A stranger in Bangalore: reflections from the field

As I prepared to present my Indian work at the Relational Landscapes of Urbanisation Conference at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, I reflected on interactions with research participants. I visited Bangalore in January to scope out community gardens for future fieldwork.  With a research assistant I visited several communities of gardeners who were very eager to share their thoughts and show us around. Their enthusiasm made me think about what it means to be an outsider as a researcher and about how to be considerate in an unfamiliar environment.
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‘Getting stuff done’ on a bicycle

I love bicycles. Such simple, efficient, elegant machines. ‘The pinnacle of human endeavour’ according to my companion; I think he’s right. So I’m excited that Wollongong City Council is undertaking a City of Wollongong Bike Plan. More on that in a minute. First, a couple of reflections on cycling.  Continue reading

Illuminating wildfire vulnerability through environmental history

The following is a discussion of how environmental history recently has broadened my understanding of wildfire vulnerability. It is based on my reflections from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference in San Francisco, which together with the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Tampa bracketed my recent trip to USA. The purpose of attending both conferences was to share key lessons on gendered dimensions of wildfire vulnerability and resilience as presented in my new book. Yet, the format of my input to each conference was distinctively different. Continue reading

Known unknowns in New Orleans

“Come on, honey! I need to get laid”, echoes through the hallways of the old building, as I close the door wondering if ‘hotel’ is the right description for the establishment I have just checked in to in New Orleans. As it turns out, these are the parting words of the disappointed woman, as the hotel’s black bouncer escorts her off the premises. The sound of her stiletto heels taps down the street – unevenly.

Later that same afternoon, I once again have the indirect company of the bouncer. As I scribble notes in one corner of the shaded courtyard, he sits in another corner quietly reading aloud one word after another from an English dictionary. Within the first hours of my visit to New Orleans, I am witness to the racial, class and educational divides that Hurricane Katrina brought so brutally to the fore in 2005, as New Orleans first fought to stay alive and then faced the mammoth task of rebuilding the hurricane ravaged city. Continue reading

Seeing forests and trees in Sweden

Leaving a warming Wollongong for flurries of early snow in Göteborg is exciting, but it was the trees rather than the weather that invaded my consciousness in the first week. I am living in the centre of the city, five minutes walk from everything I need, and handy to efficient trams if I want to go further. My cosy attic apartment is framed by massive oak beams, a reminder of the deforestation of the deciduous forests of Europe over the last few hundred years, particularly after the industrial revolution. The human labour involved in this endeavour is still visible in the adze marks on the beams. Inside this frame is carved a typical modern Swedish apartment, in what we have come to think of as Ikea style; lined and furnished with birch and pine, solid and veneer, in different combinations. Just down the road, municipal plans to remove diseased Linden trees – in the final glories of their golden autumn display – in the main avenues drew protests and a temporary halt. (Not to mention that the City had forgotten to apply for a permit.) Continue reading

Aussie Rules, going down under and other clichés?

I’ve just arrived to a warm welcome at AUSCCER for a ten week visit from Durham University in the UK. After being installed at my desk with a computer now up and running, I’m raring to post on the AUSCCER blog. So a bit about my research. My PhD project is exploring the politics of creative practices, particularly performance, through a set of examples located in Bristol in the UK. Through theatre, spoken word and Carnival, I’m asking who can take part in performance in the city, as well as why and how they are able to do so. Broadly, this interrogates the relationship between creativity, memory and belonging, asking what ‘postcolonial’ might mean in Bristol, a city that grew as a node in the Atlantic slave trade, and as a site of settlement for Caribbean migrants from (eventually former) British colonies. Rather than focusing purely on the content of performance (ie variants on both Goffman’s and Butler’s differing theorisations of identity as performance), I have been interested in how contests over place and belonging emerge through the manners in which these events are put together, attended and disseminated. This relationship between creative practice and everyday life was what brought me to AUSCCER. The visit has been funded by my UK government funding body, the Economic and Social Research Council. Whilst here, I will be working with Professor Chris Gibson with the aim of submitting an article for publication by the end of my visit. I will also participate in the departmental seminar series, as well as engaging in many informal corridor, tea-room and coffee-based conversations!

Wood fires in the suburbs: affordability, a retro trip, or reconnecting with nature?

It is winter here in Australia, and at our place we have started lighting fires to keep warm.

I live in inner-city Sydney, in a reasonably densely populated but still decidedly suburban part of the city with small land parcels, and archetypal Australian varieties of Victorian and Edwardian terraces. Homes in our neighbourhood were built a century ago or more, with double-brick cavity walls, front verandahs and high ceilings.

Sydney is in a warm temperate climatic zone 34 degrees south of the equator. Hot and humid in summer, mild in winter with crisp mornings but pleasantly warm afternoons, most Sydneysiders spend more time and money on ways to cool than to heat their houses. Most inner-city homes were built with only one or two open fireplaces to keep warm. Central heating has never felt warranted in a city that is “cold” only for a few weeks a year. Open fireplaces have been mostly idle since the 1970s, with the advent of cheap gas, electric bar and column heaters (and with grimy memories of coal-fired smog). No longer a viable means to stay warm in winter, Sydney’s century-old open fireplaces and chimneys have instead become ornate “original features” that add to the heritage character (and price) of inner-city terraces.

In search of warmth

My own family has been arguing around possible ways to stay warm without consuming large amounts of electricity, and getting stung by increasing electricity prices. (The relevant state regulatory authority recently announced that electricity prices would rise by an average of 18 percent based on a mix of infrastructure investment costs and the introduction of a nationwide carbon pollution tax.) This was, for our family, a classic sustainability dilemma: with two toddler-aged children suffering this winter’s round of colds and flus, the house really does need to be a bit warmer on the coldest days. But for sustainability and financial reasons we don’t want to turn on our portable, and inefficient, electric column heaters. Installing reverse-cycle air-conditioning is an expensive initial outlay (as is installing solar energy panels), and in any case we’ve spent successive summers resisting air-conditioning on principle – so why give in to needing the very same technology to heat us in winter?

It was then that I remembered that our fireplaces were in full working order when we bought our house three years ago. These homes were originally built with capacity for lighting fires, and we have inherited this vernacular infrastructure. Why not use it?

I convinced the family that we should try lighting fires.

The return of the open fire

Since we started lighting the occasional fire, I have noticed other signals that the inner-city open fireplace is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

I took my kids to the local hardware store a fortnight ago. I knew I’d be able to buy open-fire fuel there. Sure enough, they did: there were bags of quasi-coal briquettes produced specifically for open fireplaces, as well as cheap bushwood, and a range of new “eco-log” products made of recycled materials. In fact, there were lots of options. Great piles of fire fuel. Palette after palette of it, surrounded by gaggles of inner-city types reading labels, hauling 20 kg bags of briquettes and boxes of eco-logs onto their trolleys. Waiting in the checkout aisles people spoke of better and worse fuels, the merits of eco-logs versus bushwood, and how to stretch out an open fire and minimise costs. And they also talked about abandoning increasingly unaffordable electric and gas heating.

I’m not sure whether this is a mere retro trip in honour of the romantic log fire, a means of middle-class resistance to state-imposed electricity price hikes, or a genuinely cost-effective alternative for households who are trying to stay warm on limited budgets.

Carbon, connections, contradictions

In the meantime, this prosaic example has made me rethink conversations had recently within AUSCCER. They include:

  • The ambiguities of calculating carbon emissions. Would lighting the occasional open-fire of this sort increase the carbon emissions required to heat our family, compared with electric or gas heaters? In the UK and North America, bloggers have debated this in relation to wood-fired home heaters, and there is far from consensus on the metrics. New recycled eco-log products do seem to significantly reduce emissions, according to research from the Canadian EPA, but the type of wood product burned can mean resulting carbon emissions vary by up to 75 percent. Exactly how this stacks up against electricity used to heat homes is moot, especially if we factor in local power generation systems (coal-fired power plants, by and large, here in Australia) and the temporal dimension. Here in Sydney, we are talking about much more highly variable, and more intermittent, heating practices than in colder climates. This rules out economies of scale and efficiencies gained by thermostat-controlled central heating. At the very least, future research could better model highly variable wood products, frequency of burning practices and carbon emission impacts of alternative energy sources used to heat homes in specific geographical contexts.
  • Dilemmas of decision-making in everyday life: my colleagues Christine Eriksen and Nick Gill have examined the complexities of landowners’ practices in relation to fire risk and preparedness on the rural-urban fringe. They argue that landowners bring “agency to bushfire preparedness in the relationships between everyday procedures, dilemmas, and tradeoffs”. There is a parallel, it seems, with decisions about lighting fires in suburban homes in the city: families operate around daily procedures (and occasionally change them), confront dilemmas, and make tradeoffs – not all of which are ideal.
  • Where are the consequences of our resource consumption patterns felt? Is it better that the pollution impacts of staying warm be felt locally rather than some place else? On the other hand, no-one wants to return to Dickensian scenes of urban smoke haze and coal-grime covered streets. What quantity of localised smoke is tolerable, and is it worse than shifting the pollution impacts onto distant others? The burden of transforming resource and energy use is unevenly carried.
  • The link between health and environment: research by Fay Johnston and David Bowman from UTAS has drawn links between wood fire smoke and increased death rates, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases. Their research was on an entirely different scale (landscape fires and widespread forest burning), but nevertheless there are open debates about health impacts of home fires too.
  • Ought the risk of such problems be measured against other kinds of complexities and materialities? Buying fuel, hauling it home and lighting an open fire makes immediate the materiality of the carbon being burned – as opposed to the distant, disembodied coal-fired power station enrolled when households habitually switch on (or simply leave on all winter) their electric heater. Every time I light a fire, I make an immediate assessment of the material being burned and whether it is worth it. We have open-fire movie nights, eat dinner in front of the fire, move our laptops into this one warm room and work their instead of at cold office desks. Sociality is a clear benefit. We appreciate the fire, its heat, its smell. Perhaps we humans are hard-wired to gather round fires: the hearth as a source of human communality. More prosaically, in our home we are, I would suggest, a touch more conscious of the financial and environmental sacrifices involved. We feel lucky to be toasty warm when the fire is burning, and are reminded of those without such means.
  • Human-nonhuman relations: might the wood fire renaissance be better framed in terms of debates about urban natures and the entangling of non-human others – such as fire – in suburban lounge-rooms? Are urban house fire tragedies more likely? My kids are certainly learning to appreciate the power and danger of fire.
  • Systems of provision: is government likely to have predicted this kind of switch? In some ways switching to wood takes households “off the grid”, but it connects households to other kinds of “grids”. What are the wider economic, infrastructural and resource use implications if everyone switched to this form of heating? How might shifting patterns of demand alter prices for fuel, availability of resources, or exacerbate downstream environmental impacts in unintended ways? Some eco-logs appear to be made from forest industry by-products here in Australia; others from recycled sawdust from Indonesia. Which are more likely to be linked to dubious forestry practices? Other eco-log products are made from coffee-grounds. Does that mean we need to factor in the chain of impacts related to coffee production as well?

Household decisions about resource use are evidently both economic and emotional, social and instinctive. Our choices are not simply determined by rationalist considerations of pros and cons, as if the total balance sheet of environmental and economic considerations were easily knowable and calculable in the midst of everyday decisions. I doubt any of the folk buying eco-logs at my local hardware store had done online research on comparative carbon footprints, but I bet they were acutely conscious of recent hikes in energy prices. The connected household makes ethical decisions within the tangible and knowable parameters of social life, entwined in wider networks and assemblages.

Like so many other everyday consumption choices, something as simple as lighting a fire seems on second thought irrevocably complex. Perhaps our open fire will be little more than a treasured luxury every now and then. Meanwhile across Sydney households are voting with their (cold) feet and revisiting wood fires, whether it’s ideal or not.

Household Sustainability: Challenges and Dilemmas in Everyday Life, is a new book co-written by Chris Gibson, with Carol Farbotko, Lesley Head, Nick Gill and Gordon Waitt, due for release by Edward Elgar in 2013. Chris Gibson can be followed on twitter: @profcgibson



Buy no Moore: society versus the shopping mall?

A vote from the City of Sydney Council backing the Buy Nothing New Campaign has reignited the economy-versus-environment debate. On Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote of Clover Moore and the City of Sydney’s decision to back the campaign, running in October, which encourages consumers to question their buying practices, along environmental grounds. The Herald largely framed the Council decision as a ‘boycott’ on Sydney retailers, and both NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Small Business Minister Katrina Hodgkinson called on readers to ‘completely ignore’ the initiative.

There are two problems with the way that the Herald and the NSW State Government framed the story.

The first is by incorrectly describing the motives of Clover Moore and the City of Sydney. In backing this campaign, the City of Sydney Council has waived the fee to rent the Customs House Forecourt; an offer that has been given to many other organisations, including those that support pro-business initiatives such as Mercedes Fashion Week (yes – promotion of clothing consumption!).

The second is misrepresenting the central aims of the Buy Nothing New initiative. Will Buy Nothing New drastically change Sydney’s retail economy?

Pitt Street mall

For those not familiar with the initiative, the challenge is to buy nothing new (with the exceptions of essential items, such as food, hygiene and medicines) for one month. Buy Nothing New doesn’t work on the premise of anti-consumption, rather it invites people to look at their consumption choices and rethink them in an alternative way – engaging in the local handmade or market economy, buying second hand, sharing, mending/repairing or collaborative consumption. It’s all about thinking where the stuff we own comes from and what happens to it when we no longer value its use. The problem is a broader retail culture premised on high throughput of quickly disposable goods – no more vividly captured than in the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon.

Beyond the attacks of Clover Moore and her ‘anti-retail policies’ there is a bigger picture. We buy more than we’ll ever need – and in light of climate change there is an obvious need to rethink the amount of stuff that enters our lives. The Buy Nothing New campaign attempts real steps towards that. Rather than damaging the economy, Buy Nothing New is about protecting it – that is, if we define ‘economy’ not in terms of gross retail sales, but in the broadest, original sense as how people “access, use and value scarce material resources as moral and social beings”. By encouraging retailers and consumers to reflect on how people furnish themselves with the necessities and luxuries of life, Australia can be more resilient to the booms and busts that plague the global economy. This is about thinking outside the box to alternative ways of consuming.

Initiatives that urge us to consume less are particularly pertinent to me in the context of my PhD research. One of my research aims is to explore how and why people shop and how this practice is tied up in social norms, emotions and habits. The response to this SMH article has captured public admission of our obsession with stuff. Will the message of Buy Nothing New Month stick with consumers?  Stay tuned – we’ll have to wait until October to find out.

Elyse Stanes can be followed on twitter: @elyserstanes

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