Conservation Realist
Conservation Realist Podcast
The Humanity in Human-Natural Systems

The Humanity in Human-Natural Systems

With Dr. Ruth Brennan, Transdisciplinary Researcher in Environmental Governance


  • Co-design in management and conservation efforts

  • Humanity and social relationships in conservation and management

  • Small-scale fishing communities, particularly island communities, in Ireland and Scotland

  • Policy on paper versus in practice

  • Found poetry from community voices

  • Gender in fishing communities

  • "Integration expert" as a title


Hi all, and welcome to Conservation Realist! I am about a week and a half late with this episode, and that's just how life is sometimes. It's been a remarkably full and overwhelming couple of months, and it finally caught up with me last week. But not to worry, I am on track to keep sharing these remarkable conversations with you over the next couple of months!

Today's episode, Episode 7, is a conversation with Dr. Ruth Brennan. She is a transdisciplinary researcher, policy advisor, and integration expert (we'll talk more about what that means) working on environmental governance, including in small-scale fisheries in Ireland. She's a policy advisor to an Irish Member of the European Parliament and has served as an expert advisor to the Irish and Scottish Governments, and she also works at the interface of arts with science and policy.

So yes, today we are shifting from what has been the dominant focus so far of the podcast, which is Southeast Asia, and we're zooming all the way over to Ireland as well as Scotland for a bit, to learn about what's happening with the small-scale fishing communities - particularly island communities - there. These communities live in a very different context, in many ways, from the fisheries that we've spoken about on the podcast so far, but there are many very important commonalities.

On a somewhat personal note, I found it interesting to learn more about the fisheries in Ireland because my father was from Ireland, and I'm technically an Irish citizen, and most of my relatives are out there. However, I don't know that much about Ireland - I know less than I should - and I've recently felt a renewed drive to learn more about where my family comes from on both sides (Ireland and Japan). So learning more about what's going on with Ireland's fisheries and management and conservation was a nice way to combine my professional interests with this more personal interest as well.

I met Ruth at the 4th World Small-scale Fisheries Congress in Chiang Mai in 2018. I do want to highlight this conference - it's put on by Too Big To Ignore, which is a global network for small-scale fisheries. And it's my favorite conference, I think, in part because they invite and bring representatives from small-scale fishing communities who actually do speak at the plenaries and are involved and active in the process. This is something that more environmental and conservation conferences should do.

I remember being really immediately impressed with Ruth as a person, not only for her research. She has a really great confidence, incredibly intelligent insights, and is a lovely person to spend time with. So even though our time together was quite brief there, I was so pleased when she responded to my email (out of the blue) some years later to speak with me for this podcast.

I do want to provide some background information for those who might not be as familiar with small-scale fisheries and also some things that I didn't know before this conversation.

  • Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs): this is a common approach in fisheries management where a certain amount that is deemed sustainable to be caught is set as the Total Allowable Catch. Portions of that are allocated as quotas to individuals (could be fishers, fishing companies), and where they're transferable it means they can be leased or sold, somehow transferred, between quota holders. For the students who are listening: if you're not familiar with this idea, I recommend looking up more about it as it's quite a common strategy in fisheries management. It has its strengths and weaknesses.

  • Ruth also mentions Producer Organizations, and I could guess from the context what they were, but I confirmed by looking up on a website from the Irish Government: "Producer organisations are officially recognised bodies, set up by fishery or aquaculture producers, to manage the activity of their members. Producer organisations can play an important role in the market, improving the conditions for the placing on the market of their members’ fishery and aquaculture products, improving economic returns for their members, stabilising the market, avoiding and reducing as far as possible unwanted catches, contributing to the elimination of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and generally coordinating the activities of their primary producer members." So essentially the same as what I've seen as Fisher Associations.

  • She also mentioned "critical geographies" - one of her works that we reference was published in a journal of critical geographies - and I thought maybe not many people might be familiar with this. Generally, it's a field that covers the intersection of place, of social context and interactions, and the environment, with the power dynamics embedded in that intersection. I think geography as a whole is an underappreciated field, especially when talking about complex systems as we do in conservation. So I also encourage anyone who's a student or just wants to learn more to not overlook the importance of the various types of geographies in this work.

  • We spend quite a bit of time chatting about co-design. Co-design, in theory, is a participatory approach whereby involved stakeholders work together as equal collaborators throughout the process of developing and designing solutions. It's a fabulous idea, and it's integral to the process of Design Thinking, which I referenced in a previous episode. I fully believe that well-run, responsible co-design processes are the key to a more sustainable and resilient future world for us humans. Unfortunately, the term "co-design" is often used in a flippant way that doesn't actually reflect any real intent or plan to undergo an actual co-design process. "Co-design" doesn't just mean, "Oh, we shared our ideas with some stakeholders and they gave us some feedback, but we really already had the plan set out, so we just continue to go what we were going to do anyway with some small adjustments." That's not co-design, that's consultation maybe. Co-design, in its best form, would have the community members - whoever you're working with - involved in conceiving of and driving that whole process. Ruth shares some really great thoughts and examples related to co-design.

One reason in particular why Ruth was on my radar as I was thinking of people to interview: toward the beginning of the pandemic, my brother (a nonspeaking autistic man for whom I'm the main communication partner) was taking his first class ever, on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. I learned a lot, too, and one of the things we learned about was "found poetry", which is one of the maybe more modern, abstract forms of poetry. Poets will just find words in some environment - street signs, folding down the corner of every 10 pages of a book and picking the word that the corner points to - basically, it's collecting words that already exist and assembling them into a poem. Around that time, I was on Twitter (I don't know why I was on Twitter because I find it so overwhelming and stressful) and I saw that Ruth had posted found poetry from her data collected from interviews with community. And my brother Danny loves the oceans, was getting very interested in conservation, and was feeding his new-found passion for poetry, so we really enjoyed reading her poems together around that time.

And she reads one of her poems in our conversation! This conversation was really fascinating for me - it was really wide-ranging and covered a lot of big topics, while also still being really connected to a central theme that both of us find important in our work, which is the humanity in these conservation and management processes, and acknowledging and respecting that humanity.

Reminder to like, share, comment! Thank you!

[MUSIC - Green Touch by Soe Moe Twin, Zyan Htet, and Min Min]


Tara: One of the reasons I'm interested in your work is that kind of personal connection to Ireland, and also my own bias in my work. I grew up mainly in California, but I've always worked in Southeast Asia, a little bit in Africa and South America and Central America. Even though my work stresses the importance of the local focus, I actually know very little about the fisheries local to where I grew up, and even less about small-scale fisheries in other parts of the Global North. So I was actually really surprised to learn that there are remote, small-scale fishing communities in Ireland. I'd love to hear from you, just for my own personal interest: what's life like in these communities? What are the realities facing them?

Ruth: I'll preface it by saying that my research into small-scale fisheries in Ireland has very much been focused on the Irish islands. It's a very small subset of the small-scale fishing communities within Ireland. Small-scale fishing within Ireland makes up 86% of our fishing fleet, so it is quite a large community of vessels and is by no means homogeneous. So my studies have been focused on a very small subset of that.

But yeah, I can certainly talk about what the realities are for the small-scale island fishers since that's what I was studying and learned an awful lot about. The first thing to say is that Ireland is unusual in the EU in that we don't have privatization of our fishing rights, so we don't have things like Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) whereby fishers can transfer or sell their entitlements (quotas) to other people. For our Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine - the government - it's a central cornerstone of their fisheries policy that fishing quotas and fishing opportunities, as they call them, are and should remain a public resource.

One of the reasons they give for that is so that small fishing communities who rely on fishing and for whom that's part of the fabric of the community are not disadvantaged by larger boats being able to buy up all the fishing opportunities. In theory, the intention is really good.

In practice, that's not quite how it works.

If you kind of delve down into the nitty-gritty of what trying to access these quota-controlled fisheries in Ireland is like, particularly for island fisheries, you realize that there are an awful lot of barriers perpetuated by the system that controls them. When I say "quota-controlled fisheries," I'm talking about the system of fisheries put in place by the Common Fisheries Policy at the EU level, whereby the stocks within the EU Member States' fishery zones between 12 to 200 nautical miles, are divided up between the members. So each member state is allocated certain quota rights in relation to certain species of fish each year. Then each member state decides how those quota rights are doled out at a national level.

So that's what I mean by quota species. For some species, for example shellfish, you don't need a quota to fish shellfish. For fish like mackerel or whiting, you do need a quota to fish those, and the fishing of those will be regulated by for example seasons or what kind of tonnage you have on your boat or kilowatts in your engine - so quite technical things.

So technically, small boats should be able to go out and fish the quota species that are available. Sometimes there are limits set for a month, kind of a general pot for a month, sometimes it's every two months, depending on the species of fish. What you find with the island fishers, specifically (and some of this applies to small-scale fisheries more generally), is that for example small boats have a much more limited range, and they are much more affected by things like geography, weather, tides, for example. So they don't have as much of an ability to follow the fish as the larger boats do.

So if, for example, it is the season, there is a window when they are allowed to go out and fish, they might find that the fish are not in their waters. They're not in their inshore waters where their boats are capable of going. They can't move out of those because it's too dangerous to bring the boats out there, whereas the larger vessels can access them much more easily. Specifically to islands, for example, if the island boats want to go out to fish, they will definitely have to take tides into account because in a lot of the islands, they don't have the infrastructure for boats to actually be tied up at a pier. So they have a smaller boat to get their boat out on a mooring. They might not be able to access that mooring with the smaller boat depending on tides, the weather might be too difficult.

There's always this extra step with the islands. For example, they have to get the smaller boat, put the bait on the smaller boat, go to load it onto their actual fishing boat, then go off and do their fishing. Then you have the consideration: okay, how do we get the fish to market? Because it's not processed - again, the facilities are not on the island to process it. They have to go to the mainland. What time is the buyer going to be at the mainland pier? Because the buyer might say, "I'm going to be here at 6 o'clock," which is fine for the mainland fishers who can go over and tie up at the pier there. But the island fishers have to get back to the island after. What's the light doing, how much light is left in the day? Is there time to get back safely, because they need light to moor their boat, get back into the smaller boat, and get back to land.

So it's those kind of really tiny details, and all of those cumulatively can mean that it's much much more difficult for them to access the supposed public resource. This can get very technical: so while the resources are public, depending on the quota species, you might have to have a specific type of tonnage or kilowatts to be able to fish a specific type of fish. And those 2 things can be privately traded on the market. So for this public resource, there are aspects of it that can be privately traded. This means that if a smaller boat wanted to access more quota, it would have to have the means to actually try to find more kilowatts or tonnage linked to particular species in order to give them the right - it mightn't be able to find that on the market, it mightn't be able to buy into it.  So it's quite a complex picture when you take both the technicalities and the geography and environmental considerations into account.

T: That sounds very challenging! It reminds me - there's some interesting similarities with island communities I know of in the Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar, for example. Someone's working them with their discarded nets and taking a closer look at why they're discarding nets over the reefs instead of disposing of them properly. They're finding that it's a huge extra step for them to take a trip to the mainland with trash that they're offloading, with the cost of fuel and all that. Those extra steps might seem trivial to someone who's planning out a big picture approach to thing, but that's part of the reality.

R: Especially when you take into account the much smaller profit margins of the small-scale vessels and small-scale businesses, it is a big consideration: can they actually afford to spend that extra money and time as well on that extra trip?

T: And what's the current status of well-being and resilience of these island communities? How are their fisheries and livelihoods doing?

R: I mentioned the small profit margins, but particularly in the wake of both Brexit and the pandemic, they've been hit really hard. Things are really difficult for them. Things are really difficult for them generally!

On a broader scale, the voices that tend to be represented at decision-making tables where the important fisheries decisions are made that shape the systems that we have, they tend to feature more of the large-scale fisheries voices and representatives than small-scale fisheries. That can be seen if you look at the make-up of our producer organizations, who largely only represent the large-scale fishing fleet. Very recently, in the last year, the islands have got recognition for a producer organization specifically for island boats, which was a huge step forward for them because now they have access to decision-making tables that they weren't able to access before. However, they have not been allocated funding alongside this recognition, and they don't have the deep pockets to put forward that funding themselves and then try to get it back afterwards. So there are many stumbling blocks there.

T: It's almost like, here are these rights we are allocating to you. Good luck accessing them.

Are these communities aging like other small-scale fishing communities where the younger generation is leaving for better opportunities?

R: Yeah, there is definitely an aging demographic. There is a real concern on the islands about the drain of young people from the islands. It's almost an accepted thing. Young people would have to leave the islands for example to continue their education, if they want to go to university. And they may or may not come back. It may not be feasible for them to build a life on the islands.

I suppose that's where remote working is becoming increasingly important. So, for example, you have one of the small islands on the northwest of Ireland called Aranmore, which developed a remote working hub in conjunction with one of our network providers. They have an active campaign to both bring people home, to bring people from Aranmore back, to say "Look, if you can do your work remotely, you can do it here, you can do it from anywhere in the world." But also trying to welcome other people in as well, to actively repopulate it through harnessing the latest technology. So that is very much a drive that is there, that is very much a concern, because a lot of the islands rely an awful lot on tourism. And as the pandemic has shown, when that tourism isn't there, it's very dangerous to be almost fully reliant on the income from tourism alone.

T: I like that creative solution. There's definitely a trend of places trying to attract digital nomads. Are there other pathways for more resilient communities on these islands?

R: I think definitely the technology and digital revolution is one such pathway, literally attracting people to be there. But also seeing the realities of small fishing communities, small island communities, reflected in the systems that are supposed to be serving them, rather than having to operate systems that have been designed around dominant realities which may not reflect theirs and they kind of exist in a little carve-out within that larger system. One of the pathways to well-being of these smaller communities is actually to have systems which they themselves have shaped, are able to shape, and can see reflecting their own realities in a meaningful way, not just as an add-on or a carve-out.

T: I love hearing you say that, because my own experience - kind of haphazardly gathered from exposure to different communities - and learning from cross-sector projects where I get to work with people working on livelihoods and governance and even some humanitarian efforts, is that these are all processes (and conservation and environmental management included), these are all human processes. Across all of those sectors, there would be so many benefits to taking the approach that you just mentioned: have it really grounded in actual reality for what your target beneficiaries are living. It's almost just involving more common sense in how decisions are made.

So I've noticed that some of your work has also been in Scotland. What drew you to working with fisheries in Scotland and Ireland?

R: I was in Scotland when I started to do my PhD, and that brought me to the Outer Hebrides to the small island of Barra, which is a small fishing community in itself. I suppose that kind of started my interest - I wasn't specifically seeking to work with a fishing community or even island communities, but my PhD ended up being around a deeply entrenched conservation conflict around a marine protected area in that small island community. And fisheries were a very important part of that community.

As I was doing my PhD part-time in Scotland, I connected with another social scientist from the Island of Skye, another Scottish Island. He happened to based at Ulster University at the time, in Northern Ireland, and a mutual friend connected us. And he was working with the islanders in Aranmore, in the Irish islands. I was also collaborating with an artist, and the three of us started working together. So Aranmore was one of the islands that came into our art-science project at the time. So that was my first connection to the Irish islands, or to Irish fisheries.

Aranmore Island, from

That was around 2011, 2012... it wasn't until 2017 that I actually came back to Ireland. Completely coincidentally, one of the islanders on that island of Aranmore contacted the head of the university research center where I was working. He had no idea I'd moved back to Ireland, or that I was working there. He was looking for academics to work with the community on research. So the head of the research center sent an email and said, "Would you be interested in this?" and I said, "I know this person!"

And I was in the process of designing a research proposal. So I thought, wow, I have fishing communities that are looking for researchers to work with them - that's the ideal situation, people coming to you - so my research project ended up being designed around small-scale island fisheries. So it was a series of events that brought me into contact with the small-scale fisheries in Ireland, as well as the decision to move home and base myself in Ireland.

T: That's wonderful that they reached out and were looking for partnerships! What was the driver for them reaching out? What were they looking to be done?

R: Around co-design. They wanted to, and they want to, be more involved in shaping the systems within which they work. And they particularly want a system for fisheries designed for island fisheries that draws all the islands together. Because, for example, the offshore islands that we have, which are along the west coast, they fall within four different counties. So they fall within four different local authority jurisdictions. So the islands tend to argue for treatment of the islands as a coherent region rather than separated across all these local authorities, and a co-management system for island fisheries is one of the ways that they were hoping to achieve that. They wanted to find academics or researchers who had experience with co-management, who had experience working with small island communities, who were willing to work in a ground-up participatory way, and who had experience working with the policy environment.

T: That's fantastic! In the contexts where I've worked, I've come across a very troubling notion that small-scale fishing communities are primitive and only focused on their livelihood and not able to think in any sophisticated way and certainly not capable of research. This was in countries where maybe it's more hierarchical. But what I've found is, where there are situations where communities are actually engaged in ways that see them as potential future leaders, I'm so impressed - not from a condescending point of view - but very impressed with the quality of leadership and thought and work that they do. In some places where I've worked, the best presentations at the consultations and workshops are regularly from the fisher associations.

So I loved hearing you mention how they already had this idea in mind. They already knew what they wanted, and they knew that some technical support would be helpful, but they were driving the process.

R: Absolutely. And I have consistently found that as well: the level of skills, knowledge, whatever, it's incredible and it is a real asset. I think in the work I was doing in Scotland in my PhD, it was in one of the first submissions that I made to a consultation that the government had on conservation, one of the things that I highlighted: that there was a whole lot of knowledge and skills and expertise that needed to be harnessed that was there, in order to be able to work in partnership with this particular island community and the context of governance of their marine environment in a way that made sense to them and in a way that took account of the realities of island life and their socio-cultural heritage, while at the same time it needed to make sense within the policy environment as well.

T: That linkage is so important. So I have definitely seen lots of project use the term "co-design." I've been a reviewer on grant panels when the proposals say "We'll be participatory, just trust us, it will be!" without outlining concrete steps. Kind of treating that aspect of the proposal as a throwaway. You know, "we'll just write this in so we get the grant" and then they do some presentations to stakeholders at some point in the process.

And the way you're speaking about the work, and what I've been reading about your work online, it's nice to read about something that is implementing co-design in the way that it is meant, which is from the beginning [of the project]. We've already touched on having the community driving the process, but in your experience, what are some of the key components that help this co-design process move along in that genuinely participatory way?

R: There are a few things, I think. One of the most important things is allowing time and space for conflict and disagreement. Not just between the community you're working with and the academic outlook or the other stakeholders, policy or environmental or whatever, but within the community itself. Because, as you well know, communities are not homogeneous beings. There are so many sides to every narrative, not just two sides. There are so many different versions of narratives and stories that you can get, and it's really important to be aware of that and to allow space for that to exist.

And linked to that, it's really important in a co-design process to not be trying to rush toward a consensus view, or not even necessarily having consensus as a goal, because that can often be a false achievement. It can often paper over disagreements or difficulties or tensions that are there that would kind of filter through in other ways.

Linked to those two: what is fundamental to co-design, and this is also a difficulty, particularly when you're working with the policy environment, is time. Time to make mistakes. Time to trial things. Time to fail. Time to adapt. This can set up a really difficult tension with the partners you're working with, because they, for example, in the policy environment, they might have certain objectives to meet, they might have timeframes, like international or national obligations that they are pushing toward. That doesn't always sit easily alongside how co-design is a messy process. It's a really, really messy process, and you never know when something is going to click or if it is going to click. Maybe it won't click at all.

It's kind of managing that, and there's an awful lot of managing human relationships in that. That is fundamental as well to the co-design process.

And also within co-design: if co-design means having people at decision-making tables, okay, they have a seat at the decision-making table, but do they actually have the ability to influence outcomes by inputting into that? A good example of this is what happened on the island of Barra in Outer Hebrides, when in the contentious marine protected area, the minister had finally taken the decision to actually designate it. And people within the community who were very against this designation did not want to discuss the possibility of a management plan. The government was saying, "It will be designated, but you can have your say in the management plan." And they were like, "Well, we didn't want it anyway - you're imposing it on us."

Without going into all the details, there were eventually discussions among some people in the government around the management plan, and at one point, the particular civil servant who was liaising with them presented them with the draft management plan from the government as a basis for discussions. And it was rejected outright.

This particular civil servant had been at enough meetings with the communities, had listened to them enough to recognize the skills and knowledge and abilities that were there, to recognize the way they worked. So, something quite unusual happened: he went back to his team, to the ministers and other civil servants, and said, "We need to start with a blank sheet of paper."

And he had quite a hard time selling that, but he was determined: "No, we actually need to start with a blank sheet of paper. This is not going to work." That was so significant. That really showed me that it was a co-design process, that a civil servant was willing to go "we need to set aside the work we've done" and come back and start actually at the step before where we thought we could start. Because they actually started before the blank sheet of paper - they appointed, rather than an external expert or a member of government, someone from a community company. The community company put themselves forward to be a facilitator between several islands that were affected by this protected area, to decide what should the management structure look like, who should be on it, what were the issues that were really important to take into account. They funded the local community company to do that work and to produce a report.

Again, that was maybe two, three steps before what the civil servant had thought when they came along with the draft management plan. That's a really good concrete example of how co-design can work in practice. And it involves people taking risks. Equally, it wasn't just the civil servant who was taking risks, it was the people in the community who stepped forward and said, "Okay, we are willing to have discussions with the civil servant," which put them at odds with other people in their community who thought they were selling out their cause. So each party put themselves into quite a vulnerable position vis-a-vis their peers, and found themselves on new ground, and something that was meaningful - co-design - came out of that.

T: That's a fantastic example! Some of my research has looked at evaluating what's happened in conservation, and often involves excavating back years or decades to see where something went right, where something went wrong. And what I've found, too often, is that people trying to accomplish the interventions - the external actors, often the conservationists - they only give one not well-thought-out path for engaging with the community when it comes to decision-making. They're happy to do presentations for kids and give out pamphlets and have cute stickers and mascots. But when it comes to consultations, they'll say, "Well, we invited them, we communicated our findings." And then you dig a little deeper and there's no sense of accountability for "Okay, that initial outreach didn't elicit a meaningful response, let's dig a little deeper, we need to meet the audience where they are."

It is often lacking. So to see this example - it's really important to have examples like this be highlighted, and to show that it really does yield something meaningful. And in the end, it's more productive to take the time to take that step back and reevaluate how you're approaching it.

And what you were saying about human relationships! I've often found myself in situations where I can't believe I'm spending energy mitigating this conflict just because these people don't like each other because of something that happened way before I even became involved. But, you know, fair enough! We all have our histories and context of how we've related to different people or different groups of people, and it's a very human thing to have those legacies. For those communities to be willing to work with the government in that example also shows a willingness to, like you said, be vulnerable and trust that things can be different.

That's also something, just skimming through the work that you've done, that's struck me: I see this thread where you acknowledge the humanity of the stakeholders involved. They're not just these opposing parties, they're not these monoliths that are operating in strict, pre-determined ways. Every one of these groups is composed of people and they all have their own stories, experiences, and biases. I think this is such an important way to approach environmental management or conservation. Is this something that you came into the field already considering, or is this something that came out of your experiences with communities? How did you come to adopt this way of thinking?

R: I'm not sure! I think you're absolutely right, I think it is a strong thread through my research, and I also agree with you that it is crucially important. I think as I was carrying out my research, I wasn't necessarily aware that this was such an unusual thread to have. It sort of came naturally to me to do this. And I suppose it came from listening very deeply to the different stories, whoever they were coming from, and recognizing the humanity in that.

I can't remember when, exactly, I became conscious of that or conscious that it was a kind of feminist approach to research. I certainly didn't apply any of those labels to it at the time. For me, it was the only way to navigate what was an extremely tricky and complex area and conflict - to acknowledge the humanity, to acknowledge the emotions, the politics, the highly charged nature of every single situation, and to navigate that with extreme care. You really have to be aware of the humanity of all players in it, and to be very careful not to fall into... I suppose "demonizing" is too strong a word, but characterizing or framing particular actors in any particular way, because it's so slippery and it's so fluid.

I think that's the key, because once you're in that space of acknowledging that everything is really slippery and really fluid, then that opens up spaces for things to move. For actors to move to different positions of vulnerability that I was talking about previously. So they can move in relation to each other, and that's where new opportunities or new conversations or new possibilities can arise that may have seemed impossible from when they were in a different position in relation to each other, perhaps locked in the typical frames of the roles that they are supposed to be playing.

T: I hadn't really thought about that word, "fluidity," that kind of dynamic nature. But that's an interesting way to look at it - I'm definitely going to have to think about that a bit more. But yeah, I can see why that's a powerful and really helpful concept to have.

R: I think actually acknowledging the humanity and the messiness of it allows us to approach conservation, particularly where there are conflicts in place, much more honestly. Because things are not clear-cut. Acknowledging the humanity means acknowledging that we're all flawed, that we're all seeing things through certain prisms shaped by particular contexts that we have come from. And that engenders a much more empathetic and compassionate approach toward each other.

And it allows - when I say "shared understandings to arise," I'm not talking about consensus or agreement, but appreciation of people being in different positions and where that comes from. When people hold very rigid and firmly entrenched views, it's difficult to be in that space where you can acknowledge that there are very different ways of approaching the issue at hand that might be equally valid.

T: And that really resonates with my own experience, too, as does what you said about how you didn't realize that this humanistic view of conservation situations was unusual. Same for me. I remember -  I went on a field semester abroad to Panama, and we were driving in the group bus past someone who was doing slash-and-burn agriculture, and some of the other students were like, "Why are they doing that?!" in a voice of intense criticism. Do you not see where we are? Do you not see that we're in an area where there's pretty much nothing and this person appears to not have many resources handy? I think that was my first realization that this kind of seeing things as they are and not separating yourself [is unusual] - like, I'm on this bus, I'm from a wealth university in the US and I'm on a separate world from this person and I don't need to take into account what they're going through - that's actually kind of a metaphor, I think, for a lot of conservationists and environmental managers.

I think we get a lot of technical training - my background was ecology - and you have this veil of expertise. It puts you in a position where you're not opening your eyes to what happens outside of that very specific lane in which you've been trained. And I think that distance is quite a disservice to the productivity of a lot of this conservation work.

R: It's interesting you mentioned that word "separation," the image of those people in a bus from a much more wealthy background looking at the poorer farmer doing slash-and-burn agriculture. I think acknowledgement of that separation is key to what I was talking about earlier. It links the humanity and the messy context that we actually come from, because it means that when we acknowledge humanity, it also to some extent necessarily makes us acknowledge the sociocultural and environmental context that we come from. And that means that we are thinking from a place that is a lot more entangled in relation to human-nature relationships.

It's not coming from a place where we conceptualize nature, for example, as a provider of ecosystem goods and services to a separate human consumer. And I think acknowledging that there are very different ways of conceptualizing that society-nature, that human-nature relationship, is key. And acknowledging the power of a particular conceptualization being accepted as the way to conceptualize and that leading to the institutions or the systems that it shapes. It's really important to be transparent about that and to put that up front and to acknowledge the assumptions that are underlying that. And that there are other ways of thinking about things and doing things that might not be getting the same airtime.

T: Exactly. I would love to learn from you, chat with you for a while, but I'll start bringing us to some of the closing questions. I'm curious - how do you see or define your own role or contribution in the conservation process? Do you call yourself a conservation researcher - I know you're more in fisheries management, and how that links to conservation, but how would you define it if someone were to ask you, "Oh, do you work in conservation, are you saving the planet?"

R: I can't! I really struggle with labels. There are a variety of different labels that I could apply. I don't know... sometimes, and this isn't an academic term at all, I think of myself almost as a chameleon, kind of between all these different world, or an integrator, trying to build bridges across different worlds. I don't know if you've come across the label or term "integration expert" - that's one that has come about over the last few years, and I came across it through Professor Sabine Hoffman, who's based in Switzerland, in a research-policy workshop in Trinity College Dublin (the university I'm affiliated with).

That concept of integration expert is trying to find a term that describes researchers like me who work at different interfaces - whether that's social science to policy, social science with local communities - that are embedded in and move between very different contexts, and that can advise other people in academia, for example, on how their research might actually find its way into the policy environment and have an impact. That can build bridges, build relationships, all of the things that are fundamental to the kind of conservation that we're talking about. But they're not necessarily recognized as a particular skillset within the academic environment yet, at least.

So, that's one of the labels I've been using more recently to describe myself: integration expert. Because it is so open and fluid. But conservationist, no, that's not a label that I would put on myself, because that would automatically separate me or exclude me from connecting to so many people that I work with, because of the emotional charge that comes with that word "conservation." So I would often just describe myself with the very simple word of "researcher" or "researcher who works between communities, academia, and the policy environment."

T: I like that - "integration expert." That's really cool! And "researcher" nicely highlights where the expertise is - not necessarily in the whole of the conservation process as a social process, but where the training has been is the research. I think there's power in that simplicity.

This is a bit of a tiny tangent from what we've been talking about, but as I mentioned before, my brother is a poet. He just published his first book of poems, actually! He's got some poems about Ireland in there, actually. But as he was discovering his love of poetry, we happened to learn about your found poems, it must have been on Twitter. I liked all of them - my favorite was "Women." It would be so great to have you read it out loud and maybe tell us a little bit about it.

R: [reading poem]*



are not really involved

in fisheries on the island.

She’s the backbone

keeps the whole show on the road.

Doing the VAT returns

sorting out the wages

paying bills

picking up crew

sourcing parts

going to meetings

putting up with people


coming in and out of her house.

You have so much to do

behind the scenes.

And even though

you’re not physically on the boat -

once they are out there

you’re with them

one hundred and ten per cent.


are not really involved

in fisheries

on the island

T: Thank you! I love that. And it really captures a lot. Even though the fisheries I work in are in a very different context, you do see this very important but very underappreciated role of women in fisheries. It's almost like the part where there's the harvest - going out on the boat - is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

So can you share a bit about how you came to be making these poems and the process that is involved?

R: It wasn't my intention to create poetry at all for anything other than myself. I was writing, I was struggling to write, my more conventional academic paper around this research. I felt really stuck with it. And I thought, okay, why don't I just put the paper aside, and I'll just play with my data. Because the data were so rich and so beautiful and there was so much in it, and I thought, I'll just play with it in a more creative way to see if I can get myself out of this block of writing this academic paper.

The thought had just come into my head, a few months earlier, to make poems out of my data, and I had stuck the Post-it somewhere. I don't know why it came into my head, how it came into my head. But that Post-it was sitting there, so I thought, "Okay, I'm going to try to create some poetry out of this!"

So I just started playing with the data. And it was probably over the course of one or two days, that collection of seven poems emerged (that one, Women, is quite short). So it was a very fluid and organic process of play that led to that poetry. And they came together really... it's such a different process to writing an academic paper. Because I wasn't producing it for any particular purpose, it was just for me, I wasn't overthinking it. It wasn't that kind of very painful thinking process that can often be associated with writing an academic paper. So it flowed, they flowed really easily. I suppose I wasn't judging myself as I was putting them together. I was just enjoying myself.

And as they emerged, I thought - because I'm always very conscious of what are the ways that I can present my research so that it can reach more people, and what are the ways that I can present my research that actually foreground more of the voices that are the heart of that research? Because it's not my voice, it's their voices. And I thought, wow, maybe there is something here that would be worth sharing.

I think I had sent one or two of the poems to some colleagues, and one colleague - Wesley Flannery in Queens University Belfast - said "Are you going to submit these for publication?" And I asked "Where could I publish these?!" and he said there's the critical geographies journal ACME often takes creative submissions. So it was thanks to Wes that I even considered submitting them to a journal. I would not have even considered it otherwise. So it was a series of coincidences that led to the poems emerging and them being published in an academic journal.

T: I love that! I was also surprised because when I was reading them, it was from that ACME journal. I really enjoy that, because I felt the same reading through my data and I'm always in awe of the beautiful richness of information and the stories that I get from people. They're so powerful, and often very disregarded in formal platforms. So to be able to celebrate that richness but also present it in a way where it can be viewed from a slightly different angle is fantastic.

Thank you so much, Ruth. I really enjoyed learning from you! I definitely have some things I want to look up and learn more about. It was so nice to see you again - I know we only met briefly in Chiang Mai.

R: Thank you so much for getting in touch, and I really enjoyed our chat as well!

Dr Ruth Brennan is a transdisciplinary researcher, policy advisor and integration expert, applying a wealth of expertise and skills to work towards shaping a more equitable and sustainable society. As an integration expert, she integrates and co-creates knowledge across disciplinary, sectoral, cultural and geographic boundaries and provides the critical process expertise and intellectual infrastructure needed for sustainable execution of complex inter- and transdisciplinary efforts. Her research interests include environmental governance at a variety of scales, with a focus on society-environment relations, socioecological systems and social justice. By examining the mental constructs underlying people’s social responses, decisions and behaviours her research offers insights into different ways in which marine and coastal spaces are conceptualised by users, managers and human-environment interactions, how this relates to natural resource governance challenges and what it means for community engagement. For the past decade and a half, she has worked as a social scientist on ethnographies of coastal communities and at the arts-science-policy interface, researching cultural values and society-environment relationships and integrating this knowledge into the policy environment. Her research experience spans national and European projects and she has worked at research institutions and universities in Ireland, the UK and the Middle East. She currently works as a policy advisor to an Irish Member of the European Parliament and has served as an expert advisor to the Irish and Scottish Governments.

*Brennan, R. (2021). Fishing For Survival in the ‘Blue Economy’: Found Poems From The Irish Islands. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies21(1), 81–105. Retrieved from

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