(extended interview - Winter 2010 newsletter)
Dr Ruth Beilin is an Associate Professor in the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne. She has more than 20 years of experience within the amalgamated institution, with a teaching and research position within the Department of Resource Management and Geography as a Landscape Sociologist. The focus of her work to date is on everyday landscapes and 'ordinary' people - policy frameworks, planning institutions, resource use - in a landscape context centred on human interaction with 'space' and 'place'.
Dr Beilin is also the Deputy Director of the Office for Environmental Programs(OEP) at the University, which focuses on environmental education and research and offers interdisciplinary courses through the Graduate Environmental Program.
Dr Beilin has been a member of Greenfleet's National Advisory Council for one year and prior to that she was a member of the Greenfleet Board for 4 years.
She was a member of the Scientific Reference Group for the Victorian Government's Our Natural Future paper on biodiversity and land use change under climate change (2007-9). She was also a member of the 'expert panel' for the Future Farming Strategic Panel with the Victorian Government's Dept of Planning and Community Development in 2009.
What attracted you to offer your support to Greenfleet?
Initially I just wanted to offset my car use. Then I joined the Board of Directors because the offsets were going to involve communities planting trees and I wanted to be part of the discussion. The planting of trees is only a small part of what we call biodiversity, and I wanted to talk about the plantings as part of a bigger landscape change. The other part of it is that my work experience before joining the University was in community environmental change so I thought I could also link the offset plantings to Landcare type activities in the countryside.
Has the number of people studying the environment at the University of Melbourne increased over the past few years?
At an undergraduate level the number has increased dramatically because we now have a new undergraduate degree called the Bachelor of Environments which enrols just over 800 students a year! These students will choose from 11 majors in the interdisciplinary degree, and all of these majors (engineering, architecture, geography,landscape management, landscape architecture, planning, environmental science and so on) are incorporating ideas about environmental change and shifting our way of engaging with the environment to interact in more sustainable ways.
At a postgraduate level the Masters of Environments, which engages all the University's faculties in its programs, has more than 270 students enrolled,and while most are part time, the level of engagement and activity is intense and creating momentum both in their daytime work places and across the University.
I think these programs indicate a recognition within the University and from students and society in general that the way forward needs to be significantly different than what we have been doing. This fundamental change in expectations about what university courses should provide extends to rethinking the way we learn and how we understand the creation of knowledge systems. Key to this thinking is the recognition that the environment poses 'wicked problems' that require interdisciplinary thinking and an understanding of our role in complex adaptive systems.
These are exciting times academically and bode well, I think, for the future.
You have extensive academic and research experience into the social impacts of landscape change, at a local and international level. What are the key impacts to Australia?
We know that environmental degradation has a long tail. We recognise that something needs to change,a practice or way of managing a landscape, and we put in place changed ways of doing things such as you see with riparian zone management associated with Landcare farmers in many places in Australia; but the long term effects of the initial degradation are still playing out and their effects make it seem like we are not making progress. On the contrary, I see that land managers are generally paying attention to the kinds of conservation practices that they can incorporate with very little support from outside incentives.
As well, I note that we are learning as we go about what successful revegetation mixes comprise, developing local solutions rather than imitating a template of tree planting like we did initially in the late 80s and early 90s. So from the point of view of change, I think the next big change has to be to the type of production systems we are engaged with here. The segregation of production and conservation landscapes is archaic and we need to think in terms of social and ecological systems that reflect the landscape in which they are located.
I am involved in a three country study on land use change and agricultural land abandonment and we recognise that there big changes coming into play with market forces changing as well as a focus on food security in the EU, in particular. Nation states are turning back towards bioregional food production and services. Economies of scale may no longer be hitched to creating increasing surplus but rather for maximising local development that connects to global initiatives when these are appropriate and disconnects when they are not. This kind of systems flexibility is new and will take some rethinking and restructuring.In Australia, what are now marginal production areas based on the current economic model may not be in the future.
In the meantime, marginal areas in the current system may be revegetated with indigenous flora increasing our overall vegetative coverage which has to be a good thing.
In your opinion, do you think improved environmental education could significantly reduce climate change and why?
I absolutely think that environmental education assists with understanding what is meant by climate change and importantly assisting us to be climate adaptive in the way we conceive of and build our houses, in the role we play as consumers of 'products' and in the changing of social norms so that we live in more sustainable ways and consider our role in managing resources for the future generations.
What actions do you take at home to reduce your emissions?
We are very lucky in that we live on a 2 hectare block in the Dandenongs. This gives us a lot more options about how to live in our residence. Our house is supplied from rain tanks. We have no mains water. We have compost toilets upstairs and down and the compost that eventuates every couple of years goes into my terraced vegetable garden-which has amazingly productive outcomes. We live 10 minutes from the train station and we carpool to the train station and take the Belgrave train to the city. It is great on the way in because we get a seat-much tougher when you are tired at 5.30 pm and there are no seats till Heathmont!
In the workplace?
We recycle our paper in all the offices. I turn out lights or don't put them on if it is a sunny day. I never ever buy a plastic water bottle. I use a jug and glasses in my office to provide water to visitors and students. We have a new system in the Student Union where you can opt for real china plates to avoid plastic and then help with the cleanup.
We often focus on the threats associated with climate change, where do you think the opportunities lie?
Australia has to be the world leader (eventually) in technology and innovation associated with being a first world nation with the capacity to do the science and make the leaps associated with better environmental products for the future. Solar and wind power come to mind and similarly geosequestrationï¿½ We are world leaders in design. We need to harness our ideas to sustainable change.
Climate variability leads to thinking about changes to the way we currently manage our natural resources. We really need to rethink the governance issues associated with food and its distribution. I think a variety of issues are coming together that will lead to some system changes and these changes are both shocks to the current way we do things and opportunities for change. In this way the slightly anarchic local food movements seem to me to have real potential-not to scale up-but as Tim Jackson suggests in Prosperity without Growth, to maintain and build local level collaborative bioregions and communities.
What are your hopes for the future?
The movie Avatar suggests that when we have finished 'stuffing up' Earth, we can go to Pandora and keep on, keeping on there.
My hope is that we can rethink how we do things here-let's start by conserving agricultural land races and understanding ourselves as part of nature and not separate to it.
Greenfleet supporters are taking the first steps towards a self-conscious reappraisal of how they live and the resources they expend. We need to support that kind of thinking so that real change is understood to require individual commitment as well as being linked to governmental determination to lead in this area.