’s be honest, those academic pedigrees unfairly advantaged me in getting my job at Bristol.  I had lucked into the right choices that helped me win a rigged game.

But precarity is real.  And is worse now than ever.  It takes longer to get a job: more time living under a cloud of uncertainty; more time waiting to buy a home or start a family; more time doing more jobs, different jobs, learning group dynamics, maybe moving- often internationally – with financial and emotional costs.  And that means more work, trying to keep up, trying to maintain your ‘productivity’ while figuring out new personalities and friendships, how to order pipettes in a new lab, get a visa or navigate a new country’s rental market.  At the same time, contracts seem to be getting shorter, requiring more uncertainty, more movement, more working on papers while unpaid, more exploitation.

The lack of a financial safety net exacerbates all of that.  It is harder to move around and follow jobs.  It is harder to start a family.  It is impossible to wait around between postdoc contracts; instead of writing papers between contracts, you get a job at a cafe.  You pay rent rather than paying off a mortgage, ensuring that at least some of that financial precarity follows you your entire life.

But the worst part of that precarity is its emotional toll – the uncertainty, the fear and the fact that so many people in academia do not understand it.

Despite my good fortune, this uncertainty haunted my career.  I remember confiding in a trusted mentor, someone who I respect as much as anyone in my life, and they replied:  ‘If you’re good, you’ll get a job.’  And as much as I respected them, in that moment I knew there was one chasm they’d never understand, having come from a middle class family of academics.  They could have empathy but never truly understand 1st generation fear and 1st generation risk.  And they’d never fully understand the one thing that poor people understand perfectly: you can be amazing and still fail.

And whether intentional or inadvertent, whether individual or systemic, this means that academia exploits us.

The Academic System will never stop exploiting Early Career Researchers

I love this career.  I love discovery.  I love finding new molecules or biosynthetic pathways or microbial adaptations.  I love using those insights to discover something new about our Earth.  And I just love reading about and discussing other people’s ideas and discoveries.  And I love teaching and mentoring and supporting colleagues.

And when you love your job so much that it is a career, love your career so much that it is part of your identity, you will be exploited.  The system – employers, the sector, funders – cannot help it.  Even the kindest, most benevolent line managers cannot help it.  As a Head of School, I do it.  And it comes down to this:

In a market with limited opportunities, where success is 90% down to luck, where the competitors all have intelligence and passion, the only thing that you have any real control over is how hard you work.

You cannot change the results of your experiments, the capabilities of your instruments (within reason), the jobs available.  You cannot change your gender or skin colour.

But you can volunteer to teach one more class or serve on one more committee.  You can come in on the weekend to generate one more finding for one more paper.  If no jobs are available you can write your own Fellowship application.  And those all will help and they will give you a sense of agency in a world in which you have so little control.  And it is exploitation.  It is.  And I don’t know how to change it.

What I will say is this: If you get the job you dreamt of, you are brilliant and lucky; and if you do not, it is because you are brilliant and unlucky.  But also: that we have trained you to have limited dreams.  Perhaps the academic dream is your true calling, but know that your brilliance and skills are valued and will be valued in places and by people you have yet to dream of.

The academic system will never stop exploiting you and especially your need for validation.

Almost everyone I know has imposter syndrome.  It is worse in minoritised, women, working class academics.  But it is widespread.  We all doubt ourselves and our achievements.  When we are at the start of our career, we are desperate to prove ourselves.  In the middle of our career, we are anxious that our peers do not respect our achievements.  At the end of our careers, we worry about losing our edge, being washed up, old news.

Imposter syndrome is an anxiety disorder that most of us face because of the conflicts between our self-doubt and ambition.

But more fundamentally, it is a direct consequence of a system that wants us to doubt ourselves and wants us to continually seek affirmation.  Invited Talks, Fellowships, Prizes, High Impact Papers, Citations, H-indices.  So many metrics.  Most Universities literally have ‘Esteem Indicators’ as part of our Promotions criteria.  And this eats at all of us.  It makes us lose sleep and have anxiety disorders.  It makes us check Google Scholar or bristle with envy when our friends when a prize or get a high profile paper.  I’ve seen staff dangle the promise of jobs in front of ECRs and I’ve seen Fellows of esteemed societies dangle the promise of legacy and esteem.  I’ve seen an FRS threaten Heads of School and Deans if they fail to comply with their requests.

This all works.

Because we have drunk the Kool Aid of exceptionalism.

And it is bullshit because so much of it is out of our control.  Fellowships are ridiculously competitive, historically sexist, and still rather arbitrary (especially in who nominates us).  Many of our best discoveries are accidental.  Many of our most planned discoveries would have been discovered a year later by someone else but we got lucky and sorted it first. Yes, there is planning and vision and leadership.  But you can labour for years, building a team, an international consortium, to tackle a critical problem and still fail to get funding.  Or get the funding and just not find anything interesting.

So just like that postdoc desperate for a job, we do the one thing that is under our control.  We work harder.

Longer hours. Weekends. And our institutions happily accept the generosity of our donated labour.

And it is getting worse. Universities are now financially dependent on high fee-paying overseas students, making them financially dependent on global league tables, creating a continuous pressure on performance, production, excellence, and metrics metrics metrics.

My School does well in these tables.  We do not brag publicly about it, because we know that these are flawed and we won’t let our self-worth be based on them. Most of all, we refuse to treat the scientific endeavour – the collaborative quest for knowledge – as a competition.  But quietly, amongst ourselves, especially on difficult days, we do allow that success to tell us ‘We’re doing something right.  And that is nice.’  And even that modest acquiescence to be a ‘world-leading department’ puts a huge amount of stress on nearly every one of my colleagues.  And as Head of School, no matter how much I support and reassure my staff that we are doing okay, to be kind to ourselves, that we support one another no matter what – the relief I can provide from that desperate desire to be excellent is fleeting and incremental.

Because we’ve drunk the Kool Aid.  Even as I sit here, typing this, rejecting this narrative, I feel it.  What papers can I push out; what grants can I be writing; what more do I have to prove.  I can sit here writing that I reject this system and still feel bitter that I was not nominated for an award, recognised by some esteemed society, invited to give a talk by my colleagues.

So where does the working class academic (or racial minority or feminist) aspect come into all of this?

Because we have been programmed for this bullshit for our entire goddamned lives.

Working class kids have to put in long hours just so our families survive, creating working patterns that are then exploited by employers the rest of our lives.  I worked on the farm from when I was seven, and had a part-time job from when I was 16.

But of course, social mobility says that working at that rate is just baseline.  If you want to really succeed, you must work hard enough to be extraordinary.  Are you doing okay?  Work harder and be better than average.  Are you doing well?  Work harder and be the best.  Be better than the best. That is how you escape poverty – be the best athlete, pianist or scholar.  Win. Break records.  Never stop; never rest.  Or someone else will take your spot.

Fuck me, I have been living in this mindset for over 40 years.

You’ll never fit in

I’m lucky.  I’m a geologist and our discipline, even in the ivory tower, rejects most pretensions. We wear shorts and t-shirts.  We drink wine but also beer.  We understand that on a field course, all of us had to find a tree to piss behind.  I’m not sure I could have survived in a different discipline.

One of my favourite examples of this comes from my favourite Organic Geochemistry conference.  I was quite anxious about attending my first one as it was a small, intimate conference. Aside from the academic anxiety of always being ‘on’, with effervescing conversations about the state of the discipline at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was anxious about whether this working class kid could fit into the social norms.  I was particularly anxious because at that time, a tradition was a wine tasting.  I was a beer-drinking wine illiterate (I’m now a near-teetotal wine illiterate).  But.  There were so many friendly layers of subversion.  The organisers were kind, patient and happy to teach.  They grudgingly accepted the insurrection from those who would try to win with the cheapest off-brand wine they could find.  Many opted out.  Of course, in later years, it faded as we recognised that alcohol-centrism was inappropriate.

But I look at those moments of understanding and insurrection as signs of hope and change. In other contexts, I did feel like a redneck and a fool; but I gained strength knowing that these were far from universal.  Being an American in the UK gave another line of protection, as my cultural ignorance was hard to pin down.  Mostly, I found oases of friendships, departments, research groups and disciplines where comportment, elocution, fashion and appearance (all part of someone else’s imagined ideal of etiquette) were just not that important.

And yet… I was also told not so long ago that I would have an uphill climb to become a Fellow of the Royal Society because I lacked a ‘certain gravitas.’  What the fuck do y’all think that was referring to??

So… we never entirely fit it.

And… most of us will never again fit in at home.  

Academia makes you move away from home. We have become so much more sophisticated in rejecting the narrative that postdocs must move every year or two years.  Nonetheless, the numbers do not work in your favour if you want a University or research institute job near your home town.  Most of us move across the country; many of us move to other countries.  We move away from home, from our friends and families, from the familiar places.  That is an adventure, but it comes with consequences.

Of course, if you are working class, you have not just moved far from home physically you have likely moved far, very far from your family culturally.  You have different life experiences, you often adopt different politics a different world view.  Often, you adopt different values.

The first summer after University, I returned home and my job as a stockboy in the local supermarket.  My family and friends jokingly called me ‘College Boy.’  It wasn’t mean; it was friendly and filled with pride.  Ten years later, our conversations had become reminiscing and awkward silences.  Twenty years later, we fight.

I’m glad that I have changed.  I am glad that I have awoken to the racism and bigotry that lurked in our conversations. I am glad that I now see the struggle of Black people and immigrants as different versions of class struggle, and I am glad that I consider this while understanding intersectionality and my own privilege.

But sometimes the disconnection that comes from moving so very far away, geographically as well as culturally and politically, is overwhelming.

Early career working class academics, I need you to understand this:  At times in your lives you will feel terribly painfully alone.  Not always; you will meet and love amazing people.  But there will be times.


Academia isn’t special.  It is a business.  In a capitalist society, it exists to make money and it makes money by exploiting its work force and its customers.  I am grateful that I work in an institution where my bosses are kind. But they cannot change the fundamentals of a market-driven sector.  That sector exploits us.  And it especially exploits our insecurities, anxiety and fear. And given how anxiety and fear are inequitably woven through society, through class and race and disability and gender, Universities exploit unfairly and with discrimination.


I’ve learned from speaking about climate change, that it is not enough to talk about problems without also talking about solutions.  I’ve got no easy solutions but here are some thoughts.

In building a career, build something more than a career. Build friendships and relationships, with peers and colleagues, those in other disciplines, your partners in society.  Build knowledge and wonder, learn, discover. But be careful.  Those approaches can degrade work-life balance. And they can create an even greater dependency on your career.  So do not spin a web that traps you but build relationships that support you and lifelines that can rescue you.

Do not work long hours or weekends.  Of course, do so sometimes, when running an overnight experiment or racing to meet the occasional deadline.  But do not overwork as a habit.  I understand the temptation. I do.  And resisting it is hard.  But it will not make a difference. One more paper will not make a difference.  It will not help you get a job, when luck is so important.  It won’t solve your anxiety or imposter syndrome.  And in all likelihood your overall productivity will be greater if you maintain a healthier balance of all aspects of your life.

What is far more valuable – and it is a quality that many working class people have in abundance – is persistence. I do not mean only the potentially toxic persistence of sticking with a career and precarious roles if the associated job uncertainty is undermining your wider life.  Instead, it is the persistence to re-run experiments when they fail, to resubmit papers that are rejected, to resubmit Fellowship applications that are declined.  Working class or not, academia is characterised by more rejections than successes, and our ability to take the hit, allow ourselves a finite period of justified sadness or anger, and then quickly getting right back in the game is essential. I cannot count the times my Mom either literally of figuratively made be get back on that horse. You can resubmit that rejected paper in a few days or a month or it can simmer on your laptop for three years, causing anxiety whenever you think about it.  (As a corollary and to *everyone else in academia* – be fucking kind in those rejections.  We are asking people to be persistent not resilient in the face of our toxicity.)

If you are going to work those extra hours, however, then damn it, put that extra labour into what you love, what you want to.  If the system is exploitative, at least the academic system is one in which you have some modicum of control over how you will be exploited.  If your desperation forces you to work weekends, work less on productivity, less on one more publication, but instead read a paper, discover or share something new, find or share some wonder in this collective endeavour of knowledge. It is giving in to the system, but it is also owning your agency.

To do this, you need to find the means to make decisions based on your values, not the values of everyone  and everything that surrounds you.

You must quiet that noise and discover what it is about your career that is really really important to you.  And you must not confuse that with what you have been taught is important, what societies and awards say is important, what appears important to your friends and colleagues and peers. What academia is continuously telling you has value and what does not.  If you know yourself, use that to dismiss all of the extraneous bullshit and centre what you value and enjoy; and then use that to prioritise your efforts, empower your decisions.  And do that at every single stage of your life.

And… seek help in navigating those decisions.  I’ve never had counselling despite guiding so many friends, colleagues and students in that direction.  I need to have some.  I should have had some in college, when I had anger issues, when I self-harmed through sports and fights.  I should have had some as a working class academic, whose marriage collapsed, who put my great capacity for love and compassion into projects rather than friendships.  I should have some now as a Head of School, dealing with multiple crises in our sector, distraught students, stressed staff and frustrations at an unfair world and incompetent leadership.  Writing this blog is a poor substitute for that.

But I never had the money, and when I had the money I “never had time”.  And talking to counselors is just not what we do, not us working class farm kids from Ohio.  So I’ll make you a deal.  I will find the time and reject my deeply ingrained biases to ask for help.  If you promise to do the same.


And finally: I love academia.  It is a great career, filled with intellectual flexibility, creativity, collaboration and the joy of discovery. These blogs are not meant to say otherwise; rather, they are a corrective to the myth that academia is an ideal career, based solely on merit and without flaw.  We can hold simultaneous truths, loving something while wanting it to improve.  Along those lines, I once promised a PhD student that I would never offer them advice about how to navigate a flawed and exploitative system, without also committing to change it.  And I do commit to changing this, to minimising exploitation and creating more oases where those who do not fit the typical academic profile can find homes.  And ultimately, I commit to destroying the very idea of a typical academic.  And together, we can commit to revolution and real fundamental change.

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.



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.



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.



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.


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.