Words and weeds in Sweden

Late summer landscape at Vrångö, in Göteborg’s southern archipelago.

I am back in Göteborg (Gothenburg) as Visiting Professor in the Unit for Human and Economic Geography at the University of Gothenburg. Each time I visit Sweden for a prolonged period, I try to do something systematic to improve, or at least regain, my limited Swedish. On this visit I opted for an intensive course. It was hard work; I haven’t thought about subordinate clauses for more than forty years, and learning vocab is much harder for me than it was then. Many people express surprise at this use of my time, since English is the second language of operation of Swedish academic life. All my colleagues here have to publish in English in order to establish an international reputation, and they speak and write English to a very high level. I don’t anticipate that I will ever be able to have an academic conversation in Swedish.

So why would I bother? Continue reading

Ocean-users and sharks in Western Australia

Do you use the ocean in Western Australia?

If so, we would really appreciate your help with our research. Please click here to fill out our survey. It should take about 15 minutes to complete.

Source: theconversation.edu.au

Over the past couple of years encounters between people and sharks have received a huge amount of public attention. This is particularly true in Western Australia, where five reported fatal encounters tragically took place in a 10 month period during 2011 and 2012. In response to the fatalities, the Government of Western Australia has introduced new measures in shark management, including enabling Department of Fisheries to ‘track, catch and, if necessary, destroy sharks identified in close proximity to beachgoers’ (Gov. of WA, 27 September 2012).

We are two researchers working at the University of Wollongong (Leah Gibbs) and University of New England (Andrew Warren) interested in learning more about the views of ocean-users on this topic. We want to better understand the WA government response to recent events, and the implications of the new approach. We’re particularly interested in hearing from you – as an ocean-user – about your ocean-based activities, your sightings or encounters with sharks (if you’ve had any), and your attitudes towards sharks and shark management.

If you have any questions about the survey, please contact Leah Gibbs (leah@uow.edu.au).

Thanks in advance for your help with our research.

Leah Gibbs & Andrew Warren


Living and working with bushfire

Carbon Canyon, Southern California

In pursuit of lifestyle change, affordable property, and proximity to nature, people from all walks of life are moving to the rural-urban interface. Tragic bushfires and a predicted increase in high fire danger weather with climate change have triggered concern for the safety of such amenity-led migrants in bushfire-prone landscapes. Continue reading

Contest/ed Scenes and Spaces: Exposing Cultural Infrastructures

Call For Papers Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting 2013, Los Angeles April 9-13th

Session Title: Contest/ed Scenes and Spaces: Exposing Cultural Infrastructures

Session organisers: Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong) and Lizzie Richardson (Durham University).

The dominance of a particular figuring of the ‘cultural and creative economy’ (Landry and Bianchini, 1995, Landry, 2000; Florida, 2002) has recently been undermined by interventions that seek to relocate and revalue creativity. Such interventions attend to a variety of marginal and vernacular forms of creative practice that have been underplayed or overlooked in previous scholarship. An emphasis on the contributions of cultural and creative industries to urban and regional development has also stifled engagement with other, more critical threads of theoretical and political thought in geography. This session seeks to contribute to this work by positioning creativity in forms of performance, such as music, theatre and spoken word, and by exploring such performances in heterodox material spaces. Rather than isolating creativity as an individual talent, the aim is to explore how and with what implications practices of cultural production involve collective or distributed agency, and claims over space (as political, as performative). To reclaim creativity from the neoliberal agenda of economic growth and urban regeneration, the session is looking for contributions that expose the hidden cultural infrastructures supporting and/or limiting particular performance scenes. This values performative possibilities but also highlights the challenges of the fragility of such material creative networks. How do contest/ed scenes operate in dis/connection with more stable cultural institutions? What kinds of relational or liminal spaces of cultural production are necessary to exceed easy or conventional categorisation – and might this undermine more permanent claims for political/politicised spaces of cultural infrastructure? Decentring creativity, what is the potential in creative spaces for new forms of sociality, conviviality and politics? In contrast to its positioning as a neutral driver for economic growth, we want to examine how creativity is contested and how contest occurs through creativity.

We seek contributions on but not limited to:

  • Hidden spaces cultural production
  • Successful/failed cultural infrastructure
  • Theorisations of creativity that intersect with critical threads in postcolonial, radical, feminist and queer thought
  • Mixed or multiple forms of creative practice/space
  • Making and delineating scenes through material practices
  • Intersections between institutional and non-institutional performance

Please send a 250 word abstract to Chris (cgibson@uow.edu.au) and Lizzie (e.c.i.richardson@durham.ac.uk) by Friday 28th September, 2012.

Successful submissions will be contacted by Friday 5th October 2012 and will be expected to register and submit their abstracts online at the AAG website by October 24th 2012. Please note that a range of registration fees will apply and must be paid before the submission of abstracts.

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!

Illawarra Flame – UOW and the International Solar Decathlon

Some recent AUSCCER Blog posts have been exploring issues around practical responses to climate change, including how we keep warm or keep cool in the Illawarra. In this vein, for the last few months, I have been working with a team of students, academics and professionals from UOW, Illawarra TAFE, and local professional practices, on UOW’s entry in the International Solar Decathlon. This team will pit its skills at designing, building and retrofitting a solar-powered house against some of the best universities in the world in the finals of the 2013 Solar Decathlon: China competition. Team UOW will compete against 24 teams from 13 countries in a bid to design, build and operate an advanced and appealing solar-powered house that is not only energy efficient but also cost effective to build. Continue reading

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


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.