Senior Fellows Q&A: Dr Sebastian Thomas 

Dr Sebastian Thomas is an AIC Senior Fellow and lecturer in Sustainability and Leadership from the University of Melbourne.

We recently spoke with Dr Thomas to learn more about his background and interests as a transdisciplinary researcher in the fields of climate strategy, environmental management, and sustainability economics and policy.

Describe how you first became interested in your research field.

I was diving in Taiwan with a group of SCUBA students. The reef we were exploring was very degraded and barren – so much life that should have been there was not.

I realised that in my own life I had seen not just environmental destruction but continuing and rapid loss of ecosystems that I loved. I decided to fully engage in environmental and sustainability issues as my central professional focus.

Are there other researchers in your family?

My family includes educators, lawyers, and researchers, but I am the first in my extended family to be awarded a PhD.

What do you like about your university? Name a past colleague or teacher there who inspired you in your work, and explain how.

One of the great things about the University of Melbourne is the opportunity to work with diverse people from different disciplines. Interdisciplinary research is a real strength at UoM, and a deliberate focus of our institutional culture.

One of my mentors here was a strong advocate for this type of research. Professor David Karoly is one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, now based at CSIRO. He has always encouraged me to work collaboratively with others and to use our science to support important social and environmental outcomes. He has also taught me to be a public advocate for effective policy actions that are evidence-based and designed to contribute to equitable and healthy futures.

Where are you from and what is it like there?

I grew up in Sydney, in the inner western suburbs and then the northern bush fringe. It’s a beautiful place with a great natural environment, although these days there is a lot of congestion and urban sprawl.

If you could export one aspect of life from Sydney to the world, what would it be?

It’s easy though to get on a train and travel to places where you can go bushwalking in incredible national parks, and that’s something I think all cities should strive for: places in and near the city where there are protected natural areas for people to explore and enjoy.

If you could implement one new policy in Sydney, guaranteed to succeed, what would it be?

A price on carbon to ensure transition to sustainable industrial processes in transport, agriculture, consumption and waste management, and energy generation.

PAIR looks at the impact of new transport infrastructure. Can you recall the arrival of any major new infrastructure in your life or community alongside its impact?

I’ve seen new light rail systems built in Sydney that connect suburbs to the city and give people the chance to travel more comfortably. I’ve seen new highways built that within 10 years are packed with cars almost at a standstill.

I think public transport systems are a far better development opportunity in terms of amenity, environmental impact, equitable economic growth, and the well-being of individual users and communities.

Where do you go and what do you do for a relaxing weekend?

I walk and camp in the temperate rainforests of Victoria’s central highlands near Melbourne, or the blue gum forests west of Sydney. I visit a winery or two, or spend a day cooking and then sharing meals with friends. I’ll go diving, anywhere.

Do you have a party trick or super power or signature dish?

I have all three. For my party trick, let’s have a party and I’ll show you. As for my super power, I’m pretty good on, in, and under the water.

As for my signature dish, there’s lots, really. Saffron cauliflower with caramelised red onion, raisins, and green olives. Roast eggplant with buttermilk sauce, lemon thyme, and pomegranate. Sambal telur. Spanakopita? Whole roast lamb on a spit.

Could you recommend a book that everyone should read, and why?

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, which is a truer history of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples than the standard colonial narrative.

Before European settlement, Australia was a continent with sophisticated and often sedentary societies that practised advanced agriculture, aquaculture, food processing, architecture, and design. There were complex social and trade systems operating across the country and into Asia, and important ways of living that modern societies can and should learn from and apply into the future. History matters.