“For me disruptions and atrocities are not a surprise.”
These are the words of Southern Cross University lecturer Dr Jean S Renouf: an academic, firefighter and a father. Jean’s research is focused on how climate change affects community security, national security and international security.
He has spent years working in war zones and natural disasters, and believes the first step to emotional survival in times like these is not to resist change, not seek normality, because that’s not happening right now.
“I think this is very helpful. Once you have had this mindset shift, it allows you to be more at peace with what is,” he said.
Jean’s life experiences have prepared him well for times like these.
Jean’s first job was with French international aid agency, Premiere Urgence.
His task was to oversee the renovation of five hospitals in North Korea and work out how to raise their temperatures. It was minus 10 degrees Celsius inside one of the hospitals in winter, including in the patients’ rooms.
“I really struggled at the time to understand why on earth they gave a 22-year-old with no experience with engineering or building this sort of job. And I asked actually the question when I returned home at the end of the contract.”
“It was not based on the skills it was based on the motivation.”
Jean’s next role in Iraq was a shock.
“On that first day, first hour in the country we got shot at. The Saddam regime was falling and Iraq was crumbling.”
US forces and other international forces were not controlling the country, and never would.
“There was looting everywhere, people shooting at each other everywhere, a number of incidents happening every day.”
The situation deteriorated to the point that the group could not work the way they had been and so Jean’s role in Iraq evolved. Eventually he was in charge of the emergency response, working in hospitals and the health sector providing equipment, but also skills and training to the medical and paramedical staff.
“I was blessed to have a boss, the head of mission, who understood the culture very well. He was able to navigate us so we were able to remain in the country well after the United Nations and most other international organisations had packed up. That meant that we played a critical role during many events including one of the Fallujah battles and the Najaf battle, which were very, very destructive and kind of turning points in the conflict – and we were still able to provide emergency relief there.”
“So, the risks were real but at the same time the satisfaction of doing meaningful work was, for me at least, enough to carry me further.”
After a year and a half in Iraq Jean returned home to France.
A few months later, he found himself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, working with Oxfam, to begin what he describes as the most challenging job he has ever had.
Jean’s role was that of a Program Manager in the Ituri Region, located in the North East of the Congo, on the border with Uganda. There were ongoing conflicts between different armed paramilitary and tribal groups.
“The complexity of the conflict was really, really intense. Our role was to provide water and sanitation to support the population, ensuring that both the villages affected by the conflicts and the massacres, and the population fleeing those, had access to drinkable water, to latrines and alongside other organisations, were provided food, clothing, cooking utensils, education, vaccinations etc.”
“I was 26, I was leading a team of 200 people in the most complex situation ever with multiple staff being targeted, some of whom died, some of whom crashed in aeroplanes, some of whom had to be medically evacuated because of malaria and other issues. Also, the sheer extent of the crisis in an ongoing conflict situation where everything was so fluid.
“One day the road would be open and we could go to a camp, the next day there were paramilitary or militias controlling it and restricting the access so we had to negotiate with them and some of the fighters were kids, with red eyes, drugged, controlling the checkpoints. So, you had to negotiate with someone who’s not very stable.
“All of this was a lot to take but also very, very rewarding because it truly was the place where I felt I had the most visible and meaningful impact on people. They were life and death situations and our work was saving lives.”
After Nine months in the Congo Jean returned to London to do a PhD in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The topic was Humanitarian Security. It involved researching how international aid agencies, driven by certain ethics and committed to non-violence, can protect themselves in countries and areas where they are being targeted, killed, robbed and harmed.
“It was fascinating because it allowed me to answer a question I had, based on an observation I made in Afghanistan. In one given street in Kabul there were three different international organisations providing aid but all three of them had really different security postures. And that really struck me. One had high walls, barbed wires, miradors (watchtowers), armed guards, they were flying by helicopters to villages to implement their project. Another had no visibility at all so you could walk or drive in front of the building and you wouldn’t realise there was an international organisation there. A closed door, but like every other door, nothing special about the building, very low profile. The third one had an open gate policy so their approach was to talk to everybody and be very open and welcoming and inclusive.
“What was interesting is that all three of them, because of their respective choices in how to manage their security, when confronted with incidents, their response would be shaped by this approach and more likely than not it would comfort them that their approach was the right one.
“So, the first organisation who got targeted multiple times and had a number of staff killed by insurgents, they were comforted that they needed further protection. Those who had a low profile were comforted that having a low profile meant reducing their exposure, their visibility, therefore lessening the likelihood of being targeted, so it comforted their own position. And the third one having open, transparent policy, meaning they could speak to everyone including the Taliban were also comforted that whatever their issue, they could speak to whoever created the problem and resolve it in peaceful ways.”
For Jean this demonstrated that the way in which we project our own identity onto the world is confirmed by the way we interact with the world.
While completing his PhD Jean met Carly, an Australian woman who later became his wife and ultimately this led him to Australia.
Jean’s research at Southern Cross University is focused on climate change. His research project is called Living Safely in the Century of Climate Change. He has interviewed 16 climate change experts and surveyed 921 climate change experts, across 83 countries. He is on the verge of releasing his findings, which are concerning for our future.
With this in mind and, in alignment with his previous career, the latter part of Jean’s research, which he hopes to start later this year; is focussed on ethical community security and resilience.
“So, what has happened with Covid-19 is quite interesting. It’s quite obvious that when the situation deteriorates like this nationally or globally, restrictive measures are put in place. And it’s really obvious that this is what’s going to happen with climate change as we’re going to get hit more and more by …..disasters and impacts.
“To me I saw that coming already a year or two ago and I was talking to my wife about that implications for us as a family and that’s also why, on the side, I founded a not-for-profit called Resilient Byron.”
The purpose of Resilient Byron is to build the regenerative and resilient capacities of the communities in the Northern Rivers. To prepare for the next waves of disasters which Jean says will inevitably strike us but also, in between, transform the society and the world we live in.
“In order to not just be hit by those, but as far as is possible, thrive in this new reality.”
Jean recommends to his students that they accept the reality of massive disruption, both now and into the future.
“I think it is important that we try to support each other to overcome the shock of what’s happening in order to build the world we want to live in, not just be passively hit by what’s happening.”
He can give numerous examples of times like these in which he has noticed that some individuals step up and find the strength and energy to lead, in a direction which is constructive and cohesive.
“I think the way life continues is very much underpinned by those moments where we make those micro-choices that are actually fundamental. Now is the time to contact each other to check on each other.
“Now is the time to leverage the community assets. Each family, each street and each neighbourhood, we have some skills to share. Some are paramedics or retired nurses, others are babysitters who can take care of the children while the parents go and help the elderly, we can organise ourselves and we should basically. This is the beauty of the crisis, what our ancestors have done for centuries, we can claim it again.
“It’s important to build and maintain strong bonds with the various communities that we are part of, to build our collective ability to remain independent despite what is happening. Not as individuals or as families, because then it leads to toilet paper hoarding. But really as local communities. I mean none of us can have all that we need to survive individually.”
When things are really tough, he is quick to remind us that life goes on.
“Ultimately life continues, in its sheer horror and beauty at the same time; it’s absolutely fascinating.”
Hear more from Southern Cross University’s Dr Jean Renouf in this week’s episode of SCU BUZZ podcast: soundcloud.com/southerncrossuniversity/how-climate-scientists-make-sense-of-climate-change