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Professor Phil O’Keefe 1948 – 2020 Obituary

6th October 2020

Phil joined Newcastle polytechnic in 1984 and soon became the Department of Geography’s first ever titled professor in Economic Development and Environmental Management. Born in North Shields in 1948, with family roots back to the Irish miners who came to Tyneside. Phil was schooled at Ushaw College, an austere Catholic seminary, worked as a labourer on the Kielder Dam, and studied at Durham. Phil’s family and experiences gave him vivid understanding of the north-east’s sense of solidarity, community and life’s pleasures. He returned to his beloved North East to start his family after establishing his reputation as a leading young radical geographer at Clarke University in the US between 1976 and 1980, a conscious choice inspired by the Polytechnic’s ethos. Whilst in the US, Phil co-edited the radical geography journal Antipode for two years and began interacting with other US based radical geographers, such as Dick Peet and Neil Smith.

Phil is best known for his work with fellow radical geographer Neil Smith on the production of nature and his own field-based research in Africa on radical interpretations of the political economic relationships between environment, development and vulnerability going on to apply this to energy policies and humanitarian emergencies. Phil brought his historical-materialist perspective to this work arguing that it is primarily political and economic forces that create so-called 'natural' disasters, such as droughts and floods, as these forces create the conditions of vulnerability that place human populations at risk. Through this work Phil got involved in several humanitarian aid projects in southern Africa, eventually establishing the UK branch of the global environmental consultancy, ETC, through which he conducted numerous humanitarian aid evaluations for major NGOs, and detailed studies of energy resources and climate change adaptation in the Rural South. Phil used these experiences of working with governments, development and humanitarian agencies in Southern Africa to entertain and inspire hundreds of undergraduate, masters and PhD research students, including through core teaching in the department’s Disaster Management and Sustainable Development programme.

In the true traditions of radical geography Phil practiced the maxim of ‘think global, act local’ in his everyday life and work. He had a remarkable grasp of the big picture, always looking out for opportunities and possibilities, but able to pull together the broad horizons into an exact nugget. Phil was a real activist geographer involving himself in local politics as a Labour Councillor in North Tyneside for 12 years. He was also very active in his political support for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and worked closely with the African National Congress when it was in exile before 1994, working on the preparation of the Reconstruction and Development Programme for the ANC takeover, and then serving on the Mineral and Energy Board of the incoming ANC government.

Inevitably, there were occasional tensions between Phil ‘the radical geographer’ and the new ‘professional management class of the neoliberal higher education institute’ when he refused to play by their rules or accept their decisions. Phil made frontpage national headlines in the Times Higher Educational Supplement in March 1994 when he resigned his chair at his own professorial inaugural lecture in protest against the ‘new’ University of Northumbria’s decision to award chairs to senior staff irrespective of their research records and simply in recognition of their management status. Phil, who saw this decision as undermining the currency and credibility of that title, received widespread international support for this very public and political act of resistance. Sharing an office with Phil at this time, I fondly remember joking with him back then that he didn’t really need a chair as he was hardly there anyway! The truth of course was that he was extremely busy travelling around southern Africa doing the kind of important research which not only gained him the international reputation befitting the professorial title but more importantly research and

consultancy that had a real impact on government policy and people’s livelihoods and resilience. The trips would also impact many graduates who he’d take along to help but also kick start their own careers, adventures as inspiring and hair-raising as everything Phil did. As the university gradually matured in its approach to rewarding research excellence, Phil eventually agreed to accept his professorial title and he retired a few years ago retaining his Emeritus professorial status. Phil of course didn’t really retire at all and it is a mark of his professionalism, political passion and deeply ingrained commitment to his research and scholarship that he continued to work and publish up until the last few weeks of his life.

Phil’s curiosity and humour never left him. When he’d pop into the office for a chat you were likely to range across livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa, Lindisfarne (the band, he was a close friend), the political economy of Tynemouth and the panto at the Tyne theatre! Good company, and with a deep kindness and empathy, colleagues recall him equally at home round a campfire amongst the camels out in the Kenyan bush or strumming his guitar at the beach barbeque on the Scottish field trips long into the night under the stars.

Phil’s research legacy is there in the public domain for all to see and read but he has also had a lasting influence on the lives and academic interests of the many staff and students he has inspired, amused and bemused over his years of service in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at Northumbria.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas, 1951)

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