Friday, June 24, 2011

Two week reflection

How am I feeling? Like a real researcher, for once. A researcher who is digging in and doing her due diligence, rather than skimming her way through. At work I am focused, thorough, serious about wanting my study design to be as informed as possible.

Part of it is that I think I've hit on something I really care about-- working with people to develop strategies for sustainable, collective community shaping and meaning making. And exploring whether this can work within the structures (governing bodies, schools, etc.) we've created to handle our public issues. I personally don't have any faith in the market to solve our problems, and I don't trust individuals to consistently look outside their own interest enough to work together to protect the balance of life on Earth. To me there will always be a need for entities to plan for and protect the commons.

If I assume that governing structures and institutions are an inevitability, then my immediate next question is: how do we make them truly of, by, and for the people? That's really what my research is about-- how do we equalize power within a community to facilitate every stakeholder getting what they need?

In resource planning, things can get tricky because it's not just about people anymore-- the non-human environment itself has needs (and intrinsic value and rights, some argue). And let's not forget that environmental needs add up to processes that sustain human life. Environmental and resource management is not an issue like health care provision or community violence where the focus is on people and the solutions lie primarily in the human realm (feel free to argue with me here). Most of those human issues are effected by the environment, but rarely (never?) must the value and rights of great blue herons and gum trees be considered when developing a plan to eradicate polio.

Once you add the environment as a "stakeholder," things get messy. Who gets to represent nature? Government officials will say they are charged with looking out for the environment, but how do they go about this and are their efforts sufficient? The environment is so complex and we don't understand it very well yet, especially the interactions between land, sea, air, and the flora and fauna that live upon and within these mediums. If we don't really understand it how do we ethically represent it? There are plenty of examples of people acting for what they thought was the good of the environment (see: Cane Toad debacle) only to cause even greater destruction.

Some environmental consequences are easy to observe: if irrigators upstream take too much water, the wetlands dry up--> loss of bird habitat--> insect population explodes--> crop output declines, invasive species take over faster. OK, then, how much water is needed to keep an "acceptable balance"? "Well, we don't really know-- it's somewhere between this amount and this amount for these particular wetlands, but that's not the whole story because the Red Gum tree that grows along the bank needs dry periods in order to remain healthy..." and on and on and on. The complexity is awesome, but obviously frustrating to sedentary, agriculture-reliant cultures that need resource security in order to maintain a certain population's lifestyle. Every year we become less adaptable and flexible to nature's fluctuating cycles and needs.

In contrast, take the case of the indigenous people of Australia. As Bill Bryson wrote, "they mastered the continent. They spread over it with amazing swiftness and developed strategies and patterns of behavior to exploit or accomodate every extreme of the landscape, from the wettest rainforests to the driest deserts. No people on earth have lived in more environments with greater success for longer. It is generally accepted that the Aborigines have the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world." I know I'm romanticizing here, but it's difficult to see the numbers and not wonder what they got right. I'll develop this in future posts.

Back to how I'm feeling. Good, and so far able to avoid any feelings of being overwhelmed. I have had no problem getting responses to my email requests for interviews, asking for help from my co-workers, or finding papers to read in order to refine my methodology. My living situation, though tentative, is awesome and comfortable. I get free lunch every day by hoarding leftovers from conferences held down the hall from my office. Every few days the cold weather is punctuated by an absolutely gorgeous sunny day. Australian sunsets are epic. Aaaaand... there are bottle trees!


  1. glad you're liking it and making good research headway! you are missed in AR!

  2. Aldo Leopold would be proud.

    "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
    Aldo Leopold