Where are they now? Adam Steer

In honor of the 10th anniversary of geohipster, we’re looking back at past interviews. Six years ago Alex Leith interviewed Adam Steer. Adam covered Sea Ice, Point Clouds, Africa, and Skiing. When asked the most important question of “Shapefile or Geopackage he threw in with Geopackage with the best answer ever: “GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why.” I think I had first contacted Adam back in the fall and it’s taken a while to get this wrapped up. Why? It’s quite a story…a good story…..and it’s one that resonates with me. So where is Adam now?

Q. When last we heard out of you – you were a “consultant at large” in Canberra, Australia. You’ve done a bit of traveling since then. Where have you been? 

Thanks for the opportunity to speak. This story is a hard one to write – it’s taking a long time and many revisions.

…and may be hard to read. We’re only meant to tell success stories right?

Since last check in, it has been a ride… traveling across worlds both physically and metaphorically, then ending up  more or less back in the same place. As I write this, I’ve been working on trying to rebuild a client base for Spatialised, and firing out applications for any remotely suitable work that pops up. By the time this is published I’ll be settling in to a new short-term role. It’s a welcome opportunity, although the applications need to keep rolling on out…

Between 2018 and now is half a planet – and more. I left Canberra with Spatialised looking OK as a business in 2019,  thinking we’d end up in a cute little town and work away remotely while being reasonably ‘big city accessible’. Instead we ended up living very remotely out of a temporary base trying to string business together in an increasingly hostile regional rental market. And then the immense 2019/20 fire season hit (see: https://toolsfortherevolution.com/fire), and then COVID. This series of events wrecked Spatialised as a running concern – so the need for regular work became pressing.

I applied for a 3 year contract in Norway, and got it. It was the only offer on the table, so we went to Tromsø – really far away, in the middle of a pandemic. It took an incredible amount of navigating state governments, and then national governments, to pull off. And a lot of hard cash. Still – I was really excited at the time, looking forward to 3 years of reasonable income, support, and new opportunities.

Tromsø is far, far away – it is further north than most of the Antarctic coastline is south! Fun fact: My south point at the front of the Amery ice shelf in Prydz bay is far south of Davis station, yet the same latitude as Tromsø! Separate from work pressures it was pretty amazing. A lot of skiing, a very different place and space and culture. I learnt to almost be able to converse in Norwegian, my kids became pretty fluent, we canoed rivers, met amazing people! We ended up with a real stroke of luck finding a flat to rent outside the commercial rental system  in a small neighbourhood full of pretty like minded people from around the world.

So parts of this were really cool! Although thats the highlight reel more than the reality of daily life.  Norsk culture was less welcoming for us than we hoped – we found barriers to everything everywhere; and working for the Norwegian government was no real advantage. Because we were not Norwegian official things took longer (or never happened in 2.5 years), and were more expensive. I think this would also apply for non residents coming to Australia by the way. I hoped for a more welcoming work community and didn’t get it.

We didn’t have anything like what most readers would consider a normal life in Norway – in a way that was a choice, we bought ski lift passes and secondhand skis (super cheap!) rather than going out for dinner, although I don’t think we could have gone out for dinner more than once anyway. Lots of plans to explore Scandinavia a bit never came to fruition. There was no way we could fund it.

Emigrating back to Australia my family and I went into a long series of house sitting to keep a roof over our heads, moving every 3-7 weeks around Victoria, or nearby. Fortunately our trusty Pajero was still in great shape – our whole lives fit into / on it!  We’re incredibly grateful that housesitting worked – although it can’t last forever. People often say “wow, what a lifestyle” and my response is pretty much yes and we are so damn tired

We finally secured a base in Bendigo – which is fantastic and lets us breathe a little. 

How complicated is sea ice? 

Blowing my own horn a bit, I think a good start is to go read an article I wrote for sciencenorway: https://sciencenorway.no/blog-nansen-legacy-project-blog-researchers-zone/ephemeral-landscapes/1916323

I tend to think of it as a multi-scale composite material made up of other multi-scale composite materials. And it drifts, undergoes complex dynamic (stuff moving around) and thermodynamic (melt, freeze, metamorphosis) processes, and is impermanent. As I wrote in the article, we explore a landscape which happens once in time – it has never been observed before and never will be observed again.

What it does for our planet is moderate interaction between a very cold polar atmosphere and a warm ocean. Because it is made of salt water, it gets more complicated! Salt can’t stay inside solid water crystals – it gets pushed out both upward and downward. The upward salt becomes an aerosol sometimes blown far inland on Antarctica. The downward salt makes salty, dense, sinky water that drives overturning ocean circulation. In part, you get great fishing where cold, old, nutrient rich water wells up from the ocean bottom because of sea ice forming off Antarctica hundreds of years ago.

Complicated enough yet? It is also very hard to study. Running icebreakers is extremely expensive and very fossil-fuel intensive. On my last winter expedition to Antarctica in 2012 we loaded up a million litres of diesel and pretty much burned it all. Even with a brand new state of the art ship in Norway we discuss tens of thousands of litres of diesel per day. However, it can’t be done any other way. If we want to understand sea ice, we need to go there. This time is incredibly valuable so we don’t want to spend it fornicating with arachnids, to use an old and always-useful Australian saying.

Unfortunately, a lot of research is backward-looking to the point of being almost pointless, and change is hard. Careers are won and lost on internal politics and never ruffling feathers in power structures. A final complication is that so many people go to the sea ice (and other amazing places) and never really see it. They see the next paper, the instagram post, the marketspiel – earth as a research object is just another exploitable resource to extract from. That mindset is so common in research, it is heartbreaking. I won’t even start on attitudes about research junk and interaction with local wildlife that dares to interrupt work!

With two and a half years in Norway, how was re-entry into Australia? 

Tough. Honestly I feel like a tourist here now.

I started preparing ground about 9 months ahead, because at that point it was apparent that there was no path forward in Norway or Europe. Return south was inevitable! I started looking for work, letting my networks know I was coming back and needed a new job. So while working, doing the logistics for a return to Australia, dealing with the wind up of everything in Norway I was mustering energy to write applications for anything remotely interesting that turned up in Australia.

So whatever funds we scratched together in Norway went immediately into shipping four people and two cubic meters of stuff across a planet. And the months of desk rejections began…

Arriving in Australia and grabbing a couple of beers with John Bryant was really nice, and then the shock of Melbourne after years of no tall buildings, and then straight to life in remote Eskdale, where my family were housesitting. From there, the applications and desk rejections continued… and continued. And continued.

As a result we ended up house sitting for 9 months (my family more than a year), moved a lot, and had gaps where we camped for a week or two. It’s really hard to get ‘any job’ because while all the employers in regional Australia scream that nobody wants to work, they also want extreme levels of commitment for often pretty terrible conditions. There’s also a massive housing crisis caused by short term rental and investment markets and long term housing policy failures in Australia, so a lot of the job issues are also this cycle of “ok, yes we can come and work – we also can’t afford the rent / there are no houses to rent within sane commuting distance to work – and if there are rental houses we don’t have the standard set of boxes ticked’’.

Moving to Norway exhausted our small bucket of cash in the hope that it would pay a return. Moving back and 9 months of moving around on the barest of threads has completely exhausted us again. I found a regular full time job for the last half of 2023  – however it takes months to start being able to think about a more stable place to live. Assuming that anything is stable in the currently-awful-and-hostile environment for people who have to rent houses in Australia.

So for over a year, the message I get is ‘we want all the things you can do, we just don’t want you’. It’s pretty hard to cope with, and also pretty hard to cope with that whole decline from ‘oh crap I was leading the world in this at one point and now I can’t even get work in that field’. This on top of my experience in Norway – imagine travelling halfway across the planet to discover your new colleagues are actively excluding you from projects / opportunities!

It’s commonly held in research and some other circles that international experience is highly regarded. I really struggle to believe that – my experience returning ‘home’ is not a pretty story. And I left exhausted behind a long time ago. It is also pretty telling about the state of the geospatial and research community in 2024. Community for who? I’m left feeling that we’re a pretty close-minded bunch – fit the mold or you’re out. Don’t speak up or you’re out. Just smile, gaslight ourselves and pretend we’re doing good.

As I write this in 2024, it’s hard to push aside this overwhelming feeling that nobody cares. It’s like the skiing joke: ‘Nobody cares that you ski telemark, and nobody cares that you have a doctorate in applied geospatial audacity’.

I also know this is not always true – people all have their own fights and in the current lurch toward neo-feudalism I get it. We can’t all be winners. I can only say I did more than my level best and still here we are. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

You just started a new job with the Taungurung Land & Waters Council. What will you be doing there. 

I left the role after six months. The best way to tell this story is that I was hired as an implementation of change in operational practice – and the change was rejected. So I shifted to working as casual/temporary/no fixed contract land management field crew  while searching for the next thing. It’s hard, hot and humbling. However, it did take us into some very rarely visited parts of Taungurung country.

Change is hard. Reshaping concepts and ways of work doesn’t always win. I think from my perspective, because change is just Tuesday for me, I’m less able to empathise with people who want everything to just stay as it was. This influences everything – and is something I can work on.

By the time you read this I’ll be working in a short term role with Parks Victoria. After June 2024? Really not sure.

I’m always open to bespoke artisanal geconsulting work via spastialised.net – especially on projects that need to figure out ways to get things done / mapped / measured  in mountain and polar regions

Any last words for the Geohipster Audience?

Seriously what even are we doing in 2024? We are blahblah-ing about big data and machine learning and yeeting disposable orbitware spaceward in ever increasing amounts and celebrating automated mansplaining based on IP theft and conveniently forgetting that this new widget that makes up paintings is directly related to societal vampirism of data centre hypercorporations – that’s on top of environmental disasters and multiple social crises, all of which were well known, and avoidable.

And also it’s OK to let super qualified and super experienced people starve, along with their families. The social contract around higher education / experience gaining / input to communities is truly broken.

….but what can a geohipster do about it, I hear you say? Our pixels are already organic!

It is way past time the geo community stopped pretending that we are apolitical and in some way objectively responding to needs, and if we didn’t do it someone else would. Wrong answers, if you like a planet to be liveable.

So – there are three really powerful actions we can take:

First, be honest with ourselves and our place on the planet. I live in Australia, I travelled to Norway, worked on icebreakers, my carbon budget and system impact is immense! So many of my colleagues never even observed any of that stuff as a privilege. That lack of self reflection is fundamentally misaligned with a future compatible with comfortable lifestyles as we know them. However, it is everywhere. I feel like generally we’re sleepwalking into all kinds of things – distracted by new technologies, unable to grasp the existential threats we’ve made ourselves. Spend time outside, away from screens, without being out to conquer whatever. Walk more, work less. If you’re out on fieldwork, take out your science / analyst eyes and put your kid eyes in again for a while. It’ll do you, and your research / work / analysis, good. Find wonder, spread wonder. Spend less time seeing the world from satellites and more from the ground.

Number two is vote like your kids life (or your mates’s kids lives)  depended on it. Because it does. Large scale money at government levels doesn’t matter, just look at military spending and read Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth. Vote for whoever is going to spend what it takes to create a sustainable future and defuse the largest global emergency humanity has ever faced. We created it, after all… it is on us to fix. And we can do it. Together.

Thing three is be hopeful, be kind. Without kindness and hope we are lost. And there is always space to be kind and to hope. Even when you’re still processing PhD stress and massive amounts of uncertainty and watching decades of work burn down and forced career changes and a solid year of  rejection from professional and personal communities and housing uncertainty and trying to navigate a family through it all and also dealing with 30+ years of knowing exactly how this messed up path of society would turn out and despite doing what I can to help seeing it roll on anyway and also trying not to crack open in the process. If I can have hope and be kind after all that… well, I think anyone can.

There’s hope and kindness in all kinds of dark corners. Look for it. Nurture it. Hope spurs action, kindness shapes it.

…and the fourth action out of three is to talk about all this, all the hard parts, the things that make us feel shit as well as the feelgood stories.. We can’t change anything if we don’t talk about the hard parts. 

I write this a long way from the heady hubris of 2018. A lot of best laid plans partly working out and a lot going sideways, a sprinkle of incredible adventures, and a lot of long term impacts still being kicked down the road to hopefully deal with later, or just not because it may never become possible. I really worked hard to break some long standing intergenerational stressors for my family, and, well, got new ones.

All I ever wanted was to live a peaceful life, go in the mountains, do valuable work and have some stability for myself and my family. I never wanted a mosaic career yet here we are. What pays wins, for the longest time now. I don’t want to abandon earth systems research, map making and thinking, talking about places and spaces and technology. I’m not sure if I have a choice in that.

Whatever comes next, it’ll be done ethically to the best of my ability. That core value never goes away. My energy-giving will be a lot more cautious, until my own cup gets more sustainable refilling.

Until next geohipster check in, hopefully I’ll see you in the mountains! Reach out, come walking and climbing and skiing and running and understanding/living/breathing all these places we look at from space and screens. Breathe. Touch grass. Get dirty. Laugh. Sing. Cry. Bring wine.





2 responses to “Where are they now? Adam Steer”

  1. alan uminski Avatar
    alan uminski

    “Walk More Work Less”

  2. Stefan Eberlein Avatar
    Stefan Eberlein

    While not necessarily agreeing with everything said, I appreciate how honest this is. Thank you. I wish you success in your endeavours.

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