In June 2020, Commonwealth Climate Resilience Network (CCRN) member Dr Ben Campbell from the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, UK, facilitated a virtual visiting fellowship exploring the impact of climate on livelihood and resilience.
Initially designed to take place face-to-face, the fellowship was converted to an online series of workshops designed to stimulate discussion virtually, drawing from multiple perspectives from different disciplines across Durham University, and members of the CCRN.
Ben is Degree Director of the MSc Sustainability, Energy and Development at Durham University, having spent much of his career as an anthropologist thinking about climate change, sustainable development, and integrating different forms of knowledge into his teaching.
Initially, his research interests lay in indigenous agricultural systems. He then went on to look at environmental knowledge and understanding the relationship between conservation patterns and conflicts that were happening with indigenous peoples. Over the last decade, Ben has worked on renewable energies, travelling to Nepal to explore renewable energy possibilities to replace the use of biomass. Two years ago, he joined the ACU’s CCRN and since then, has been thinking about climate change and livelihood issues in a new context: small island developing states, the South Pacific and the Caribbean.
At a CCRN meeting in Jamaica in July 2019, Ben was gripped by the commitment to climate action shown by fellow network members and the hosts at the University of the West Indies (UWI). He felt it was an area that he too could make a difference in, having worked on social theory of the environment and resilience for several years on modules in Durham.
He also had a fortuitous meeting with Leigh Cobban, from the African Climate Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town. Impressed by her engagement with different concepts and approaches like climate ethics, environmental humanities, climate change and its meanings for people in different communities, he invited Leigh to take part in the fellowship.
Now an independent consultant for ACDI, Leigh’s research interests centre around the competencies graduates need to thrive in a climate-changed world. She is also interested in how lecturers’ worldviews and life experiences impact what, how, where and who they teach. As well as this, Leigh is interested in how processes of colonialism have impacted our feeling of connection to one another, and to the planet. Having enjoyed Ben’s perspective on teaching climate change, she was keen to learn more about ways of teaching climate change at Durham, and so agreed to take part.
A dialogue across disciplines
During the virtual fellowship, the virtual workshops featured lecturers from different departments across Durham University, describing how climate change features in their courses and teaching. The workshops also included some ACDI staff and other members of the CCRN, including UWI and Fiji National University.
The idea of facilitating dialogue across different disciplines was paramount throughout the sessions, exposing participants to a rich range of perspectives including lecturers in physics, archaeology, anthropology, and primatology. Colleagues from UWI also shared insights on literature and the film about climate and the Caribbean. As Ben describes:
‘A kind of ‘methodological empathy’ is needed for taking on debates and intellectual engagements around the difficult topic of climate change. We need multiple perspectives because no one discipline is going to have the answer. It absolutely requires collaboration across disciplinary formations.’ - Dr Ben Campbell
The second workshop focused on student learning experiences. Students from different levels, including Undergraduate, Masters and PhD were brought together to have conversations with each other, explain their ideas and research plans.
For the third workshop, the focus was on regional knowledge. Different subject experts were invited to present examples of their own research in the context of the Caribbean and the South Pacific’s different small island states.
Ben describes that for the most part, climate science has mainly dominated discussions of climate change and climate resilience. However, in recent years there have been interesting debates going on in the social sciences and the humanities:
‘[In] areas of environmental humanities there’s all the interesting entanglements that researchers across different disciplines have been getting into, to try and understand climate change and its meanings for people in their lives and different communities.’
As Ben explains, if we are to encourage innovative climate resilience livelihoods, understanding the socio-cultural angle and local indigenous mindset is integral to the study of climate change and resilience:
‘There’s a particular kind of origin story for the climate change debate, which is made in the policy circles of the global north. But if you’re up a mountainside in the Himalayas, or on an atoll in the Pacific, climate means a different kind of thing. Unless you engage with what the local environment means to people, and what their understandings of change, causality, agency in their own frameworks and their own terms of reference, what the local registers for these changes are, you’re never going to be able to effectively enhance the possibilities for resilience. It has to come with a consensual buy-in from the people on the ground.’
Commenting on her experience, Leigh described the workshops as:
‘Such an enriching experience. A really thought-provoking set of interactions. I enjoyed bouncing ideas back and forth with Ben, hearing from his students, and hearing from such a rich range of disciplinary perspectives. ACDI’s Deputy Director and ACDI masters course convener joined the workshop and said it was very helpful for thinking about ACDI’s own master’s course and furthered our understanding of transdisciplinary research and teaching.’ - Leigh Cobban
In addition to establishing a broader network of people talking about climate change and livelihoods, a key outcome of the virtual fellowship will be a research paper detailing the process and what was learned from running the workshops. To assist other universities and CCRN members with designing collaborative curriculum projects, a draft module outline for teaching climate change focusing on small island states is also in the pipeline.
It is clear that a nuanced study of climate change and resilience involves a complex intersection of disciplines. It is heartening to see how the virtual fellowship, and ACU’s CCRN, is enabling knowledge sharing across borders and disciplines. Through interdisciplinary collaboration such as this, universities – and the people who study and work within them – can work together to solve the global challenges that define our time, and act as a catalyst for building a more climate-resilient world.