Reflections on the 2020 Iain McCalman Lecture

“The message from Dinesh was clear; the devastating impacts of the environmental crisis we have been experiencing in recent months should be the bittersweet opportunity for change,” writes Genevieve Wright.

Photo of Dr Dinsesh Wadiwel by One Ski Digital.

The low whirring thrum of a swinging watering can and flittering bursts of flute and saxophone reverberated throughout the grand sandstone pillars of Sydney University’s Great Hall last week. This surreal yet hypnotic performance by experimental music group Baptism was a fitting introduction to the Sydney Environment Institute’s second inaugural Iain McCalman Lecture, a celebration of the multidisciplinary environmental work conducted by our researchers. As well as recognising the impressive groundwork laid out by SEI’s former co-founder Iain McCalman, who challenged traditional academic methods through his encouragement of transient cross disciplinary research, last week’s lecture also served as a space to engage in a constructive discourse between academics and the concerned general public. As many have witnessed first-hand over the last couple of months, the reality of the climate crisis has hit home for many Australians with catastrophic fires destroying communities and wildlife, harmful smoke choking the air and recently flash flooding swallowing up coastlines and infrastructure. As hundreds joined for last week’s lecture, there was definitely a mutual sense of anger and grief in the room. Professor David Schlosberg, Director of the SEI, met this frustration with a call to action as he introduced the night’s lecture, referencing the work conducted by fellow SEI researcher Danielle Celermajer into the idea of “omnicide” – the purposeful killing of everything.

“While we are tempted to call this a tragedy, that really is the wrong word. Tragedy is something that is due to fate, an unfortunate destiny. But the situation we are in is by design, it’s purposeful… The reality of all this is really a political reality, a result of political and corporate decisions.”

He followed this by recognising that the Institute and University of Sydney hold a responsibility and special role to play in telling the truth about climate change so that action can ensue.

Performing this truth-telling duty for the night was Head of the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Dr Dinesh Wadiwel, whose lecture sought to critique the production systems behind animal-based foods and the social structures that have enforced this violent behaviour. Encapsulating SEI’s multidisciplinary mantra, Dinesh unpacked the historical injustices of animal agriculture, its inherent link to greenhouse gas emissions and the need to shift focus from changes in individual consumption to systemic institutional changes in food production.

Feeling a little like we are living in George Orwell’s Animal Farm where “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” Dinesh recognised that like workers, animals are also part of the labour that creates profit within the capitalist system.

“We have an economic system that will continue to plunder the planet, to suck it dry and watch it burn in the name of profit.”

His analysis of this “metabolic” relationship between animals and humans led to the proposal of a solution that targeted three levels of social change. Here he argued that by combining the growing awareness of meat production’s environmental impacts with the prevailing concerns over the ethics of animal-based food industries, veganism could go beyond an individual lifestyle choice and become a global social movement. The first tier to target in this broader change he argued was government, which holds regulatory power over production and consumption and could allow for a “fair transition” for industries towards a more plant-based diet as part of a broader Green New Deal.

However, recognising that the state has proven to be an obstacle rather than an ally in any meaningful response to climate change, Dinesh proposed a second tier of attack; institutional and cultural change. Here, sites of work, education and family held the responsibility to make it easier for individuals to change their eating habits in the spaces they reside in daily. This point was reinforced by the announcement that the University of Sydney would be launching a Sustainability Strategy later this year, heralding a shift on campus that recognises more plant-based food options and in turn further reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A literal taster of this transition was experienced by the audience with on-campus catering company Host Co. providing delicious vegan canapés throughout the night such as tempeh satay skewers and garlic mushrooms encased in crispy shells. These type of cultural changes, Dinesh argued, could subtly challenge everyday food practices and reinforce a sustainability message of lowering emissions and the systematic violence exposed to animals.

Dr Dinesh Wadiwel speaks to the audience in The Great Hall

Dinesh’s final tier of change focused on the need to build alliances and networks in order to improve bargaining power. Here he envisioned building solidarity between labour movements, environmental groups and animal advocates. His example of wild-capture fisheries in the Asia Pacific highlighted both the injustices of shocking human labour conditions and low wages and the brutally unethical slaughter practices of fish.

“Once we recognise animal agriculture as an environmental justice issue and recognise this as a problem we all share, there’s scope for a variety of interests; unions, environmentalists, animal advocates, community groups to be in conversation about how we transform our food system.”

Coming to the end of the lecture, the message from Dinesh was clear; the devastating impacts of the environmental crisis we have been experiencing in recent months should be the bittersweet opportunity for change.

“I believe we have the opportunity now to make this transformation happen. Our success will depend on the quality of the alliances we can build, our commitment to democracy and inclusion and our ability to articulate a vision for a fairer society.”

Iain McCalman, Sydney Environment Institute Co-Founder and former Co-Director, Dr Dinesh Wadiwel, Research affiliate of Sydney Environment Institute, and David Schlosberg, Director of the Sydney Environment Institute


Find out more about The 2020 Iain McCalman Lecture here.

Watch the full lecture on our YouTube channel.

Genevieve Wright is the Events and Administration Coordinator at the Sydney Environment Institute. Genevieve recently graduated from a Bachelor of Communications majoring in both Media Arts and Production and Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. With a keen interest in the psychological responses to the climate crisis, Genevieve hopes to imbue her creative background into community programs that centre on transforming school curriculum and empowering communities to lead the way to a renewable future.