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Southern Reflections on Sustainability and Rio

Bologna University, founded 1088, is the oldest university in the world, in that the word universitas was coined at its foundation.

SMOG* (The Sustainable Management of Organizations Group) organized a small conference with Bologna’s economics school in 2009. The cultural differences in knowledge exchange became apparent from the first plenary. In Oz, such a plenary would be usually presented by a renowned scholar with a substantial time at the end for questions and discussion.

Here, however, we had four eminent male Italian scholars holding forth in the plenary session with no allowance for questions or discussion. It reminded me of Christopher Pyne presenting the opening address at an international education conference in Canberra soon after the Liberal National Party had taken over government in Oz in 2013. No questions allowed; Pyne giving the impression that he was the only one in the room who knew the truth about international education. Sad really.

The papers presented at the rest of the Bologna conference were generally insightful. One that still sticks in the mind involved interviews by a Chinese background woman from Curtin Business School of high-level managers in Shanghai on China’s environmental laws. China has some of the most rigorous laws on environmental protection world-wide, but the research showed that the managers generally flouted them, the problem with a very much centralized top-down system.

My paper was very much an outlier. As I’d said to the Faculty of Economics committee that hired me, if they wanted a geologist, China scholar, and historian and philosopher of science as their Teaching Quality Fellow, I was happy to help. My paper reflected these areas of study in that it juxtaposed the environmental history of China with that of Oz using traditional Chinese dili (principles of the earth) theory with the problems with the ritualisation of knowledge and Mark Elvin’s concept of the logic of short-term advantage as a focus.

An international sustainable development conference was being held at Utrecht University a few days after the SMOG Bologna conference, and I’d submitted the same paper to gauge its sensibility to a wider audience. It was accepted but had strangely been allocated to the final session of the scientific modeling stream.

On the first day at the morning break standing somewhat bedraggled drinking coffee with an old bearded long white-haired Swedish scholar, we were joined at our table by an immaculately besuited gentleman of perhaps Persian background, who was keen to discuss the difficulties of sustainable development .

When he discovered that I was from Oz, he pointed out that Oz per capita was the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases. This was news to me at the time, and I postulated that perhaps it was partly due to the egalitarian nature of Oz culture, which gave our besuited friend pause to reflect.

We all adjourned for the next plenary, which to our surprise was delivered by our besuited new friend. He turned out to be Tariq Banuri, the director of the UN Sustainability Unit. His basic argument was that we all should start thinking of the Earth as one island. My Pacific islander background immediately intuited its cogency. The islanders had to make difficult decisions to enable a sustainable lifestyle over the long-term.

Nevertheless, the discussion after the plenary fell into the differences between developing and developed economies. Though I give credence to these arguments, in terms of sustainability, unfortunately no economy is developed.

My paper was strangely well attended. I came to understand the reason for its allotment to modeling: the fengshui model though initially empirically based, became ritualized over time such that the model became more important than the observations on which it was based.

This emerged in the discussion following my presentation as a salient warning against placing too much faith in models. Another point to come out of the discussion was the meaning of the long term. Most of the audience admitted that they didn’t think past their grandchildren as a timeframe, which was agreed to be too short term. The paper was sufficiently well received by the director of the sustainability unit of the Canadian government to congratulate me afterwards for adding such a different traditional knowledge perspective to our understanding of sustainability.

Perhaps because of this but still completely out of the blue, in early 2010 I received an invitation from UN-Habitat to attend the World Urban Forum on the Sustainability of Cities in Rio.

Getting from Oz to Rio isn’t easy. My flight included a seven hour stop-over in Santiago. The airport had been severely damaged by an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake a month earlier, reinforcing the fact that climate change shouldn’t be the only focus of sustainability.

Services were severely curtailed for the stop-over, but I felt most sorry for the small delegation with the environment minister from Kiribati as their wait was extended in obtaining visas to enter Brazil. Climate change also isn’t the only issue for small island nations.

I was able to secure a serviced apartment in Rio just a block behind Copacabana beach through a friend and co-author, an astrophysicist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I had first met him at the Coopers Arms in Newtown (in Sydney).

I brought him a Resch’s and got into his ear about southern culture as is my wont. To my surprise, he said that he understood exactly what I meant, explaining that he had lived for extended periods under and with astronomical dishes in both Oz (Parkes) and Brazil. We ended up publishing a paper based on fengshui theory and the environmental history of China, arguing that the sucking of resources by the northern hemisphere from the southern hemisphere wasn’t sustainable in the long run.

Rio may be another southern culture, but it is vastly different from that of Oz. There is a palpable tension in the air. On my return to Oz a uni building attendant told me that he had been held up at gunpoint on the very street where I was staying in Copacabana. But he has blonde hair and blue eyes; the islander in me enabled me to go comparatively unnoticed in the Rio melting pot. Moreover, Copacabana beach may be beautiful but small swathes of red tide could be seen in the waves as a warning to the unwary.

The need for beauty within function was understood by the earliest fengshui writers. A site could have a perfect structure in form, but if it didn’t literally have feeling, it was unsuitable

One felt like a minnow in the forum itself with some 30,000 people attending a myriad of seminars and lectures. I stumbled in and out of countless of these until I came upon one with an opening slide that proclaimed the ugliest building in the world. I immediately recognized the UTS tower on Broadway in Sydney, only a short walk from home. The next slide showed an artist’s impression of what is now Central Park tower, a beauty and beast relationship.

The need for beauty within function was understood by the earliest fengshui writers. A site could have a perfect structure in form, but if it didn’t literally have feeling, it was unsuitable. Moreover, a sight might be awash with a positive feeling, but if it didn’t have a viable form, it was also unsuitable.

The research of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reinforces this traditional wisdom in showing that emotion is basic to rationality and critical thinking. I dub where they meet to be the nexus between rationality and emotion and argue that this is the starting point of all great science and art.

But neither tower has achieved the nexus between rationality and emotion if rumor is accurate. Stories of leakage and even rats on the upper floors have emerged about the Central Park tower, and I know too well the brutal functionality of the UTS tower, having taught Libyan hydrogeologists on a UNESCO project on the 22na floor on Friday afternoons for two years.

Such a focus on local form seemed to be most apparent in the Forum in Rio. There wasn’t enough consideration of the external factors that nourish cities. In traditional fengshui theory, just as important as form? (xing) is configurational force ? (shi). Xing is the local landform and shi is the ability of the surrounding topography, particularly mountains, hills, rivers, and streams, to nourish that form.

Thus, the Blue Mountains and the rivers in Sydney constitute the shi for its various landforms. In fact, by the late Tang dynasty (880 CE) this was taken to the continental level with the fengshui writer Yang Yunsong theorising that the fertility of the land in China was due to the Himalayan orogeny to the west and the three major river systems that sprang from it.

In fact, the relationship of place to the broader spectrum has been important in the history of science and is still important today. Meteorology, for instance, found its nascence as a modern science in Oz and the Land of the Long White Cloud because the weather patterns due to the concepts of winter, spring summer, and autumn of the northern hemisphere just didn’t fit well in the southern hemisphere.

A poignant reminder comes from an architecture seminar on building for an aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. The houses were beautifully constructed with great forethought as to the climatic conditions. However, as is the norm in the population centers of Oz, copper pipes were used for the plumbing. Within six months, the plumbing had disintegrated due to the particular salts in the local water supply.

Even with the science of climate change, we have to be careful not to overgeneralize our knowledge and systems.

One needs to remember that during previous warming periods in the geological record whilst most areas would see, say, a sea level rise of three metres, some areas would actually have a one meter fall in sea level due to the geological process of isostasy, where the earth’s crust floats on the mantle, falling and rising depending on density, much akin to the earth breathing. Not that isostasy can be used at all to deny the overwhelming scientific evidence for the human induced global warming that we are currently witnessing. The “breathing” of the earth’s crust just shows that different places will incur different major issues to address if humanity continues on its present trajectory.

The earth changes as a continuum, so must our knowledge of the global, regional, and local as well as their interrelationship if we are to sustain our species over the long term.

*The Sustainable Management of Organizations Group (SMOG), a research cluster that at its zenith comprised 36 academics and 9 professional staff from all of the various disciplines of the former Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney.


Michael Patton

Dr Michael Paton is an associate of the Center for Chinese Studies, University of Sydney. He was previously the Teaching Quality Fellow in the Faculty of Economics and Business, co-founder of the research group Sustainable Management of Organizations Group (SMOG), and Vice President (Asia) of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science. More by Michael Paton


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