What studying sustainable development at university has taught me about real life

After finishing my final piece of undergraduate coursework, a presentation on how to create a sustainable market for bio-fuels in the EU, I realised that learning about sustainable development has provided me with knowledge and experiences that will  become very useful in general life after university.

The group work part of this task was a lesson in itself. A group of 7 individuals were randomly grouped together to create a vision and strategy to complete the task. After numerous group meetings, debates and heated discussions it became obvious that we were never going to unanimously agree on certain topics, nor were we going to get in every single detail into 15 minutes of presenting. Then I realised, the group task and conflict was, in effect, quite an accurate representation of the basic principles of sustainable development itself. The whole idea of participatory approaches, stakeholder analysis and involvement in big decisions such as EU policy changes is to ensure that everyone feels that their needs are met, in order to avoid conflict or blocking of the projects success. Sustainability also aims to ensure that a project or activity is carried out in a way that ensures we “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This involves ensuring that multiple viewpoints and issues surrounding a certain action, for example producing biofuels in developing countries, is understood and accounted for in the short and long term. 

It is not often that skills like this are so obvious from academic work, but in this case I  feel that these qualities have now become ingrained into my every day way of thinking, and often find myself thinking more fairly in decision making processes, considering other peoples points of view/wants/priorities more openly in discussions, decisions or when solving argument or disagreements.

Volunteering with Operation Wallacea

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Last year, I was lucky enough to gain a place as a Research Assistant for OpWall, in their Marine Ecosystem Monitoring project in Akumal, Mexico. I volunteered for 4 weeks, from 16th June – 14th July 2013. This is easily one the best experiences I have ever had, and here is why…

  • Doing something on my own
    The initial fear that made me hesitant to go on the expedition was the fact that I would be going to a country I had never visited before, on my own, not knowing anyone beforehand, spending a month with people who were essentially complete strangers to me. This experience showed me that I seem to think I am more shy in social situations than I actually am. Contrary to my initial fears, I spent 4 weeks with a group of 13 who some of which will now be my life long friends, even though some of them live on complete opposite sides of the world! It was so refreshing to spend time doing activities that I was interested in, with people who were just as excited and motivated as I was. This made a great difference from my friends at home, and even some on my university course (Environmental Science), who do not share my passion for conservation.
  • Scuba diving and experiencing marine life
    In the first week of my time in Akumal, I completed my PADI Open Water Diving certification and this meant I was able to experience diving in the open ocean for the first time. I think my notes in my diving log book went something like “OH MY GOD BEST DAY OF MY LIFE” …clearly a very exciting day for me. Concentration on breathing completely vanished once I had descended and was buoyant above the vast, open coral landscapes. After seeing so many marine animals up close it really made it clear to me that not enough people get to experience this, and if they did I am sure they they would care a hell of a lot more about what goes on in our oceans.
  • Conducting research and underwater surveys
    The activities conducted on my daily dives varied from estimating algal cover on corals, identifying coral species present and monitoring coral cover on 100m reef transects, fish species monitoring, and gathering sea urchin data. In time that was not spent diving we conducted seagrass transects, turtle behavior monitoring, beach surveys to determine the level of tourism in the bay, and in my final week I conducted turtle nesting research. The turtle behaviour monitoring was one of the highlights for me, as we had to observe each turtle found for 20 minutes solidly, and this meant non-invasively swimming along with the turtle whilst it went about its daily activities, which was a great insight into the peaceful nature of these creatures, and the effect that snorkeling tourists have on their habitat and safety.
  • Learning to live in another culture
    Mexican culture is very relaxed and I definitely enjoyed that aspect, although the phrase “Mañana, Mañana” became all too familiar by the end of my expedition! It was a new experience for me to visit a country not necessarily as a tourist, but in a sense I as a temporary Mexican for the duration of my trip. I made a conscious effort to use Spanish whenever possible, especially in easy and repeating situations such as greeting people, saying please and thank you and asking simple questions. Obviously it also goes without saying that we treated the locals with respect and courtesy, especially the diving instructors who we spent a large majority of our days with, who were great fun to be around and added humour and fun to my Mexico experience.

If the opportunity arose again, and I was able to raise the money to return to Akumal and work with Centro Ecologico Akumal, I definitely would. I would also love to join a different OpWall expedition, as I feel that they provided me with lectures of knowledge, personal advice, employment advice, and a trip that I will never forget.

The results of commercial Bluefin Tuna fishing in the Mediterranean

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Brian Skerry photographs the results of commercial blue fin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean. It is estimated by the WWF that each year, 4.4 million sharks and 90,000 turtles are unintentionally caught as by-catch from unregulated commercial tuna fisheries using long lines and drift nets. A shark caught in a net will suffocate to death, and shark numbers have declined by as much as 80% worldwide, with a third of all species now threatened by extinction.

For more information on the unsustainable commercial fishing of Bluefin Tuna: http://www.pewenvironment.org/uploadedFiles/PEG/Publications/Fact_Sheet/tuna-story-of-atlantic-bluefin-2013.pdf

For more images by Brian Skerry: http://www.brianskerry.com/portfolio/global-fisheries/