Lives with Purpose – Alumni Profile

Throughout his international teaching and research career, UNSW alum Crelis Rammelt has solved problems by drawing connections between issues in political ecology, inclusive development, degrowth and systems science. With a global mindset and unafraid to challenge the status quo, Crelis is passionate about social justice, collaborative learning and sustainable activism.

Valuable lessons learned at UNSW

I had always wanted to take a trip to Australia and connect with like-minded people at a university, as I was already working at one in the Netherlands. I chose UNSW after searching through Australian universities, schools and staff profiles looking for somewhere that would match my own research interests. After an email to instigate the conversation, I spent one month at UNSW where I got to meet amazing people at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, especially Dr John Merson who later became my PhD supervisor. He suggested that I apply for the University International Postgraduate Award, and I got in.

I arrived at UNSW with a project that required a fair amount of flexibility in research. My supervision at UNSW gave me tremendous support as well as autonomy to pursue research interests in line with the priorities of the project, for which I was very grateful. I was able to take important intellectual steps that have contributed to strengthening a personal research agenda. This is the kind of supervision I am trying to pass on to my own students now; one where the learning goals come from within and are not externally imposed.

Loving what you do - a career with purpose

Academic life has its challenges, but for me it beats any other career choice by far. I love the combination of research and teaching, while drawing from and contributing to activism and practice. It is this combination that allows me to deepen and broaden my thinking. I very much want my research to become part of those wider societal projects.

In the last few years, I have taken on research in the field of degrowth, where I study local initiatives and how they pursue values and activities that are very often undermined or co-opted by our dominant growth-based economic systems. Teaching ‘forces’ me to critically reflect on my own arguments. Students call you out on any weaknesses, which I have found to be an amazingly productive form of cooperation over the years.

Highlights on the career journey

My journey has taken me to many different disciplinary environments, starting with an engineering degree and a first job researching and teaching the role of technology in sustainable development. For my PhD, I moved to Sydney and joined the Environmental Policy and Management program at UNSW with the Institute for Environmental Studies and the (then) School of History and Philosophy of Science. This was truly a highlight as this time allowed me to focus and look deeply into the issues of water, health and justice in Bangladesh.

After completing my PhD, I continued teaching the Masters in Environmental Science program for a few years, particularly the Environment & Development and Engineering Fundamentals courses. I learned a lot from that experience and from the students.

Subsequently, I found myself being pulled back to the Netherlands where I began rebuilding connections starting with teaching at the University of Amsterdam for the interdisciplinary Future Planet Studies degree.

I combined this with a couple of postdocs in development studies at Utrecht University, one on rural mobility in Ethiopia and the other on food and water security in India. For the last two years, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my position as an Assistant Professor in Environmental Geography and International Development. Here, my eclectic journey seems to come together under the thematic umbrella of degrowth, which merges knowledge from all the disciplines I’ve had a chance to explore during my career.

Problem solving at work

I love the world of ideas. I enjoy it when I come across a paper or research finding that I can tell is relevant for my research and thinking, but that I don’t understand conceptually, methodologically, or even in terms of its consequences. I enjoy trying to crack the case, and to make it ‘simpler’ for my students to understand too.

A related problem I enjoy solving is to identify the connections between seemingly disconnected issues. This also forces me to keep going beyond a certain discipline into another and to try and make sense of the different languages, narratives and frameworks.

Building resilience

There are many challenges with finding time to read properly, let alone to think amongst all the management and administrative requirements that keep being added to the role of researchers and educators. You need to be resilient and determined enough to maintain your focus on what really matters: the quality of teaching and research.

The other challenge is of course the rat race of publications and grant applications. This is not helping the quality of our work. My academic career has been a relatively slow progress, because for a long time, I didn’t play that game. One of the key reasons for this is that I have always enjoyed doing additional work outside of academia. This generally means losing a competitive edge in terms of grants and publications. But it also means I have something interesting and valuable to connect to my research, because, equally, I would not want to give up working as an academic - I love the job.

Perhaps the trick is to not worry about it all so much, and to go slow. This increases resilience, because you are thinking and teaching about things which fascinate you and can remain more focussed on your own objectives. 

Proudest achievements

This is not an easy thing to say. I guess that the proudest achievement is to get where I am now, having navigated all the steps in between. Two particularly significant steps included my PhD at UNSW and the projects we set up in Bangladesh during that time.

A distinctive moment when I felt proud — not of myself but of the collaborations with community leaders and project staff — was when we revisited our old projects. We found that the drinking water supplies we had installed were still operational and fully maintained by the local communities. This was a stark contrast with the many failures we had been witnessing around us. In my view, most organisations fail because they are in a rush to see quantifiable results. Again, it pays to go slow.

Advice for current students

Participating in a course is your learning process, so you must own it. Don’t just blindly believe what you are told, explore for yourself what lecturers are telling you, examine how they frame their narratives, what evidence they bring forward, how that evidence was found, and the methods and data behind it.

Crelis Rammelt is Assistant Professor in Environmental Geography and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and Co-founder of Ontgroei (Dutch degrowth platform).

Degree and year of graduation: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Environment and Development, 2009.

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