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Melding science and story-telling for a better future

I was privileged last month to be invited to be keynote speaker at the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the International Society of River Society, held not far from the mighty Waikato River (pictured). When first approached, I was a little daunted by the prospect: what on earth could I offer to a conference of river experts?

I settled on a talk focusing on how our understanding of and attitudes towards rivers have changed through history. From the way the first people to settle in this land developed a relationship with rivers and associated wetlands, estuaries and streams; the way rivers were categorised and attributed with value (or not) by the first colonists; through to the way they have been utilised and modified for electricity generation, water supply, irrigation and flood management throughout the last century and a half. And of course, as drains.

The talk explored too how important words are: how, by calling a 'stream' a 'drain' it allows us to treat it as such; a channel into which to dump waste. With one word, we are absolving ourselves of responsibility for the impacts of our actions - because our actions are consistent with the usage connoted by the appellation. We continue to do this, often quite unconsciously, in the language we use about the environment.

I was thrilled by the very strong recognition by delegates to the conference - many of whom had a science background - of the importance of engaging with ordinary New Zealanders on freshwater issues and other environmental issues in a way that people can understand. And also by the interest that so many had in exploring humanities-oriented approaches - such as history, and just good old 'story-telling' - to get their discoveries and research out into the wider world.

Several passionate and talented scientists approached me about the interesting research they are engaged in and spoke of opportunities to partner to achieve greater reach (and therefore beneficial impacts) for their work. I relish such opportunities and look forward to many more conversations in the future.

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