As a science communicator and environmentalist, reporting on genuine conservation success stories - as evidence that things can change for the better - has become her hallmark.
Now she’s taking it one step further by creating a podcast, called ‘If I Ruled The World’, that shines a bright light on the sprawling and sticky nature of the barriers to positive change. We spoke to Gillian to explore these themes and the ideas behind her new podcast.
How did you come up with the idea for ‘If I Ruled the World’?
I often joke with my kids that ‘if I ruled the world, this is what I’d do…’, and it would turn into a dinner table discussion. While this was a fun conversation, it was happening alongside a growing feeling of discomfort: something just wasn’t sitting right with me.
I have spent my adult life working in natural history filmmaking with the belief that if I just show people the wonder of the natural world – if I can get them to see the beauty, the wonderment, the incredible rawness of nature - then they’ll fall in love with it and they’ll want to do something about it, and they’ll care enough to want to save it. But I realised it wasn’t working and I had to be honest with myself, and then I wanted to find out why.
And so a few years ago I was starting to come across words like ‘radical systems change’ and ‘systemic barriers to positive change’ – and I took some time to get up to speed with the idea that there are invisible barriers to positive change.
I’ve spent way too long with my focus on winning over hearts and minds, but I’m now realising that the burden of responsibility being placed on ordinary people means that there’s such a limited amount that we can do. It’s the systemic infrastructure that makes it really difficult to bring about that profound change that I hear people asking for.
What is your podcast about?
This podcast is an opportunity to talk about the things that are getting in the way of positive change. There are 8 billion people on the planet and so I imagine there are going to be 8 billion different versions of what positive change looks like.
I want to talk to as many people as possible who work in this area of changing systems from the inside out and getting that idea for what that looks like for each of my guests. I want to find out how they approach this work, what’s made them successful, where the failures have been.
At the end of each episode the final question to each guest is ‘if you ruled the world, what would you do?’ This stuff can quite heavy, but I hope that having some playfully entertaining ideas of world domination can bring some lightness to it as well.
Can you explain more about what you mean by systems change?
The most important thing I see right now is there a real lack of agency for the vast majority for us. We don’t seem to be consulted in the direction of travel. We’ve almost been swept along with a political and economic culture where we feel really disempowered.
The fundamental starting point is looking at agency. I think the reason why there’s so much pushback against things that seem like sensible, positive ideas is because no one’s being asked.
So yes, there’s system change, there’s political economy – there’s all these big words, but ultimately this is really heart and soul stuff.
How important is storytelling in helping to inspire action for you?
One part of storytelling is about looking at how life experience, the highs, the lows, the hope, the despair, can prompt and produce leaders in the most unlikely places. Leadership looks very different for different people and these are the powerful stories I want to learn about.
I want to know what kind of mindset each person has to be able look at something and think of ways to change it. What kind of person does that take?
I have struggled to tell people what gives me hope for the future until I’ve started doing this podcast and talking to these people. I’ve realised that while a lot does need to change, I think we already have existing laws and existing expertise in regulation, mechanisms, and systems in place that can start addressing the things that are making people unhappy – they’re already there.
Who would be your dream podcast guest?
Nelson Mandela. His life spanned so many decades, and he went from being labelled a terrorist, to a freedom fighter, to a president… and ultimately, a hero. And that’s quite a journey.
I think the question I would have is not so much, ‘Madiba, if you ruled the world what would you do?’ Instead, I would want him to tell me what qualities make a good leader and what qualities we should be demanding from today's leaders. I think that what he embodied is true leadership.
If you ruled the world, what would you do?
Going back to Nelson Mandela, there was a single sentence in his book, A Long Walk to Freedom, that really leapt out at me. He was describing a ruler at the time, and he said he had a mark of a good leader, that he was a person who could keep his people together in times of hardship. I feel like that’s what I am looking for in our leaders… someone that can keep people together in times of hardship. It’s not so much what I would do, but who I would be.