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Written By

Jenna O'Connell


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

7 March 2022

A strong voice for climate action

As politicians continue to tussle over effective climate strategies, it’s easy to feel like one person can’t make a difference. JCU’s Adjunct Associate Professor Hilary Whitehouse has spent her career working tirelessly to promote the power of action, great or small, in facilitating environmental change.

Hilary is one of many women using their knowledge and skillset to improve environmental and sustainability outcomes for future generations. Her philosophy has developed over the years to become heavily focused on action over rhetoric. “I think we've reached the point in human history where we have to have material actions to stave off the unhappy future that we're looking at.”

She maintains that climate solutions will continue to be ineffective unless they consider the holistic impact of current lifestyles on women, children, animals and the natural environment around us. “Many trillions of dollars a year are spent wrecking the fabric of life. Some figures suggest that if you spent maybe a fraction of that on conservation, because nature is so intrinsically robust, if you give nature half a chance, she bounces back.”

The United Nations is highlighting the key role women and girls play in finding solutions to an escalating global climate crisis. Research indicates that the impact of climate change will unevenly and heavily impact women and young people, especially young girls. Yet, the key powerbrokers in negotiating climate agreements are overwhelmingly male.

Hilary’s work is deeply rooted in the ecofeminist school of thought, which attributes the current environmental situation to the global dominance of masculine power structures and aggressive pursuit of capitalist wealth. Throughout her career, Hilary has worked with children, nannas, and everyone in between to promote sustainability education. Her most recent work centres on equipping adults, particularly women, with the necessary skills to take charge of their own environmental learning and act for change, in an arena where their voices are often ignored.

Action through education and connection

A strong proponent of the power of education, Hilary’s early work examines school curriculum and proposes effective strategies to better assist students in grappling with the growing climate threat.

She applauds the degree of research and thought behind youth climate movements and is pleased that previous work done by her colleagues and peers can influence the next generation. “Most of the young women who are involved in the School Strike 4 Climate are drawing strongly on ecofeminism. They have rediscovered it and recreated it for their own purposes right now.”

As her career progressed, Hilary began to recognise the importance of strategies that promoted action over mere awareness. “Gradually, the literature and research started to address this change. We initially focused on attitudes, knowledge and behaviour, and then values education was very big.”

“We call it the materialist turn, this recognition that we need to take action. I always argue now that it doesn't matter what action you take. It could be a tiny little bit of action, or you can go for a global level. The important thing is action. The field moved to what's called action competence. That’s now a key idea in environmental education, this idea that you give people the capability and the confidence to act in a competent way and not feel bullied or oppressed, so they can achieve change.”

In her work to empower individuals to act, Hilary notes that climate action cannot be solely the responsibility of our young people. “I don't think it's fair for a few generations of people who've lived large and haven't done anything about that waste to turn around to much younger people and say, ‘oh, too bad, so sad, that is now your problem’. That is completely inequitable.”

As a result, her work has increasingly turned towards adult learning and investigating the ways in which adults share climate information and plan for action. In particular, she references the Knitting Nannas Against Gas and Greed, a group from Lismore, NSW who congregate and participate in informal peer-to-peer learning through a social media crafting group. Their brand of climate action is based primarily around ‘knit-ins’, craft installations and street theatre, and Hilary’s work considers how this highly effective way of learning can be adapted and applied to others.

Although a controversial medium in climate change discussion, Hilary concedes that social media also has been influential in spreading information and connecting like-minded individuals, particularly women. The key is strong and supportive networks, she reflects. “There are Australian Parents for Climate Action, Grandparents for Climate Action Now, School Strike 4 Climate and all kinds of people who form networks. The networks coalesce this information and knowledge is shared through them.”

Volunteers planting a small tree.
Hilary Whitehouse.
Right: Adjunct Associate Professor Hilary Whitehouse. (Supplied)

The power of female networks

Strong, supportive female networks have played a key role in Hilary’s career, and she credits them with keeping her going in the tougher times. When asked what International Women’s Day means to her, Hilary references it as an opportunity to meet and connect with like-minded women who are working towards the common goal of improving both gender and climate outcomes for women across the globe.“They’re decades old these networks, they’re not flighty, they stick. That loyalty is there. Even though there’s all these pressures to fracture, there are these basic core loyalties that endure, and I think that’s a source of strength for people.”

In looking towards the future, Hilary is optimistic about the opportunities for action, affirming that it has the power to combat the sense of impending doom and depression that many experience when considering our current climate situation. “There is this miracle thing that happens in your brain that you can be surrounded by all these negative ideas and you take action and you just feel so much better. The actual weight of taking action is very empowering in itself.”

The size of the action is immaterial, according to Hilary, as the benefit lies in knowing you are working towards making a difference. There is much wisdom to be shared in volunteer groups, she acknowledges, which is her advice to young women wanting to contribute. “Get your friends and join a network. Be kind to the boomers; you have to be respectful of these old dudes and old ladies who have been doing it a long time. They have tried their best and thought the world would be a lot better a lot quicker and that this generation wouldn’t have to do this. But given that this generation of young people, young women, do have to do it, do it together.”

Hilary puts her philosophy into action through her volunteer work with the small NGO, the Bats and Trees Society of Cairns. “We get the impression that nothing is being done, but it’s amazing what is happening at a community level.” She urges all those who wish to make a difference to find a local, community-based organisation, and start putting their passion into action. “If you map your action against the United Nations 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, you’ll find that there is a global transformation agenda and you can be part of it.”

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Hilary Whitehouse

Adjunct Associate Professor

Hilary Whitehouse is a Fellow of the Cairns Institute and educator with a long commitment to researching, learning and teaching science education, environmental education, education for sustainability and research education. Her current research interests are in climate change education, and exploring the illuminations of new ecofeminism and feminist new materialism. She lives in Cairns.

Formerly the Deputy Dean of the Graduate Research School (2016-2023), Hilary served on the University's Research Education Sub-Commiitte and developed curriculum and pedagogy for research education at JCU. Hilary is part of the University's Sustainable Development Working Group considering the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through the University's SDG Implementation Plan.