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ScienceWise - Mar/Apr 2007

Looking at the world on a variety of scales

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Professor Will Steffen of the New Fenner School of Environment and Society

A conversation with Professor Will Steffen on the new Fenner School of Environment and Society.

With so many scientists working on environment related topics at the moment it seems surprising that many environmental problems seem to be getting worse rather than better. It’s hard to escape the feeling that there has to be a better way to approach environmental research, a view shared by Professor Will Steffen, Director of the newly formed ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. I caught up with Professor Steffen recently, and he explained his vision for the Fenner School and its new approach to tackling the current environmental crisis.

Most academic institutions are organised along discipline lines. It makes good sense that scientists interested in chemistry, physics etc. should all work together in their own groups. However, in the case of the environment, this approach hasn’t always yielded the best results. Professor Steffen explains that in his view, “the important thing to look at is not so much individual environmental issues, as the way they interact with each other within the framework of a whole interrelated system”. He believes that there has also been a tendency to study environmental problems with humans set off to one side, when in fact, human culture and society are an integral part of environmental systems. He intends to counter this trend by organising the new Fenner School along thematic lines, bringing together scholars from the wide range of disciplines - across the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities - that are needed to tackle a particular problem. He believes that “issues that are bound together, need to be studied together.”

In keeping with this idea, the new School, like its antecedent units, the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES) and the School of Resources, Environment and Society (SRES), is problem driven rather than discipline driven. Professor Steffen emphasises that the Fenner School brings together policy analysts, economists, ecologists, hydrologists and other scholars under one roof to come to grips with the most complex issues currently facing humanity. It’s naive to expect people to change their lifestyles simply because hard science highlights a problem. Most individuals are concerned with environmental issues but their lives are driven by very real economic and social pressures too, and that’s where the economists and social scientists have a vital role to play. The solutions have to holistic and have to be workable with the resources people have at their disposal. One aspect of Professor Steffen’s own work is the study of cross scale interactions. That is how actions on a local scale affect the planet as a whole and visa versa. In a new study, a Fenner School team will focus on Canberra as a example of a typical modern city and try to evaluate its long-term sustainability in terms of both the acquisition of ecosystem services within the city and its immediate surrounds and the impact of Canberra’s population on ecosystems a long way away.

Almost all the food consumed within the ACT is produced outside the region, as is nearly all of the power. This can lead to the perception of high local environmental quality, while ignoring the direct link to environmental impacts much further afield. For example a recently proposed natural gas fuelled power station within the ACT created strong protests from locals with well meaning concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. However, the city presently sources much of its electricity from coal stations interstate that have a far greater emission of CO2 per unit of energy generated. By studying the environment on a multitude of scales, Professor Steffen hopes to overcome such “out of sight out of mind” factors.

Another aspect of the Canberra sustainability study, undertaken by PhD scholar Luciana Porfirio, is the use of high resolution satellite imaging and computer based techniques to analyse land use/cover in quantitative terms. This will enable the major ecosystem services that Canberra relies upon to be mapped spatially and assigned to particular landscape units. Such work will identify areas, such as the Cotter catchment, where multiple ecosystem services are derived from the same landscape. Such analyses are important to underpin discussions and debates on the inevitable trade-offs that need to be made in managing such multi-use areas.

Although the raison d’être of the Fenner School is the study of contemporary environmental issues, much other important environment-related research and education is carried out in other units of the University across all seven colleges. Through the ANU Institute of Environment, a coherent, ANU-wide approach to environmental work is being developed, with the Fenner School contributing its skills in interdisciplinary integration and synthesis to the ANUIE effort.

The new Fenner School of Environment and Society is based in the Forestry, Geography and Hancock West Buildings.

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