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Introducing New PhD Research Fellows Anna Sturman and Liberty Lawson

Get to know the SEI’s two new PhD research fellows, Anna Sturman, from the Department of Political Economy, and Liberty Lawson, from the Department of Gender and Culture.

Liberty: Could you tell us a bit about yourself? And your background and previous research?

Anna: I am a PhD candidate in the Political Economy Department here at Sydney Uni, but I hail from Canterbury in Aotearoa New Zealand, where I studied Law and Political Science. My Honours thesis looked at the concept of corporate social responsibility and the Australian mining sector; my current research expands on the themes from that first period of research, questioning the valorisation of nature in economic theory and how to theorise strategic paths away from orthodox economic treatments. I’ve always oriented my studies toward environmental themes but got particularly interested in climate change around the 2015 mark, when I was involved in lots of extra-curricular policy and activist work for the Paris climate conference. It’s been a wild ride since then!

L: Your current work looks at climate change policy in Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly in relation to agricultural capital – could you elaborate on this?

A: New Zealand has a really odd emissions profile for a developed economy, with approximately 40% of our emissions coming from the agricultural sector. There’s been political fight after political fight over the years regarding how to treat the agricultural sector in any emissions mitigation program, given the country’s historic and current dependence on them as our biggest export sector. We’re a small and relatively poor country, and farmers hold an extraordinarily privileged place in the national psyche. Anyway – these political fights have gone round and round in circles. Even the most recent development, a new piece of legislation that sets up a Climate Commission and a framework for setting emissions reduction targets and so on, has enough loopholes for agriculture to blow it open when and as they want.

I basically reached a point of such extreme frustration about the lack of nuanced discussion about this that I decided to write a thesis on it, with the promise that I’ll smack it down on various people’s desks and say ‘there!!’ when I’m done (New Zealand’s really small so this is less megalomaniacal than it sounds I swear). The thesis contextualises agricultural capital as part of New Zealand’s political economy and demonstrates why they have such outsized power in climate policy discussions. I use theories of non-human nature to explore the limits of agricultural capital’s current system of production as economically viable. Finally I ask, what can we do about this? And my hope is that we can provide a just transition for agricultural capital and New Zealand more generally via some novel theorisation and use of the state.

L: How does this work translate to the global context and the broader issues that climate change is posing internationally?

A: Well, it links up with lots of other work scholars are doing to clarify that climate change is just another contradiction of capitalism — and if we don’t lick that system, this and all the other cracks in our societies are going to get worse not better. I do a lot of work with my fellow political economist Tash Heenan in that space, using this moment to plug her work too! Look her up. But back to New Zealand — doing the work to theorise smaller, less geopolitically ‘important’ nations is so necessary. Someone once asked me why New Zealand, why not the US or China etc, and I was blown away – why would I, a citizen of New Zealand, not try to do something for my country? So, yeah. Trying to contribute to the broader pool of research that’s picking up steam, and to give something back to New Zealand at the same time. Even if they hate it!

And you have just started your PhD with the SEI? What are you focussing on in your work?

L: I am also looking at climate change and capitalism, but I focus more on the epistemological and ecological consequences of that relationship. My background is in marine conservation and science communication, and academically in the history and philosophy of science, which seem like quite disparate fields but they coalesce in an interesting way, particularly within the context of the current environmental crises. My thesis is a sort of political ecology of the southern Great Barrier Reef, so I look at the intersections between ecosystems, anthropogenic pollutants, human/nature ontologies, scientific practice and environmental policy. Similarly to your work, this reflects some key challenges on the global scale, raising questions of how our structurally-entrenched western conceptions and values of nature, artifice and responsibility affect our ability to implement and justly govern effective conservation policies, protect ecosystems and design for uncertain futures.

My focus is on One Tree Island, which is a small coral cay where USYD has a scientific research station. The island has a fascinating legacy as a geographical region where so much pioneering knowledge has been generated, but since it’s also within a UNESCO world heritage site there are many political and social limitations on the kinds of knowledges and experiences that can come out of the space. I’m trying to understand how the geographical boundaries we imagine that a coral reef might have serves to limit our ability to understand the ecology of the reef at the scale of complexity that the Anthropocene requires. How do we account for the vastly significant and complex ecological and socio-political links that the reef has to geographically disparate areas — from the mangroves along the Queensland coast, to the Adani’s proposed mine site in the Galilee Basin to the sugar cane crops throughout Far North Queensland. All these constellations of species, policies, epistemologies and materials are critical to take into consideration, even when they challenge our traditionally imagined boundaries of islands, reefs and marine parks.

It’s really a dream to be able to work with the SEI on this specific project; I’ve attended events at the SEI for years and for the past year I have been working with the professional staff as the Institute’s content editor. I can’t imagine doing this research anywhere else, since the SEI supports and really pioneers truly interdisciplinary collaboration, and we have a particularly rich legacy in the context of the GBR and the blue humanities, and as you would know, in environmental policy and justice. What in particular inspired you to work with the SEI on your project?

A: The chance to work in a community of scholars with wildly different but also interconnected and intersecting research agendas was one I couldn’t let pass by. Working in climate change research, as we all know, is not just mentally taxing – it’s emotionally devastating. So, to be around a group of people who can support each other while we try to tackle these issues is a lifesaver. I feel like there’s a rising tide of people pushing for alternative takes and that encourages me. We’re not alone! And we have a world to win.


Liberty Lawson is a writer, editor and interdisciplinary researcher based at the University of Sydney. Liberty completed her Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in History and Philosophy of Science. Liberty is passionate about science communication and has worked with NGO’s across the Into-Pacific in coral reef restoration, marine conservation policy and sustainability education. Her PhD, in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, looks at the intersections between feminist epistemology, conservation policy and coral reefs. Liberty is a Global Oceans Ambassador for the NGO Positive Change for Marine Life, and a Blue Charter Fellow with the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Her writing has appeared in publications including Dark Mountain, Odiseo, Vice, The Planthuner, Antennae and more, and she is currently working as an editor for the Sydney Environment Institute and Anthroposphere: The Oxford Climate Review.

Anna Sturman is a PhD candidate in the Political Economy Department. Her research centres on Aotearoa New Zealand’s climate change policy and uses a range of neo-Marxian theory to explore the state, agricultural capital and the valuation of non-human nature. Anna holds a First Class Honours degree in Political Science from the University of Canterbury and is a qualified Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand. At present she is an Editorial Assistant and Publicity Officer for the Economic and Labour Relations Review, a journal of the Industrial Relations Research Centre based at UNSW and a Sessional Lecturer for the University of Sydney. Anna attended the 21st and 23rd Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a New Zealand youth delegate and is a proud climate activist and unionist. In early 2019 Anna co-founded the Climate Justice Collective, a grassroots network organising toward a radical Green New Deal for Australia, with her fellow political economist Tash Heenan.