The pioneering work of the late Professor Frank Fisher was recognised with the award of Inaugural Australian Environmental Educator of the Year in 2007. He had become renowned for his development of the transformative Masters program in Environmental Science at Monash University over a generation.
During 2005 the initiative from which The Rescope Project sprung, the Understandascope, was created as a unit of Monash University. Its name and logo was drawn from the famous cartoon by Australian National Living Treasure, Michael Leunig.
This initial incarnation was to last two years. In 2012, the Understandascope was re-launched with Frank's friend and colleague, Anthony James, taking joint hold of the reins soon after Frank was diagnosed with cancer. Victoria’s then Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability and Monash Masters alumnus, Professor Kate Auty, cut the ribbon.
Frank had developed what many in the field would come to regard as legendary integrity and teaching methods, both based on a strong foundation of personal practice. If the learning wasn’t lived, it wasn’t understood. And if it wasn’t understood, we would be stuck living the way we’ve been living, with various seemingly interminable problems intensifying.
Anthony had commenced teaching with Frank at Swinburne University in 2010. Following Frank’s cancer diagnosis the following year Anthony was determined that the idea of the Understandascope, dusty gem as it was, should not die with him.
As ever, given he’d lived with chronic illness for forty years, Frank was keen to ride the wave for as long as it lasted. The Understandascope was rebooted as an independent, informal collaboration of respected individuals and organisations interested in a particular approach to what had come to be called sustainability. We think of this as essentially becoming a more self-aware, engaged, humble and wise society, sharing the planet well with other living beings.
Following a few years operating as this informal collaboration of professionals, academics, artists, designers, business people and others, with a nod to the past, and a more explicit agenda for catalysing change, the informal collaboration was incorporated and became The Rescope Project.
The approach is based on social constructivism and systems thinking. The former deals with the reality that we created our societies, and our ways of thinking from which they are derived. We are therefore responsible for them, and can change them – once we recognise how. Frank’s anthology was titled ‘Response Ability’ with this in mind.
Systems thinking is a conceptual tool used to assist with this. It can help us better deal with the inter-connected nature of reality, and how we respond to it, including to pressing problems we’re still more accustomed to dealing with as stand-alone issues in stand-alone projects, campaigns or departments; be it energy, climate change, economics, food, waste, transport or public health.
As a further consequence of our more linear ways of thinking, these problems are also most often treated with technological ‘fixes’. Rather than looking for systemic causes, we are more accustomed to attempting direct fixes upon symptoms. This has given rise to the notion of ‘problem displacement’, where a ‘fix’ on one problem too often generates problems elsewhere.
We see this with efficiency improvements, for example, designed to reduce energy use. As we succeed in reducing the energy use of individual technologies, they become cheaper to employ, often resulting in further demand increasing energy use overall.
Fridges, for example, are now enormously more efficient, and therefore cheaper. So we are now accustomed to expect increasing arrays of refrigerated space in supermarkets, and have created such cultural institutions as the meat freezer and the beer fridge.
The same dynamic applies with renewable energy, for example, as it can make us feel ‘green’ simply by virtue of how we source energy, rather than engaging in important root considerations of how much energy we demand and for what purpose. The same applies again with electric cars. Regardless of the energy source, we’re still liable to end up in global gridlock. And so on.
In this sense, The Rescope Project tries to illuminate how we often get ourselves caught up in dynamics of doing the wrong things right.
Essentially, the idea is that the ‘push button society’ of automated everything won’t make us ‘green’, as with it we become more distanced from understanding how our society is created and recreated daily. We can and need to take responsibility for that, from how we produce food, generate waste, use energy, water, minerals and so on, right through to our democratic participation in the systems and stories underpinning society.
In the absence of this we tend to take much for granted, resulting in a (now contested) sense of entitlement, polarity in public debate, and often anger, despair and cynicism. From such a base, society’s ability to live well together, develop a more engaged citizenry and respond nimbly to complex problems is undermined. We aim to contribute to a distinctly different trajectory.