Dr Amanda Cahill On Proactively Addressing Community Issues & Acting On Climate Change
Dr. Amanda Cahill is the CEO of The Next Economy and founder of the Centre for Social Change. She has spent nearly 25 years working with inspiring people all around the world to create positive change on issues as diverse as livelihoods and economic development; health and wellbeing, women’s empowerment; and climate change action.
Over the last five years she has been working with communities across Australia to strengthen regional economies by embracing the transition from fossil fuels to a zero emissions economy. Amanda has a PhD in Human Geography from The Australian National University and is an Associate of the University of Queensland and the Sydney Policy Lab.
Amanda discusses a number of opportunities to act on deep-rooted community issues, sharing her strong experience from working in the regions across Australia to create a positive future.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to helping local communities build more diverse, resilient and vibrant economies?
[Amanda Cahill] - My background, actually, was international development. I was trained originally as an anthropologist, and then was working on applied projects mostly in Asia and Southeast Asia; places like the Philippines, Timor, Fiji.
Back in 2014, my work was split at the Centre for Social Change. I was doing some local livelihood development in the Pacific, helping people in villages start community-owned enterprises and address their local economic issues and poverty issues. But in Australia, I was doing a lot of work with climate and environment groups, training them up in how to work effectively with communities and do community organising.
Those two worlds collided one day when I got a phone call from one of the climate activists up in Mackay, saying, "Look, I think we're doing something really bad here because we've got Tim Buckley doing this speaking tour of North Queensland." Tim is a financial analyst, and he was talking about the end of coal. So he was just basically looking at international markets saying all their export partners are moving away from coal. We need to plan for the future.
Because the coal price had been down for two years, people actually believed him, and they were freaking out and saying, "Well, what do we do about it?" They didn't have an answer to that, so they said, "Can you come up and talk to people about how they can do local economic development and deal with transition?" I said, "Well, I don't know much about coal," and they were like, "Don't worry about it. They'll think you're a greenie. They're not going to listen to you anyway." I was like, "Great."
But the opposite happened. I got back to Brisbane, and I just got all these phone calls from local Counsellors and the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and the head of the sugarcane industry saying, "Look, we're not greenies, but we do care about our local community and the economy. We've got to do something about this, and you made sense, so can you come back and help us?"
That was five years ago, and the work's really taken off from there, not just at a regional level, but also with state governments and even the union movement, trying to figure out how we support this change as we move from fossil fuels, and that's coal and gas, to zero emissions across all sectors.
It's a really interesting area to be involved in it, Amanda.
I'm curious to hear then, as CEO of The Next Economy, a few examples of these specific projects that you've been involved with, and how it is that you work with communities to help transition?
There's a couple of different levels. I think we're really still at the beginning of trying to get our heads around what the change means. There's been so much denial that there is a change happening that... It's interesting. When I first started doing the work, I really thought I'd only be doing it for three or four years, and then I could go back overseas, because at that time, the coal price was down, we had numerous reports showing how we could reduce and absorb carbon emissions across all sectors, we had government initiatives to try and support regional economic development.
It was just like, "Okay, we've got all the ingredients here. Let's get on with it. I just need to create awareness, get the right people in the room, and then we can go from there." Compared to other countries I’ve worked in, we've got no excuse for not tackling this. But in that time, the politics has gone backwards, and we've lost a number of Prime Ministers over our climate policy and energy policy, and it's been really frustrating. But at the same time, the work on the ground has been… often I get invited in, sometimes by local councils, sometimes by industry, sometimes by community groups, and they say, "Can you help us think through what this means for our region?"
Sometimes it's a presentation. Sometimes it's a round table where I get business and government leaders in the room to actually look at what are the things that they've already got in place around reducing emissions across energy, land use, transport, manufacturing, waste areas. And then starting to do that planning around what's missing here? What are the gaps? What would help investment flow so that these actions that are already happening can actually really take off?
The other part of the work is if there is a group that wants to start something on the ground. For example, down in Gloucester there was a group that wanted to start a community-owned renewable energy project. We can hook them up with the expertise that they need to support that group to get going. In that case, we linked them up with a community power agency who helped them get going. They’ve now got three community energy projects in that town up.
That's the kind of thing that we're doing. It's a lot of helping people understand, looking where the opportunities are, and then linking them up with the resources that they need to do that work.
It's a really interesting body of work, Amanda.
You've spent a lot of time in the regional areas as well so I'm curious to hear your perspective on where you see Australian communities struggling the most?
I think there's so many different challenges. Of course, it's different from region to region, but there has been some themes that are across the board.
Over the last 25 years, we've seen services slowly taken out of communities. We've got ageing populations, and young people leaving, high unemployment and under employment. And then on top of that, the increasing natural disasters that people seem to get; really long term droughts, and then suddenly you'll get hit with a flood, like in Townsville.
They're increasing in intensity and frequency as well. But it's just the nature of work has changed. Even when people have jobs, they're often employed in very precarious conditions. All of these things are compounding to actually make people feel quite vulnerable on a number of different levels.
What action do you believe Local, State, or Federal Government needs to be taking to ensure that those regional areas, Australia in general, and our future generations prosper?
There's so many different issues, and so many different things.
Should we extend the podcast for an hour?
The first thing, fundamentally, is actually admitting that we've got a problem, and that we can be proactive in addressing a number of these issues.
What action do you believe Local, State, or Federal Government needs to be taking to ensure that those regional areas, Australia in general, and our future generations prosper? [Continued…]
I think that's probably the first thing, because a lot of the polarisation that we're seeing in regional areas, that really became apparent in this recent federal election, is because people feel abandoned. They don't feel like anyone's got their back, and so actually having leaders that go, "Okay, we've got some challenges here, but we also have solutions."
There is an economic opportunity here in acting on climate change. We can create jobs by doing the work that we need to do around climate change.
In terms of building long term infrastructure that's going to support the changing transport patterns, for example, or supporting shifts in farming, because we might not be able to have cattle farming in some areas anymore, but we could have nut trees, which is actually what the export market is demanding.
There's all sorts of things that can actually shift us to where we need to go. But that actually does need government support. I was in a federal inquiry a few years ago and the biggest advocates for renewable energy and getting climate policy right were actually large energy companies, which really surprised me. They're saying there's so much money ready to move, but when government keeps changing its mind and getting rid of climate policy, it actually makes it really hard to make long term investment decisions.
We need our leaders to say, "Right, we're going to tackle this and we're going to work to make this happen, and we're going to bring everyone along with us."
Absolutely. So what advice then would you give to the changemakers working hard on the ground, who are really focussed on tackling these local issues?
There are so many amazing people everywhere I go. I keep going to communities thinking, "Ah, this is the town that's going to run me out of town." But actually, I find the opposite. Most people get what I'm saying and see it as common sense, and just getting on with the job. They're people across government, and industry, and social enterprise, and community groups. There's actually a lot of activity, so the advice is…
actually look at what you've got going in your local community and keep going, because it's good, and start to try and find out where you can connect with other people to share some of those lessons learned.
Because there's actually a lot of people like you across Australia and the world that is trying to tackle these issues.
That's nice, succinct advice. I'd love to hear about a few inspiring projects that you're aware of, that you believe are creating some really positive social impact, and demonstrate innovative new ways of tackling social and environmental issues.
There's so many. Good examples for me are initiatives that are based in local community, that have justice at their cause, and looking at ways where we can start to shift our consumption patterns and our production patterns, so we can actually operate within planetary boundaries, and that those initiatives are very grounded in local place, but then connected out.
I think probably the best and the most well known example, in Brisbane anyway, is Food Connect. Because they're taking on so many different issues. They've got a practical solution to a problem, in terms of cutting through the duopoly; the power that Coles and Woollies has in terms of control of our food system. They are giving farmers a fair price, they are building a community around food connections through the shed that's just been purchased through equity crowd funding. They've got other initiatives that have social justice housed in the shed. They're supporting First Nations food businesses.
They're meeting a need through what they do in the day-to-day, but they're actually building an ecosystem of other people who are also sharing their vision for how the economy could be, which is the people and planet. They're looking at zero waste, so it's how do you build all of those principles into how you operate? It's not like some social enterprises are like, "Oh, we'll just donate some money. We'll donate the profits to charity and it doesn't really matter how we operate up to that point."
They're actually fundamentally, in everything that they do, trying to build in principles around democracy and justice and the ecological sustainability into everything that they do.
Tackling it well at a systems level.
Yeah, and then connecting up with others, which then increases the impact from there. There's examples like that across lots of areas, like waste different housing projects around Australia. There's actually quite a lot happening.
Absolutely. Our audience can listen to an interview with Rob Pekin and Emma-Kate Rose.
To finish off then, what books or other resources would you recommend to our listeners?
There's a lot. If you haven't seen it already, the 2040 film has come out recently. That was done by Damon Gameau. I think that's a good one, especially the area that I work in;
we can act on climate change and actually have a better future. It doesn't have to be all doom and gloom.
That's a really nice, inspiring entry point for people. Then they've got a website and a whole lot of outreach resources that people can follow-up with.
There's a book by Kate Raworth, who's in the film, called Doughnut Economics, which is a really good reframing of the economy. Take Back The Economy is another good tool; it's a little handbook for people who are really interested in economic democracy and how to build a different climate economy. Also Drawdown by Paul Hawken, in terms of all the different things that we can do to act on climate change. There's 100 solutions that were developed by 200 scientists around the world. It's also just really practical list to go, "Well, what can we start doing in our own local economy?"