Portrait

One man's journey from the hallowed halls of academia to campaigning for Greenpeace. By Ceridwen Dovey.

Greenpeace’s Nik Casule finds his energy source

It’s another sublimely warm afternoon in late May. Students are sunbaking and eating ice-cream on the lawns of Sydney University, but I can’t shake the unease that has been gnawing at me through the past three weeks of the hottest May on record. “It’s because the light is all wrong,” Nik Casule says. “It’s the temperature of a summer evening but it’s winter light, dark by 5.30. It’s unsettling.” He tells me of another new and terrible record: for the first time in human history, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere stayed above 400 parts per million for the whole month of April. The science tells us that the upper limit to preserve a comfortably liveable planet is 350. We’ve crossed the threshold into the unknown.

Nik is going to show me around the Nicholson Museum’s collection of antiquities. He taught here and at ANU last year, soon after he’d finished his doctoral thesis on the ancient Roman conquest of the Greek world, and then he made the momentous decision to leave academia to become a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace.

I know a little of what that feels like – I left academia by dropping out of an eight-year American PhD when I was halfway through, and felt bereft and relieved in equal measure. But Nik left in part because of a growing sense of urgency. “I spent all this time trying to understand how these ancient civilisations rose and fell – the cause of their decline – and I realised I couldn’t do that in a detached way when our own civilisation is in danger,” he says. “Climate change means the global food and water supply will be disrupted, and the basic necessities of life will be under threat.” Familiar anxiety fills me; aphorisms of warning drift into my mind: We’re three hot meals away from anarchy. Civilisation is one generation away from barbarism. 

The Nicholson is small but its displays are exuberant. It’s a teaching museum tasked with inspiring wonder. At the entrance is the gravestone of a sailor who was buried near the ancient naval base of Misenum in the Bay of Naples. The curator has linked this object to the story of Pliny the Elder’s death, suffocating on fumes from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius after he ignored advice not to return to rescue people trapped in settlements around its base. I tell Nik about looking down into the still steaming core of Vesuvius many years ago, after I’d illegally climbed a fence to get to the volcano’s edge. He gracefully avoids being baited into drawing a connection to modern-day extreme weather events and natural disasters related to climate change. If there’s any relevance, it’s much more abstract, about ignorance and complacency, about the tragic clarity of hindsight, about heroism in the face of certain death. 

We stand before a row of terracotta funerary urns made by the Etruscans, a powerful people who ruled a federation of city-states for centuries in what is now Tuscany, before being conquered by the Romans. There is some mystery surrounding them, for no written history of their own remains – the little we know is from written accounts by contemporary Greek and later Roman historians, and from the objects they left behind. 

“These aren’t stylised depictions of warfare, as we would see in a frieze from the Parthenon in ancient Greece, for example, of soldiers in static rows,” he says. “This is graphic, specific violence.” I look more closely at the figures carved into the sides of the urns. A soldier is being attacked by several others, forced to his knees by one man, about to be beheaded by another, fighting for his life. The person whose remains were buried in this urn was not a man but a woman. These battle scene carvings were often unisex for dead Etruscans; death was so much a part of life that the terracotta urns were mass produced. 

“What would they have been fighting over?’ I ask. 

“The same stuff everyone fights over in the ancient world,” Nik says. “Access to resources and territory.”

I decide now is a good time to ask if Nik’s Macedonian heritage influenced his decision to study ancient history. He came to Australia from Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia, then part of Yugoslavia, because his father had been offered a job here as a linguist. Nik was seven and spoke no English when he arrived in Sydney. 

 “Not really,” he says. “It’s not like I can trace my family lineage all the way back to Alexander the Great.”

I try another clichéd interpretation. “So when Yugoslavia descended into civil war in the ’90s, did your parents decide not to go back for political reasons?”

Again, he resists kindly. “No,” he says. “My dad’s job contract at the university here had been extended, so we stayed.” 

It’s close to 4.30pm and Nik hasn’t eaten lunch. He’s been flat out on Greenpeace’s submission to the panel reviewing the Renewable Energy Target scheme, now in danger of being scrapped or cut back. We leave the museum, and while he’s ordering a sandwich I have a chance to process. It’s about understanding power, I think, and try the thought out on Nik. 

“Yes,” he says. “Ancient history means tracing the way power works all the way to the endgame, over hundreds, even thousands of years. Climate change is an environmental issue, of course, but it’s much broader than that – it’s about human habitation on this planet. We think our way of life and the institutions that support it are permanent. But studying the past shows just how impermanent and fleeting these institutions and ways of life can be. Ancient civilisations contain a warning to us. We don’t see the collapse coming until it’s too late, and often those with entrenched power interests actively thwart finding a solution that enables survival.” 

Nik paces across the lawns in the warm, wintry light, heading back to the office, and as I watch him leave, I think of the Robert F. Kennedy words he has pinned above his desk at Greenpeace: Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "Energy source". Subscribe here.

Ceridwen Dovey
is the author of Blood Kin and Only the Animals.