Blog Title

Social Ecology Sydney


Me planting a River Gum at the River Farm on the Hawkesbury River

Social ecology is today my primary field of inquiry, research, teaching and one of my main areas of writing. It’s also become one of my forms of identifying myself professionally. I used to call myself a teacher, a community theatre educator or sometimes even a writer, but now I call myself a social ecologist. As sense of place is one of the areas of research of social ecology, I’ve also added Sydney to the title. Sydney is the place where I spend most of my time. I have chosen to live in this city of villages by the sea, with its many waterways and parks and its rich cultural life and diverse cultural communities.

In particular, I’ve chosen to live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, with its beaches, cafes, restaurants and its various cultural communities that include activities like walking by the sea, swimming, surfing, yoga, meditation, Kirtan, going to cinemas, theatres, and involving diverse cultures like Anglo/Celtic Australian, Brazilian, Israeli, Jewish, Russian, Kiwi and Maori to name just a few. It is bordered by Centennial Park, where I’m sitting at present and writing this blog on my laptop, with a cup of tea beside me. This is also the part of the Sydney I grew up in, since the age of 6. It’s where I went to school and attended my initial tertiary studies. It’s the land of the Cadigal Clan of the Eora Nation. With Aboriginal carvings at the end of my street, I feel quite connected to the First Nation people of this area.


Centennial Park Cafe Table

Centennial Park Cafe Table

So what is social ecology? This is a question I’m often asked in response to my identifying myself as one. Well, superficially it involves an understanding of the social world in which we live, which is generally covered by the field of sociology, which I studied at university as part of my arts degree. It also involves the personal and the study of psychology and body work as well as spirituality, which influence us as individuals and the way we think, feel, perceive and socialise in the place where we live, work and play. I studied Psychology as part of my engineering degree and later did Re-evaluation Co-counselling, Process Oriented Psychology, and a variety of personal growth workshops, as well as bodywork like yoga, Tai Chi and physical theatre.

Social ecology clearly involves the ecology, or the environmental context within which the social, personal and spiritual dimensions exist and function. This can include the built environment, like the streets and buildings, like my home in Bondi, or other humanly created structures or the more natural environment like the ocean, beaches, parks, pockets of bushland or my front and back yards and street garden. I say more natural because in cities these too are often humanly modified with roads, walkways, car parks, playgrounds, playing fields, picnic and toilet facilities, cafes and other structures.

One of the fundamental principles in ecology is The Systems View of Life, which happens to be the title of the very inspiring book I’m reading at present, by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014, Cambridge Press). Systems theory argues that everything is connected to everything. It’s an integral part of many indigenous cultures, like Aboriginal culture that considers the Earth as our Mother, as well as Eastern cultures like Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. One of the most beautiful images of this is the Buddhist idea of the Net of Indra. This is a jewelled net in which every jewel reflects every other jewel in the net. To Buddhists, it describes the way we are all interconnected in the words of Joanna Macy, or we are in a dynamic state of interbeing in the words of the Vietnamese Zen Master and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. So if any jewel in the net is changed it affects all the other jewels.

Capra and Luisi (2014) claim that the ‘tension between mechanism and holism has been a recurring theme throughout the history of Western Science.’ And that ‘in the twentieth-century science, the holistic perspective became known as “systemic” and the way of thinking it implies as “systems theory”,’ (p. 63). This new way of thinking in the West grew out of the study of biology and ecology, a term ‘coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who defined it as “the science of relations between the organism and the surrounding outer world”,’ (cited in Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 66).

While I’d read about systems theory in Gregory Bateson’s (1972) classic book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, back in the 70s it was through Joanna Macy’s workshops and Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats, as well as reading their books in the 80s that I really began to understand the ideas of systems theory. I suspect that one of the reasons for this difficulty I had in understanding systems theory was that I’d been so well educated in the Western Scientific tradition of the Cartesian-Newtonian Mechanistic worldview as a chemical engineer. Consequently, I first had to unlearn this way of thinking, into which I had also been so strongly conditioned in both my school education as well as my social upbringing. The latter focused on the individual in competition with other individuals, as part of a British colonial culture in the South Asia Pacific region, which promoted the idea of survival of the fittest. It was this factor, it was argued that gave the British colonists the right to invade this land now called Australia and dominate its people, under the pretext of what they called ‘civilisation.’

In my school lessons in the 50s on Australian Aboriginal history, I was told this was a process of peaceful settlement, with the implication that Aboriginal people on the whole, were grateful to have been offered this opportunity of being part of British civilisation. Needless to say as an adult I discovered this was far from the case. This was reinforced by direct contact with Aboriginal people and their profound culture, as well as by my studies in anthropology.

Indeed the first film I made as part of a Film and Television Production course at Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne was about Aboriginal people living at La Perouse in the early 70s. I now consider this as one of my early inquiries into social ecology. I knew about these people living in third world conditions at the edge of this highly prosperous modern city like Sydney, but I had no idea who they really were or even why they were there. The idea of the film was to begin a process of inquiry into these people and their place in the modern city that I called my home. The process of making this film and meeting the people, especially the children, began a process of deep questioning about the world that I’d been brought up in as an educated middle-class man living in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. How come I had this privileged position as a child of Jewish refugees from war torn Europe while the people, on whose land I was living were so marginalised?

However a second question arose for me from meeting the children and experiencing their playful spirited way of being, which was in sharp contrast to the children that I knew from middle class backgrounds that seemed so subdued by comparison. This question was further reinforced by spending some 3 and ½ years teaching at an innercity school where between 60 to 80% of its population were Aboriginal, with some 10 to 20% Pacific Islander. This question also arose in my travels when I had an experience in a park in Singapore, when Karen and I were caught in a sudden tropical downpour and took shelter in a pavilion along with a bunch of kids. As soon as they saw me with a camera they began to perform the most amazing acrobatics, which I was able to photograph. In the experience in both La Perouse and Singapore, I felt the children still had their living spirit in a way that the children I knew in middle-class societies were generally so much more subdued. What were we doing to our children?

This question has been well answered for me in recent times by the work of Ken Robinson, by his books and particularly his TED video called ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ Like the spirit of our children, it seems our so-called civilised middle class upbringing also kills creativity, as our children grow into adults. For me spirit, nature and creativity are all linked. Our modern so-called civilised world manages to kill all three!

The work of Jacob Levy Moreno, the psychiatrist who invented psychodrama in the Vienna of the 1920s, confirms this finding. His understanding of psychodrama was that it was a form of spontaneity training. He considered spontaneity to result from the Elan Vital, or the Lifeforce that the French philosopher Henri Bergson argued was at the very basis of all life in his important book Creative Evolution. Bergson was dismissed by the positivist scientific movement at the time, who were deeply challenged by this idea that they called ‘vitalism’, and were still maintaining the Cartesian-Newtonian clockwork paradigm. However, Moreno took Bergson’s work seriously. One of his contemporaries Wilhelm Reich, who like Moreno was also initially a disciple of Sigmund Freud, called this Lifeforce ‘Orgone energy’ which pervaded the Universe and was linked to our experience of orgasm. Needless to say Reich’s work was also rejected by the mainstream scientific world at the time. Today I would argue that Reich, Bergson and Moreno were affirming the presence of what we have come to understand as Prana in Yoga, Chi in Tai Chi or Ki in Aikido.

This brings me back to my story and how I became a social ecologist. Another major factor in my journey was reading an early book of Fritjof Capra (1975) called The Tao of Physics. At that stage in the mid to late 70s, I was a lapsed chemical engineer, studying drama, French, acting, sociology and embarking on the study and practice of Yoga, Tai Chi and Zen meditation. I was working in theatre and bookshops to support myself financially and involved in various fringe theatre and writing projects. Reading Capra’s book proved a major turning point, which was actually the title of the next book of his I later read. In The Tao of Physics, Capra showed the connection between eastern philosophy and the new physics. At the time I was deeply disillusioned with the study of western science that had so dominated my early life.

I grew up with the myth in the 50s and 60s that science was going to save the world. While I studied the theory at university, this appeared to be a valid myth, but once I entered the practice in the world of industry I observed something completely different. There I saw a science that was exploiting the natural world, both by the cavalier way it was using nature as a ‘raw material’ and by the lack of any serious consideration at the time of the pollution that the scientific processes like those in the chemical industry were causing.

The clear evidence for this, is that Botany Bay is the most polluted water way in Australia, and that was partly due to the ICIANZ chemical factory where I was working in the late 60s, while Sydney Harbour still has dioxins in the water due to the Union Carbide factory where I was working as a cadet chemical engineer in the early 60s. As an idealistic young graduate, I was deeply affected by what I observed in the industry and with the unconscious way my colleagues and managers dealt with this very serious situation. In the late 60s while working at ICIANZ I had a serious industrial accident where I inhaled toxic gasses that sent me to hospital for a week, during which I began to seriously question my life path.

In the light of this experience, Capra’s (1975) book began to explain many things that had never quite made sense in my study of physics and mathematics to third year university level as part of my engineering studies. Along with my experience of Drama, Yoga, Zen, Tai Chi and the humanities in general, I was beginning to heal the deep division in myself between the arts and the sciences that the writer C. P Snow[1] addressed in the 50s, namely the war between the arts and the sciences in western culture.

Then in the 80s I began to read the work of Murray Bookchin and Gregory Bateson. Bookchin[2] invented the term social ecology and wrote about how the ecological problems we are having today, arose out of the hierarchical social structures in the industrial world that is destroying nature through its domination. His work later led to the development of an Institute of Social Ecology in Vermont[3], which is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. Bateson’s (1972) book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, was my first introduction to systems theory, especially in the life sciences, which Capra’s[4] (1982) book The Turning Point also addressed with regard to the health sciences.

Then in the 1985 I connected to Joanna Macy’s[5] work of Despair and Empowerment through my involvement with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and some Buddhist intentional communities in Northern NSW. The following year I went to the USA via Hawaii, where Karen and I did an end of year Zen Sesshin at the Diamond Sangha with Robert Aitken Roshi, our Zen teacher. While there, I also checked out the East West Centre at the University of Hawaii, as a possible place to do a PhD, as I had just completed my masters in Theatre Studies in Sydney at UNSW. I was interested in the eastern influence on western theatre at the time. After the retreat, we went to the mainland where I picked up a catalogue to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. This is the place to do my PhD I thought, as I wanted to integrate the artist and the scientist in me as much as the eastern and western influences on my life and the Australian world I was living in. My mystic was also beginning to emerge at this time.

As it happened when we returned to Oz life took over and I began to develop my Drama Yoga workshop process, which led to the Quaker non-violence training in the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Around this time in 1987, our daughter Amica decided to join my partner Karen and I, so I needed to work more to support her. At the time I was working as a drama, ESL, EFL and ESOL[6], in schools, community centres, TAFE and finally for the Adult Migrant English Services (AMES), where I also worked with recently arrived youth on a program that included Aboriginal studies. I began to be involved in training of youth workers through the Community Centre for Welfare Training (CCWT) on experiential non-violence processes, creative anger processes, cross cultural work and creative anti-racism programs. I presented widely – at TESOL conferences on using drama to learn language and at conferences on youth, community work and popular culture, on cross-cultural work, on Aboriginality and on anti-racism[7].

Through this work in education and training I reconnected with a friend from my UNSW drama studies days, Dawn Griggs[8], who had also become an English teacher in the EFL field and who wanted to start a group to address non-denominational spiritualty with teachers in schools and educators in general. This became the Spirit of Learning group, which presented weekend forums tri-annually for several years around Sydney and in regional areas. Later it became the topic of her research masters in Social Ecology. I was one of her subjects in her research. Then a second woman named Dawn in the group, who was a lecturer in Early Childhood education and involved in Tai Chi practice and Jean Houston’s work. She attended one of my CCWT workshops at Penrith. She was then doing her PhD in Social Ecology and suggested that I could do one there too.

In my life the Universe generally speaks to me in ‘threes.’ With the demise of AMES due to the racism of the Howard government in the mid 90s, I attended a Whole Town Anti-Racism meeting at UTS, in the buildings that ironically had once been an AMES centre. It turned out that Shoshana, the anti-racism officer at UTS, who had created and presented the meeting was a Social Ecology student of Judy Pinn, who I knew from my Zen days. Her partner happened to be Stuart Hill, the founding Professor of Social Ecology at UWS (see his website for more information on Stuart Hill and Social Ecology: . He gave me a great big Stuart hug, called me brother and so I asked about the possibility of doing a PhD at UWS in my anti-racism through drama education work. He was very positive about the idea and the 3 seeds of my PhD in social ecology were now planted and it was only a matter of time before I enrolled in my PhD in the late 90s.

During this time we had the most amazing post-graduate social ecology residentials, where I really felt at home. It was like finding my tribe. My initial supervisor David Wright[9] in social ecology was also an expert in drama education. Initially, my second supervisor was Judy Pinn, but she retired from the school so then my second supervisor became Brenda Dobia, a psychologist and Yoga teacher researching the Goddess Shakti with a group of women. David Russell, a Jungian therapist and researcher, who taught Cultural Psychology, was another person who assisted my entry to the school after a conversation I had with Susan Benson at a Tara retreat in the Megalong Valley. David Russell was teaching with Brendan, who I knew from my Yoga classes with John Cooper and who I met at the Woodford Folk Festival. He too had told me I should look into social ecology studies. Then Claire Jankelson, who I met at my first residential, Susan Benson and I formed a PhD support group that really did support our research processes over the many years of our PhD[10] studies.

The connections go on and on, as is the nature of social networks. David Russell was also involved in establishing the SLAM conferences at UWS and I attended the second one along with Dawn Griggs and Ian Mills, who had been her supervisor in social ecology and therefore knew me through her research. We presented a workshop called The Spirit of Learning: Creativity, Intuition and the In-Between. It was as mind-blowing for me as the workshop I first presented at the Spirit of Learning Forum back in 1992, which I called Towards a Sustainable World View. This semester at UWS at Bankstown I’m coordinating a unit called Education for Sustainability [11]. This is a unit Brenda normally teaches.

Social Ecology Students at the Riverfarm on the Hawkesbury R

Social Ecology Students at the Riverfarm on the Hawkesbury

The connections go on and on, so to come to a conclusion as to this blog that is about why this blog is called Social Ecology Sydney, I will just mention 2 of my conference presentations, both of which are have led to posts on this site. The most recent was at a Sustainability Symposium at UWS Hawkesbury in July this year at which I presented the paper on Integral Consciousness and Spiritual Ecology through Generative Learning together with my colleague and previous student, Nicola Lambert. The previous year Nicola and Philip Jackson, another of my master’s students in social ecology, presented at the Social Ecology Symposium, also at UWS Hawkesbury. This was a workshop on Integral Consciousness and the work of Jean Gebser, whose classic work The Ever-Present Origins, is mentioned several times on this blog. We all felt very honoured that both Graeme Byrd and Richard Bawden attended our workshop at the symposium on the lawn under a grove of trees and next to telecommunication tower. These two men were both involved in the early years of social ecology at what was then the Hawkesbury Agricultural College and later became part of UWS.

It is this story that hopefully answers the question for the readers of my blog as to why I named it: Social Ecology Sydney.

The River farm at UWS

The River Farm at UWS Hawkesbury

[1] See entry to Wikipedia:

[2] See website:

[3] See website:

[4] see:

[5] see website:

[6] ESL = English as a Second Language, used in schools in NSW; EFL = English as a Foreign Language, involves teaching overseas students; ESOL = English to Speakers of Other Languages, used in adult education of migrants and refugees.

[ 7] See my chapter on this theme: Migration, Aboriginality and Acculturation, p. 275, in Williams, L., Roberts, R., & McIntosh, A., 2012, Radical Human Ecology, Intercultural and Indigenous Approaches, Surrey, UK: Ashgate

[8] Griggs, D., 2003, Spirit of Learning, Blairgowrie, Vic.: Jubilation

[9] See the social ecology text: Social Ecology, Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet, Edited by David Wright, Catherine Camden-Pratt and Stuart Hill (2011). My chapter is 26, a drama ecology of culture, p. 251.

[10] My PhD is available electronically at UWS library:

[11] This is primarily an education unit for primary and secondary pre-service teachers at UWS

6 thoughts on “Blog Title

  1. Brilliant blog Ben! Loved reading your Social Ecology story, and wonderfully enriched description of Social Ecology. I’m so glad you have decided to call yourself a Social Ecologist as this covers the diversity of you – your gifts, talents, experiences and evolution. Lyn x

  2. dear ben!! Hi!! LOVE YOUR BLOG…… so amazing to read your beautiful journey and happy that i know a little bit of it first hand ( drama yoga!) …. I also work closely with ellen dunn in the women’s circus down here and she is a social ecologist by actual academic study as well as by inclination… ( and just being a human as you point out above!) lots of love to you and karen and amica! ……

    ummm I want to ask you for a bit of mentoring at this moment….for two things….. 1. have received a request to take some drama to a primary school in south west sydney to help with racism… i believe in particular negative attitudes to muslim students. I have accessed the cooling conflicts materials… and planning over the next 6 weeks ( gulp!) to teach a group of IEC and ex IEC students basics of peace/ anti-racism/anti-bullying and enhanced forum theatre and let them peer-teach a group at the primary school Have been given one day cover to plan… but the rest is up to me… ( while still teaching full time)… so wondering if you have could let me know where i could find some actual lesson plans in this area to bounce off for my first session this wednesday after school!!

    2. ( also … I am a Soka Gakkai buddhist now— and very interested in thinking of how i could fashion a teaching scholarship application ( gives you money to travel/study and leave to go…and you have to bring something back that can be disseminated and help all schools) around combining creativity ( i run many drama/music projects at my IEC/whole school so this is my area of specialisation) and peace issues…if you have any ideas …. i would greatly appreciate it… of course just reading your blog gives me many… but would truly appreciate ideas…xx

  3. Hi Ben,

    Interesting to be looking up Dances of Universal Peace and find the ‘Ben’. Just to let you know, as ex-UWS Social Ecology, I have also begun a couple of blogspots… (thoughts) and for which I was searching what Dances of Universal Peace Sydney were up to.

    I will read your blog at leisure, and give it time to add a relevant comment.



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