Future Earth Coasts

FEC Dialogue with Academy Members – Prof. Dr. Bruce C. Glavovic

Prof. Dr. Bruce C. Glavovic, Professor in the Resource and Environmental Planning Programme,  School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University, New Zealand.

Bruce’s research centres on the role of governance in building resilient and sustainable communities. He focuses on coasts and the roles of land-use planning, collaboration and conflict resolution at the science-policy-practice interface. He is co-Editor-in-Chief of Ocean & Coastal Management.

He was Coordinating Lead Author of the sea-level rise chapter in the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019). He is a Cross-Chapter Paper Lead and Lead Author in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. He led the team that prepared South Africa’s White Paper for Sustainable Coastal Development (2000) – the basis of the world’s first Integrated Coastal Management Act (2009).



(1)  Could you share with us what career achievement you’re most proud of?

Thank you very much. And hopefully these reflections are of some interest but also stimulate anyone who’s listening as they reflect on their own career path and make plans going forward. And sometimes I think only when you’ve been working for some time that you can look back and make sense of where you’ve come from. It’s not always so easy to plan deliberately ahead, because circumstances change over time. Perhaps the point of departure is to say what it is I’m doing now because what I’m doing now is a product of where I’ve come from and what I have been doing in the past.

My main work is now based in New Zealand at Massey University. We are focused on coastal governance in particular, how we make choices at the coasts. I focus on natural hazards planning with the particular focus on coastal hazard risk and climate change adaptation, for those three clusters of areas of work. And I’m particularly interested in how we make choices in society and in communities and how we turn intention into action in the face of change. And the term Anthropocene might be familiar to you and to people that are watching or listening. Anthropocene is the human era and it reflects the huge impact that people have had on, you know, cities, towns, but across the world. And I’m particularly interested in how we might bridge science, policy and practice. In many ways, my career has centered on this interface between science, policy and practice. A lot of the work I do is centered on that. So, one of the areas of professional practice because I’ve spent probably close to 12 years in working in government and running a consulting organization before going into academics. For the last two decades have been at a university. So, I’ve worked in the real world if you want to put it that way. Initially in South Africa. I was privileged to lead the team that produced South Africa’s White Paper on coastal sustainable development, which is the policy foundation for coastal management in South Africa, off to the end of apartheid. So, we designed a process that created opportunity for all South Africans, including Black South Africans who have not been part of these policy processes, to have a real voice in shaping the direction of this policy. It became the world’s first integrated coastal management act. That was an incredible privilege to lead that process and involve people across the country in developing that policy and to this day that remains the foundation for how coastal management is delivered in South Africa.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege to play a leadership role in a number of organizations over time. One of those is as co-chair of Future Earth Coasts, which previously had been LOICZ and I’d been vice chair of LOICZ when Alice Newton was the chair. When I was asked to take on the chair role, I was very keen to have a partner and introduced the idea of co-chairs, so there was one male and one female to lead, to be part of the 21st century and to share the load and to benefit from the diversity of wisdom and expertise and insight. I was thrilled that they all came and joined me as co-chair of Future Earth Coasts in about 2015 or 2016. We went through this incredibly challenging time of transition from a time when LOICZ had been very well funded over these long programs, first with the Netherlands and then in Germany to a period where funding was a lot more precarious or difficult and where we sought to build an organization with multiple universities and partners contributing to the development of what became known as Future Earth Coasts. And so that’s where we are now.

In addition to that, in the last assessment round of the IPCC, the sixth persistent round which is just recently completed. I was honored to play a lead role in two reports in the Ocean and Cryosphere report, the so-called special report on Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. I was coordinating lead author of the sea level rise chapter. Then in the working group II report, which focuses on adaptation, vulnerability and impact, I was lead author of the climate resilient development pathways chapter, the concluding chapter of the report, and also co-lead of the cross-chapter paper on cities and settlements by the sea. Detailed but those multiple roles were a tremendous opportunity to have voice in shaping the IPCC six assessment. And that has been the base to, open up a door, I was invited to be a lead author in a chapter of the IPBES Nexus report. IPBES is intergovernmental panel on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the Nexus reported the interconnection of climate change, biodiversity, health, energy, water, and so on. I’m currently involved in that report. And then I mentioned earlier the UNESCO intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission guidance I’ve developed on community-based coastal hazard risk and resilience. So those have been tremendous privileges to be part of.


(2)  As a scientist, what do you think is the most enjoyable experience about your job?

Good question. I suppose in this day and age, what we mean by scientist is something that evolves, as a young student, a lot of the way in which universities were organized was based around very particular discipline. So, if you were an ecologist or a geophysicist, or an economist, there were particular areas within which you work. I was never comfortable being stuck in one disciplinary base. So, I’ve always been interested in working across boundaries rather than being stuck in a particular discipline and trying to connect science, policy and practice is another bridging endeavor. I’ve been both a practitioner and an academic. I think the work I do is really applied research and applied research informed practice and it’s transdisciplinary in reach. I’m also interested in the connection from the local to the global. I’m intensively working with local communities to provide support to navigate the challenges faced in a time of escalating coastal hazard risk. What do you do about this if you live at the coast, especially in a low line? If you’re a vulnerable community. There’s a lot you can do at the community level, but there are also things that are beyond the influence of communities that are shaped by the political economy and global forces and so influencing the global agenda and discourse is also important. I work across disciplines, across science policy and practice, from the local to the global level and in particular, trying to make a difference in helping people understand and address real problems, not just think about stuff that’s interesting but trying to provide ways forward through the difficult circumstances that many faced and I’m particularly committed to working in ways that are enabling and empowering for more vulnerable communities and to focus on processes that are just and equitable, and promote resilience and sustainability for people and the non-human animals that we share the planet with.


(3)  In your opinion, what are the key characteristics of a successful scientist or successful practitioner towards coastal sustainability?

To science, the answer to that will depend on the organization you’re working for and what its mission is and whether you’re effective in helping realize that mission. From my vantage point and the work that I do and what I’m interested in, I’m interested in finding solutions for addressing some of the major challenges that we face both at the local level and for humanity in the planet. And so, to be effective at that means you’ve got to understand ways of bridging disciplinary boundaries. You’ve got to understand ways to do bridge different knowledge. How does science connect with, relate to and marry with local knowledge and with indigenous knowledge? You’ve got to understand ways to bridge the gap between science, policy and practice. So, you know, to become effective in work at that coal phase, that interface between science, policy and practice, you need to understand how to work across those different boundaries, you’ve got to be able to work independently, alone, but also in teams of people from different cultural backgrounds, different language backgrounds, different knowledge backgrounds. The ability to collaborate and deal with different points of view and different perspectives is really important. But underpinning all of that, you’ve got to have passion and commitment perseverance to persist in the face of difficulty and dedication to do that. And at the end of the day, work well with other people, even people you don’t agree with. Well, you may not even like because they’re not easy to work with.


(4)  In your view, what are some of the most pressing conflicts or challenges that arise at the science-policy-practice interface in coastal management and how can they be effectively resolved?

Again, these are the big challenges that face humanity. You know, we live, we’ve crossed the threshold. We now live in a time where we live on a human dominated planet, where global warming is going has taken us into a dangerous climate condition. That is not something that humanity has had to live with in human history. It’s going to get worse. So very, very challenging time. It’s very easy to become despairing and lose hope because the threat is very real to people and to the planet. And it’s not evenly distributed. There are some people in some parts of the world that face much more critical risks than others, including low lying islands that are literally being inundated and will be gone in coming decades.

If we’re going to really make sense of the challenges, I think we have to overcome a number of failures. One is we’ve got to find new ways to reconcile the interest that we have in the short and the long term. This is about current and future generations. If we’re going to rob future generations of resources, of safety, and a prospect, and we are going to rob non-human species of a healthy planet, then we’re going to fulfill our short-term needs, but we’re going to destroy the planet and ourselves in the process. Finding a way to reconcile short and long-term needs is absolutely critical. A second aspect that crucial is we have to reconcile private interest and public interest. Our own personal interest is situated in the context of our species being a social species. We are a communal species. We depend on each other. Even though what’s happening in Ukraine right now? What’s happening in various geopolitical debates suggest somehow, we could exist independent of each other and that’s simply not true. How we learn to honor and respect each other and meet our private needs while reconciling those individual need with wider communal and societal needs is really important. The third element is the relationship between the local and the global. We are connected. We need to think globally, act locally, that old saying, but it’s very real because there are global conditions and circumstances largely centered in the political economy, the distribution of wealth and power. That makes local reality extraordinarily difficult for people who are poor and marginalized. So, we’ve got to find new ways of confronting poverty, injustice, inequity and so on. And that’s at the heart of recalibrating the way we connect the local and the global. And lastly the fourth point I’d make is that we’ve got to reconnect with the reality that we are dependent on a healthy planet. We depend on the well-being of nature. We’re not above nature, we’re part of nature and that’s an incredibly arrogant perspective that the West in particular has fostered in the last few hundred years that we’ve got to work around and that means we’ve got to confront greed and the insatiable appetite to consume and to destroy that compounds inequity and injustice, all of which is centered at the coast because people are concentrated along the seashores of the world. That’s where people want to be. That’s where incredible beauty, resource, assets are, and a lot of the coastal conflict is a product of those features and that we’ve got to confront. So, at the end of the day, the answer to your question might be a bit surprising, but it has to do with values and ethics, and we have to recalibrate the way we think about who we are and what we do.


(5)  Could you share a specific example of a coastal community or region where you witness this positive impact after your work or during your work at the science-policy-practice interface in building resilience and sustainability?

It would be fantastic if we could light up a global map of all the successful community-based endeavors because there wouldn’t be many lights. The trouble is that the cumulative effect of consumerism and materialism and excess has meant that globally we have unraveled the health of many of the ecosystems and life supports systems we depend on and so there are far more bad examples and disappointments and failures than there are examples that endure of good practice. But there are many, many communities doing good work, literally around the world.

The challenge is to sustain those good practices and for them to persist in the face of those wider processes that are driven by dependence on fossil fuels, the desire to consume and be individually wealthy at the expense of equity and justice. Though I don’t want to leave a note of despair, but I know and I’ve worked with communities in South Africa, in Brazil, in New Zealand and elsewhere where people are making a real difference and they are making progress. I have hope in young people, individuals like Greta Thunberg. These are individuals making a global difference. Thus, it requires us to work collaboratively and find ways to overcome the dark side of humanity.

So, the last example I would give you is the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. That’s a long time ago and there’s a lot that needs to be improved. There’s still deep poverty and inequity and greed and so on in South Africa. But the period after the end of the apartheid was a very, profoundly encouraging and positive space to be because people were really working hard together to reconstitute a place that will be a better place than where it had been. And so, the White Paper and the coastal policy and the subsequent act that we produced, it was an incredible privilege to work with so many people determined to make a real difference, who put the public ahead of the private, who focused on the long term over the short term, who were mindful of the importance of the coastal ecosystems and other species we share. And so for me that’s a really good example of a time when there was a very positive energy to work collaboratively, respecting difference and finding ways to move forward.


(6)  Given your experience, which role do you see Future Earth Coasts playing in addressing the governance and sustainability challenges faced by coastal communities globally?

I’ve always thought that Future Earth Coast has got or has had and has, and can even build a stronger role and influence in bringing people together and in this context, it’s bringing people together who are seeking to better understand our coastal systems and ways to better manage these ecosystems and these systems that we depend on and that we enjoy so much. So, we’ve done a brilliant job at bringing coastal scientists together and the recent work done to bring young researchers across regions together is fantastic because it’s only by bringing together people from different backgrounds, different points of view, different knowledge, then we can begin to think through and address the challenges of the Anthropocene. What lies ahead? I think that what we can do even better is to connect more strongly, coastal science, coastal research and practice. I think that there’s quite a lot of work that we can do to strengthen Future Earth Coasts at a regional scale so that we have regionally strong activities that network researchers and policy makers and practitioners, and local community together. So that’s for me that’s the most powerful role that Future Earth Coasts can play, and a particular focus on creative ways to communicate and get that message out about the importance of a just and sustainable future for the coasts.


(7)  If you were not a scientist and not a practitioner, what other profession would you have chosen?

I’ve had the privilege of working in the university context as an academic, but I’ve also been a government official working in the ministry for the environment in South Africa focused on the coast in a regulatory role of lawmaking and decision-making role. I’ve also run a consulting organization where we worked in post-apartheid South Africa in the public realm providing advice and support in the public arena typically in processes like that coastal policy that I mentioned.

Now, I’m in the role, primarily as a social scientist doing critical social science work and like critical social science, I mean my interests are not just at the superficial level of what is going on in society. I’m interested in what are the root causes and drivers of unsustainable, in just and inequitable processes and to address the structural causes of those problems. So that informs how to bridge science, policy and practice, the local and global. Really that’s my interest and I’ve been able to do that work in government to a limited degree, in private consulting to a limited degree, and in academia to a limited degree.

Each of those different domains has positive and negative about the impact that you can have. But in government, you actually make real decisions. You have to put up bureaucracy and all sorts of constraint. In private consulting, you provide advice but you never make the decision and you never have time to think about or to learn and to refresh your stuff. You’re just chasing one project after the other and in academia you have the privilege of time to focus on something and again, you’re not making decisions.

So, in terms of profession, I think you need to find yourself in many different places to understand what works best for you. I love what I do now as an academic because I’m working with local communities in a very applied, action research.


(8)  We also would like to know more about your interests outside of your work, like what would you do in your spare time?

As many academics that have been around for a while, there is no such thing as spare time. My work consumes my life. So, I spend most of my time working, which is, on one level, sad, but it’s also very positive because I love what I do. It’s making a difference. But when I do stop working. I like to be in the outdoor which I don’t do enough of, but I love to be in the mountains and at the coasts, hiking, sailing and anything in the outdoors. And yeah, I also enjoy photography and doing landscape photography and wildlife photography, Music, guitar, family, friends, those are the things that I enjoy and travelling to places that are, you know the planet is a place of incredible grandeur and beauty. And so, travelling to those places is something important to me too.


(9)  What advice would you give to young scientists starting their careers?

I think choosing a direction of study should be a choice informed by where your heart wants you to be. As hard as that might seem, it’s very tempting and often parents are very influential to choose a job, career, or an educational pathway because of job prospects. That is typically not necessarily the wisest decision anymore.

What is more important, I think, is to choose an educational foundation that enables you to be a critical independent thinker. If you choose the very technical course of study, it gives you a bunch of technical skills but it doesn’t necessarily enable you to be independently critical in your thinking. If you want to make a difference in this world, technical rational solution and ways of thinking are simply not adequate. We need out of the box, creative, innovative thinking. That comes with critical social sciences and interdisciplinary ways of thinking.

So, my advice to young people starting their careers, choose an education pathway that’s gonna enable you to think critically and then invest in your education. You know. It’s very tempting to want to start to earn a salary when it may be better to invest further in your education. That is the most wise investment you can make. Beyond that, be open to outcomes that you may not expect to deliver the best way forward. In other words, working for government may not be something that you think is a good idea, but until you’ve done that, until you’ve worked in the private sector, until you’ve worked in a university setting, how do you know what is the best pathway? So, I think you need to experience the world, travel, invest in your education, follow your heart.


(10) You are a FEC academician, what kind of support and resources you are willing to offer to help FEC fellows? How would you encourage them?

I think you’re creating the opportunities for webinars and for interactions, may be training opportunities, interactive opportunities and I’m keen to contribute through the forum that you create for those kinds of opportunities. I’ve mentioned, you know, earlier conversation we’re speaking about the ‘just transitions’ work in the webinar series. I’m in to share some reflection, particularly centered in the UNESCO work that I’ve shared with you earlier. And I think creating a space for that kind of dialogue is probably the most practical and constructive way of contributing.

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