Thursday 27 October 2016

academic vs activist

Last week I attended the National Environment Meeting at the University of Sydney, hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute, Greenpeace and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW (previous co-hosts were WWF Australia and ACF).

As the title of this year's meeting - Hope in the Dark - suggests, we were coming together to consider some hard realities of the struggling climate movement and the role of activists to provide hope, and remain hopeful, for the public we regularly address.

There were a number of fascinating sessions on environmental justice and sustainability in everyday life (like food and shopping), and the panels included both activists and academics. A key aim of the day was to generate research questions for academics that would provide activists with knowledge they need to effectively campaign.

Aside from the wonderful ideas and debates that I heard, I was stunned to hear during the opening remarks that activists and academics rarely come together.

Really? I thought, truly perplexed.

I'm an academic (in-training, at least) and an activist, and I see the two roles as naturally co-existing. And I know a number of other academics who would also classify themselves as activists. My field was created to address issues of social justice - how are we not activists?

During the end-of-day networking drinks I spoke with a campaigner from a leading NGO who reiterated the differences, and suggested that many of the academics speaking at the event would not be able to help with her work. I thought otherwise, and suggested she consider one-on-one conversations with select academics to discuss her specific research needs.

Look, I get it. Sometimes when a 'non-academic' hears an academic presentation you feel like the person is speaking another language. Like many other professions there are particular norms of writing and presenting ideas in the world of academia (which I haven't quite got my head wrapped around yet, either!). But underneath it all, most researchers working in the fields of sustainability and the environmental humanities truly care about improving the state of the planet and its inhabitants.

So why this separation?

I could probably write a thesis on this subject, but since I have another one to worry about at the moment I'll stop here for now and state that I am proudly an activist and an academic. In my experience, the two roles feed off one another. Higher education opened my mind to issues in the world and spurred me toward activism. And working as an activist raised questions that I need answered to be more effective in my campaigning, leading me back into the hallowed halls of the sandstone institution.

For now I'll leave you with a few images that I regularly use in presentations in both my activism work and my academic work, which may give you additional food for thought about the need to transform the way we make and buy fashion.

Roughly 85% of people working in the fashion industry are women -
a feminist issue if I ever saw one! (Photo: Kowtow)

The UN and WHO estimate that up to 77 million people suffer
pesticide poisoning each year from non-organic cotton cultivation.

2.5 billion tons of wastewater are emitted annually in China alone -
a country that produces more than half of all global textiles.

As of 2005, the average American shopper was buying
69 new items of clothing each year.

See you somewhere along the campaign trail (or lecture theatre).

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