Meet Professor Lesley Head

Professor Lesley Head

Professor Lesley Head

The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) is a teaching and research group focusing on cultural and social aspects of environmental issues. AUSCCER’s expertise and research is wide-ranging. Each month we’ll introduce a new academic or PhD candidate to give greater insight into AUSCCER’s work.

Professor Lesley Head is an Australian Laureate Fellow and the Director of AUSCCER. Here she answers ten questions about what she does and AUSCCER’s work.



1. What do you do as the Director of AUSCCER?
There are two main components, although they are closely linked as a lot of our work is collaborative. One is research leadership: supervising postgrad students, mentoring staff, representing AUSCCER in various places, representing the discipline of geography, working on national and international bodies to enhance research and research training. The other is actually doing research. This involves a series of steps: getting grants, planning and organising projects, doing fieldwork, analysing results, writing for publication, presenting at conferences and communicating outcomes more widely.

2. How and why was AUSCCER formed?
AUSCCER was formed in 2010 as part of my Australian Laureate Fellowship. At that time Australia lacked systematic investment in cultural environmental research, even though a lot of people were saying that we needed cultural change to craft ourselves an environmentally sustainable future. We built on existing capacity here at UOW with funds from the Australian Research Council (and additional capacity via Chris Gibson’s Future Fellowship) and the University.

3. Why is the work of AUSCCER important?
We know that climate change is already interacting in Australia with a legacy of underlying environmental problems and ongoing social change. The evidence is that we are likely to be in for some big changes more quickly than we have imagined, and certainly before we are ready for them. The scientific dimensions of these changes are relatively well understood, but the social and cultural dimensions need equivalent research effort. Some of our research is extremely practical, but we also argue that ideas are very important. Analysing how we think about nature is a vital part of reframing a better relationship with it.

4. What are your own research interests?
My overall interest is in human-environment interactions – how we conceptualise our relations to the rest of the natural world, how that has differed in space and over time, and what that has meant in practice for biophysical changes. Much of my specific research has been about the human-plant part of that bigger picture. Empirically I have been interested in situations and people that are marginal in some way to mainstream environmental thinking – indigenous resource managers, suburban gardeners, wheat farmers and weed managers. A lot of new and alternative ideas come from these contexts.

5. Why did you decide to enter the world of geography?
I had fantastic geography teachers in years 10, 11 and 12. I loved the combination of human and physical dimensions in the same discipline, and still do. Once I got a taste for research, I was hooked.

6. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Trying to remain hopeful about the state of the world, in the face of some pretty dire evidence to the contrary.

7. In 2009 you were the recipient of an Australian Laureate Fellowship. What did this mean for you and how has it changed your career?
It was a great honour and I am very conscious of the responsibility to build a legacy of people and institutional capacity that is itself sustainable. I am surrounded by wonderful colleagues and am excited to go to work every day. These are all very long-term issues but I think as a group we are offering some creative possibilities for the future.

8. The most recent book you’ve co-authored is Household Sustainability. What’s it about and why should people read it?
As the subtitle suggests, it’s about dilemmas and challenges in everyday life. On one hand it is not so ‘easy to be green’. On the other hand, some of the creative possibilities I just mentioned come out of what we call vernacular capacity. People have all sorts of capabilities to save, share, produce and reuse things without necessarily calling these ‘environmental behaviours’. The book is easy to read and has short chapters on themes like toilets, Christmas and dying. It’s based on our group’s ethnographic research –  it recounts the everyday experiences of real people.

9. What do you believe are the most important issues facing our environment today?
Five years ago I would have said it is the combination of climate change with underlying issues like land-use change and biodiversity decline. Those underlying issues have not gone away, but now I would say that climate change is turning out to be more urgent than we thought. We have to somehow bring about the end of the fossil fuel age more quickly than we thought – possibly in my lifetime, certainly in my children’s lifetime. Among other things this requires a profound cultural change away from the ideal of economic growth.

10. What advice would you give people who are interested in a career in human geography?
Go for it, but don’t expect any career to necessarily have the ‘geographer’ label attached.  There are many kinds of jobs in which geographical skills are valued. It’s very important to start with a combination of human and physical geography, and then decide to specialise if you want to. The necessity of adapting to climate change in the next few decades means that the environmental social sciences will be in strong demand.

You can read Professor Lesley Head’s staff profile for more information. Her latest book is Household Sustainability and it’s available through Edward Elgar Publishing.

You can follow @ProfLesleyHead on Twitter. Lesley has also written several posts for this blog, including ‘Words and weeds in Sweden‘, ‘The conversation we need to have about carbon‘ and ‘Living with, living without weeds: bridging theory and practice‘.

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