Professor Priya Kurian says sustainability is too important an issue to dismiss or ignore. It might be complicated, but she says it cannot be abandoned.
“I’m talking about sustainability in its entirety, not just environmental protection, but social justice, cultural diversity, economic viability and democratic governance – a ‘total’ concept necessary for creating a good society,” she says.
Professor Kurian is a political scientist at the University of Waikato’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and will give her inaugural professorial lecture ‘Reclaiming Sustainability’ on Tuesday 8 December.
Career beginnings in India
When she was a journalist for the Times of India in Mumbai, Professor Kurian, fresh out of university, began to cover what was then a fledgling movement to protest against a mega-dam. “The government was proposing to build a dam that would flood a lot of villages and displace over 200,000 people. That opened my eyes to the impacts that government decisions can have in the name of development, particularly on the poor.”
From Mumbai, she went to the US and completed her Masters and PhD degrees at Purdue University in Indiana, before being appointed to a position at Waikato in 1996.
Her PhD thesis focused on a feminist gender analysis of the World Bank’s environmental and social policies and was published as a book. Since then her work in development studies has continued its focus on the role of women. “Women and culture are central to any conception of transformative social change,” she says.
Exploring sustainability through many lenses
Professor Kurian’s lecture will weave the strands of environmental action, gender, and cultural diversity with the ideas of deliberative democracy and the governance of science to explore sustainability.
Most recently, Professor Kurian and Professor Debashish Munshi from Waikato Management School have worked on the idea of sustainable citizenship. A key focus of this project was to find creative ways for public engagement on issues around controversial new technologies. They are now using this concept to address the most pressing issue of our time – climate change.
Earlier this year, the duo was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Grant to host a Climate Futures Symposium in Bellagio, Italy, with a central focus on social justice. The participants at that symposium now plan to make a submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ahead of the big climate change conference taking place in Paris later this month, involving 190 countries. “We have to ensure that any treaty governments sign at COP21 takes into account the most vulnerable.”
Professor Kurian is not just an academic, she’s actively involved in the community. She is a founding member and trustee of Shama Hamilton Ethnic Women’s Centre Trust, an organisation set up to support ethnic women and their families.
Professor Kurian’s inaugural professorial lecture takes place on Tuesday 8 December, 6pm in the Academy of Performing Arts.