I was born and grew up in Canada. As far back as I can remember my hometown has always been growing. When I was four we moved to a new house on the edge of a brand-new subdivision and the neighbour’s kids built a makeshift cubby house from construction pallets, with a set of tables and chairs inside made from the giant spools used to wind cables. From there we could look out at the vast tract cleared for yet more houses, but not too far away was a small forest which would be left standing, and still stands today. Growing up I spent countless hours with friends, and occasionally alone, in that forest. It was an island of nature amongst a sea of suburban growth.

Me on my first day of school with my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Labretton (in green), and my mom standing proudly to the right. The forest can be seen in the background above the rooftops.

As for my parents, my mom was a primary school teacher and my dad a computer scientist.  My dad was a real Renaissance man in the sense that he was interested in a wide variety of things. He had a quiet but insatiable curiosity for the world around him and the way things worked, and engrossed himself in a variety of learning projects from fixing the car to renovating the basement, and from learning foreign languages to practicing new dances with my mom. He was born in the Netherlands just after World War II and was pulled out of school after year eight in order to support his family. When he moved to Canada he completed his Bachelor’s degree through night school over the course of about twenty years while working and raising a family. I can remember going to his graduation with my mom and brother, though I did not really understand the significance of the event at the time. Both my parents wanted to ensure that my brother and I had the best education possible and instilled a love of learning in me which has persisted.

Toward the end of high school I began doing summer jobs to earn some pocket money and cover some of the costs of going to university. Two experiences stand out. The first was while I was working at McDonald’s. With only a glimmer of prior work experience, I asked the manager in a nonchalant way if McDonald’s had a union. Perhaps my tone came across as a bit smug, as a teenager sometimes can, but I was not prepared for his harsh response. He immediately stiffened, stood over and glared at me, and asked me why I wanted to know. I replied I was just wondering, which was true, but he berated me for even asking and uttered some humiliating taunts. Though some of the details of his response have grown hazy over the years, including some minor physical assault, the impression left on me was indelible: bosses hate unions.

The second experience was while I was working at a retail chain called Canadian Tire. One day while I was in the warehouse with another employee we happened to discuss our wages, whereupon we found that mine was slightly higher than his, even though we were a similar age, with similar work experience. A little later that afternoon I got called in to the manager’s office: Why had I been discussing my wages with another employee, he demanded angrily. I did not know how to reply as I did not know there was anything wrong with doing so. He explained with contempt that I was a temporary worker, and that Greg, my co-worker, who happened to be black, had therefore a slightly lower wage. The rationale was bewildering, but not so much as the premise that discussing wages among employees was wrong. These were eye-opening experiences for me, and sharpened the contours of the relationship between an employee and an employer.

Summer jobs notwithstanding, I approached the end of my university years without really reflecting on the world of work for which I was being prepared. I studied physics and engineering and in my final year many of the big firms put on seminars to attract soon-to-be graduates. Though it probably sounds naïve, it was only then that I fully understood the path that I was expected to take. Hitherto, student life had always afforded me at least three months off during the year, but the looming world of full-time work promised only about three weeks, and for this reason I resolved not to make any post-graduate plans, but to remain open to alternative courses of life.

I spent the next five years working and travelling. I worked for a year and a half as an engineer in a couple of casual roles, saved my money, and moved to Japan for a year to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). After that I spent a year teaching high school mathematics in the Bahamas, a couple of summers teaching ESL in Canada, saved some more, and travelled on the cheap in Central America for a few months.

During those years my social conscience grew, especially as I was exposed to people and their history and culture in countries of the Global South like Cuba, Guatemala, and Nicaragua while travelling, and meeting young people from all over the world while teaching ESL. This period of my life ended with me moving to Australia to complete my Masters of Teaching.

Me with two Cuban campesinos.

Studying education definitely added to my experiences described above in the way I understand the world and its injustices. During that time, for no particular reason other than my own free inquiry, part way through my Masters I began an informal study of economics, which has continued until today. For some years I continued reading and was always on the lookout for a stream of economics which dealt explicitly with the ecological consequences of production and consumption. Finally I found it: ecological economics (not to be confused with environmental economics) the primary goal of which revolves around the question: How big should the economy be?

The latter part of what I have just described is anachronistic to what follows. Around Valentine’s Day 2011, I moved to an intentional and certified organic farming community in the hinterland of Byron Bay. I cannot overstate how transformative were the four years that I lived there, but I will focus here on a few important points. For one, it was an intentional community, meaning everyone was living there for a shared purpose, which in our case was to grow as much of our own food as possible using certified organic techniques, and more broadly to live a sustainable life. Also, there were about a dozen long-term adults with voting rights, of which I was one. We had a communal bank account with weekly meetings to decide what our priorities were and what projects we would pursue, to mediate disputes, and to discuss how we would spend our funds, to which we all contributed equally. We had a consensus decision-making model, which meant decisions would only go ahead by consensus of all voting members. In practice this protected the community and the land from any rash or partisan decisions by any individual member or faction. Worth emphasising is how this lived experience influenced my political beliefs and choice of social ecology as the theory for my PhD, the core idea being that democracy helps sustain and protect society, and the environment. One could not just cut down a tree or expel another member of the community; it needed to be discussed. Finally, at the end of this period I had to acknowledge that despite our efforts we were not in fact living a sustainable life; that we were dependent on a much larger system that itself was inherently unsustainable, namely a capitalist world economy with its growth imperative.

Communal scything expedition to collect mulch. I am second from the right.

My many years of working in education, love of nature, and belief in economic fairness all contributed to me pursuing my PhD. As a teacher I have always felt uncomfortable with the authoritarian aspects of the role, and believe the primary problem of education in a democracy is to balance the needs and interests of each individual in their own development with the aims and values of the society of which they are a part.