A conversation with Lyn Goldsworthy

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In conversation, Lyn Goldsworthy is Homeric. Her stories are rich with the people she has met and the lessons she has learnt through her lifelong career in environmental advocacy. Goldsworthy is considered an international expert on conservation in Antarctica, and has been awarded both the New Zealand Antarctic Conservation Trophy, and an Order of Australia. Currently, Lyn is the executive officer at the Frank Fenner Foundation (FFF) – an environmental and social enterprise, hosted by the Fenner School for Environment and Society right here on the ANU campus. I volunteer with Lyn at FFF and sat down to hear her own personal masterclass in environmentalism, activism and life – a class she most enthusiastically conducts.

As a person, she is effortlessly humble and easily endearing. “I’ve been very privileged in my life to be paid for doing things that I really love,” she says, “which is, if you like, working to save the world.”

This work has taken Lyn around the world as a lobbyist, environmentalist and activist. Her earliest moment of inspiration, however, was as a 12-year-old at school in New Zealand when she won her school’s science and geography prize. The reward was two books of choice, yet when Lyn’s hands landed on a book about the Manhattan Project (the development of the nuclear bomb), her teacher regarded the choice as absurd.

“The teacher in the room,” Goldsworthy recalls, “said ‘Oh, you wouldn’t be very interested in that; it’s a boy book.’ And I said, ‘No, no; I want to read this!’” The incident, though small, ignited an interest in activism that stayed with Lyn.

At Auckland University, Lyn experienced another moment of realisation when studying a new Environmental Studies course in her final year. Goldsworthy explains that her interest in science is only half of the story; she is equally passionate about community-building and social change. For Lyn, environmental studies was an opportunity to unite the science and the social.

After university, Lyn picked up assignments in environmental impact assessment around Australia. Eventually, a friend asked her if she would assist with an assessment of Antarctica as a volunteer. “When I picked myself up off the floor from laughing, I went ‘Okay, fine.’ And you know, the only thing I knew about Antarctica was that they didn’t have polar bears. And it was South.”

Lyn was laughing at the enormity of the task: Antarctica was a mysterious 13 billion square kilometres, the size of the entire United States and half of Australia. She was asked to assess the environmental impact of Australia’s three Antarctic stations specifically. Initially, the work was not exactly glamorous. Lyn was especially unenthusiastic when reflecting on the sickening 4-week-long boat ride from Tasmania, yet her work on analysing waste management systems, while mundane, was essential to maintaining Antarctica’s waste-free policy: everything that arrives in the continent must be taken away again.

After the assessment, Lyn took a job with the Antarctica and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), an international group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working “to help fight for Antarctica to be a nature reserve dedicated to peace and science.” As an ASOC employee, Lyn began working in deep-sea and Antarctic conservation. She worked on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which controlled the exploitation of Antarctic fishery zones and marine life. Even more incredible is Lyn’s contribution to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which banned mineral and gas exploration and mining across the continent. For her work, Goldsworthy was awarded the New Zealand Antarctic Conservation Trophy in 1990 and the Order of Australia (Member) in 1991.

ASOC introduced Lyn to a career and life of lobbying and work in NGOs, both within Australia and internationally. Goldsworthy’s background in chemistry didn’t prepare her for the wide range of issues she has pursued as a lobbyist, but she doesn’t believe one’s choice of study should influence their ability to be an activist. “If people want to get involved in conservation, or in any area that’s around changing the world, focus on getting the skills that will allow you to campaign or be an activist.” These are skills like strategy development, teamwork, influence strategy and networking, which Lyn believes are more essential than specificity in studies.

Throughout her work in conservation campaigning, Lyn has maintained her passion for community building, developing a particular interest in the role of women. Bringing Lyn back to her teacher’s reaction to her choice of science prize, I asked her if this was an enlightening or inspirational moment for her awareness of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Goldsworthy admitted that it did inspire her to pursue activism, but her own views of equality have been a product of her entire life, rather than a reflection of this one moment.

One of Lyn’s current missions is mentoring and sharing her skills and knowledge with the women she works with. Her hope is for women to be empowered to make change, and for their contributions in STEM, and other areas, to be recognised. From her long career, Goldsworthy has generated an inspiringly broad network of women activists from around the world – individuals she has either worked alongside or mentored in some capacity. Like Lyn, many of these women are involved in environmental conservation, yet while she is a prominent figure in international environmental activism, Goldsworthy is equally concerned with gender equality. In fact, she considers the two to be interdependent: “You can’t be a conservationist unless you accept community – community collaboration – as part of the mix. And you can’t believe strongly in community unless you accept equality.”

Lyn is baffled that the conversation on equality -of gender, of race, of whatever – is still an issue. She remarks that for a time it seemed such inequalities would be resolved within the 20th Century. Here and now, Goldsworthy condemns the cavalier attitude toward sexism: “Those things are not jokes, those things reflect a culture that is essentially misogynist. So, if you want my passion, it’s about equality… equality across the board.”

Lyn’s many passions – the environment or gender equality, community-building or activism – have all been served by her dynamic career. She cautions that activism is a tough life, yet listening to Lyn’s experience, it seems it is equally rewarding. “The reason why I’m still optimistic and carrying on, which is quite tough when you work in activism for your entire life, is that I’ve had some big wins… I was part of a team that led to the banning of mining on an entire continent; that’s amazing!”