Laura Schuijers will be facilitating a discussion at the youth session on integrated landscape approaches.
Fresh-faced out of high school, like so many of my peers, I didn’t know what I wanted to “do with my life”. These were the days before “interdisciplinary” degrees and “breadth subjects” were really much of a thing in Australia, and, not wanting to give up either sciences or humanities, I chose to undertake the rare combination of a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Laws. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going to head with it, but if you’d told me then that ten years later I’d be doing my PhD on the intersection between science and law, and teaching first-year grommets myself, I’d certainly have told you to get your head checked. Partly because dedicating myself to so much study would have seemed very unlikely, and partly because I’m pretty sure time travel isn’t possible (…yet).
As my studies progressed I began to notice that the two disciplines were teaching me very different ways of thinking. Scientists were comfortable with uncertainty in a way that lawyers weren’t. Lawyers, accustomed to deferring to scientific “experts” for the answers, frustrated in the fact that environmental problems seemed increasingly associated with unknowns – after all, it’s pretty hard to govern the unknown.
Not sure where this was all heading, I took a semester off in my fourth year, and my backpack and I decided to head over to South America. Months on end of some the most incredible landscapes I’d ever seen, traversing from deserts to lakes, jungles to prairies, and mountains to shores, gave me an appreciation for this earth that nobody could ever have taught me. I slept in hammocks and under the stars (and let’s be honest sometimes on buses and airport floors), and I saw the strain on the landscapes that were resulting from the conflicting pressures of growing economies, expanding agriculture, tourism, and the need to produce more and more food and energy. I met indigenous people and heard their stories of ancient connections to mother earth. I didn’t come back with any answers, but held tight to a new motivation.
After I graduated I started a Masters, which I completed whilst working towards my admission to the Supreme Court as a young environmental lawyer. Apart from having barely any time to sleep, I found that commercial law wasn’t giving me enough space to explore all the ideas I was interested in. When you’re caught up in advising how things are, there’s not as much time to think about how things should be.
After earning my qualifications, graduating once again, and saying goodbye to handsome pay-checks, I began my doctoral thesis. I’m looking at how we predict environmental impacts, and how decisions can be made in the face of uncertainty. I’m not convinced that the law does a very good job at taking account of things which can’t be quantified, things that don’t follow a linear cause-and-effect model, impacts that are complex and emergent. There’s a law for mining and a law for conservation and a law for forestry, but how do they all speak to each other? In facilitating discussion at the Global Landscapes Forum on integrated landscapes approaches in practice, I hope to get a conversation started about some of these key issues, which I identify as being major challenges to implementing a landscapes approach.
A question I often get asked is, “don’t you find environmental law a bit depressing?” And another question I often get asked is, “can I have an extension on my assignment?” The former is because people’s perception of the future of environmental sustainability is fairly negative; the latter because I teach part-time, and students these days are pretty busy. I’d like to change the negative perception. Working with young people, listening to their ideas about the world they want to create, I can’t possibly say my work is depressing. It’s a critical time, sure, but rest assured there is hope, and every day after teaching classes, there’s a sparkle in my eye and a smile on my face. I’m motivated to pursue opportunities to talk about change, with people whose frustration and cynicism fuels a desire to take action rather than give up.
And so eight years after the journey that changed the course of my life, it seems fitting that I’ll be back on South American shores for the Global Landscapes Forum in December. I’m looking forward to hearing what other young people from around the world have to say, and encourage everyone who can to participate in the discussions through social media to share your ideas, hopes and concerns.
Laura’s participation in the Global Landscapes Forum Youth Session is sponsored by the Jack Westoby Fund at the Australian National University.
This is part of a blog series profiling youth and leadership in landscapes. Tell us your youth story – submit blogs to [email protected].