Meet Andrew Glover

The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) is a teaching and research group focusing on cultural and social aspects of environmental issues. AUSCCER’s expertise and research is wide-ranging. Over the next few months we’ll be introducing some of our academics and PhD candidates to give greater insight into AUSCCER’s work.

Dr Andrew Glover is a visiting Research Fellow from RMIT University, Melbourne. In this blog post he answers some questions about his research.

What are your research interests?

Broadly, I’m interested in social practices as they relate to sustainability. That means I’m interested in how and why we move, both physically and digitally, because these inevitably have implications for the resources we use and the environmental impact we have. I’m also interested in the sociology of consumption and waste. Continue reading

Entangled invasive lives. Indigenous invasive plant management in northern Australia

In this video Jennifer Atchison (and Lesley Head) discuss their research on Indigenous invasive plant management in northern Australia. This presentation was delivered at the World Parks Congress held in Sydney on 17th November 2014 in a special themed session on Indigenous people and invasive species organised by Judy Fischer, Emilie Ens and Oliver Costello.

Discrepancies between the purist, warlike policy discourse of invasive plant management and the messy realities of on-ground practice are being noted in an increasing number of studies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the extensive indigenous lands of Australia’s tropical north, where communities have increasing responsibility for invasive plant management among other pressing land management tasks, as part of what Richie Howitt and others call ‘New Geographies of Coexistence’. Drawing on our own ethnographic research and an analysis of the grey literature, we describe an emerging assemblage we call Indigenous Invasive Plant Management (IIPM).

What makes a good academic book? A response

Guest blogger Tess Lea is an ARC QEII Fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney.

Chris Gibson recently posted a thought-provoking review of my book on Darwin. It was the first review to take up the issue of risk-taking in writing, both from the perspective of writing about a place which is small enough that insults are consequential; and from the perspective of academic metrics. I was awestruck by Gibson’s insights and how he has honed in on my acute sense of vulnerability with this book.

As Gibson notes, Darwin completes a series on the capital cities of Australia by New South Books. I accepted the commission for two reasons. First, I will admit ego/vanity. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else writing about Darwin, my birthplace. But second, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to address the challenge I have set myself in my current research. To wit: presuming I ever find a way to muddle through my current writing block and the thicket of ethnographic fragments I’ve accumulated about Indigenous housing and infrastructure, schools and health clinics, to address the question ‘can there be good social policy in regional and remote Australia?’ –– the question of communication remains. Continue reading

Reflections on Flight Ways and Bird Cultures

I finish Flight Ways. Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction in a house surrounded by birds. With windows at every turn, it sometimes feels like being in a very cosy bird hide. As I reflect on Thom Van Dooren’s haunting book, my companions are wrens hopping around nooks and crannies in their constant search for insects. A winter flock of Satin Bowerbirds lands on the lawn, eats and leaves. High above, a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles circles. Kookaburras and magpies greet the clear cold air of dawn.Flightways

Inside the house, feathers from who knows what far away bird fly as I shake out the old doona for visiting friends. A wooden duck welcomes them at the front door. There is chicken for dinner. Graham Pizzey and Neville Cayley help us name birds according to particular taxonomies and traditions, and learn more of their habits. Continue reading

Seeking households for Warm as Toast project

Do you have some form of central heating or reverse cycle air conditioning at home? If so, please consider being part of a University of Wollongong research project called Warm as toast? Home heating and energy use in the Illawarra. We seek households who are willing to discuss their home heating practices and energy use, and have their household electricity measured over approximately three months over winter 2014.

Continue reading

Meeting my book critics at the AAG 2014

Writing my first book was an incredible experience. Empowering when words flowed. Exhilarating when thoughts came together coherently on paper. Frustrating when nothing seemed to make sense – in my head or on paper. Terrifying when writer’s block set in. Mind numbing when faced with the fourth, let alone the four-hundredth round of edits and proofs. Gratifying, exhausting, emotional – sometimes all at once depending on the moment. An experience beyond words really. It was therefore both exciting and terrifying to invite four academic colleagues to provide a public critique of my newly published book Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Meeting – held this year in Tampa, Florida. The following is a summary of my author-meets-critics session.

Continue reading

Sustainable Mobility?

Sustainable mobility?

This is the first in a series of posts by AUSCCER authors on mobility and questions of sustainability. In this post, Gordon Waitt and Theresa Harada discuss cars, concepts and experimental methodologies.

Driving in Wollongong
(source: participant #5)

Wollongong is an archetypal Australian regional city in that the car dominates everyday life. The car is integral to its very geography, particularly since the 1960s when its residential population boomed and new suburbs and undercover shopping malls were built away from the old town centre. In Wollongong there is an underpinning assumption that if you are going anywhere, you are going to travel by car. Cycleways do exist. However, they are mostly oriented around leisure activities and thus provide access to places valued for their aesthetics – like beaches or Lake Illawarra – rather than workplaces like the Central Business District. Likewise, there is a train line that dates from the late 1800s and is closely aligned to Wollongong’s coal mining legacy. Hence, the rail infrastructure while connecting Wollongong with Sydney, does not connect many Wollongong suburbs with the city centre. Roads and cars dominate the transport infrastructure rather than train lines, cycleways or even pavements. Car parks are ubiquitous; you find them at the shops, the beach, the university and the steelworks. In Wollongong, people spend a lot of time going places in their cars.  Continue reading

The productive agency of drought?

This post is the first in our new series on drought, flood and water. Over the coming weeks we will make connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcase our new books. This week, Lesley Head reflects on drought and wheat, as discussed in Ingrained: a Human Bio-geography of Wheat.

Drought is recent enough in the memory of most Australians for us to feel sympathy with those currently experiencing it in North America. The apocalyptically named ‘Millennium Drought’ affected southeastern Australia in particular for the first decade of this century. In the hemispheric oscillations of wheat supply, one farmer’s misfortune is another’s bumper year; wheat prices for Australian farmers are on the rise as harvest projections plummet in North America.

Drought is often depicted as a catastrophe, in which Australians are locked in battle with a fickle and hostile nature. But there are other ways to think about it. And, as climate change projections consistently indicate that southern Australia – where most of the population and agriculture are – will get drier over coming decades, we need to learn to live with drought in better ways. Continue reading

Catching up with Rubber Vine

We finally catch up with rubber vine just west of Mt Surprise where the vast Gulf country intersects the westward march of the development road. With an odd sense of excitement Stephanie Toole and I pull over and carefully thread our way amongst the neck high grader grass and slip in between the barbed wire fence to get a better look. 12 months ago Lesley Head and I saw the remnants of one dead plant in the Kimberley eradication zone. It is a bit strange having read and heard so much about this particular plant for so long without having seen it in the flesh.

I stand somewhat mesmerized by the thick arching whip stems reaching out for something to hold onto, climbing as all vines do, to reach the light. Spotted purple stems anchor deeply into the cracking grey dirt; hummocky shapes sitting quietly, patiently in the paddock waiting for rain. You can’t help but have some respect for this plant’s ability to carve out a space for itself and make its presence felt.

 

As we head west toward Georgetown and the Einsleigh and Gilbert rivers, the extent of rubber vine’s reach becomes clear. Over the coming four days we spend time with pastoral station managers and their families, weed officers and helicopter pilots, listening to their experiences. We have wide ranging discussions about what it means to make a living in this country, what is happening to the other nonhumans in this story and what the future might hold. There are difficult decisions ahead for people here and multiple lives and livelihoods at stake.

We get our own hands dirty too, taking part in a demonstration day – a treatment technique to burn the rubber vine from fuel-laden canisters. We manage our ethnography from the helicopter, taking deep breaths behind our camera lenses as our skilled guide pilots us along the creek line, barrelling in for a closer look at the towering, smothering and then smoking mass of vines. In Charters Towers at the Tropical Weeds Research Centre, we talk to ecologists who have tested a range of management techniques over the last decade or so. We learn that, unlike other weed species, there are effective options available. 

In remote places like the Gulf, it is a simple matter for unfolding ecological dramas to play out unnoticed in our mostly urbanised lives, something Val Plumwood drew attention to in her work on Shadow Places. And even here amongst the rubber vine, there are clear material connections to the global economy; to meat and livestock as well as crop production. Plumwood argued that as consumers, the ethical responsibilities to such places should not elude us.

It becomes clear to me in this very short space of time that doing nothing is not an option for the people who live with this plant. What is not quite so clear is how this will play out; having an effective ‘treatment’ is one thing, effectively putting it into action is quite another matter. Rubber vine has a large head start, it has readily made itself at home. It will take a lot of time and effort to catch up. Exactly what should be done, how much it will cost and who is going to fund it are just some of the difficult problems we must all begin to own.

Making things – geographical perspectives

How are things made, and how might this need to change?

Such questions dominated a busy week which saw simultaneous sessions at the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) and Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) conferences on ‘making things’ and ‘craft geographies’, as well as the release of a new essay, “A country that makes things”, written by a team of us at AUSCCER – Andrew WarrenChantel Carr and myself. That essay has just become freely available online in the journal Australian Geographer‘s new “Thinking Space” commentary section.

Here in Australia, such discussions have been prompted by a heated public debate over the future of manufacturing. With a high Australian dollar, fuelled by unprecedented mining exports, manufacturing as well as tourism and retail sectors have been hard hit. Successive closures and cutbacks at Bluescope Steel, here in Wollongong, and in the car, aluminium and apparel industries have triggered a renewed debate about the national importance – or otherwise – of manufacturing.

A question of geography and scale?

In our Australian Geographer essay, we traverse some of the arguments geographers might wish to plug into this debate. One concerns the social, economic and ecological consequences of opaque systems and geographies of global production. Who and what gets screwed when things get made? Where are the impacts of our consumption of ‘things’ felt? We have been inspired by the work of Ian Cook and others seeking to follow things as they get made, distributed and consumed, to uncover otherwise hidden stories. Especially creative is their followthethings.com initiative. It brings together in a shopping parody website the disparate knowledge on what happens around the world when the things you consume get made. Another unrelated, but also terrific, project mapping global consequences of trade in ‘things’ can be viewed here.

A second argument concerns the agency of those who make things – of specific industry sectors, of workers – amidst ‘global’ economic forces. As geographers, we are suspicious of arguments that rest on assumptions about the way power is exercised as hierarchy of scales. Part of the problem of contemplating the future of manufacturing is when all power is assumed to invisible global market forces, while workers, and even whole nations, are depicted as powerless. Janelle Cornwell‘s research with worker cooperatives for instance demonstrates how powerlessness can be challenged and assumed hierarchies of geographical scale can be inverted.

Boards and boots – crafting in the contemporary economy

Bob McTavish marking out a custom hand-shaped surfboard, Byron Bay (Photo: Andrew Warren)

Andrew Warren‘s work on the surfboard industry provides another vivid counter-illustration: as he outlines in a recent AUSCCER Discussion Paper, surfboard-making is a form of manufacturing by hand that has survived despite intense competition from cheap labour locations. The key is how this ‘industry’ is embedded in highly social subcultures where loyalty and collaboration rule. It is a precarious industry, but the present uncertainty afflicting the surfboard industry is as much a product of dynamics internal to that industry than to the high dollar. Such dynamics include rapid technological change and replacement of hand-based crafting skills in some workshops; an ageing workforce with poor industry succession planning; and a rapidly changing retail environment involving e-commerce and fierce battles for visibility and presence in surfing megastores.

Nevertheless, surfboard-makers do exercise agency over the terms and scope of their work, and hard-earned crafting skills are central to this. But capacities to shape the terrain of work are constrained, contingent and evolving.

An unexpected connection has emerged between Andrew’s work with surfboard-making and my own research with Naomi Riggs on custom bootmaking in the United States. Similarly afflicted by competition from cheap mass-produced imports and poorly understood, the century-old industry – responsible for America’s iconic cowboy boots – nevertheless survives in the hands and minds of highly-skilled craftspeople. Both the surfboard and bootmaking industries rely on renewed legitimacy granted by their status as ‘creative’ industries – where consumers know, meet and even socialise with those who make the things consumed.

Handcrafting boots, El Paso, Texas (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Papers in the ‘craft geographies’ session at RGS-IBG (organised by Nicola Thomas and Doreen Jakob from Exeter) this week especially explored the historical dimensions of crafting things. Is the problem of how things get made confined to the neoliberal present? What insights and opportunities arise from deeper historical interrogation of creativity, crafting and regulation of the means of production? Their work retrieves historical geographies of guilds in the UK and elsewhere and asks critical questions of the political intent of craftivism. Is the point of crafting to privilege skill rather than a more distributive means of production? How have the nature and purpose of craft guilds changed over time? They argue for more historical and geographical sensitivity to analysis of how things get made. See Nicola’s project and blog for more on connecting crafting with communities.

More than manufacturing, what kind of economy do we want?

A particular interest within AUSCCER is in rethinking the manner in which the economy is being imagined and engineered – especially in the midst of global debt crisis, and in Australia in the middle of the so-called mining boom. Timothy Mitchell talks of the economy not as an entity, but as a ‘project’, orchestrated by vested interests (experts, inventors, capitalists). Once switched onto this logic, it becomes clearer to see that we are in the midst of discourse and policy wars over the constitution of the global economy, over Europe’s future, and even the supposedly resilient Australian economy.

Making things lurks in this debate. In contrast to the high-risk, volatile world of debt and ‘invisible’ financial instruments, material commodities are tangible, useful, enduring. Yet here and elsewhere, the tabloid assumption is that an economy dependent on manufacturing equals economic doom. In contrast to the assumption that manufacturing is moribund, there is evidence to suggest that manufacturing is in fact thriving – in Australia even with high dollar competition. Manufacturing output has quadrupled since the mid-1950s and Australia has one of the most efficient and productive manufacturing sectors in the world. This is hardly the picture portrayed by the federal government (and the opposition) when they suggest that Australia must abandon manufacturing and transition to the knowledge economy. And as recently discussed in an analysis piece for theconversation.edu.au, that liveliness in manufacturing occurs mostly at the scale of small businesses who employ less than 10 people. Again, this is a long way from the image of vast factories of low-paid workers sewing underpants or screwing on toothpaste lids.

Andrew Warren has been paying close attention to the manner in which the very constitution of the Australian economy is up for grabs: while manufacturing is depicted as fading away, and the tourism industry suffers to air its own set of complaints, the mining industry, through PR campaigns, media ownership strategies and lobbying, has positioned itself as a ‘normal’ and ‘sensible’ driver of economic growth in Australia. Reserve Bank insiders, politicians and economics ‘experts’ writing opinion pieces have all bought into this ‘project’. Op-ed commentators in conservative newspapers persist in arguing that manufacturing is unimportant and tied to a nostalgic vision. All this buttresses the view that manufacturing doesn’t matter, and that instead the ‘mining boom’ is new and natural, a happenstance, good thing.

Instead, in our Australian Geographer piece, we ask: what kind of ‘project’ is this being imagined for the Australian economy, and do we want it? How might the project of the national economy be imagined differently by concentrating on the things we make and consume?

Inside the black-box of industry

Port Kembla Steelworks (Photo: Gordon Waitt)

Chantel Carr‘s PhD work is proving critical in our re-thinking of how, why and to what effect things are are made. Chantel’s background is in design and architecture – and in a previous career she worked at Wollongong’s steelworks. At this week’s IAG conference, she brought a unique perspective, with intimate knowledge of the cultures, capacities and creativities present within manufacturing processes and workplaces. In contrast to assumptions that industrial cities are plagued with the burden of decaying manufacturing cultures and workplaces, what kinds of vernacular capacities and creativities exist within them? Chantel cited examples of cultures of reuse, mending and making taking place within the steelworks (of things such as car battery chargers and barbeque hotplates). Such practices were in part resistances to the demand for hyper-efficient labour, but also simple acts of informal collaboration furnishing people with things they need in life. Creativity and ingenuity were also present among workers who have been dealt the task of making the whole place work with dwindling funding and resources.

What is in part at stake, then, is how industrial cities, workers and sectors are factored into debates as caricatures, with heavy cultural baggage already attached.

Vibrant things

Finally, such discussions have taken on extra resonance against the background of ontological critiques of what constitute ‘things’. In light of Jane Bennett’s work on a political ecology of vibrant matter, what is the agency of things, and how might it factor into human lives (and workplaces)? There is a wider discussion taking place within AUSCCER about the manner in which human-nonhuman relations are recast in light of ecological and political economic critiques of climate change and sustainability imperatives. Leah Gibbs has been central to this. At the IAG conference Leah explored Bennett’s idea of “agentic assemblages” to ask questions of the agency of individual things – haybales, food, fires, grasses, animals – within wider constellations of landscape, actors and senses. At one level this is a philosophical reflection on what ‘makes place’; at another it is a political question of how humans re-position themselves in the world. Such thoughts are captured in Leah’s forthcoming paper in Environment and Planning A, entitled “Bottles, bores and boats: agency of water assemblages in post/colonial inland Australia”. 

If humans are to take climate change seriously, then re-orientating consumption patterns and habits must be part of the equation. So too must be debate about how we make things, using energy, carbon or rare earth minerals, and who gets to consume them in a marketised, profit-orientated system. AUSCCER’s Elyse Stanes also presented at the IAG on ‘things’: in this case, clothes, and how young people shop for them. Elyse’s research explores how and why people shop and how this practice is tied up in social norms, emotions and habits.

How easy is it to imagine alternatives? What kinds of things must we be making to furnish humans with sustenance and quality of life? What are the constraints on consuming things differently imposed by commodity production methods, infrastructure, and a broader economic system that depends on constant retail throughput and spending? Is crafting the answer? Are cultures of sharing things another alternative – and if so, what are the design and production systems that will support this? Or is the deeper, more critical issue one of ownership of the means of production – as vividly illustrated recently in the case of that most important of daily things: newspapers? What are the social justice implications of foregrounding frugality – and must there be room for celebrations of abundance?

All these debates entangle things: material cultural objects of our economy and our daily lives. Far from irrelevant to the future of the economy, making things is a critical practical, political and philosophical issue.

Click here to access the inaugural “Thinking Space” essay in Australian Geographer, on the future of making things – written by Chris Gibson, Chantel Carr and Andrew Warren. 

Many of the people and projects mentioned here can be followed on twitter: Chris Gibson (@profcgibson), Chantel Carr (@lifeofstuff), AndrewWarren (@AWsurf), Leah Gibbs (@LM_Gibbs), Elyse Stanes (@elyserstanes), followthethings.com (@followthethings), Nicola Thomas and Doreen Jakob (@craftgeography)