10 Questions with Editor David Humphreys of the Open University

  • 2015-12-08

What's the main idea that has motivated your work?

That as academics we have a responsibility to speak not just to our students and to other scholars but to the public at large. If our ideas are to matter they must be picked up by, and influence, as wide an audience as possible. I work in the public education sector in the United Kingdom and my position is funded from the public purse: I consider that I have a duty to speak on matters of public importance. Today there is no more pressing public welfare issue than global environmental change. As scholars we should be speaking out about this and standing to make a difference.

Where or when do you find yourself most productive?

I can find myself ‘on a roll’ at any time of the day. Sometimes this is very early morning. But generally speaking I am most likely to peak around late afternoon and early evening.

Who have been your biggest heroes/heroines? And why?

Too many to mention. Some are Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, David Korten, Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein, Kalle Lasn and David Bollier.

I was fortunate enough to see Arne Naess give a lecture in 1997 before he passed away. He ploughed a furrow that many of us continue to tread. Amongst politicians I would choose Aung San Suu Kyi and Al Gore. I sometimes wonder what a different world it might be if things had gone differently in the 2000 presidential election.

I’m a big fan of Australian rockers Midnight Oil. They have done more for the environment and aboriginal land rights than any other musicians, and they wrote some fine tunes as well.

John McMurtry has arguably been my biggest intellectual influence. He is a Canadian philosopher and I have just finished reading the second edition of his classic book The Cancer Stage of Capitalism. His thesis is a simple one, but it is brilliantly and eloquently argued: there are similarities in how cancer cells multiply and in the process degrade their life hosts, and how private money sequences (such as stock markets) multiply, in the process eroding the social and environmental health of the body politic. McMurtry is not simply presenting an analogy: his book presents a compelling diagnosis in which he details the similarities between cancer and unregulated capitalism. Read it and you’ll see.

What most excites you right now?

The opportunity of carrying forward the great work of Amareswar Galla in setting up Common Ground’s On Sustainability knowledge community. Amar has led this community for ten years and he will be a difficult act to follow, but I’m relishing the challenging of taking forward the community and its journals.

What's the best idea you've come across lately?

Rights of nature.

I was fortunate enough to be in the UN General Assembly in 2009 when Bolivian president Evo Morales made his speech declaring that 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it was time to recognize the rights of nature. I have since researched this area, and what I find fascinating is how contemporary Earth jurisprudence fuses Andean culture, in particular beliefs on Pachamama (Mother Earth), with legal debates from the United States, including Christopher Stone’s seminal paper “Should trees have standing?” Rights of nature is not yet an idea whose time has come, but it is certainly gaining acceptance and momentum.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to the field?

How to affect change: in education, in business, in politics, and in society at large. I have found useful here the work of Paulo Freire and Richard Kahn on ecopedagogy and the transformative power of scholarship to achieve change in society. We in the education sector need to be thinking of new ways to teach our students how to reflect upon their own agency in the social world, and how they can achieve change for the better as citizens, consumers, employees and family members. And we need to build the knowledge communities that will enable this.

How has the field changed over the course of your career, and where do you imagine your field might be in 5 years?

The acceptance of the concept of the Anthropocene (the notion that we now live in a new geological epoch where humans are the dominant force for planetary change) is the single biggest change in sustainability studies over the last five years. There is some discussion on when the Anthropocene began - 1750 with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; the early twentieth century with the invention of plastics; and 1945 with the first nuclear explosions, are three of the dates mentioned – but very little debate now that human activity today will leave traces in the geological record. Climate change is now recognised as the number one problem that humanity faces, and unless determined political action is taken we will cross a tipping point (and may already have done so) that will lock us into future change for decades, possibly centuries. These are the changes that everyone in the field of sustainability should be thinking about and tackling. I would like to think that in another five years those of us who work in the field will have made some serious progress in shifting behaviors and practices to a more sustainable and viable basis. That certainly should be our aspiration.

What have been your own challenges throughout your career?

I came to academia late in life (late-30s) and struggled in the early years to get established.

What would be your advice to a young scholar?

Use the talents and skills you were born with and have developed so far in your life to make a positive difference in the world. Be all you can be.

What are you most proud of in your work?

My second book, Logjam: Deforestation and the crisis of global governance, grappled with some complex ideas, including how neoliberalism shapes and delimits international environmental policy, in the process depriving it of its transformative potential, and how economically powerful transnational corporations can be subjected to localized democratic control. And in 2015 my work on forest policy over 20 years was recognized by the forestry community with an honorary fellowship from the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

In terms of teaching I would choose the most recent Open University module that I helped to produce, an interdisciplinary module called Environment: Sharing a dynamic planet. I worked with some committed and talented colleagues and we produced a multimedia module that I consider my best teaching achievement to date.