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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

6 December 2023

A moral calling

Can morals help us manage the Great Barrier Reef? JCU Lecturer and environmental social scientist Dr Jacqueline Lau is researching how people use different moral frameworks and values to interact with the Reef now and into the future.

After completing a PhD at JCU in 2019 that focused on fairness in coastal communities, Jacqui decided to pursue further research as a postdoctoral fellow with WorldFish and JCU. She is now a Lecturer at JCU and was recently awarded a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) to support her investigation of how moral values shape different responses to environmental challenges.

Jacqui says that pursuing research at JCU in the Tropics was central to the path of her work. “Being in the Tropics while I did my PhD was really important to me,” she says. “I was surrounded by people who were interested in the connection between people and the environment and studying that connection from different perspectives. It was a really eye-opening experience; I was exposed to a lot of different ideas, including research in the natural sciences, that I may not have encountered elsewhere.”

“My PhD research focused on questions about environmental justice and what is considered to be fair when governing coral reefs,” Jacqui says. “I investigated two contrasting community case studies in Papua New Guinea. In the first, the community had really strong customary rules that included bans on fishing and very specific codes of conduct about how to use the reef.

“In the other case study, the community had a very similar system in the past, but it had since fallen away. So, I tried to understand what these changes meant in terms of who was breaking the rules and who was benefiting.

“I noticed that in the place where the customary system was really strong, the community had a deep moral relationship with the reef. There were deeply respected codes of conduct in place. For example, if you had an argument with your family at home, then you shouldn’t go out fishing because you won’t catch any fish or something bad may happen.

“The rules around governing their environmental resources were really closely linked to these moral codes of conduct. This included an understanding about the right way to behave in the community and in relation to the environment,” Jacqui says. “These findings got me thinking about morality, including people’s everyday morals. I was interested in how these morals might shape the way communities govern or manage local environments and resources.”

JCU Lecturer Jacqui Lau
Two people talking on a chair underneath a white umbrella with tropical palms and ocean in the background.
Left: JCU Lecturer Dr Jacqueline Lau. Right: Jacqui conducting an interview about shark depredation in Niue. Supplied by Jacqui Lau.

Finding a fairer future

To understand how these moral frameworks influence environmental management, Jacqui’s DECRA project is focused on developing a series of case studies situated along the Great Barrier Reef.

From Townsville, Jacqui says she has the perfect vantage point to engage with the many different people and groups who have interests in this unique environment. “Having the Reef as an anchor point for this project is interesting because it’s very much the canary in the coal mine of climate change,” she says.

“Not only is the Reef at the centre of a lot of change, including attempts to manage it fairly, but there are also really diverse groups in this space — there are people involved in conservation, mining, farming, defence and tourism. The Reef serves as a really good case study of a region that has diverse moral leanings and values.

“I’m excited to start this research because there’s currently a wealth of theory and study around morality,” Jacqui says. “The fields of moral psychology and moral sociology, for example, are really blossoming. It’s a wonderful opportunity to apply these theories to different environmental case studies and think about how moral values play out in places that are facing big challenges like climate and environmental change.”

In each case study, Jacqui will investigate how moral values frame communities’ interactions with the environment. “One example is how people interact with sharks,” she says. “There’s a huge tension between what people want and their approaches, whether that’s conserving or culling sharks. Some people are frustrated about the impacts of sharks on their fishing throughout the Reef, while conservation groups are concerned about shark populations declining worldwide. So, you get these clashes in morals and it’s important to work through understanding the underlying moral values at play.”

Jacqui says much of this research can provide new insights for future policy directions to tackle environmental challenges. “My hope is that by uncovering the moral frameworks that drive people’s engagement with the environment, we might be able to better align the policies and plans for dealing with an uncertain future,” she says.

“The plan is for this research to enable better two-way communication between people who have different moral framings. The hope is that it will lead to better and fairer futures for people who are facing big challenges in this region of the world.”

Jacqui with a focus group in Papua New Guinea as part of her research.

Supplied by Jacqui Lau.

Research on the Reef

Bringing together environmental and social sciences research, Jacqui says she sees a great benefit to undertaking interdisciplinary research at JCU. “The great thing about interdisciplinary research is that you have all sorts of tools to help you answer important questions,” she says.

“Environmental social science is a really great space for creative thinking. You may coincidentally read something in another discipline that will spark new ideas and you can apply that lens to your research,” Jacqui says. “It means you’re not just locked into a single way of thinking — you have so many different ingredients that you can use to produce innovative research.”

“There’s a real critical mass of talent and enthusiasm in the field of environmental social sciences at JCU. I’m surrounded by people who care deeply about what they’re doing and are driven to do great research in this space. It’s very inspiring to be around.”

JCU Lecturer, Dr Jacqui Lau

Jacqui says that her work as an environmental social scientist is creative, dynamic, and brings unique opportunities for speaking to, and engaging with, local communities.

“I get to chat to people living in many different places and talk about ideas and challenges that I would normally never encounter,” she says. “For example, I was recently doing field work in Niue, interviewing fishermen and fisheries managers about their interactions with sharks. Niue has these beautiful limestone cliffs and clear blue waters, and during my interviews there were humpback whales breaching off in the distance. I feel so lucky to be able to go and talk to people about their connections to the natural world as part of my research.

“This area of research allows me to have experiences and engage with people and communities that I would normally never be able to,” she says.

Interested in studying Social Sciences at JCU? Learn more about our dynamic and flexible offerings. Or if you’re keen to undertake a PhD or Master’s, Jacqui invites expressions of interests from prospective students interested in environmental social science projects in Australia and the Pacific.

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Featured researcher

Dr Jacqueline Lau

Lecturer, Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences

Jacqui is an environmental social scientist and 2023 ARC DECRA Fellow. Her research seeks to help coastal communities navigate just and sustainable futures by understanding how moral values shape adaptation to environmental change. Her DECRA project will investigate the role of morality in decisions about environmental change along the Great Barrier Reef coast.

Jacqui’s research is interdisciplinary and draws together a range of social science disciplines—including human geography, development studies, sociology, and conservation. She has worked collaboratively in the Pacific, East and West Africa to examine ecosystem services, the impact of shocks like COVID-19 on coastal communities, perceptions of fairness about the customary management of coral reefs, and issues of environmental justice and gender equity in conservation and climate change policy.