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Ideas, Progress & the Future

The evolution of environmental politics

When the University of Canberra’s Professor John Dryzek began studying environmental politics in the mid-1980s, he could count the number of researchers in the barely-recognised field on both hands.

Almost 40 years later, his book on the topic – The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses – has been listed in The Australian’s list of top ten scholarly books to have made the most impact this decade.

Currently working on a fourth edition, to be published in 2021, John says his book has remained relevant despite the rapid growth and evolution of environmental politics.

“I think, for a long time, there was slow incremental growth in the field, but it has taken off in the last 15 years, and that coincided with the increasing recognition of climate change,” he says.

“Researchers in the science side of the field have recognised they can ‘produce’ as much science as they like, but whether change is made relies on politics and governance.”

John boasts a Bachelor (Honours) in Economics and Politics, a Masters in Politics, a PhD in Government and Politics and, before coming to UC, was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Australian Research Council Federation Fellow at the Australian National University.

Joining the University of Canberra in 2014, he is now Centenary Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance (CDDGG), at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) and has had a hand in making waves both nationally and globally.

John began writing The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses, originally intended as a textbook,when an editor at Oxford University Press encouraged him to collate the course notes from his environmental politics teachings.

The first edition was published in 1997, the second in 2005, and the third in 2013. Each follows the same framework, with updated political references. For example, John’s most recent edition will look at the Trump administration in the United States, and the impact it has had on environmental politics worldwide.

Together, the three editions have sold about 35,000 copies worldwide and have been translated into Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Slovenian – with a Spanish version in progress.

After the book’s recent inclusion in The Australian’s top ten list, John says he could never have foreseen the impact it would have when he first wrote it.

“I thought, okay, it might sell a few copies and might be used as a textbook – but in terms of the academic impact, I didn’t think it would get to this point,” he says.

“I think it provides a sort of framework for understanding environmental politics and asks questions to apply to modern cases and policy.”

The Australian’s top ten list is collated by looking at the number of citations per publication in Google Scholar.

Across the three editions of The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses, the publications have received about 5,500 citations.

Along with his impressive work in environmental politics, John has dedicated his career to a second focus field – deliberative democracy.

Together with his colleagues at CDDGG, John is in the process of convening the first Global Citizens’ Assembly on gene editing.

The Global Citizens’ Assembly is a deliberative event, aimed at asking a range of citizens to address the ethical and regulatory questions surrounding a controversial issue.

This event will bring together 150 citizens from across the world, hearing from experts and advocates about technologies in gene editing, before they enter a deliberation period on the matter.

The international Citizen’s Assembly will take place following similar events held at a national level.

John says this event, along with the centre’s high quality scholarships that draw international students, has given the CDDGG an impressive reputation worldwide.

“We are regarded, around the world, as the leading centre for deliberative democracy. Many of the best people in the field have come and spent time with us, as well as PhD students from other institutions,” he says.

“That has cemented our place as a centre, and we really have flourished since we moved to UC.”

After all he has achieved in his focus fields, John says he isn’t quite done yet.

“I guess I am coming to the end of my career, but there are still a few things I would like to do,” he says.

“In terms of the environmental politics and democracy field – I still have a strong interest in those fields flourishing, and what I can do is try to facilitate the progress of younger people coming through in those areas.”

Words and photos by Danielle Meddemmen.

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