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Hope and grief for our environmental future

Professor Lesley Head, Head of the School of Geography, is tackling our sustainability issues from a different perspective

I am a geographer who works on human interactions with the environment in diverse ways. People interact with the environment every day, whether they know it or not. I’m focused on how culture influences the way that people understand and interact with nature and attempt to manage the environment.

I have been interested in geography since high school where I had a couple of really amazing teachers. I got this taste for research that was really quite exciting. You suddenly realise that we don’t know everything; there are still lots of things to be found out, and maybe I can do that. So I studied geography at Monash University, where I also studied languages and linguistics, but it was geography that really got me hooked on research. And now, I’m Head of Geography and the University of Melbourne.

I’ve had a varied career, working on everything from Indigenous land management to suburban households, and invasive species management. I started off looking at the influence of Indigenous Australians on vegetation through the tradition of burning and the long-term changes in the Australian environment. But over the years, I have become more focused on contemporary, rather than prehistoric issues, around the environment because they’re more urgent.

If we want to change people’s behaviours to become more environmentally-friendly, we need to recognise the challenges that households face. Our research team has done a lot of work on household sustainability issues and looking at the complexities of how households operate. It’s a crude behaviourist approach to think that we can all just stop using cars or turn off all the lights and so on, without considering the complexities of everyday life.

Professor Lesley Head during a brainstorming session with students. Picture: Lesley head
Professor Lesley Head during a brainstorming session with students. Picture: Lesley head

To open up the whole debate about climate change, we need to think of all the non-environmental issues as ways to get into social change. Our recent review article argues what might seem obvious - that even in the ‘greenest’ households, family concerns and social life are the things that drive decision-making. Family values is a big consideration, and the issue of time is of particular concern for women. So, if you can’t think about the broader structural processes that affect households, then you are just going to create an extra burden for people who are already very busy. Conversely, we need to think of ways to leverage widely held non-environmental values – family, privacy, autonomy – for climate change action.

I recently published a book, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human-nature relations. Most climate scientists I interviewed for this book have said that we will know within a decade or so whether we are going to be able to turn things around sufficiently for humans to survive in a relatively comfortable way. The changes themselves won’t have played out in a decade but the direction will be relatively clear. If we can’t start to reduce emissions in that time, then we will be looking at very catastrophic outcomes. The dominant preservationist theme in Australian environmental thought – the aspiration to a pristine past – does not equip us well for these challenges. New, more diverse ethics of care are needed.

It’s a bit of a grim book in some ways. But I think that there’s a really strong cultural pressure to be optimistic about everything and it can be hard to talk about painful emotions, and yet that is what we’re going to have to do. Part of my argument is that we need to acknowledge and grieve for what is being or will be lost. If we can decouple hope from optimism, we can keep going in the face of very uncertain outcomes. In this book hope is conceptualised as something to be practised rather than felt.

Professor Lesley Head in the field on a research project. Picture: Lesley Head
Professor Lesley Head in the field on a research project. Picture: Lesley Head

I was drawn to working at the University of Melbourne because it has a stand-alone School of Geography – something that’s rare in Australia. It goes against the Australian trend to establish an independent school that includes both physical and human geography, so it was a really exciting opportunity. Being our own school, we can research and teach the human-environment interaction as the heart of the discipline, because it combines perspectives from social, natural and physical sciences. There can be tensions between those perspectives but we like to think of them as creative tensions.

Mentoring young researchers is one of the best parts of my job. I do get very excited when I’ve finished performance reviews of the staff and I find out the gory details of what everyone is doing; there are lots of fantastic things happening here. I get a lot of my hope from the next generation. The other thing that I really love is the writing process. When you can crystallise an argument in writing, I find that really satisfying.

To find about more about Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human-nature relations, click here.

Banner image: A map of the world.Picture: https://en.wikipedia.org

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