It was wonderful to be a part of the Global Ecologies – Local Impacts conference at University of Sydney last week, co-hosted by ASLEC-ANZ and Sydney Environment Institute. The conference brought together scholars from the humanities and social sciences and was truly interdisciplinary in scope. Keynotes ranged from an incisive take-down of the discourse of ‘resilience’ in climate change adaptation plans (Petra Tschakert) to a lucid exploration of ecocriticism’s practical challenges for writers (Richard Kerridge). And yet, the conference never felt disjointed or scattered in its interests. The trope of the Anthropocene (though never deployed uncritically) worked as a uniting thread throughout, tying together the global narrative of anthropogenic climate change with highly local stories of environmental (in)justice, care and hope. It made me ponder whether, twee as the slogan now sounds, ‘Think Global, Act Local’ was right all along.

For me, the most resonant paper was Alice Te Punga Somerville’s powerful keynote ‘Somewhere the Sea’. Crafting together postcolonial thought, Maori literature and contemporary socio-political conflict over water in a beautifully constructed paper, Te Punga Somerville put a potent question to the conference: ‘Who is in your ecology?’ Scholars writing about multispecies entanglements have welcomed birds, plankton, whales and algae into our ecology, but have we welcomed gods? Have we welcomed the sea – not just as a metaphor but as an actor itself?

Te Punga Somerville argued that any truly inclusive ecology has to take spirituality seriously. She ended by calling for environmental humanities scholars to engage more closely with indigenous scholars; to recognise that doing field work is no longer the only way to engage with indigenous knowledge because, as she put it, ‘it’s in the library.’ It reminded me of the efforts of Philip Morrissey at University of Melbourne (and also Stephen Muecke, among others) to teach the philosophy of men such as Paddy Roe and Bill Neidjie as philosophy, not anthropology.

I presented a 5-minute version of a paper I have been working on in the ‘Slam’ session on Thursday evening. The paper is about the mediated (in)visibility of offshore oil and gas developments, particularly Australia’s vast offshore natural gas developments off the coast of Western Australia and the coral reefs they abut.

In this respect, two other papers at the conference were of particular interest to me: Elizabeth De Loughrey’s keynote ‘Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene’ and Maria Melo Zurita’s ‘A Journey into the Subterranean Anthropocene.’ Both were concerned with the question of how we make visible places that are so foreign and hard to reach that they seem almost ‘extraterrestrial’ (to use De Loughrey’s term for the oceans). It’s a question I hope to explore further in coming months. Thanks to Iain McCalman for his suggestion to look to Charlie Veron’s and Mary Stafford-Smith’s encylopedic undertaking Corals of the World, as one way to begin thinking through how these otherwise isolated and remote places might be brought to the fore.

In partnership with Emma Davies, my fellow ASLEC-ANZ postgraduate representative, I also convened a session for postgraduate students and early career researchers on the topic of developing a career pathway in the environmental humanities. We were very grateful to Iain McCalman, Joni Adamson and Thom van Dooren for their participation in this session as expert panellists. In a future post I will summarise some of the key gems of wisdom they conveyed.

You can download the full conference program here.