About Chris Gibson

Chris Gibson is Professor in Human Geography and Director of the Global Challenges Program at the University of Wollongong, and Editor of Australian Geographer. Follow Chris Gibson on Twitter @profcgibson

Dilemmas of sustainability: Lesley Head on connected households, actions and words

Today AUSCCER’s Professor Lesley Head addresses the NCCARF Climate Change Adaptation summit in Melbourne. Her talk confronts the ‘black box’ that is households in the national and international debate about climate change – and what to do about it.

Also today, theconversation.edu.au has published an article by Lesley on who does the work of household sustainability, in light of the looming carbon tax, and the decision by the NSW State Government to slug public housing tenants with increased rents as a result.

At stake are issues of social equality, environmental policy effectiveness and carbon emissions.

Households: the black box of environmental policy?

How might cultural environmental research plug into this debate?

Households make sense both to the people who live in them, and to government policy makers, as foundational social units, and as sites through which it is logical to understand the consumption of energy, water and materials that have implications for sustainability issues such as climate change. In affluent urban societies households are an increasing focus of government policy in relation to sustainability issues, and an expanding research literature considers the household as a crucial scale of social organisation for pro-environmental behaviour. In Australia we have seen activity at all levels of government, including support for solar panels, home insulation, water tanks, light globes and shower timers.

It is a truism that sustainability challenges are complex, but Lesley Head argues that the conceptualisation of the household in environmental policy has not been complex enough. Many policy approaches treat households as black boxes – freestanding social units operating only at the local, domestic scale. How should we think about households as configurations of people and material things whose social and ecological relations are diverse, shifting and complex?

Connected households

A series of related projects within AUSCCER has recently explored the idea of connected households, that households are part of, and a product of, a network of connections. The black box is revealed to contain its own complex politics and practices; households are social assemblages with variable gender, age, class, ethnic and familial structures. The family with children, the student shared household, the extended family or the retired couple will all experience and respond to climate change and sustainability concerns differently, as will home-owners, private and public renters, and unit and house dwellers. Households are homes in which social relations are the core human concern; in which families bond, people invest emotions and undertake all kinds of identity work beyond the putatively ‘environmental’. The black box is also porous. Home spaces and the people who live in them are inextricably linked into the social, technological and regulatory networks that make up suburbs, cities, regions and nations – abundantly evident in the case of urban water.

Candice Moy’s work on water tanks in the Illawarra illustrated such complexity:

After a number of decades of prohibition in urban areas, water tanks were rehabilitated during the drought. They were heavily promoted and subsidised, and enthusiastically adopted. Moy’s analysis provides the first published post-installation analysis of retrofitted rainwater tanks and their effects on mains water consumption. She compared the mains water consumption of over 7000 households who installed a tank during the drought (for two years before and two years after installation, to smooth out seasonal differences) with that of total household mains water use under a regime of water restrictions. Both populations showed about the same amount of reduction – 10.26 percent for tank households and 10.8 percent for the wider community.

This was a puzzling finding as the policy view and the natural expectation is that, even when only fitted with outdoor connections, as most are, domestic tanks are a logical way to reduce the consumption of mains water, 28 percent of which is assumed by Sydney Water to be used outdoors. Interviews and ethnographic study with a sub-sample of these households identified two distinct sets of practices, summarised by Moy as ‘water savers’ and ‘water users’. The former cohered around practices of frugality, and included a number of people who had grown up in the country. The latter maintained water use levels, but with a higher proportion of their water coming from their water tanks.

Surprises and contradictions

The complexity and contradictions identified in cultural research often confound and frustrate decision-makers. However, the combination of fine-grained qualitative research and a broader cultural economy approach provides a constructive way forward. Households are not detached units but rather situated in contexts, relationships, ‘enrolled networks’ and processes of all sorts that guide normative behaviour. Multiple forms of agency are evident in the everyday interactions between people, infrastructure, technology, time and stuff.

Research in AUSCCER helps identify zones of friction and traction that in turn suggest constructive spaces of policy intervention. What kinds of friction work against changing household practices, and where are the creative possibilities by which traction can be gained towards sustainability? Complexity and diversity can be a potential source of traction; they help imagine alternatives, and identify different adaptive capacities than might otherwise have been considered. More broadly, the framework helps pick a constructive path between two negative extremes: giving up on the household as powerless and ascribing all power to wider economic and political forces, compared with putting the total sustainability burden on households without any expectations on industry and business.

A major statistical survey of households as part of AUSCCER’s ARC Discovery Project Making Less Space for Carbon shows that households earning less than $250 per week are statistically more likely to undertake sustainable household practices. They switch off lights in unoccupied rooms and put on extra layers of clothing before turning up the heating. They are more likely to repair than replace clothing. They are less likely to use an air-conditioner in summer, and much more likely to save water by taking shorter showers.

Not all such households profess “green” attitudes or sensibilities. And the poorest households were most likely to be “uninterested” in climate change as an issue. Ethnographic research throws light on this apparent conundrum. Often they are influenced instead by generational or socioeconomic backgrounds of frugality and thrift. They hate waste, and have many creative ways to save and reuse materials and stuff.

In contrast, households earning over $1700 per week are over-represented in the group undertaking fewer sustainable practices. Affluent well-educated households are more likely to profess pro-environmental attitudes, but their high levels of consumption make practical sustainability more difficult for them. They are more likely to own two or more fridges, and plasma screen TVs. Baby boomers are the least likely to be sceptical about climate change, but the most likely to fly often.

We are used to thinking about this in an international context; for example, comparing per capita emissions between Australia (high) and China (low). We are less inclined to acknowledge that there are also substantial disparities between Australian households.

The poor – particularly the elderly – are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They suffer heat stress in summer, and have to make hard choices between heating and eating in winter.

Environmental policies targeted at the household scale tend to take the inherent complexity of the domestic sphere for granted. AUSCCER researchers demonstrate that a more sophisticated conceptualisation of the household is needed to maximise the effectiveness of such policies and suggest alternative ones.

Click here to read Lesley Head’s full article on theconversation.edu.au

Follow Lesley Head on twitter: @ProfLesleyHead


Networking at conferences – breaking the ice, without being a sleazebag?

Last week we posted on tips and tricks for presenting your work at conferences – especially for postgraduates and early-career researchers.

Another benefit of conferences is networking.

With conference season upon us, in AUSCCER discussion has turned to how to network at conferences – especially for postgraduate students and early-career researchers.

We absorbed some terrific advice from the geography postgrads at Manchester University: I recommend reading their comprehensive list of suggestions.

Another key dilemma we discussed is: how to make the most of networking at a conference, without coming across as an opportunistic sleazebag?

Dinner and cocktails, IAG conference 2011, UOW

Attend pre-conference workshops wherever possible

You’ll meet a smaller group of people with similar interests to yours. Much easier to break the ice when there’s a common interest. And, you will be able to reconnect with these same people over morning tea when the ‘big’ conference begins.

IAG 2011: Subterranean geographies field trip

Ditto official field trips. Who knows who you’ll sit next to on the bus. It’s how I met Gerard Toal and Anna Secor– at a political geography conference field trip in the West Bank in 1998, when I was a bumbling postgraduate (I’m still bumbling, but now thankfully with tenure…). We ended up backpacking for a while together after that trip. Although I rarely see them, living here in Sydney a rather long way from Washington DC or Lexington, I’ve valued their advice and views ever since.

Wallflowers anonymous

I know this is easier said than done, but if you feel isolated and alone try to overcome this as soon as possible on the first day. There’s only so many times you can check facebook on your phone. I recall attending conferences as a PhD student and not talking to anyone until the second day. Eventually striking up a conversation, I wished I had grown a spine earlier. Once you’ve had a pleasant chat with at least one person then the whole event seems friendlier and more open.

AUSCCER's Natascha Klocker and Kate Roggeveen at IAG 2011

Lining up for registration on the first morning is a good opportunity: talk to whoever is next in line… don’t try to make a deep academic insight, just normal small talk! And when you’ve got your name tag and calico bag, if the conversation has lulled, simply say “see you around” and find a nice nook in which to study the program.

Networking at conferences is not like picking up at a bar. There are no perfect ‘pick up lines’ and better to say hello and chat about the weather than try make a clever or witty comment. BUT just like picking up at a bar, if you do try to strike up a conversation and all you get in return is negative body language, then back out… quickly!

Quality over quantity

My PhD supervisor always advised to network and collaborate academically with people you like – your friends. Simple. No point in trying to establish a collaboration with a nasty or unfriendly person, no matter how close their research area is to yours, or how eminent they are in your field. Academic life will prove far more rewarding if you build a network of connections on the premise of friendship and respect rather than opportunism.

Shadow your supervisor for a little while, if need be. They should introduce you to their friends. You can quickly gain connections with like-minded folk by going for a coffee, lunch or beer with your supervisor and their existing “inner sanctum” of colleagues.

Business cards?

I’d be interested in hearing others’ views on this. I always take a bunch of business cards to conferences, but rarely hand them out – and often only when reciprocating after someone else has given me theirs. Are social media such as facebook, twitter and LinkedIn replacing the need for business cards? It could be a function of generational difference. I sit on the fence. Take some cards along, but don’t expect to hand out loads of them.

Tweet your thesis topic – short and sweet

Can you capture the essence of your thesis topic in 140 characters or less? Try it. I still find it difficult to talk about my research succinctly. Try telling someone about your thesis verbally, maximum two sentences.

When you strike up conversations at a conference, invariably you’ll be asked about your research. Make your reply short, but engaging – as with tweets. If there’s a genuine point of connection, you’ll end up talking for longer. If not, that’s ok – and you won’t have bored or annoyed someone with long or convoluted explanations.

Don’t expect instant fame

The Mancunian geographers emphasised this point too: if you come home from the conference having only met a few people, it’s OK. It takes time and many repeat visits to the same annual conference to build a friendly academic network. Better to form a few promising connections rather than try and make everyone know your presence at your very first conference.

If there are key people whose work you’ve already read and admired, watch their presentation and ask a succinct, friendly but engaging question. You might preempt a possible question before the conference, based on recent work of theirs that you have read. Invariably that person will come and have a chat after their paper, if you hang around a little while afterwards.

Do you have comments or suggestions? Do you take business cards to conferences? How do you break the ice?


Conference presentations – some tips and tricks

It’s conference season!

With both the Institute of Australian Geographers and IBG-RGS conferences looming, in AUSCCER we’ve been talking about making the most of conferences – especially for postgraduates and early-career researchers.

Much underestimated, but critical, are a few close details about presenting yourself and your work, when it’s your turn to talk.

Here’s a few tips and tricks.

Time it to perfection

  • Practice your presentation and time it. If it’s too long, even by a minute, cut it back further. If you’ve been given 15 minutes to present, do not settle for 16 minutes as ‘close enough’.
  • Before your session starts, for instance when you’re uploading your PowerPoint file, let the session chair know that you’ve practiced and timed your presentation and that it is exactly the correct time (or less). Your session chair will appreciate it. It makes their job of managing speakers, timing and questions easier. And often, the session chair is the most likely person to remember you from the conference – the most immediate person to make a good impression upon.

Dr. Leah Gibbs, presenting the 2011 Fay Gale Memorial Lecture, IAG conference, UOW

First impressions
  • Think VERY carefully about your opening sentence. Resist the temptation to waste precious seconds saying “Hi, my name is ….” or “I’m a PhD student from the university of ….” Instead, try to write a punchy, engaging first sentence that gets right to the heart of the wider issue/problem/debate in your paper or research field. When in doubt, write a short sentence in the form: “This paper confronts the question of ….”.
  • If you’re worried that this tactic will somehow seem unfriendly – don’t. The audience want you to get on with it ASAP.
  • Maybe use a dramatic example, an anecdote or an attention-grabbing ‘event’ to capture the audience from the very first paragraph. Ben Gallan from AUSCCER has a great example: a dramatic YouTube clip of urban street violence that immediately starts his presentation. The audience is gripped from the first second.

Last impressions

  • Also spend time carefully crafting your final sentence. Make it a definitive conclusion and deliver it in a manner that makes it obvious it’s your final sentence. Try deliberately slowing down for this sentence, and inserting a pause just before you launch into it. Don’t end a presentation by way of asking the audience if there are any questions: that’s the job of the session chair AFTER you’ve been applauded. Instead, just deliver your ‘punchy last line’ with style. When in doubt, return back to the theme of your attention-grabbing first line. If that first line was presented as a question, come back to answer it, or if a ponderance on a big picture problem, return to it in your presentation’s final line.

The art of the second paragraph

  • If you need to provide some background on you, or some context for your paper (e.g. that it comes from your PhD, or is a tentative ‘first stab’ at something), try placing this as the second paragraph in your spoken presentation – after your dramatic ‘opener’.
  • Also use this second paragraph to quickly position the paper in a field or literature. Or use this second paragraph to quickly explain what this paper is not about, or to ‘spot-check’ literatures that you’re aware of, but won’t discuss today. This is about preempting questions from the floor about some tangential literatures or debates that you won’t have time to discuss in any great detail.

AUSCCERites at the 2011 IAG conference, UOW

Theory vs case study?

Try to strike a balance between enough background/theoretical framing, and substantive case study material. I recall witnessing a disaster of a paper once, when a speaker spent his full 20 minutes (including allocated question time) boring the audience with the intricacies of his theoretical ‘model’, then got angry with the session chair when they stopped him before he’d said a word about the case study. Most audience members won’t be disappointed if you provide ‘just enough’ conceptual framing, in order to let the ‘story’ breathe. Also, resist the temptation to show how your case study has relevance to all manner of debates and disciplinary sub-fields. You can expand on or diversify your story at next year’s conference. For now, drill down to a single message, the single core story you want to tell on this occasion.

Finer points

Details of your PowerPoint presentation matter:

  • When in doubt, use plain background colours.
  • PowerPoint design experts reckon that san serif fonts like Arial or Calibri are best, and that there should be no more than three dot points per slide, max 6 words per dot point.
  • I like using a sequence of photos without any text at all. The pictures vividly portray things without words in dot points cluttering up my spoken story.
  • Don’t waste space putting in a slide outlining your presentation’s structure (especially if you’re sticking to a conventional structure anyway). Ditto a slide at the end with “Thank you – any questions?” written on it. There’s no need.

To read or not to read?

In light of the above, when in doubt use a fully-written script for your presentation and read it out on the day. Practice it beforehand to identify any phrases that are awkward to read out. Deliberately shorten all your sentences, and use a shorter word in the place of a longer one where appropriate. This doesn’t mean dumbing things down. It means being comprehendible and making your job of reading out a paper smoother and more enjoyable.

Why not just chat, off-the-cuff, to the audience?

  • Having a written script means you can practice and time your presentation precisely.
  • It means being in control of every word, rather than allowing splutters, ‘you know’, ‘like’ and other verbal ticks into your presentation.
  • Nuanced ideas are better usually better communicated on paper than off-the-cuff. The very best academics might be able to talk theory as if having a casual chat, but most of us mere mortals need a bit of help getting the key theoretical phrases ‘right’.
  • Having a written script disciplines yourself: you can pace yourself with confidence, and more reliably stick to your pre-determined ‘killer open sentence’, and ‘punchy last line’.
  • You’ll sleep better the night before.

Do you have other ideas or tips on conference presentations? Perhaps there are different ways to approach presenting your work? We’d love your comments or suggestions.

Next: conferences are a great place to build your academic networks – but is it possible to network effectively without coming across as a sleazebag? Click here to read more.

In the meantime, check out this series of posts by the geography postgrads at Manchester University for terrific advice on making the most from conferences.

Wollongong: an “enclave of scumbags”?

In the news today, a new UOW survey undertaken as part of the Brand Wollongong campaign, reveals negative views among the city’s residents. In the findings there are lots of salutary lessons and warnings: stop the decay in Wollongong’s public spaces and infrastructure; provide people higher quality cultural experiences; avoid city marketing ‘spin’. But underneath the skin of the city, are there also more worrying dimensions?

Clearly, Wollongong has a long way to go to overcome its own inferiority complex. An interesting comparison is with research undertaken in AUSCCER on vernacular cultural life in Wollongong: that research, published recently in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, showed that among residents there is extant  ingenuity and resourcefulness, despite a low opinion of Wollongong, and of themselves as ‘working-class’ people.  Does everybody and everything in Wollongong have to be ‘marketable’ to the outside world? Must working-classness be construed as ‘lack’ of marketability, when evidently there is ample creativity already within working-class culture?

A deeper concern is the lurking classism that seems a perennial feature in Wollongong. To quote the news article, “Wollongong Hospital, Wollongong railway station and the Piccadilly Centre were criticised for creating an ‘‘enclave of scumbags’’ while residents expressed concern that some suburbs were hot-spots for crime”. This reminds me of common attititudes expressed in Penrith, where I grew up. In the very heart of the ‘battler’ suburbs is where one would find the most extreme views about those slightly less fortunate.  A short walk from Penrith’s public housing estates, one would encounter harsher views of poor single mums than you’d ever hear on Sydney’s leafy north shore. There’s a tragic irony in that. Perhaps the issue is less one of marketability, than of civic embarrassment that the city has visible welfare recipients, unemployed youth, pensioners, mental illness. They might not be marketable or fit neatly into Brand Wollongong, but they are a part of our city, warts and all.


Chris Gibson is Professor of Human Geography at AUSCCER and Chief Investigator of the ARC Linkage Project, Cultural Asset Mapping for Regional Australia. Twitter: @profcgibson See Wollongong results from this project.