The heat on winter warming: why cultural geography can help energy policy makers

Post by Gordon Waitt

HeaterHow Australian homes are heated in winter is of recent policy interest because of greenhouse gas emissions, fuel poverty and public health risks. Policy initiatives around winter warming practices are often contradictory, advising people to heat more for health and less to save money and the environment. Furthermore, how people should live with lower winter temperatures is configured within two assumptions.  First, that households should not let the ambient temperature of the rooms in which occupants spend the day fall below 18 degrees Celsius, or, above 21 degrees Celsius. Second, that when it comes to heating choices, people are positioned as rational consumers rather than parents, grandparents, carers or employees working from home. Overlooking the personal in favour of the financial, costs are often envisaged by policy makers to be the key mechanism to change home heating choices of most Australians.

How can cultural geography help energy policy makers? The theoretical and methodological approaches of cultural geography may help inform energy policy initiatives by providing insights to how people live with the arrival of winter cold in different places. Attention turns to how certain warming practices are sensed and make sense in the context of the different social and material relationships that comprise homes. Cultural geographers bring to the fore the importance of cultural norms of domestic heat management, the relationship between domestic warming practices and how people think of themselves, the energy implications of ideals of domesticity and the varied winter warming skills of households. Less attention has been paid to how narratives of adapting to winter cold help constitute geographical differences.

Thermometer2This question became the focus the collaborative research project – Keeping Warm, Keeping cold –  between the Sustainable Centre for Building Research and the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research that explored in-depth how 8 households keep warm at home in Wollongong, New South Wales Australia. According to the Australian Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology, Wollongong has a ‘mild winter’, with mean afternoon winter temperatures (June-August) around 16 degrees in the past decade, and devoid of frost, snow or sub-zero temperatures.

Narrative analysis tools show most households shared narratives of Wollongong as a place for summer rather than winter. Hence, many participants found it easier to talk about their preparations for summer heat, rather than winter cold. The shared narrative was to downplay winter cold in Wollongong, domestic warming practices were often ad hoc rather than carefully considered and planned.  Furthermore, alongside cost and health concerns, participants provided a myriad of reasons for why people manage domestic heat the way they do. In some affluent Wollongong households, costs and health concerns were downplayed in comparison to other reasons. For example, winter cold for some participants was sensed and made sense of as a way to strengthen familial and place-based connections. For example, some participants that narrated the pleasures of adapting to winter cold as way to help constitute family time and spaces in the evening emphasised practices of sitting close together under blankets and sleeping bags or huddling together around gas-heaters and open-fires. Any discomfort of winter cold is downplayed.

Kate_coffee cupsFuture policy initiatives may wish to consider how shared narratives of winter fashion domestic warming strategies within a particular geographical context.  Narratives from a diversity of residents living in a particular area about how they sense and make sense of winter cold can provide vital clues to local adaptive capacity. In the context of Wollongong, energy use campaigns may seek to consider how the absence of a shared winter narrative often worked against investing in retrofits such as insulation likely to results in warmer home and reduced energy bills.  Furthermore, future energy policy initiatives may seek to celebrate the diversity of climate adaptions and better understand the pleasures of domestic cold in everyday life.


This blog post is based on an co-authored article by Russell Hitchings, Gordon Waitt, Kate Roggeveen and Catherine Chisholm, ‘Winter cold in a summer place: Perceived norms of seasonal adaptation and cultures of home heating in Australia’, Energy Research and Social Sciences, 8 (2015) 162-172. .

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