Perspectives on the GSI Masters residential

By Rebecca Robinson and Ema Saltone, MSc Global Sustainability Solutions students

“Visualising new and complex ideas in ways we haven’t before” by Ema Saltone

When the group of us entered the Kaleider studios on a Monday morning, having barely covered the welcome lectures and just about able to remember everyone’s faces, we had little idea of what to expect from the residential. It was all still new, still somewhat daunting, but also exciting.

We were welcomed with free coffee – a smart trick to get at least the caffeine addicts in a good mood from the start.

With a group of blinking, wide-eyed students entering our habitat for the next three days, we began with introductions, as well as presentations from companies who were keen to work with us. Which was reassuring – it may be quite nice to be potentially employable.

With lifted spirits about our future careers, we got on with lectures and tasks that made up the residential. The parts I enjoyed most were interactive practical activities, which helped us to visualise new and complex ideas in ways we haven’t before – it was quite inspiring to feel your old understanding of the world tear apart as you learn to see the world in new ways. These tasks have planted seeds of new ideas which will probably influence the way I think for a long time.

I appreciated having been able to get to know others on the course throughout the residential. We worked in teams or pairs on most tasks, and so it was nearly impossible not to have spoken to mostly everyone. Not only spoken, we were pushed into a circle and forced to shake hands with everyone – quite literally. It’s not a scary as it sounds though, even the most introverted of us seemed a lot livelier afterwards. And – we knew everyone’s names by the end – something that I have not experienced during undergraduate studies (when 300 people in a lecture hall meant only speaking to the two people you met on the first day. So, this was a nice change).

Perhaps it was the amount of information that was blasted through our minds, or maybe just a summer without assignments having crippled our educational fitness, but the three days at the Kaleider studios were shattering. However, we have witnessed the excitement of the faculty and the external partners about our course, which made it hard not to get infected with the excitement. We were also given useful information to be ready for the course ahead. So, if not for anything else, the residential was useful as a memorable introduction to what awaits us, providing us with a frame of mind that I believe will benefit us throughout our studies.

“We had the opportunity to learn from people with a diverse range of backgrounds and saw how we could fit into the bigger picture of global sustainability” by Rebecca Robinson

Our week started as all good weeks should, with strong coffee. We were welcomed into the Kaleider Studio and settled in straight away to our jam-packed week of workshops, lectures and networking.

The residential covered a broad range of topics from how to define the Technosphere to looking at the implications of a new geological epoch. The studio was an excellent working environment and gave us the opportunity to branch out away from campus.

Our first afternoon was the chance to meet potential companies to complete our internship with. A unique aspect of the MSc Global Sustainability Solutions programme is the dissertation. Instead of completing an academic dissertation we are given the option of turning this into an internship with an external partner. During the afternoon we heard pitches from companies about their current sustainability issues and research options we could collaborate with them on.

For example, the Devon County Council representative was keen to find out what the barriers are to recycling and potential options for how they could be improved. The scope of the company’s pitches were wide ranging and offered a broad selection of topics from construction to sailing. We were then let loose to network with the partners and discuss potential internships for the Summer.

Day two’s focus was on ways we can discuss and teach climate change. We were introduced to the dialogic approach and the bicycle model for climate change education at school. We were shown the importance of co-production and how the effect on everyone needs to be incorporated into the method used. The afternoon was an introduction to systems thinking, showcased through a series of games and practical activities. The day concluded with a session on how to make changes by choosing the appropriate entry point. We were shown the importance of language, humour and conveying a positive message.

The final day gave us the opportunity to build on our understanding so far and start thinking about our group work to come. The morning’s topic was prosocial behaviour followed by an exercise looking at how we wanted the future to look vs how to get there.

These three days were the perfect opportunity to delve into the course content in an engaging but relaxed format. We had the opportunity to learn from people with a diverse range of backgrounds and saw how we could fit into the bigger picture of global sustainability.

Deep Time Walk: Sidmouth Science Festival

By Daneen Cowling and Tom Powell

Discussing Snowball Earth overlooking Sidmouth

A week in advance of Earth Science week, Devon saw the arrival of the annual celebration for science in the seaside town of Sidmouth. The event hosts various engagement and educational activities across the spectrum of science, utilising the Sidmouth landscape as creative learning spaces. The Sidmouth Science Festival ran between 4th-13th October 2019.

This year scientists from the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter had the opportunity to lead a Deep Time Walk through the wooded paths across Sidmouth’s red cliffs. Dr Tom Powell, who specialises in how humanity interacts with the Earth system and Research Masters student Daneen Cowling specialising in deep time coastal carbonate weathering, together led a bespoke Sidmouth Deep Time Walk. Content was inspired by experiences on Deep Time Walks led by Dr Stephan Harding, and interactive storytelling on the Deep Time Walk App. Tom and Daneen were also able to inject their own knowledge into the conversations along the walk, as well as incorporating Sidmouth and Devon natural history to the walk.

Science was not the only input, creativity and engagement with science and the natural environment was also culminated from consultations with Anne-Marie Culhane. Using her experiences from her own innovations for Earth Walking and other events, we were able to cultivate an immersive activity educational and engaging.

Walking Deep Time

Meeting outside the Sidmouth Museum, we were greeted by a large group of enthusiastic walkers. Introducing the GSI and ourselves, we then explained the creative and scientific thought journey behind the walk story and route. Setting off towards the cliff we paused moments later to discuss the formation of the solar system. Starting from the absolute beginning, 4.5 billion years ago. Pushing on towards the coast we immersed in the chaotic birth and building of the foundation of our planet and its orbiting moon.

Wet and windy, fitting as we talk about the chaotic start to Earth’s existence

We then transgress the molten rock world to a chemically interesting and active planet. One by which the environment controls how life can soon arrive, adapt and evolve. As we gained elevation we also gained in the exciting stories and revolutions that Earth has witnessed through its history. From the arrival of life, the creation and crusting Earth surface, and the many episodes of climate extremes such as the several episodes of Snowball Earth – an ice enclosed Earth onset by runaway feedbacks, escaped by CO2 buildup from volcanism.

Further into the woodland trails, sheltered by the wealth of vegetation blanketing the floor and sheltering us from the encroaching rain, we entered the geological periods controlled by the rapid evolutions and diversifications of life on Earth. Exploring the extensive arrivals of new species in the seas, soils and skies as we walked, punctuated by shorter walks with no stories as we symbolise the scale of rapidity these changes took force. Reaching the Triassic period we were conveniently paused on top of High Peak cliff overlooking the red desert sandstones, aiding the visualisation of how the landscape would have looked at the time, as well as the different dominant species.

Descending back to the coast we whizzed through the relatively rapid geological periods that followed the Triassic, soon to arrive at the Holocene and the arrival of man. To contribute to the understanding of speed at which humans took the reins of planetary-scale environmental influence, we gave out Deep Time Line that represent human history (20,000 years) along the scale of a 10cm ruler. From the first evidence left by humans, it was not long until we were in the thick of the industrial revolution. From species extinction, global chemistry changes, ecosystem reductions and management to the uncontrolled emittance of CO2 triggering a human-made climate change acceleration, in such a short period of Earths history we have had geological scale influence, so much so we’ve created our own epoch; The Anthropocene.

Returning back to the coast we paused to panoramically view the landscape ahead of us; rolling hills with geometric hedges and patches of woodland, punctuated by clusters of houses. With this view we asked the group to spot an area that has not, in some way, been influenced by humans. Unsurprisingly, we came to the realisation we were looking at a very “unnatural natural” landscape. Shrinking down from the global scale of humans on the environment, it was clear to even be evident locally, which raises one of the many questions: Is anything natural anymore? Land management right down to the species of trees we want to grow for timber has varying impacts, in some cases able to introduce new species and ecosystems, but at the expense of the previous and the species that once thrived.

Overlooking human influence and management on the Sidmouth landscape

To finish the walk, Tom ​demonstrated ​a ‘​complex systems’ game ​introduced to us by Robin de Carteret. ​With all members of the group standing in a circle, we impose one simple rule; each person has to choose two other members of the group and remain equidistant to them at all times. This produces chaos as everyone moves to positions themselves with respect to their two chosen people, but gradually settles down as a stable arrangement emerges from the system. This brilliantly demonstrates the kinds of dynamic systems we study, in which stability can emerge as a result of dynamic interactions. We used the idea to demonstrate some of the characteristics of the Earth system by assigning a role to each member (e.g. rainforests, CO2, ice), and experimented with what happened when one or more parts of the system was perturbed by asking the people representing CO2 and rainforests to move slightly. At first this caused small ripples through the system, causing everyone to slightly adjust their position before stability was found again, but with a larger perturbation chaos ensued again, and the whole system broke down before eventually finding a new stable state. Finding this state does not happen on the same timescales for each “experiment”, as this depends on the resilience of the system and its efficiency to bounce back from perturbation, which captured the sensitivity scientists must account for in models.

The Sidmouth Science Festival was another success for engagement and educating, definitely with added enjoyment while doing so! Sidmouth will also be hosting a Clean Growth Event next February with more collaboration with the University of Exeter, so keep your eyes peeled.

To learn more about engagement and outreach opportunities with the University of Exeter Global Systems Institute, please contact:

Tom Powell t.powell@exeter.ac.uk | Daneen Cowling dc456@exeter.ac.uk

To find out more about the organisations mentioned, please follow the links below:
Anne-Marie Culhane: Creative environmental and art projects

Stephan Harding: Deep Time Walk

Robin de Carteret: Interactive activities to connect with the natural world

Sidmouth Science Festival

The Cogs of Gaia

By Mike Maunder, Executive Director The Eden Project & GSI Visiting Fellow

I was trained as a citizen of the Holocene and spend my career working in Holocene institutions striving to consolidate their role in the Anthropocene. When I was a student it was made clear that species extinction was an aberration restricted to exceptional and fragile places like oceanic islands and restoration ecology was narrowly focussed on the return to a historical model. How things have changed and how fast they have changed.

Gaia informs us that life drives planetary systems and that we are now the species that drives ecosystem and global change. As such we are the reckless author of the extinction crisis. We also know that species, whether bacteria, plant, fungi or animal, are the cogs in Gaia’s swirling mechanism. For most people the cogs of Gaia are invisible and as such profoundly under-valued.

Let’s explore two topics at this conference in honour of James Lovelock’s Centenary.

Firstly, how can species conservation and large-scale ecosystem regeneration be better used to manage global systems? Can we use it to rebuild or bolster the recycling of elements?
In thirty or so years I have seen ecological restoration jump in scale and scope from the small fenced plots on oceanic islands to landscape scale projects such as the Everglades Restoration project in Florida or the vast rangeland restoration initiatives of the Northern Rangeland Trust in Kenya. These projects wrap together concerns about endangered species with social issues, disaster mitigation and economic growth. A few nations, such as South Korea, have to a large extent rebuilt their natural capital through reforestation, and many African nations have made impressive tree planting commitments through the Bonn Declaration (although we fear the eucalyptus may dominate these new landscapes). Perhaps what is most impressive is that these large-scale landscape improvements have been driven both by global agencies and the initiatives of local communities. An inspiring example being the transformation of degraded farmlands through agroforestry by farmers in the Sahel.

Secondly, how can the reductionist biological institutions of the Holocene work with the Gaia model to better orchestrate and inspire a prosperous Anthropocene? Historically we have created taxonomically defined biodiversity institutions and what we need are networks of institutions that collectively promote a good Anthropocene. Can we harness the expertise of the zoo, natural history museum and botanic garden to celebrate the planetary engine, life, and to influence the way we value our lives and values? Part of the problem is that current funding models for key institutions can create a domestication of the mission, where the ultimate planetary impact of an institution is undermined by a focus on income generation. Perhaps it is time to reinvent these funding models.

In the last few years two projects have given me hope. One is a small-scale community project in Baringo, Kenya, that supports farmers to convert profoundly eroded bush into profit making hay fields using native grasses. The other is the healing of the native forests and watershed of Limahuli Valley, Kauai, after the installation of stock proof fencing and the clearance of rats. Both projects have consolidated the cultural identity and wellbeing of the local communities, reduced the vulnerability of those communities to flood, drought and erosion, and they have kick-started an extraordinary resurgence of biodiversity.

Perhaps we have reached the point where conservation and ecological restoration can contribute to both improving the lives of communities and contributing to planetary scale challenges. The science is clear and the extraordinary metaphor of Gaia adds urgency and romance to the need for action. Yet we need the networked institutions who will champion the agents of a good Anthropocene, the innovative communities working to regenerate the cogs of Gaia, life.

Mike Maunder

A reflection on zero carbon Exeter, Natalie Bennett and activism – Malwina Grzesikiewicz

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the ‘What Would a Zero Carbon City Look Like?’ talk with Natalie Bennet, organised by the Global Systems Institute and Transition Exeter. The event was well attended, with the lecture theatre packed full, and some concern from organisers that too many people would turn up for the number of seats available.

It was wonderful to see so many students and residents taking an interest in making our cities more environmentally friendly. Natalie said very early on that when discussing climate problems she aims to focus on hope, and the diverse audience certainly perpetuated that feeling. It often seems as though there is no dialogue between students and the local community in Exeter, so it was great to see this common interest in tackling climate change; and a sign, surely, that collaboration between students and Exeter’s permanent residents could bring Exeter closer to ending its dependence on carbon.

The event highlighted a range of initiatives that aim to achieve this target. We first heard from Transition Exeter about the range of community projects that they oversee, all aiming to reduce Exeter’s carbon consumption. Their projects, which offer creative ways of reducing carbon dependency, are definitely something to check out. This was followed by a notice from students involved in Youth Strike for Climate, who at the time were helping to organise the Fridays for Future school strike which took place on March 15, 2019. These school strikes, which have now happened twice in Exeter, are part of a much broader movement aiming to pressure local and central governments to take more decisive action to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and prevent the climate disaster that we are otherwise heading towards.

It was then Natalie’s turn to speak, and her message was both insightful and uplifting. Without diminishing the dangers of the impending climate catastrophe, she presented its prevention as achievable. She cited studies that demonstrated the feasibility of reducing our carbon consumption and the positive effects of such initiatives on society as well as the environment. Importantly, she made it obvious that instead of framing sustainability in terms of sacrifice, we should instead look forward to the benefits that it will bring to our society.

Progress towards a zero carbon city can be gradual and organic; relying more on buses, cycling, and walking while reducing the number of cars in use, pedestrianizing roads, and shopping at independent shops that source their produces locally. Of course engagement and active support from governments would be key to the success of this initiative. We would need to insulate all homes to reduce dependency on heating, increase the accessibility of public transport, and ensure that the interests of local businesses were protected over those of international corporations.

The benefits of reducing our dependence on carbon would be immense. Apart from helping us reduce the rate of human-caused climate change, there would be more noticeable and local benefits. Anyone who has walked or driven through Exeter at rush hour will know how congested the roads are. Relying on buses or walking would reduce traffic, making public transport more efficient and our streets safer. Walking and cycling would also be beneficial to our physical health, increasing the time we spend exercising while reducing the pollution and congestion on our streets. Depending on local businesses would ensure that more capital remained in the local economy, stimulating entrepreneurship and projects that supported and were responsive to the needs of the local community. A message which I found particularly inspiring was that zero carbon cities are dependent on everyone feeling empowered to work with their neighbours and colleagues to build a city that they wish to have. This collaboration and support within the community is truly something to aspire to.

The talk was followed by a long Q&A session which helped to highlight local concerns about the viability of a zero carbon Exeter. Questions were asked about how to best encourage shopping in local and independent shops, establish a circular economy, and introduce sustainability and conservation into school curriculums. Concerns were raised over the alternatives to carbon and the problems relating to the necessity of travel and the expense and inaccessibility of public transport. There was considerable interest in how to best promote making Exeter a zero carbon city, and how viable such a project was. A dominant theme in Natalie’s answers was that progress towards zero carbon was more dependent on institutional changes than on individuals’ behaviour such as giving up meat or single use plastic. She encouraged living sustainably, but her focus was definitely on the importance of campaigning for institutional change that would make the move towards zero carbon cities possible.

Campaigning, of course, sounds difficult and time consuming, but there is evidence that getting more people involved would not be hard. The Youth Strike for Climate event, which took place on March 15, was motivated by the actions of the inspiring teenager and now a Nobel peace prize nominee, Greta Thunberg. Her solitary protest in front of the Swedish parliament has developed into a school strike which took place in 125 countries and involved more than a million students. So small challenges to institutional inaction can lead to big changes, and there is clearly an appetite for environmental change. It can be seen internationally, but also locally, in the lecture theatre where a group of people gathered to listen about how to make their city a zero carbon city. So sharing the urgent message of climate change, organising, and petitioning governing bodies for more resolute action is definitely something that the inhabitants of Exeter can and should do.

Malwina Grzesikiewicz, University of Exeter Student

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Part 2

22/01/2019 Northern Rangelands Trust HQ, Lewa

It’s just not possible in a 3 day visit to get to grips with the scale of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which comprises 35 member conservancies covering 42,000 square kilometres, let alone in a short blog post. The team here at NRT HQ in Lewa Wildilife Conservancy have been incredibly generous hosts though, and have made sure that our short time has been filled with as much as we can possibly take in.

Having read a bit about NRT’s extraordinary successes and inspiring history, I confess to feeling a little intimidated on our arrival. Flying north around the spectacular stratovolcano of Mt Kenya, over farms built on convoluted ridges of volcanic soil, I wondered what we could bring that NRT didn’t have already. The usual ‘imposter syndrome’ coupled with a sense that these guys really, really know their stuff.

Such feelings were quickly dispelled though, as we sat down with NRT’s executive group to explain why we are here, and to hear their thoughts on what a potential relationship with GSI could do for the community conservancies they support. One thing was immediately clear. There is an enormous appetite here to tell the stories of the interconnected impacts that community conservancies are having; securing peace in a previously volatile region, diversifying and increasing livelihoods in an extremely poor population, restoring degraded landscapes and building resilience against drought and overgrazing.

Managed grazing area in Kalama Conservancy

If we can contribute to understanding and quantifying those impacts better, NRT will be able to use that information in several ways. It can help to build trust with communities and show them that being involved really pays off. It can show funders that their support has had deep and long-lasting impacts. It can show governments that supporting communities to take ownership of the health of their landscapes can provide a sustainable pathway to materially improving people’s lives while promoting biodiversity. And it can help other people in other places to take a similar approach.

What is that approach? In a nutshell, rather than leave conservation to the national government, NGOs and wealthy private landowners, poor communities of traditional livestock herders are setting up conservancies of their own. The conservancies are run by a team of managers and rangers, all community members themselves, who answer to an elected board of decision makers representing a cross section of the communities within the conservancy area. This provides a mechanism for collectively managing grazing, monitoring wildlife and vegetation, deterring poaching and livestock theft, and developing wildlife tourism that brings income directly to the communities. NRT is the umbrella body that provides training, monitoring tools and financial support, and coordinates a rapid response team of rangers who can deploy in case of poaching threats and other conflicts. The management of NRT itself is answerable to a Board of Elders comprising members of each member conservancy.

At the root of the astonishing impact that this network has had is the community-led governance structure, which above all else has provided a mechanism for diffusing conflict between people of the 16 different ethnicities who live in the region. Traditionally, inter-tribal cattle theft and grazing incursions are common and with easily available illegal firearms violent conflict in the area has been a real problem. If you provide the conditions for peace, all sorts of other opportunities open up.

We’ve had a packed 3 days meeting communities, seeing an NRT training session, getting to grips with the monitoring programs and seeing first hand the regenerative power of good grazing management. The one thing I was utterly unprepared for, having read lots about badly degraded grazing land, was the incredible beauty and richness of the Lewa Conservacy where NRT have their headquarters. In two short drives after work we have seen more wildlife than I ever expected to see in my life, including the black rhino that Lewa was originally established to protect. I feel immensely privileged to be here. Lewa is where the whole thing started, and just goes to show what an enormous difference can be made by being open to new ideas and pursuing a vision.

 

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Tom Powell

Everyone should see the world from a plane window from time to time. Seeing the world from a fresh angle is like stepping back from a painting, tilting your head to the side and shutting one eye; it opens the mind to seeing new patterns and making connections that might have been missed. Images of Earth from space taken by the Apollo crews half a century ago fundamentally altered our perceptions of ourselves and the dynamic, beautiful, ostensibly fragile but surprisingly robust living planet we inhabit. Seeing the surface of the Earth from 40,000 feet remains a spectacular reminder that our home planet is a pretty special place.

Watching the sun set over the Nile as we flew across the Nubian desert yesterday evening, the ribbon of water reflecting the light seemed to physically tie the landscape together. In the absence of national boundaries drawn on a map, the river is the defining feature of Northern East Africa and seeing it like this you can almost feel the fundamental role it plays in sustaining, connecting and provoking conflict throughout the region. A patch of huge circular irrigated fields surrounded by the barren desert was a vivid reminder of the vulnerability of the whole system.

It felt fitting to be flying over one of the earliest cradles of human civilisation, of which the foundation of the entire culture was the seasonal rise and fall of the river waters, on our way to talk to people who are finding new ways to build sustainable relationships with their landscapes and ecosystems in a world in which humans have become a global force.

With my colleague Becky Stedham of The Landscapes and Livelihoods Group, I’m in Kenya to learn about two organisations who have developed models for communities to take ownership of the conservation and restoration of the ecological health of their landscapes. In doing this they are increasing and diversifying their livelihoods and becoming more resilient to climate change and other dangers.

A peaceful Sunday morning in Nairobi before heading North

First, we are travelling North from Nairobi around the flanks of Mt Kenya to visit the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT); a group of community conservancies who together cover a vast area of Kenya. Following that we will be spending time with The International Small Group Tree Planting Program (TIST), visiting members who farm smallholdings in the volcanic soils surrounding Mt Kenya and Meru. Partnerships with organisations like these are really exciting opportunities for us to work with groups having truly significant impacts in their communities and landscapes. Our goal is to get to know them better and begin to understand how they work so that we can start to explore how as a research community we can support them in monitoring, understanding and extending their impacts.

Building relationships with people experiencing the day to day and year on year challenges of environmental and social change is at the core of what we want to do at the GSI. In doing so, our intention is that we can use our research capacity to support them in understanding the changes taking place and developing useful responses. The funding for this trip, from the UK Government’s  Global Challenges Research Fund, is intended to support the development of these relationships and it’s fantastic that such opportunities exist. We also want to learn as much as we can about groups that seem to be doing really well at connecting the wellbeing, opportunities and resilience of people with the ecological health of the landscapes they inhabit. If we can understand something about why these projects are so succesful, then we may be able to help others build these kind of win-win approaches elsewhere.

So for now, we’re really excited to be heading north early tomorrow morning, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about the NRT in a few days time!