Reflections from AAG 2015 on the notion of slow scholarship

“So the issue,” writes Martell, “is not speed, but control over speed. … In effect what slow is reintroducing is being human and well-being.”

The above quote is one of the arguments presented in a forthcoming article in ACME: An International E-journal for Critical Geographies advocating a movement For Slow Scholarship. Written by Alison Mountz and colleagues, the article develops a feminist ethics of care that challenges the isolating effects and embodied work conditions inherent to the increasing demands placed on academics within the neoliberal university.

The collectively written article explores alternatives to the fast-paced, metric-oriented neoliberal university – an argument contextualised in: a) an examination of how “the ‘slow’ in slow scholarship is not just about time, but about structures of power and inequality”, and b) the premise that “Care work is work. It is not self-indulgent; it is radical and necessary.”

This argument defines my experience of this year’s Association of American Geographers Annual Conference in Chicago. Continue reading

How do rural communities cope with drought? Exploring the role of festivals and events

Festivals and events are frequently staged to reinvigorate community and stimulate economic development – especially in rural and remote places suffering from general decline. In such circumstances festivals and events contribute far more beyond their singular purpose as an agricultural show or a music concert, promoting regional development and community cohesion. Over the past few years researchers here at AUSCCER have been documenting these sorts of contributions, on a large project funded by the Australian Research Council. A free, downloadable summary report of our project’s findings is available here.


A selfie taken in June this year, at the Gulgong Races, NSW

As we continue to sift through our findings, we have also realised how important festivals and events are to rural communities suffering from conditions of extreme environmental stress. Continue reading

Exploring climate change in culturally diverse Australian households

Australian residents, from a range of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, are being sought to help researchers at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research answer the following questions:

How do Australians feel about climate change?
How might climate change affect Australian households?
How might Australians’ everyday lives change due to climate change?
Are Australians prepared to cope with these changes?
Are some households better prepared to cope than others? Continue reading

PhD Scholarship – environmental knowledge and practice of migrant food growers

Project title: Exploring the environmental knowledges and practices of migrant food growers in urban and peri-urban NSW

$AU25,392 per year (3 years max)

A fully-funded PhD scholarship worth $AU25,392 per year, for three years, is available in the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, Department of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong. The project is entitled: ‘Exploring the environmental skills, knowledges and practices of migrant food growers in urban and peri-urban NSW’. The successful candidate will explore these practices in the context of broader discussions of sustainability and climate change adaptation.

The project is funded by University of Wollongong in association with an Australian Research Council Discovery Project awarded to Professor Lesley Head, Dr Natascha Klocker, Professor Gordon Waitt and Professor Heather Goodall. It is anticipated that the successful applicant will enrol by August 2014.

The PhD project is to examine the diverse food growing practices of migrants across formal and informal spaces in Sydney and the Illawarra including market gardens, community gardens, backyards and public spaces. It will consider how migrants’ diverse environmental knowledges, experiences in countries of origin, understandings of Australian environments and perceptions of climate change inform their food growing practices. The successful student will be responsible for conducting research with migrant food growers using a range of qualitative social scientific fieldwork methods. Funds are available to support research and field expenses.

Applications are sought from suitably qualified candidates with a First Class Honours Degree, and/or a Masters by Research degree in human geography, environmental social science, anthropology or related disciplines. Applicants will need to demonstrate research training as is evident in a substantial thesis characterised by primary research. Ability to speak a language other than English (which the applicant could show is relevant to migrant food growers in Sydney) would be an advantage, but is not essential.

Applicants should initially submit a letter outlining their suitability for this research and the nature of their research training and any thesis completed as part of their study so far, a CV, and academic transcripts for all degrees.

Send these documents to Professor Lesley Head at the email address below by 30th May 2014. Please ensure that all documents are contained in one single pdf file.

The successful applicant will be enrolled in a PhD in Human Geography at the University of Wollongong, supervised by Dr Natascha Klocker and Professor Lesley Head.

The scholarship is open to Australian and International applicants.

For further information about the project, please contact Professor Lesley Head

Further information about the Department of Geography and Sustainable Communities and AUSCCER can be found via:

Transition, adaptation, metamorphosis: framing climate change and regional response

This is the third and final in a series of posts by AUSCCER’s Chris Gibson on climate change and regions, building on papers presented in recent weeks at the 4th International Conference on Sustainability Transitions at ETH Zurich, the annual Institute of Australian Geographers conference at the University of Western Australia, and the 2013 National Climate Change Adaptation (NCCARF) conference in Sydney.

In this final post in my series of post-conference debriefs, I wish to explore further what conceptions of transformation might be required to respond to climate change, and what kinds of perceptions of time are involved.

In this I duly acknowledge on-going conversations with my AUSCCER colleagues and especially Lesley Head, who has written extensively on the topic. In her 2010 PiHG essay Lesley reminded us that ‘adaptation’ was a core concept of twentieth-century cultural ecology, applied in much earlier frames in the context of cultural evolution, ‘traditional’ societies and environmental determinism to describe a combination of general flexibility within new environments, and ‘specific reconfigurations of genetic material’. The term ‘adaptation’ now finds itself reinvented in the context of climate change in ways that retain some of that term’s baggage and limitations. As Lesley warns, ‘there is a risk of discredited dualisms becoming re-embedded in patterns of thinking and proposed solutions to problems’. Continue reading

Back to the future: climate change and regional inheritances

This is the second in a series of posts by AUSCCER’s Chris Gibson on climate change and regions, building on papers presented in recent weeks at the 4th International Conference on Sustainability Transitions at ETH Zurich, the annual Institute of Australian Geographers conference at the University of Western Australia, and the 2013 National Climate Change Adaptation (NCCARF) conference in Sydney.

In my last post I made the case for focusing on regions as a scale of climate change response. In this, I wish to consider briefly the issue of how to rethink future responses in light of the past.

Regions inherit numerous legacies from previous generations: their physical infrastructure, economic base, demography, political culture, workforce skills and social mix. Regions will, with some urgency, need to assess the strengths of their institutions, rethink residential, transport and environmental planning, and document vernacular cultural assets that may prove helpful in adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of climatic extremity.

How well are we positioned to ‘retrofit’ regions, physically, economically, and culturally – and how quickly can it be done? The task is to figure out which bits of regional historical inheritances will count towards transition and adaptation, and which bits will somehow need to be jettisoned. Continue reading

The conversation we need to have about carbon

This article was originally written by AUSCCER’s Lesley Head for The Conversation.

Recent conversations about carbon pricing are still framed within gentle themes of continuing growth and well-being, where no one has to pay more for anything without being compensated. The words that need to be in our conversations are transformation, rationing and shared sacrifice.

Australian political leaders dance around the hard issues of climate change. There are no prizes for national leaders who bring bad news. The diabolical difficulty of turning around a fossil-fuel economy has contributed to five of them (Howard, Nelson, Turnbull, Rudd, Gillard) losing their jobs. Continue reading

Adapting to climate change – just doing it

The Climate Adaptation in Action 2012 Conference, organised by NCCARF and CSIRO, wrapped up this evening after three days of engaged discussion. With 600 people and up to seven parallel sessions, everyone’s pathway through the conference was different. (Although they were all pretty seamless, thanks to excellent organisation.) Here are some of my impressions.

Local, bottom up, multiple
The conference didn’t waste too much time bemoaning the failure of national governments to have got anywhere at Rio+20. As Mark Stafford Smith put it in an excellent overview, we can’t depend any more on the utopian fantasy of planetary agreements. In the closing plenary, several speakers noted this conference as a moment when the research community admitted to itself that mitigation is not going to happen.

So people are getting on with things in a variety of ways: at the local government level, in NGOs, in businesses and in community groups. There were many examples of such initiatives presented at the conference. Rather than having a scattergun approach where people just hunker down and do what they can, Mark suggested this could be a strategic approach of consolidation for the next couple of years. Drawing on the work of recently deceased Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, and presumably anticipating an Australian political context that will get more rather than less hostile to climate change initiatives, he envisaged solutions at multiple intersecting scales of governance. (There has been much discussion of this in the geography literature – Chris Gibson and I drew on some in our recent paper ‘Becoming differently modern’). Stafford Smith cautioned that, while localised bottom up processes may have to be the main focus for a while, we should beware of complacency and watch out for ‘creeping thresholds’.

Vulnerability as asset?
In the session in which I presented some of AUSCCER’s work on households (see Chris Gibson’s post below for further details), convergences between the papers were encapsulated by a comment from the floor that ‘vulnerability is an asset’. This is a risky idea to frame because it could potentially be used to reinforce existing disadvantage. And as Jon Barnett argued so well in the closing plenary, the social changes associated with climate change are already undermining fairness (more on this below). However, numerous examples emerged in different parts of the conference. Vulnerability can be an asset because of the way that it mobilises existing cultural capacities, adaptive behaviours and social capital. Poor people, elderly people, rural communities and people in the global south all have strong cultural capacities. Perhaps the wealthy are most vulnerable because they don’t acknowledge their own vulnerability?


Maybe I was just attuned to it but, gratifyingly for AUSCCER types who like a bit of big picture conceptual stuff with their empirical material, narrative got quite a guernsey. On day 1 Steve Dovers gave us a lecture on Policy 101, arguing that big policy changes come not from detailed prescriptions, but from the power of narrative and political argument. And on the second day ecologist Mike Dunlop argued – in the face of some pretty scary spatial modelling about future temperature extremes – that we need to shift the biodiversity narrative from stability to dynamism. Species will need to shift. (How they might do that across complex land-use practices and tenures was not discussed, at least not in the sessions I was in.) Theoretically the ‘new ecology’ has been stimulating the dynamism narrative for thirty years or more, but as Mike and I discussed later, the political narrative that built our present protected area system was framed around implicit references to a past state of being – protection, conservation, hanging on to things. For examples of that modelling, have a look at what the JCU people are doing.
Thought for later: do water people – attuned to the extremes of drought and flood – have less trouble envisaging a very different narrative than ecosystems people, who have fought long and hard for preservation?

The state as a social contract
Geographer Jon Barnett made a landmark statement in his closing plenary. I won’t try and summarise it all, as I hope he writes it up, but it was a manifesto for fairness in Australian society, and for a renewal of the contract between the state and society to protect public goods. Indeed, he argued, the state is a social contract between the community and the government we accept. (One of his specific recommendations was for local government to be recognised in the Constitution, given the burden it will bear in adapting to climate change.) Jon’s intervention was refreshing for me because it lifted the conversation above what he called ‘fiddling with the technicalities of adaptation’. At times during the conference the assumed instrumental pathway from scientific knowledge to adaptive practice too smoothly ignored several decades of social and cultural research. And people were surprised when the path was rougher than expected! As Jon also argued, the path is inherently messy, rough and long.


Perhaps surprisingly, the least examined concept in the conference was adaptation itself. I didn’t hear one person engage with it. Now that’s fine, if what you mean is intentional change and flexibility in the face of a warmer, drier and less predictable future. (Or as someone in the closing plenary said, ‘adaptation = dealing with change’.) We can all relate to that, and the community can imagine the relevance of that.

Things get a bit more slippery however when constant repetition of the term, in a discussion where everyone is hammering the importance of science, confers an association with an evolutionary understanding of adaptation. (I have written on this theme elsewhere.) I was surprised how often I heard a speaker argue that, for example, installing an airconditioner to combat projected increases in heat stress, is a maladaptive decision. It might be a bad decision for us as a community to encourage, because it will only make things worse, but, in enhancing the chance of that person’s reproductive success, it is potentially highly adaptive.

Further, for scholars who are trying to encourage the community to prepare for increases in surprise and nonlinear change, some seemed unduly sure about exactly which decisions will be right in the long run. Evolution doesn’t have foresight, it works incrementally through many generations, and we cannot know in advance which of our choices will be adaptive in this sense. Diversity, flexibility and making mistakes need to be part of the package.

Dilemmas of conference sustainability

Finally, a few thoughts on the fraught question of conference sustainability. Having organised the Institute of Australian Geographers conference at Wollongong in 2011, we in AUSCCER know how hard it is to do things more sustainably while being hospitable and generous. By and large, the organisers of this conference did a great job on this (and they had three times as many people as us). The conference dinner, however, probably met our protein requirements for a week! I’ll leave the final word on this to my new twitter friend @philipwallis, who shared this challenging blog on academic mobility.

This was my first experience of tweeting at a conference, using the instructed hashtag #adapt2012. I found it great fun, and a good way to have parallel conversations within a big group of people with limited discussion time. Unfortunately I didn’t find them all in person, but maybe next time.

Lesley Head is a geographer and Director of AUSCCER.She can be followed on twitter @ProfLesleyHead