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Grief will be our companion in climate change

Grief will be our companion in climate change

Aug 21, 2016 - 8:59am

In this series of posts, I bounce off key arguments in my new book Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene. re-conceptualising human-nature relations. The second chapter of the book argues that grief will be our companion in our climate change journey.   We in the affluent west are grieving for the loss of modernity and its investment in a future characterised by hope. Various manifestations of loss and mourning in relation to climate change are discussed in this chapter, particularly the idea of everyday denial. I build particularly on the work of Kari Norgaard (2011), but there are a number of other scholars now writing about these issues. It is difficult to discuss grief and associated negative emotions because of strong cultural pressure to be optimistic and positive. More open acknowledgement that grief will be our companion will strengthen our collective capacities. Since I finished writing the book, Australians have witnessed two particular manifestations of loss and mourning. Last summer weeks of catastrophic fires damaged Tasmanian World Heritage forests, heathlands and peaty soils. For those who loved the forests and understood their many thousands of years of history, it was devastating to contemplate that we would not see their likes again. University of Tasmania fire ecologist Prof David Bowman was compelled to farewell Gondwana. ‘Because Gondwana can’t live in this sort of world.’ In a public lecture Bowman discussed the philosophical rupture being experienced by the community, including long-time activists: 'The belief was that all a wilderness needed was to be left alone, that now it would be safe within the confines of the park', Bowman says. 'And we’ve all just realised that this isn’t the case.' This is the “rupture”: the realisation that all that we thought was “saved” is now threatened by something previously unimaginable. (quoted in Gill 2016). A couple of months later, as coral reef scientists mapped unprecedented bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, Professor Terry Hughes tweeted the grief of his research group. We looked at the data, he said. ‘And then we wept’. I’m not sure whether Terry Hughes meant it literally or not, but these are difficult issues to discuss in contemporary western society. I have learned that this topic can shut down a dinner party conversation rather rapidly, and have become selective about engaging different friends on the question. We debate climate change at length, mostly framed in the spurious terms of whether the science is settled enough for us to make some long-term decisions. Even those who know the science most intimately face strong social pressures to be optimistic about the future. There is deep cultural pressure in the West to not be ‘a doom and gloom merchant’. So, even when the evidence points towards the strong possibility of some catastrophic scenarios, the tendency is to focus policy and action on the most optimistic end of the spectrum of possibilities. But at least some of us should be thinking systematically about worst-case scenarios.   If we have at least the possibility of catastrophic outcomes, what should our response be? I reject the cultural assumption that even to canvass these issues is to give in to them, to give up, or to assume the worst. Rather I argue that a relentless cultural disposition to focus disproportionately on positive outcomes is itself a kind of denial. I argue that grief is a companion that will increasingly be with us. It is not something we can deal with and move on from, but rather something we must acknowledge and hold if we are to enact any kind of effective politics. Or, to put it differently, it needs to become an explicit part of our politics. I gave a seminar on this topic at Sydney Uni this week, as part of their Welcome to the Anthropocene series. It was the kind of stunningly beautiful late winter Sydney day that makes you wonder how anything could possibly be wrong with the world. There was great discussion from the floor. How much is our grief tied up with shame? What exactly are we hopeful of, and can a clearer discussion of this help us move through crisis? What kinds of rituals and/or activism might be appropriate expressions of loss and mourning? Museums, cultural heritage professionals and creative artists are well placed to lead us in these discussions of memorialization. In an apparently unrelated event of the week, my sister and I took Mum, an accomplished patchworker, to see Making the Australian Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is a poignant and beautiful exhibition showcasing the skill and labour in this most everyday activity. I was struck by the lives measured out in millions of stitches and captured for us here. Lives mostly, but not only, of women. The exhibition is a memory and a mourning of sorts. But it also encapsulates something of the concept of hope that I come back to in later chapters; making do, repurposing with beauty and wit, keeping on going.    References    Gill, N. 2016 Rupture in Tasmania: Solastalgia and the impact of the recent bushfires. The Monthly, April. www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2016/April/1459429200/Nicole-Gill/Rupture-tasmania Norgaard, K.M. 2011 Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.    
Hope and Grief launched by PhD scholar Elissa Waters

Hope and Grief launched by PhD scholar Elissa Waters

Aug 14, 2016 - 9:49am

I was honoured to have University of Melbourne geography PhD student Elissa Waters launch Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene this week. As the book is focused on the future, I hope it will resonate with the next generation of scholars. Over the next few weeks I will be blogging on individual chapters. To get you in the mood, here are Elissa's words:  Welcome everyone and thank you very much for the opportunity to introduce Professor Lesley Head’s new book – Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human-nature relations. It’s been a real pleasure reading this book, although I have to say it has at the same time been a somewhat confronting experience. This work is fundamentally about the emotional aspects of the problem of how we live, work and look to the future in the Anthropocene – the confronting part of reading this was the realisation that where I sit on the hope-grief spectrum is something I’ve been studiously avoiding for quite a long time now. This avoidance of the base emotional response was also reflected in many of the interviews of climate scientists in this research. As geographers, both human and physical, much of our work revolves around the key issues of the Anthropocene - the complexities of human-nature relations and the looming realities of the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. If we really consider these realities, if we take them seriously in our lives and our work, how do we actually carry on? My (fairly unproductive) response to that question so far has involved a lot of red wine! Thankfully though, Lesley’s book encourages us to take a far more sophisticated approach to living ‘with and through the Anthropocene’. A key argument of this book is that grief is fundamentally entwined with climate change, and for us living in this time means that “grief will be our companion” – grief is not something we can get beyond but has become part of our lives and politics. Conceptually the book unpacks the idea of grief in this context, arguing that we are grieving for both the loss of our ‘Modern Selves’ and for the nostalgia of a ‘pristine past’. It follows then that hope is the flip side of this emotion, and as the book points out, there is real pressure in the Western world, particularly in climate science to present a hopeful outlook to avoid being a dooms-dayer. One of the most refreshing things about this book is the fact that it argues precisely against this conception of hope - it maintains that we need to decouple hope from an optimistic view that everything will be ok. From my perspective as a postgrad heading into this field of geography in the context of climate change, this point is crucial – that we can be hopeful in the practice of our work without ignoring, disingenuously, the more painful possibilities of climate change. In that context this book is an exploration of how a focus on local, vernacular practices may serve to reframe human-nature relations and provide space for more hopeful ways to generate new political possibilities. This idea is drawn out through a range of cases that span the broad scope of Lesley’s empirical research in: agriculture; climate science; invasive species research and urban geography. From a methodological point of view, like much of Lesley’s work, the book makes a strong case for qualitative social sciences and for the value of a cultural geography lens on the emerging narratives of the Anthropocene. That said, I think the key arguments of this book and its explicit attention to the emotional work that we do in this field are really relevant for both physical and human geographers and I’d encourage everyone to read this – particularly those of us that are prone to resorting to wine to cope! I’ll leave the introduction there and ask Lesley to come up to say a few words - So thank you everyone for coming and please join me in congratulating Lesley on the official launch of this important and timely book.
Air travel - the academic dilemma

Air travel - the academic dilemma

Apr 9, 2016 - 5:00am

En route to the recent Association of American Geographers meeting in San Francisco, the packet on my airline nuts told me that ‘In a nutshell, this delicious snack is tackling climate change… The Brazil nuts in this snack grow wild in the Amazon rainforest that you help protect when you fly carbon neutral with Qantas... With the help of Qantas passengers, 400 Peruvian farming families sustainably harvest these nuts while protecting precious Amazonian rainforest and the wildlife that call it home’.  Many participants at the conference could have provided a critical political ecology of such claims, but most of us were enrolled in a bigger dilemma - we had flown long distances to get there for a few days of meeting. We knew that a few brazil nuts would do nothing to reduce the amount of flying actually occurring. The wonderful Kevin Anderson has challenged us all, in both his academic and public writings, to drastically curtail if not stop our air travel. He argues that both scientists and policy-makers are severely underplaying the scale of the 2°C mitigation challenge, and the urgent, deep, sustained emissions cuts necessary to get us there. The emissions from a single flight easily counteract hard work in other areas of our lives to reduce energy consumption. It is eleven years since Anderson has been on a plane, and he recounts his various attempts to get to conferences and meetings via train, bus and other land-based travel. Should we all follow suit? For Australian academics, air travel is essential if we are to participate in international conversations. And in the case of climate change debates, its cessation would cement the Anglo-American dominance that has already constrained the available policy choices too much. Creative new thinking requires interaction between diverse voices from many parts of the world. I work in a School that values international fieldwork intensive subjects as transformative experiences for our final year students. How to assess the value enabled by that air travel against bussing them somewhere in Australia? Should we stop air travel for fieldwork that produces important research outcomes, including ones that enhance international understanding? Most Australian universities now prioritise international links as part of their mission. How can we make that work with flying less? This conversation is increasing, with discussions here and here. The UK Tyndall Centre has developed a code of conduct for low carbon research, with a focus on flying. I have been involved in a few attempts to do things differently. Some years ago colleagues and I presented a paper on household sustainability to the RGS-IBG conference in the UK via skype. Notwithstanding the efforts of the organisers, it was a deeply unsatisfying experience. We couldn’t even see the faces of the audience – they might have been sound asleep for all we knew! (Colleague Leah Gibbs later told us she had been in the front row, nodding enthusiastically in encouragement.) A different group of us undertook regular video seminars with colleagues in Sweden and Norway. This was more successful, but one of our conclusions was that the disembodied video experience only worked because members of the group had had enough physical visits to each other’s institutions to know each other reasonably well.  For the record, my dilemma is made more acute by my own family situation. I have recently taken on a job in a new city, and travel regularly to see my partner, often by plane. Our kids both live overseas, so the family love miles mount up. (Perhaps love miles, like the calories in chocolate, don’t count?) There are no easy answers here, but the bigger issue in this conversation is to imagine how academic life more broadly will need to change in a carbon constrained world. The structure of academic research and teaching – from high tech labs to international mobility – is very much embedded in a fossil-fuel economy. We can imagine that life will be slower, as it must have been when Griffith Taylor spent six months travelling by boat to the Pacific Science Congress in Hawaii and back to Sydney. What else can we imagine about how scholarship will need to be structured differently? 
New book coming: Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene

New book coming: Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene

Mar 25, 2016 - 4:42pm

I have a new book due out this month: Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene. I'm hoping to get my first look at it at the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
Family, privacy, autonomy: some non-environmental factors influencing household climate change response

Family, privacy, autonomy: some non-environmental factors influencing household climate change response

Mar 25, 2016 - 4:35pm

With Wollongong colleagues Chris Gibson, Nick Gill, Chantel Carr and Gordon Waitt, I have a new paper out in Local Environment. Here is the abstract:  Cultural change is critical to climate change responses, but the in-depth qualitative research that investigates culture is necessarily conducted at scales difficult to integrate with policy. A focus of climate change mitigation and adaptation is affluent developed world households. Adapting methods used elsewhere in social science, we report and assess a meta-ethnography of household sustainability research, scaling up findings from 12 studies encompassing 276 Australian households. Seven themes are dominant: family concerns are central to household practice; adaptiveness is contingent but more pervasive than often assumed; households make sense of climate change not through abstract arguments, but through physical resources and materials; boundaries of the home space are dynamic and subjective; daily time is an important currency; paradoxes abound among everyday practice; and privacy and a sense of autonomy are prioritised. Insights from the method include new light on familiar themes when seen through an environmental lens, thickening and triangulation of existing research, and a stronger basis for international comparisons. Some findings have straightforward application to policy, others identify potential areas of risk and resistance, others still are more conceptual. We conclude the method has considerable potential and is worth developing further, providing a critical perspective is maintained. 

Mentoring

How Early Career Researchers experience the writing process

How Early Career Researchers experience the writing process

Sep 3, 2016 - 3:16pm

 One of my favourite meetings each month is our ECR mentoring lunches. A dozen or so early-ish career researchers (ECRs) from the School of Geography gather over lunch to discuss different issues. As the supervisor of most of them, it is great for me to meet them all in one place and help build a supportive work environment. They are a diverse group that includes continuing and fixed-term appointees, in teaching & research and research-only positions, both human and physical geographers. More than half (both male and female) have young families. (More on work-life balance in November!) This month, September, we are thinking about the academic writing process, facilitated by colleague Dr Rachel Hughes (@rb_hughes). Here are some thoughts I have distilled from our discussions. 1.Teaching can help with your writing It’s common to think of teaching obligations as a part of the job that constitutes an obstacle to writing for publication. Rachel reminded us that teaching can help because it reminds you that ‘you can synthesise a diverse and difficult literature into a series of linked, meaningful points under time pressure’. That is, you know you can do it, and when you have immovable deadlines you do it on a regular basis. 2. Writing is a very emotional process, and the blocks are almost all emotional. Again, Rachel offered her own experience here, and it led to a discussion with many examples. People feeling anxious about writing because it is never good enough (quite a lot of perfectionism in the room); feeling deflated at reviewer comments (emotions of grief and blame surfaced here also); feeling frustrated. While some people talked about positive emotions (the excitement of telling a story), these examples were in the minority. As someone who enjoys writing, albeit I often find it difficult, this was a salutary experience for me. To hear such an accomplished group of researchers voice many more negative than positive emotions about such an important part of their job raises challenges for me as a mentor. Perhaps the task is not to help them find time to write, but to help them enjoy writing? 3. How to start from the blank screen This group had diverse and sometimes contradictory strategies. Here are the most popular – there’s a suggestion to suit everyone! Start with a brain dump Write methods and results sections first to get yourself runs on the board Start with a contradiction you find interesting Start with a whiteboard and a mental map Start with the abstract then go to topic sentences Start with stories that excite you Start with immersion (in literature, in discussions with peers, in your own notes) Don’t forget you’ve already done a lot of thinking up to now (when you wrote the grant application, when you did the fieldwork, when you did the analysis). Don’t waste this thinking. 4. How to deal with blockages and being stuck Talk to fellow academics – co-authors or the wider academic community Talk to people who know nothing about the subject Blocking often happens when there are too many ideas in there. The most difficult papers are the ones where you try to do too much. Re-read something you’ve published to remind yourself you can do this Go and read something enjoyable, often not academic Exercise – go for a walk or swim Do something with immediate reward and a self-esteem boost because you actually complete something (see emotions, above). For example pottery, cooking, knitting. Draw pictures Know when to abandon Remind yourself of your research participants and your responsibility to them (no pressure!) Establish routines – a particular type of tea, a particular piece of music Leave yourself a note for next time – don’t finish right to the end 5. How to use fragmented time For many in this group, the luxury of uninterrupted time in which you might have writer’s block seemed a distant abstraction. Far more pertinent is the question of how to effectively use small bits of time – 30-45 minutes – in life routines that feeling very fragmented, being built around family responsibilities and teaching obligations.  We didn’t really solve this one. It requires quite a lot of planning beforehand, so that you have small modules that can be ready when you have the time. You need to be able to pick up one little writing package and do it without having to re-think the entire project.
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