University of Tasmania

The signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 (being humanity’s attempt to repair the damage to the ozone layer humanity itself had caused) was a profound event for me. It started me on a journey I continue to this day. It inspired me to do something about the impact humanity was having on the planet. I studied philosophy and environmental science and went out into the world to make a difference. I found that making a difference was hard. Making a difference is still hard, but now I work at UTAS giving people the opportunity to develop what I call ‘sustainability literacy’. I create formal and informal educational opportunities in my teaching, research and engagement with the wider community. I do not impose an answer to the question: what is a sustainable future for humanity? Rather, I hope, I give people the capacity to answer that question for themselves.

>  A closer look

I am a philosopher in the School of Humanities at UTAS, interested in the relationship between human values and a scientific understanding of the human condition. It has been said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” (Karl Marx). I seek to change the world. However, I seek to change it in a very specific way. I seek to facilitate authentic and autonomous sustainability literacy so that many more people understand in a deep and reflective sense what ‘sustainability’ means. ‘Sustainability’ means different things to different people. Thus, much of my work is framed in terms of assisting people to answer the following questions. (1) What is being sustained? (2) What ought to be sustained? (3) How is it being sustained? (4) How ought it be sustained? (5) Why is it being sustained? (6) Why ought it be sustained? And a foundational assumption of my work is that I simply wish to help others answer these questions for themselves. Then they themselves can go out and change the world.

The world changed for me in 1987. It was my first year of university, but it was also the year of (1) the publication of the Brundtland Commission’s Report ‘Our Common Future’, the source of the most widely accepted definition of sustainable development; (2) the signing of the Montreal Protocol (this was particularly significant to me at the time because it symbolised two things, firstly that human activity, specifically the production and release of ozone-depleting chemicals, could significantly damage the environment, and secondly humans could take action to reverse environmental damage); and (3) the year of the stock market crash of October 19. The Brundtland Report and the Montreal Protocol suggested to me that there was a rising awareness that humanity needed to change the way it did things, and it seemed to me that big changes were coming and coming soon. But the stock market crash of 1987 was a sign that the reality of actual change is a little different.

By the end of 1990, I had completed a BA in philosophy and environmental science and a Graduate Diploma of Environmental Studies (Honours). Within the perhaps cloistered environment of the university, it was possible to still believe that change was coming and coming soon. But after leaving university I soon discovered that humanity was not moving as quickly as I had assumed it would. After my studies, I did some travelling and took a number of ‘environmentally themed’ jobs. In Alaska (USA) I worked as an Information and Trail Maintenance Officer, in British Colombia (Canada) I worked for Greenpeace, in NSW (Australia) I worked for NSW National Parks and Wildlife, and in London (UK) I worked as an Environmental Task Force Officer. This last job in London, involved walking behind garbage trucks on London streets opening garbage bags to identify the businesses illegally dumping garbage in the streets of London. Perhaps of all the ‘environmentally themed’ jobs I had done, it was this last one that taught me that the challenge of change was bigger than I had first thought. If humanity was going to change direction then there needed to be a deeper shift in understanding.

By 2006, I had completed a PhD and was working in the philosophy program at UTAS, although it was not in my original ‘job description’, I turned my attention to sustainability themes. Having learned that things change slowly, I began to seek opportunities to invite people to reflect more deeply on the sustainability of their place in the world, and invite the university as an institution to understand its place in that process of what I call building ‘sustainability literacy’ (conceived of broadly to include all dimensions of sustainability). Since then, I have looked for opportunities for deep critical reflection both within the university itself and also in the broader Tasmanian community. Specific activities and their impacts and benefits are detailed in the following sections.

>  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.

>  Leadership and engagement

I embrace the concept of ‘servant leadership’ in my work. A servant leader is a servant first, seeking through their actions to empower others. A test for good servant leadership is as follows: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants? and, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?” (Greenleaf, 2007: 83).

Servant leadership seems to me to be the best way to facilitate sustainability literacy, and when the reference to ‘society’ in the passage just quoted is extended to encompass the non-human world then we have a test of good servant leadership in the context of pursuing sustainability literacy and sustainability more broadly.

Through my activity (informed by the philosophy of servant leadership) within the UTAS Education for Sustainability Community of Practice I have: (1) contributed to the development of a number of transdisciplinary teaching teams at UTAS, designing, developing and delivering the following undergraduate classes: Engaging with Sustainability, Systems Thinking, and Humans Earthshapers; (2) contributed to the design, development, institutional approval and ongoing delivery of the UTAS Diploma of Sustainable Living and the new Major in Sustainability within the BSc at UTAS; (3) contributed to the organisation of an UTAS wide Sustainability Matters Workshop showcasing innovation and best practice in sustainability education; and (4) as the representative of the EfS CoP on the UTAS Sustainability Committee, contribute to discussions concerning the university-wide mission of embedding sustainability and sustainability literacy at all levels and within all dimensions of the university.

>  Wider societal impact

My work has impacted the parliamentary debate in Tasmania. In 2007 the Tasmanian Parliament voted on the Pulp Mill Permit Motion for a proposed pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. The proposal to build a pulp mill was highly contentious and divided the Tasmanian community. In anticipation of the parliamentary vote, Lisa Singh MLA requested that I write a discussion paper on the moral implications of major environmental decisions. So, I wrote a paper entitled: ‘Parliamentary decisions concerning major environmental developments are moral issues, and moral issues are granted conscious votes’. During Parliamentary debate Ms Singh drew from that paper, (as recorded in Hansard, 30 August 2007, as follows):

Ms Singh (Denison): “I see that as members of parliament we have a moral obligation to future generations to ensure we are environmentally responsible. Decisions we make today will have implications for future generations and it is our duty to ensure we consider what effect our current environmental decisions will have on the lives of people in future generations. This has been best summed up by Dr Graeme [sic] Wood, Philosophy Lecturer at the University of Tasmania, who wrote a discussion paper for me and gave me this example: ‘Past decisions concerning the use of chlorofluorocarbons and the burning of fossil fuels are assumed to have led to environmental effects such as the thinning of the ozone layer. If natural resources are degraded as a result of the current environmental decisions this will reduce the quality of life for future generations.’…”

I am a member of the Centre for Marine Socioecology; this is a collaboration between the University of Tasmania and the CSIRO. Recently, I contributed to the Future Seas Project coordinated by the Centre for Marine Socioecology. The outputs of this project have been published in a special issue of the journal Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries and involve both ‘foresighting’ and ‘backcasting’ in order to identify leverage points that can be used to direct the Blue Economy toward a sustainable future.

Furthermore, I am a researcher on two current projects with the Blue Economy CRC: (1) Ethics, Values and Social Licence in the Blue Economy, and (2) Risks and Opportunities for the Blue Economy. Both of these projects involve working closely with industry and government to help these stakeholders gain deeper insight into and understanding of (not surprisingly) risks, opportunities, ethics and values in the context of the future development of the ocean economy.

On land, over the past 10,000 years, humanity has passed through both the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. These have profoundly changed humanity’s relationship to the land. There are lessons to be learned about what worked and what did not work in those revolutions on land. Humanity is now turning to the sea and equivalent revolutions will unfold in relation to industrial aquaculture and offshore energy production. As we turn to the sea, I hope to help humanity heed the lessons of the past 10,000 years learned on land. And I work with Indigenous scholars to help contextualise humanity’s relationship with the land over the last 10,000 years within a deeper understanding of humanity’s older relationship with both the land and sea.

Finally, (having obtained permission to do so) I include an email I recently received from, Daniel Willmott, a student in the unit Engaging with Sustainability in 2022:

“Hi Graham, now that we have reached the end of the semester and all the marking is completed I just wanted to personally thank you and the teaching team for making HUM111 such an engaging, interesting and challenging unit! This is the first unit for me in the Diploma and it has given me an excellent foundation for the remainder of my studies.

I also wanted to pass on to you an example of how your teaching is having a practical impact. I am fortunate to be part of the Environmental Advisory Group to the City of Mandurah, one of the largest regional councils in WA. One of the issues we discussed today was the impact of a large colony of Little Black Cormorants (LBC’s) that are nesting in a large tree in the centre of the city. Some residents had complained about the birds, and the council was seeking feedback from us on whether the birds should be influenced to nest elsewhere or the nests removed. Based on some of my learnings from this unit (intrinsic value, participation, engagement, group work, etc) I was able to lead the advisory group and the attending councillors and environmental officers through a discussion on the intrinsic value of the LBC’s, whether the anthropocentric rights of humans should subsume the rights of the LBC’s, and that there should be a philosophical framework in place to underpin future decisions. It was a good discussion that extended to several other bird-human interaction issues the council is dealing with. The outcome is that council officers are going to prepare a policy / philosophical approach on how these issues should be handled, and I have been asked to assist. If it is OK with you, I might come back to you down the track for some advice/suggestions!

Thanks again! Regards, Danny”