Reimagine. Recreate. Restore.— is the theme of World Environment Day this year. It’s a day that recognises that while we can’t turn back time, we are the generation that can take action to reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.
In this Q&A, we spoke with Dr Ed Morgan, a Griffith Research Fellow at the Cities Research Institute, about his research in developing landscape planning for ecosystem-based climate change adaption and forest protection to support sustainable community development and climate change mitigation.
What sparked your passion for this area of research?
When I was growing up, the environment was in the news a lot—the destruction of the Amazon, climate change, pollution. Crucially, I was taught and came to understand the links between environment and society—we are totally dependent on the environment. Everything we do to it ultimately impacts on us and the ways we live. We aren’t separate from the environment but part of it and we need to think and act accordingly. My research is about understanding our impacts and finding ways to live better within the limits of the environment.
Naively, I also thought these problems would be easy to solve. I remember seeing a news report on climate change when I was around 12 years old and thinking how easy it would be to solve—just stop greenhouse gases. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be working on the climate change area 30 years later!
‘We need to recognise that change is going to happen—it’ll either be forced upon us by crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss, or we can choose to make changes and manage it in a way that minimises disruption and supports positive change in other areas.’
Why is research in this area important?
Forests, and especially what we call primary forests—those that haven’t been disturbed by significant industrial extraction—are vital ecosystems. They are a crucial part of combatting climate change and biodiversity loss globally. They support water supply and water quality regionally and they are essential sources of ‘food, fuel and fibre’ for local communities, not to mention their cultural importance to many people. Unfortunately, forest loss and degradation are still major and increasing problems—as shown by recent events in the Amazon and elsewhere. This deforestation is often driven by a conventional industrial pathway based on extraction and usually fails to support the wellbeing and livelihoods of the local communities. However, the communities want the benefits of development and aren’t presented with alternative choices other than increasing extractive exploitation of the forest.
This research is important because it is about both protecting these forests and helping improve community wellbeing. Because the project focuses on forests it works across some very different contexts. My focus is on developing countries—forests in the Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Melanesia. Working in these contexts is a real challenge and at times confronting but it’s also an incredible opportunity to help bring about positive change.
My research is part of a global collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to protecting these vital forest ecosystems. The project includes ecologists and data-scientists creating a better understanding of forests, people influencing international policy on climate and biodiversity and economists developing better evaluations of the benefits of forests. My role is to research participatory planning and governance—how people, especially communities, can choose to protect their forests and put in place the mechanisms to both protect the forest and benefit from this protection. If the forests are benefiting us all, local communities should be rewarded for looking after them. This needs innovative methods of valuing, governing and planning forests and development.
What is the real-life impact of your research?
Over the long-term, the research will hopefully lead to better protection of forests, while at the same time support sustainable community development for communities that own and manage forests, especially those in the developing world. The research will develop pilots of alternative development approaches that use forest protection as a way to create incomes and development for communities—sometimes called a ‘conservation economy’.
In the short term, the research is generating vital evidence to influence international and national policy on forests and climate change and identifying new and better ways to value, plan and govern forests and development. Also, and probably most importantly, by working participatively with communities we are building capacity to empower them to improve their governance and planning.
What are some actions individuals can make towards raising awareness and protecting our environment this World Environment Day?
There are lots of simple day-to-day changes we can make—reducing our consumption is probably the biggest, but also recycling, reducing our energy use, buying renewable energy, talking to your friends and family about why it’s important. There are bigger ones available to some people—move your superannuation to a ‘sustainable’ fund, get solar panels and buy sustainable, organic and ethical products. Then there are more ‘political’ ones—join movements, go on marches, get involved in activism.
All of these have their problems and will attract criticism, none of them are perfect but they are all important. The challenge for many people is increasing their action—we can do the simple ones, but the bigger ones are ‘hard’. However, many of us are enormously fortunate and wealthy on a global scale and so we need to take responsibility.
Personally, I think the most important one is to rethink our lifestyles to reduce our impact on the environment. This is sometimes about sacrifice but can often be about positive change too—choosing to use the car less and eating less meat can mean more exercise and a healthier lifestyle.
Ultimately, we need to recognise that change is going to happen—it’ll either be forced upon us by crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss, or we can choose to make changes and manage it in a way that minimises disruption and supports positive change in other areas. That’s the choice we face and it is growing ever more pressing. I passionately believe most of us can reap benefits from living within the limits of the environment, if we choose to.
There are no easy solutions, but the fundamental problem is the straightforward one my naive 12-year-old-self understood—we do have to stop doing certain things like burning fossil fuels, polluting, destroying habitats. The difficult part is working out what we really value so that we can keep and improve these important things as we change.
‘I believe the future of research and academia lies in collaboration and teamwork. Finding good genuine collaborators and building a team of people who are not only good at research/teaching but also good at being in a team, is a great way to manage the challenges.’
What advice do you have for PhD researchers/students and researchers?
Research is hard and academia can be a difficult place to work—especially at the moment as it is undergoing change and isn’t always seen as that important. You have to be passionate about your research (and teaching) and you have to look after yourself—and these can pull you in different directions. There is always more work to do—another paper to write, another idea to turn into a proposal, another student to help, another committee to be on. Also, by its nature, research means being critical and so it is easy to feel constantly under scrutiny, from yourself and others, and the precarious nature of it means you feel the need to constantly justify yourself. Finally, the positive impacts of your research may feel a long way off, especially when working in environmental issues, and it is easy to question your value and impact. Finding ways to manage demands and achieve what you think is important is vital, but not always easy.
Personally, I believe the future of research and academia lies in collaboration and teamwork. Finding good genuine collaborators and building a team of people who are not only good at research/teaching but also good at being in a team, is a great way to manage the challenges, but it does mean asking yourself—am I a good collaborator?
Interested in learning more?
Read Dr Ed Morgan’s research about developing landscape planning for ecosystem-based climate change adaption and forest protection on Griffith Research Online.