SEI Celebrates it’s 6 Month Anniversary

Our co-directors, Professor Iain McCalman and Professor David Schlosberg, reflect on the growth of SEI and where we’re headed next.

Our Vision

The Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) launched 6 months ago to address the key questions of our time: first, how do we understand and redesign the fundamental relationships between human communities and the natural world that supports them; and second, how can people and societies adapt positively to environmental change?

The final two instalments in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) trilogy have spelt out loud and clear that our relationship with the nonhuman realm is on the rocks. The work of the SEI has focused on much of the damage done, and our blog has documented the state of the wreckage. The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by CO2 induced sea level warming and acidification, global food insecurity is increasingly becoming a reality and migration patterns will be altered by a changing climate. In addition, we are culling sharks, dredging reefs, removing heritage protections from forests and greenwashing corporations. However in addition to mitigation, we also want to illustrate positive models of adaptation, including issues such as food security, positive approaches to considering the anthropocene, the role of corporations and the planning of local councils.

We created this institute because we wanted to draw upon the strength of a diversity of great thinkers in the environmental humanities, social sciences, technologies and natural sciences at the University of Sydney, so that we can work out where this human relationship with the natural world went so wrong and consider how we can use creative knowledge and research to rebuild it.

Seven research nodes have joined together to help make our vision a reality:

Humanities for the Environment Mellon Australia Pacific Observatory (HfE Mellon)

Sydney Network on Climate Change and Society (SNCCS)

Food People and the Planet

Maricultures Environmental Research (MER)

Cities Network

Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN)

Human Animal Research Network (HARN)

Each of these networks of academics has been dedicated to both their own research and to the growth of the SEI through the development of new collaborations. For example, SNCCS, under the guidance of Professor Rosemary Lyster, has established a productive relationship with the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law and Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes’ leading natural hazards research group. Colleagues in the Food, People, and Planet node, including Associate Professor Bill Pritchard, are at the heart of new initiatives on food security, in partnership with the Charles Perkins Centre. And Professor Chris Wright has pushed BERN to be a growing model, both in Australia and internationally, for a productive approach to sustainable business practice and design.

Establishing SEI has not been without its challenges there is still far to go in both developing research collaborations and addressing real problems, but we’re proud of our fledging foundations.

Sharing Ideas to Shape the Planet

We have been privileged to bring together some of the brightest minds from a variety of fields to share their ideas on environmental change at the University of Sydney. Some of the most significant include the lecture by world renowned Emeritus Professor, scientist and activist Dr. David Suzuki. His talk, in collaboration with Sydney Ideas, considered the importance of diversity at the genetic, species, ecosystem and cultural level for long-term resilience and adaptability. We’ve also sought to draw many experts together through symposiums that stretch across multiple days.

Our Encountering the Anthropocene Conference examined the new age of the Anthropocene and what it means from a variety of different perspectives, from geologists and biologists, to artists and historians. It was a powerful attempt to reconcile the natural and technological science of climate change with the environmental humanities and social sciences. The Marine and Maritime Research Festival is another example in which scholars of the sciences joined with those of the humanities to consider the health of the oceans, their rich history and the bio-cultural and ecological communities of the coast.

We also hosted major thinkers and doers from across the pond, including our first visiting fellow, Jennifer Newell, who is the Senior Curator of Pacific Ethnography at the American Museum of Natural History. We have also co-hosted speakers with NGOs and creative organisations like, Terracycle & The Living Room Theatre. In addition to strengthening cross-disciplinary intellectual engagement amongst academics and research centres from across the globe, we’ve also sought to engage the community and society. Our most recent event on the second component of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report is a strong example of this. We invited the nation’s leading experts to discuss the implications of the publication. Our panel consisted of four speakers, including Professor Lesley Hughes of Australia’s newly formed Climate Council who was a lead author for the UN’s IPCC Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports. We also provided resources that aimed to make the content of the report more accessible. In addition, we are gradually building a broad library of publications written by our colleagues and executive members of SEI. From exploring the incredible past of The Reef, to Feeding India and examining our Climate Challenged Society we are collecting unique ideas that seek to shape the future of our planet.

The Future of SEI

So what next? SEI will continue with a flurry of activities in the remainder of 2014. In addition to events planned for World Environment Day, we are planning a Sydney Ideas panel and symposium on Geoengineering in July, our second visiting fellow – the political philosopher Will Kymlicka, who will lead events on animals and social justice in August, and a workshop on the future of environmental movements in September. SEI will host the annual meeting of the Australasian Agrifood Network in November, and will co-host (with the Charles Perkins Centre) an interdisciplinary seminar series on ‘food@Sydney’ throughout the second term. For next year we are in the initial stages of planning an international conference on Governing Adaptation.

Along the way, we will be finishing up a host of publications coming out of our recent events, including two edited books made up of contributions to the Anthropocene conference and a series of essays from the Maritime conference. We will continue to engage our colleagues across campus in our efforts to develop strong interdisciplinary relationships and demonstrate the crucial nature of environmental humanities and social sciences. And we will continue on our blog to provide expert commentary on current policy issues, from sharks and the reef to climate change and environmental justice.

We aim to establish a global reputation for environmental studies at Sydney, to produce groundbreaking research, and to engage Australian and global audiences on issues crucial to the human relationship with the environment in which we are immersed.

We have been greatly inspired by the number of people, from a variety of public and private sector backgrounds, who have generously and eagerly involved themselves with our institute. As we enter an unprecedented age in which humans shape the very life processes of Earth, we look forward to more people participating in these important conversations as we continue to grow.

To stay connected with SEI why not join the conversation on Twitter & Facebook, sign up for our newsletter, and come along to an event. We are a fledgling institute and grow better thanks to feedback, questions and conversations, so feel free to email us at too.