> Impact and benefits
In 2006 I took over responsibility for ‘Philosophy in the Pub’, a monthly public event where anyone in the community can participate in facilitated philosophical discussions. Over the years the group has discussed a number of sustainability-related themes, including aged care, animal rights, capitalism, civil disobedience, climate change, colonisation, cultural autonomy, environmental philosophy, gender equality, genetic engineering, global government, healthcare, human rights, intrinsic value, justice, money, place, power, purpose, social organisation, universal basic income, and wellbeing.
I believe that UTAS itself should ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to supporting sustainability, so in 2008 I joined the grassroots group that became the Launceston Campus Community Building Committee, a group of staff who recognised and valued the need to nurture the campus community, working largely on their own initiative to develop the social sustainability of the campus community.
In 2009 I created a new undergraduate unit directly addressing environmental philosophy. In my teaching, I aim to encourage students to think in different ways. For example, in this unit, the first assessment task asked students to identify and justify the percentage of the biosphere that should be appropriated for human use. In this task, I am not looking for any particular answer, but I do want students to explicitly think about this issue.
In 2011 I was involved in the establishment of the UTAS Education for Sustainability Community of Practice (EfS CoP), a network of staff committed to furthering engagement with sustainability at UTAS. I continue to be centrally involved in its activities and I now represent this network on the UTAS Sustainability Committee (responsible for coordinating sustainability initiatives across the university).
2011 was also the date of publication of a book examining the proposed Tamar Valley Pulp Mill for which I wrote a chapter. The controversy over the proposed development extended over several years (see my contribution to the parliamentary debate on this issue in 2007 below), but in my chapter, I wrote about the distinction between necessities and luxuries in relation to the ethics of bleaching paper with chlorine (releasing dioxin into the environment), building directly on the Brundtland definition of sustainable development.
In 2013 I was a member of a team that received a UTAS Community Engagement Grant to create a Tasmanian community-wide EfS CoP. I helped create what is now EfS Tasmania, a UN recognised Regional Centre of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development, and I served on the steering committee for a number of years. The team received an ACTS Green Gown Community Award in 2017 and an International Green Gown Award in 2018, in recognition of the success of EfS Tasmania.
In 2014 I was central to the creation of Engaging with Sustainability, a unit with a new program of ‘breadth units’ at UTAS. The major essay in this unit involves students examining the contested nature of the concept of sustainability. One of the reasons ‘sustainability’ has not progressed as much as I might have expected in 1987 is because of contestation of the concept, and so now a central theme of my teaching is developing the capacity in students to engage with different understandings of sustainability (an important dimension of what I call ‘sustainability literacy’). Furthermore, this is a fully online unit, and it involves students working in groups, using both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, to develop and present a group project that (1) identifies an existing sustainability problem, and (2) describes a response developed by the group.
In 2017 I was central to the creation of another ‘breadth unit’ called Humans: Earthshapers. This unit addresses the fact that humans are altering the planet in fundamental ways and examines the issue by drawing on the physical sciences, philosophy and political science. Both breadth units involved extensive collaboration with academic colleagues drawn from a wide range of disciplines. As a result, I have ongoing and extensive teaching collaborations with colleagues from Arts, Business, Education, Health, and Science.
In 2018 I was involved in the design and development of a new Diploma of Sustainable Living. This diploma is very popular with over 6000 students having been admitted to the course since it first was offered. I was involved in an earlier attempt in 2012 to create a Diploma in Sustainability, but as I have learnt, these things take time.
Since 2020 I have been a staff representative on the UTAS Academic Senate, and the University Learning and Teaching Committee and I have represented the UTAS EfS CoP on the UTAS Sustainability Committee. On all three of these committees, I raise issues about sustainability, be those issues relating to teaching and research relating to sustainability, or indeed issues relating to the social sustainability of the university itself (for example by arguing for the rights of the casual workforce at UTAS).
2022 saw the introduction of a new Major in Sustainability offered within the BSc. I had originally made the argument to the university for the introduction of what I call ‘aligned sustainability majors’ in all bachelor’s degree programs. The idea was that every student could undertake a major in a traditional discipline, but also take an aligned sustainability major to complement their traditional major. So, for example, a student majoring in economics could take a second major in sustainable economics, or a student majoring in healthcare could take a second major in sustainable healthcare. This ‘aligned sustainability major’ plan has not yet been taken up by the university. However, I see the Major in Sustainability within the BSc as a stepping stone to that broader goal. So I was very happy to work with a number of colleagues to design, develop and deliver the Major in Sustainability within the BSc, and now I teach into the new Systems Thinking unit within that major.
Not everything I have tried has succeeded (yet!). Over the years I have applied through every internal strategic funding channel at UTAS to create what I call ‘Study Sustainability Abroad’, where groups of students from other universities in different parts of the world spend a semester in Tasmania. This would involve studying sustainability-related units at UTAS and participating in a sustainability-related community project either before or after their semester at UTAS. I have also faced challenges getting truly interdisciplinary research projects supported within the ‘siloed’ approvals processes that tend to exist in universities. The most recent example was an attempt to apply for an interdisciplinary research project to explore what might facilitate the development of ‘sustainability virtues’. But I don’t let these setbacks deter me. I simply use them as opportunities to learn how better to work within university structures to achieve sustainability-related outcomes. For example, in the face of the ‘siloed’ nature of university approvals processes, I have started a review hosted by the UTAS Sustainability Committee examining how to make truly interdisciplinary collaborations easier within UTAS; I also explored these challenges in a journal article co-authored with other members of the EfS CoP (Gale et al. 2015).
Finally, I am committed, as far as possible, to making teaching and learning accessible to all. The internet has profoundly changed the ability of individuals (who are in a position to access it) to engage in self-education. Quite simply, this has the potential to improve the lives of billions of people. So, I have been pursuing every opportunity to make my contributions to teaching and learning available more widely. For example, I maintain a YouTube site and Twitter presence to ensure engagement with the wider world and more specifically I was involved in converting the first four weeks of the unit Humans: Earthshapers into a ‘micro-credential’ open educational resource, available free online (called Understanding Earth Shaping) which meant anyone with an internet connection in the world could learn about humanity’s impact on the planet.