Let the sea reclaim the pools?

I’ve just returned from the beach. Made my usual, favourite stop at the ocean pool. One of Wollongong’s series of bathing pools cut into the rock platform in the mid- to late-19th Century. Today saw a mix of people there: a bearded guy doing laps; the elderly woman with bright swimming cap I see regularly (I’m sure she swims every day); and a bunch of early 20-somethings looking happy and relaxed.

Climbing the stairs back up to the path, I spotted the flyer – neatly attached with cable-ties to the metal railing – that motivated this post. A newspaper clipping and hand-printed note announcing ‘Save Our Rock Pool’. You see, Wollongong City Council is proposing that it cease to maintain and/or demolish two or three of the city’s ocean pools as a cost-saving measure.

Community action to ‘Save Our Rock Pool’.

Continue reading

Where is cool and creative in Wollongong? The CAMRA Project

Where is cool and creative in Wollongong? AUSCCER’s Chris Gibson and Chris Brennan-Horley star in this short video on the Cultural Asset Mapping in Regional Australia project they worked on. Click the image to view the video.

Cultural Asset Mapping in Regional Australia Video

PhD Scholarship opportunity: Urban quality of life

Applications are invited for a PhD scholarship in critical cultural approaches to urban quality of life.

Urban ‘quality of life’ and related concepts of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘liveability’ have become prevalent in planning and policy circles, usually when benchmarking cities against a variety of economic, environmental and social indicators. This PhD represents an opportunity to critically engage with and broaden the urban quality of life research agenda by examining the concept as a contingent and emergent property of everyday life, co-constituted through the interactions of individuals with the material spaces of the city. It is envisaged that the project will deploy a mix of qualitative methods and digital mapping technologies in ways that can account for the nuanced and varied nature of everyday urban life. Specific areas of interest are open and could include for example: mobility, temporality, perceptions of amenity or human-environment interactions. 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

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 ivory tower is full of people

One of the great privileges of my life is to lead a research centre full of dedicated, enthusiastic and smart Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Eight, to be precise; six of them women, and all on soft money. In the current ‘freeze’ on Australian Research Council funding announcements, two of these people are waiting to hear about grants that would pay their salary in 2013, and two others are waiting on funds for projects that will allow them to do that part of their job description that is research. The cyclic nature of research funding being what it is, next year it could well be the other four who are waiting.

Their senior colleagues also wait; on the outcomes of three grants that will fund fieldwork for Honours and PhD research, opportunities for casual and fixed term research assistants (including undergraduate students getting important professional work experience), and postdoctoral jobs.

We have two people lined up at the door waiting to apply for a fellowships (i.e. salary) round that cannot even open until the current outcomes are known.

And we are just a microcosm of research centres and university departments across Australia, where at least 2000 jobs are estimated to be at risk. It’s not just scientific research, but humanities and social sciences also. In our case, pressing environmental issues demand careful social science perspectives and innovative ideas.

In other words, the ivory tower is full of people; people with partners, families, homes, lives. Research grants are not abstract things. They pay people to do work; organise projects, collect data rigorously, archive it ethically, think about the results, crunch the words and numbers, write up the findings, communicate them to the community. We’re very good at stretching the dollars, using them to seed new projects, build collaborative links and keep people fed and housed between grants. We expect to be accountable for the funds. This money goes back into the economy in a variety of ways – especially important in a regional city like Wollongong, with unemployment already high.

It is unlikely that all these grants will be successful. But people need to know. Those who miss out will take stock, build up their track records and reapply, or seek alternatives. They may need to move cities, but they need to know.

Investing in young researchers is an investment for the nation. If 2000 jobs were at risk in manufacturing, governments of all persuasions would be worried. But is anyone taking notice of a generation at risk in the university sector? A budget surplus will be a hollow victory if it means reducing intellectual capacity and throwing these highly trained people out of work, or out of the country.

 

Clothing as adaptive strategy

July is the coldest month in Wollongong, and we work in a poorly insulated building with no central heating or cooling (unless you are a computer lab). Even on the beautifully sunny days we’ve had lately it can get down to 10 degrees in the office.

@anadejong

That flushes out all kinds of interesting ways to stay warm. Catherine knits ferociously, Nick runs up Mt Keira, Michael wears polar fleece, Chris has a big woollen jacket, Leah keeps cycling. Jen does fieldwork in warm places and when she gets back has a very elegant black coat she can wear all day. My favourite adaptive strategies are the gorgeous assortments of scarves, shawls and beanies that emerge. Continue reading

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

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)

 

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