Cultivating space for listening

14 September 2020
Cara Jeffrey reflects on the themes of trust, ethics and understanding that emerged from the second Interdisciplinarity in a More-Than-Human World workshop held last month.

By Cara Jeffrey, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney

As a scientist, I’ve never been exposed to a lot of philosophy in science, but in the Interdisciplinarity in a More-Than-Human World workshops, I‘ve enjoyed the opportunity to twist my perspective on topics I’d never considered exploring. On day two, Sophie Chao opened with a quick recap of the first day’s ideas, including the importance of building personal relationships in these collaborative settings, and practicing generosity and patience. She emphasised that none of this work can be done on the individual level, and in order to collaborate we must also focus on maintaining trust, particularly when faced with conflicting ideas or styles of thinking.

Arian Wallach and Danielle Celermajer

Arian Wallach begins by explaining that her initial interest in ecology came from a place of justice. Coming from Israel to Australia, her views were challenged by our take on ecological conservation, particularly destructive management of pest species, such as the controversial brumby culls. Australia has a long history of managing invasive species, made difficult due to the numbers of native species they impact, and the sheer cost of the effort. In 2011-12 national expenditure on invasive species was $3.77billion, 40% higher than a decade prior.Wallach and Danielle Celermajer collaborated on a project observing how donkeys interacted with the Australian environment, and Arian explains that this collaboration made her a better scientist, allowing her to ask questions she’d never considered before. Celermajer expresses “one of the beauties of having someone come in from another discipline is they have that innocence of asking questions that you’ve stopped asking” — a concept I relate to strongly after moving from marine biology to botany. While their different fields mean these two attack problems through a different lens, Celermajer explains their connection formed through “a commonality of an ethical perspective, rather than a particular set of knowledges”, noting there was “so much potential for misunderstanding each other” and that they both needed a strong sense of humour to connect and create a comfortable space for listening. This collaboration is obviously not without challenges, and they spoke candidly and kindly about their different writing and presentation styles, as well as the need for trust. Wallach says that now that she has moved into an interdisciplinary area, she no longer wants to go back to pure science, her perspective has moved from black and white into a more ‘shades-of-grey’ mindset.

Brad Moggridge and Emily O’Gorman

A proud Kamilaroi Nation man, Brad Moggridge states that he is “living the dream” with his professional success, and the weight of this statement is tangible. Focussing on Indigenous water rights, Moggridge provides a quick backdrop to Australia’s waterway crises, from algal blooms to drought, fire, and coral bleaching, firmly asking “when will Australia give us a go”? He explains the colonial desire for Indigenous knowledge in the 1700s and 1800s, but points out that post-settlement, this curiosity plummeted. Now, “we’re always impacted by decisions that exclude us” and Moggridge points out that even though the Australian Indigenous culture is the oldest outside of Africa1, its people have no water voice, and no allyship from the government.  The issue of Indigenous water rights is just another example of the disrespect shown to the nation’s First Peoples. Australia remains the only country in the Commonwealth to not have a ratified treaty with its First Nations people. My family history actually dates to the first fleet, and with that heritage, and my background in the marine realm, this issue brings guilt, but also direction. What can I do going forward in my career to help this and related issues? The crux of the issues faced by Indigenous people when interacting with policy makers, says Moggridge, is that “our storytelling is always perceived as myths and legends… and that moves traditional knowledge from the realm of science”. This is particularly sad considering Indigenous people used a range of sustainable agricultural and aquaculture practices, as well as being the oldest astronomers2, and yet I know from my own schooling that the education system often fails to include Indigenous stories and knowledge in curricula — I did an entire degree in marine biology, with no inclusion of Indigenous management of the lands and seas.

Emily O’Gorman’s research is about “more than human histories”, and she worked with Moggridge providing an on-country workshop in 2019 to discuss with local people the need the make space for Indigenous voices, and support initiatives to find new ways to make connections for water managers. These workshops were rich and dynamic, asking “how can Aboriginal people have more sustained and meaningful input into water and environmental management?” and “how can we enable healthier Country?”. These issues are more than human, explains O’Gorman and intergenerational. It’s clear a lot of kind and careful thought has been used in this project and within this relationship.

In building these collaborative relationships, we have to think critically about how our partner will respond to topics that may be sensitive and consider whether they need you as an ally or a teammate.

1. Hoffmann, BD, Broadhurst, LM (2016) The economic cost of managing invasive species in Australia. NeoBiota 31
2. Tola, M (2016) Composing with Gaia: Isabelle Stengers and the Feminist Politics of the Earth. PhaenEx 11, 1-21.

Cara Jeffrey is a second year PhD candidate with the University of Sydney, studying heat tolerance in chickpea. Cara has a background in marine biology and aquaculture, and wants to build her career using genetic methods to improve food sustainability. She encourages all university students, particularly postgrads, to think broadly, take risks, and never discount an opportunity.

Header image: by Photoholgic on Unsplash.