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262 days of lockdown from the front porch: Observations during pandemic lockdown in Melbourne, 2020-2021

Watching the worldwide Covid crisis unfold over the last two years (2020-2021) in the city with the world’s longest lockdown taxed everybody, including scholars and writers. They almost inevitably felt the effects of the pandemic personally, but also, as a matter of intellectual or scientific interest, they could not help but analyse what was going on. I was no exception, so here we go.

My household, like almost everybody else around here, sat in semi-isolation, suffered the loss or absence of loved ones and friends that we could not interact with, and experienced the sudden use of Zoom and related platforms to keep us working [in my case, teaching university students]. Ironically, we knew the software was a part of a  communications industry that was suddenly taking over the world and reconfiguring jobs and work patterns. We were held in its thrall, while confined to a single place. Our jobs were unsecure and sometimes, our health and wellbeing too.

I resisted the effort the theorise something so visceral as a mass pandemic, as an academic. I left that to a friend, Jude Fernando who is better at it. I am not an expert on health or epidemiology, and the new sociology of human interaction may have been interesting intellectually, but it was also lived experience, in the capital of lockdowns. Melbourne suffered early and badly from the Covid virus, shown as a ‘first peak’, with many deaths in unprepared and unregulated aged care homes, and about 800 lives lost in total in 2020. This is now regarded as small by world standards, but the State and Federal leadership effort in 2020, rightly or wrongly, was to rid the state of Victoria [home to 6.6m people] of the virus.

Melbourne had extreme lockdown measures from March 2020 – Nov 22 2020, little freedom of movement, and most businesses were closed or tried to work remotely. Most Melburnians were not allowed to exit the city. The economy was in a parlous state. State borders were closed too, and many people were trapped on the wrong side of one. International travel was banned by the Federal government. Then, after that lockdown, we had a run in late 2020>2021 of about 60 days with no Covid cases at all, with freedom of movement. But Covid came back two months later, although by then, vaccines had almost been released and there was much less mortality. In 2021 we had some less draconian lockdowns, with interludes of freedom to travel, but plenty of serious confinement measures too. The reason was the arrival of the Delta Variant, and low vaccination rates that persisted for several months.

The pandemic and the health protection measures designed to quell the virus were new for almost everybody. I had, however, worked for some years in West Africa, and  queued up with thousands of people in Ouagadougou to get a shot during a meningitis outbreak in 2001, and also saw the tragic effects of the Aids crisis face to face in the 1990s. But as COVID oozed into the pores of Melbourne -the worst affected Australian city – nothing really prepared anybody, including our family for its effects.

Since 2005 the three of us have lived on a wide inner city street that has been managed to minimize through traffic, except for a regular bus. So it is a street where, in principle, you can be outward facing and convivial, in the road or alongside it. However, many of the newer houses are now behind high fences and walls, or they have almost no windows to the street. Their occupants also drive out of their garages with electronic doors – while our household largely operates on foot or bicycle. This says a lot about the changing demography and class relations of our area, since those are all properties in a group worth well over $2m [US $1.5m], and in some cases double that.

We know many of our pleasant neighbours, and  I spent much of the pandemic observing the street, wildlife,  and passers-by  from the porch, shaded from the elements. This was not idle observation – I was watching the world go by while preparing lecture notes, dealing with student correspondence, and devoting up to 55 hours a week to teaching activities during the busy semesters (July-October 2020 and July-October 2021, both in periods of almost complete lockdown in VIC). I was accompanied by a large ginger cat, who installed himself on a separate chair or on my lap. We conducted our “research” together.

Apollo the cat.

In the second half of the year in 2020 and again in 2021 these full lockdowns meant that at times we were not allowed visitors, only allowed one hour outside the house, for exercise and some time getting essential supplies, an early curfew was imposed, and socialisation was limited to phones, Zoom and similar platforms. Our activities also included chatting with the  immediate, delightful neighbours over the fence. People also stopped by while exercising, and to peruse the books in our community book box that I constructed on the front fence. But they were supposed to keep moving as part of the ‘reasons to leave the house’ edicts in place.

Our street runs east-west, and in Australia the sun rise in the east and travels northwards. This means in this temperate climate, moderately cold in the winter months, a northward-facing back garden is deemed the most desirable. Melburnians love these north facing gardens because winter sun can warm a deck or rear living area. This, combined with aggressive gentrification since the 2000s and a massive rise in house prices, has made our street ‘desirable’ particularly on its north side. We are on the south side, inferior in a jocular way despite also experiencing [probably the same] rising prices, and us southsiders have often laughed about the proliferation of  ‘knock-down and rebuild’ house projects we have seen unfold on the north side.

After seemingly years of construction projects, there is a true differential now. As I look out from the porch to the north, I see no more original weatherboard or brick houses, except one. That is a large 1880s family home, occupied by the same household for over 40 years, but there are also a 2019 modern villa, a huge two storey 2000s house using expensive materials, a stylish steel frame house clad in tin siding built in the 2010s, a enormous architect home from the same decade, shuttered from any interaction with the streetscape [known as ‘the boot factory’ by a now deceased resident], and several others gutted or rebuilt from the front rooms backwards. To the south, we have a couple of modern houses, a decaying rental, a huge 1970s brick veneer built by a first-generation immigrant family, two older ‘single fronted’ narrow houses one of them ours, a 1960s or 70s house built by an Italian family, and further along, some posher housing. Further along again are wooden houses and narrow single-fronted rebuilds. I should say that down the road, there is less difference between ‘north and south’.

Our south side has endured as a place of residence for several families of Macedonian origin, for reasons I do not clearly understand, beginning when housing was much cheaper decades ago. This followed immigration to Melbourne from southern and eastern Europe in the 1950s, and many houses were then occupied by, or built by, first and second generation postwar immigrants [some of them related by family ties – which is still the case in our street]. Three families who bought or built houses in the 1950s are still here, and have told us something of the comings and goings. But the noticeable feature today is the north-south street divide: and more generally the variation in the origins of the residents, whose occupancy varies by when they bought their homes, and the political economy of the city and locality at the time they took up residence. Back in the 1950s, Northcote was a cheap inner city suburb (5km from the city centre) and migrant families were very common, particularly Greek Australians and Italians in the surrounding streets. Our local cinema showed Greek films and it is still, probably, the second language spoken. Those families gradually began to sell up, cash in and move out over the next thirty years, either through downsizing or simply taking advantage of rising property prices. The ‘gentrification front’ has now moved several suburbs to the North, and our area is the epitome of hipster, left leaning, inner city fringe Melbourne, caught between Clifton Hill, North Fitzroy, Northcote central and Brunswick to the west. The average house price in the whole area is well over AU$1.7m though, enough to displace hipsters and renters.

northcote property prices

I have spent almost 20 years in the ten sq km of the ‘inner north’ of Melbourne – I like it but I am frustrated by the recent local trend, which is the high prices. This has meant more monied families have moved in, mainly well-paid professionals with large building or renovation budgets, who have perhaps sought to enter the area because they want houses on a quiet street with several rooms for families and with off street parking for their numerous cars and SUVs. There is some work in urban geography about cashed up inmovers and gentrifiers reducing the very urban edginess and positive vibe of the suburbs they populate, and this is happening. House price rises generate more rises, affordable by a smaller and often less diverse population. Arrivals like the local amenities and ambience, and excellent public transport [if they use it]. It is 20 minutes to the downtown universities, health precincts and offices by bike or train or car, and we have our own intimate train station, the least frequented on Melbourne’s network apparently, Rushall. But for somebody born and bred in Northcote, the money needed to buy a place locally is beyond most budgets. This is citywide and indeed national problem.

Enter Covid

I arrived home from a month overseas at end Feb 2020, and lockdown started in March. I will offer 10 observations, out of many, from which something may be learned about the pandemic in an affluent, upwardly rising setting in a developed-world city. Some of these ae tongue-in-cheek, others not.

1) The pandemic was forced on the city, but it was an opportunity to localise all activities, to stop travelling and generate less mobility-related CO2 [Australia has a poor record on climate change and the energy transition, although renewables are now strong]. Even though this was enforced reduction of mobility. We could in theory at least, get to know the neighbours and each other better and help out. There was indeed more socialisation, but in our case, not across the various geographical and social divides. Many of these remained in place. Zoom meant we could continue more distant interactions, too. Positively, a localisation of my/our observational skills took place. We noticed more things – the growth of our vegetable beds, the birds and possums, the comings and goings at the local cafe where we spent a fortune in takeaway coffees, riverside activities of the non-humans and plants [also the changing graffiti] and pet and people movements and interactions. As a bike rider, the almost empty streets were a bonus.

2) As our mental health began to suffer, other people’s behaviours became extremely annoying. Lockdown made me very tetchy. You notice much more when you stay in one place, seeing and hearing quotidian things. This makes sense, and it is a fundamental geographical observation [by Yi Fu Tuan among others]. In our case, who would have thought we been quite so annoyed by loud lawnmowers, or ‘Mr Leaf Blower’, who availed himself of many opportunities to blow grass clippings and the debris from falling plane tree leaves and branches up and down his wide frontage. It appeared to be unnecessary noisiness when a broom yielded by this seemingly able-bodied man would have sufficed. The pandemic made me detest leaf blowers, and this was shared with the neighbours and by my wife. I am sure our noisy strimmer was annoying too, but it came out very rarely indeed. There are numerous other examples of magnified discontent….

3) The richer occupants had a lot of things done for them. Really, a lot. They are doctors and lawyers, civil servants, and other unknown professionals who can clearly afford domestic services [we have absolutely none, although being from a middle class British background, I knew such things existed].  And other things – I count about 7 BMWs and a few Mercedes across a few houses. Some of the big ones return north of 11l/100km, with is lamentable since a standard efficient car is now half that. Supermarket food was delivered in lockdown [most often to the northern side] mainly by trucks, with drivers who work through the night too. Gardens were professionally manicured and their swimming pools too [all 5 pools I am aware of]. We pottered around planting and harvesting our vegetables and occasionally strimming the grass and pruning [DIY stores were closed, but you could order stuff, which we never did]. Workpeople [identified by the logos on their trucks] entered houses to clean, fix electrical and aircon and plumbing problems on a regular basis [when allowed by the rules], while nobody came to ours – they never have. Laundry was collected and dropped off. One neighbour had somebody there almost every day for a year, concreting a driveway and then a verge and pavement, making garden beds, installing an irrigation system, sanding floors, installing heating and cooling, planting sparse low maintenance bushes, detailing three expensive European and Japanese cars, and then as soon as lockdown was over for a bit, buying a caravan and parking it in the street. I had an involuntary spectacle of hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenditure [the house was completed in early lockdown] and plenty of CO2 being emitted. When the major work was finished, somebody else had a ground-up house restoration down the street. The noise always started at 6.30-6.45am.

While we could certainly excuse and perhaps support people in the health and allied professions needing some domestic help during a pandemic, the extent of it was extraordinary, just along a short stretch of road. It certainly revealed geographical, ethnic and class divides. The people mainly of southern European origin who had been here a long time, had no such assistance, and limited visits from family and healthcare, but only when permitted. Their networks remained family-based. The few renters were the same.

4) Death had visceral and proximate meaning. At least four people died within the houses surrounding ours. My own mother passed away in August 2021 too, but in the UK, and distant passings also occurred for other migrant families like ours. I could not travel to Europe. There was some rallying of the community following these sad events, depending on what we were permitted to do [much preparing of meals for the families of the departed, for example]. None of these deaths were, to my knowledge, from Covid but still, the bizarre circumstances of the affected families meant small and restricted gatherings, and certainly no proper marking of lives in the usual way. I sat in tears mourning neighbours I had known for less than a couple of decades. All I could do was watch the hearse, and [for those of Orthodox faith] sprinkle some water behind it as it left. Entering houses and gardens was forbidden.

5) Health suffered. This is an obvious outcome, felt across the world. We were very, very lucky. We were not trapped in a tiny apartment, as were many Italian citizens during their worst lockdowns in 2020 when mortality peaked, we were not in a wholly unprepared country with no vaccines like other places I have lived, and we were not the Indian poor walking out of the major cities in 2020 because their livelihoods were lost. We did not have loved ones get Covid or pass away from it [although that came pretty close]. There were local places to travel to, to maintain some personal fitness, perhaps on the excuse of a daily supermarket run or sometimes a visit to a ‘covid buddy’ living alone, which was allowed. But in order to walk, run or cycle, rules of time and space had to be respected and I think they mostly were, by others across our area. There were hundreds of people exercising along the banks of the Yarra River and its tributary, where our main open space lies. The two colonial boathouses served snacks and coffee, takeaway only, and they were busy, as was a stall outside Abbotsford Convent. People cut the fence into the Northcote Golf Course as a citizen’s action, and had walks and picnics there when those were permitted. This was probably ‘breaking and entering’ but the Council did nothing and may even open up the land in future. Our street, being an attractive one close to a river and a bridge, attracted many walkers, some of whom loved the cat, or stopped for a chat.* [ I had one guy and a woman both tell me I should not have a cat, even in the inner city where small endemic marsupial wildlife is scarce. I was hurt. I don’t like dogs as much, and our cat is charming, lazy and catches almost nothing. Cats also help save people from mental meltdown in such circumstances.]

I was less fit as the pandemic persisted, having auto-immune problems and internal organs that are not in great shape at the best of times. I also had to work extremely hard during semesters. Skin was bad with ulcers and sores, digestion poor, circulation suffered to the extremities where I already have nerve damage. Shaving and haircuts were infrequent. Morning coffee went from a regular size to a large, for the first time in my life. The local pharmacist did not always have all my medical necessities in stock, and there were scares about supply shortages. Hospital consultant appointments went to Zoom, and blood tests at the hospital required entering via a Fort Knox arrangement. Toilet paper was impossible to find for several weeks but we laugh about it now as a FWP [first world problem]. Anti-bacterial hand washers disappeared in early to mid 2020, before local suppliers including breweries started to retool and make them. My voice was hoarse from many ‘student contact hours’ per week. Some pre-recorded lectures were finished only at 2am and the marking load was immense. But again, we were lucky. At least one of us had work. In 2021-22, RATS tests were impossible to find, as they were across the world. But we were out lockdown by then and miraculously spent Xmas and New Year in Sydney, where they were also in short supply and we had to do one to attend an outdoor event.

The RAT test Xmas tree.

6) Adaptive behaviour kicks in under adversity. My immediate response to the lockdowns was to work out exactly what we could get away with to maintain sanity and health. Victoria, led by the Andrews Labor government, was very strong on quelling the virus, and it may have lost $$ billions doing so, but thus we avoided greater loss of life. We were frankly blessed in our immediate surroundings – even the 5km travel limit yielded walks, parks, and many empty roads for cycling. The hybrid car got no use, even as neighbours found more excuses to use theirs [why, I wondered, go to your local supermarket in a large SUV, when you could walk or cycle, and get exercise?]. Some people were forced to drive for essential trips of course, and there was an army of ‘essential workers’ in Melbourne.

Sitting outdoors in public space was forbidden for many weeks, and public playgrounds, toilets and even basketball hoops were shuttered for example. This meant no picnics or even sitting at all. This was completely illogical, since you can’t catch Covid sitting on your own outdoors – people just did not know enough about the virus back in early 2020, and the public authorities applied blanket rules, thinking you might somehow transmit it from sitting on a bench or a rock. We walked and sat in the ground, out of the way, not a threat to anybody. It was also possible to use Google Maps to find supermarkets or permitted shops right on the 5km travel limit. For me this meant one corner of an Aldi supermarket being on the 5km boundary, so I often went there instead of another. Still not sure if this was actually in the spirit of the rules. And yes there was police enforcement – we knew people fined $1,600 for going too far from home, for example to swim in the sea, or being out too late after curfew.

7) Long term effects on youth. I cannot say much here. But we lived this, and observed the effects of lockdown. Two years. A high school graduation party we went to, out of lockdown in December 2021, felt like coming out of prison for the kids and young adults. What palpable joy, for a couple of hours. But the effects of a lack of socialisation will linger for months and years. Just like prison.

8) The government, HE and its critics. Everything is political, everything has power coursing through it, and the pandemic magnified political points-scoring, iconoclastic behaviours, and new alignments in and outside formal political institutions. Dan Andrews, State premier, and his team managed the pandemic well I thought but their approach was hard nosed. Thousands more deaths were avoided, and hospitals were not overwhelmed by the virus. He appeared every day at a press conference until October 2020, famously declaring the end of that lockdown with an Aussie aphorism about celebrating with a drink a bit stronger than a beer, and from a from a bit higher on the shelf. The Federal government, by contrast, was slower to act, less forthcoming with financial aid for the millions affected by sudden job losses and loss of childcare when they were able to work, and only picked up the pace in 2021 when they realised Keynesian economic support from public funds was fully needed. Still, a failure to support free Covid testing kits in 2021 was a blow to their reputation, as was an early ending of a generous job support program and the shutting of international borders rather than allowing a bit more more travel with strict quarantine for essential trips, in a nation of migrants.

My sector, higher education, was absolutely gutted by border closures. There are lectures and professors, one extremely famous, living in the street. International students could not come to Australia. Meanwhile, universities were excluded from national job support packages! Still not clear why, and my reading of events from the porch was punctuated by unbelieving anguish as the government, or universities, announced new draconian policies one after the other. Our universities are poorly funded by government at the best of times so scarcely ‘public‘, very neoliberal, and reliant on international student fees. The Covid pandemic meant they panicked about falling income, and instituted rapid cost savings, destroying careers, jobs, disciplines and Departments in the process. Some, like UWA, are continuing these programs, allegedly to make themselves more ‘resilient’ to shocks in a business sense rather than defending their staff at all costs [as I would have done] perhaps with some low interest loans. Our academic staff, not the VCs paid over $1m a year, are the lifeblood of a university and they cannot be swept aside. But they have been, and 40,000 academics and associated personnel have lost their jobs in Australia. University managers also took the opportunity to trim programs and units they did not like anyway, we suspect. I spent months defending colleagues and resisting restructuring online and in petitions, all futile.

The pandemic taught me why I have stayed being an educator and researcher for almost 30 years. To chase facts and fight for justice, using knowledge gained. To pass on defensible knowledge, and to give people skills to do so themselves and to realise their dreams. Another problem in Melbourne and across Australia was that scholars and trained personnel were up against bizarre scientific theories that also circulated on the internet, that the virus was either made up, or not dangerous, and people should be allowed to do what they like, rather than respect public health orders. Some Aussies claimed, following fabricated QAnon and other theories, that it was all a conspiracy. I am not sure any of these people ever received relevant training at a university. These theories endure even after the US election on November 3, 2020 where Trump, the great bullish denier and ambivalent supporter of public health measures against Covid, was ousted. Mass hysteria began to subside a little, in the US and Australia, after the shocking invasion of US Congress on January 6, 2021 and later into that year.

Locally, Dan Andrews got plenty of death threats for his commitment to lockdowns and other restrictions. Especially in 2021, we saw stupid protests about ‘freedom’, countering mask wearing, vaccinations and other mandates. People got infected at anti-vax protests, with a virus that obviously did exist. Perhaps another side of the individualistic streak increasingly seen in our city, stoked by mainly right wing opportunists and various dark web conspirators with time on their hands. I never met these people, some of whom are nasty, except once after a protest, but I devoured the images and stories in the newspapers, trying to fathom how they could ignore factual scientific evidence, and breach democratic codes of peaceful protest. [some friends refused all vaccines, but at least they mainly stayed at home]. Even unionised construction workers got involved, when they were chastised for not wearing masks or respecting distance rules on site and during breaks, and Andrews shut down the Melbourne industry for weeks. Those were ugly times. The Djokovic incident in 2022 again brought worldwide attention to Melbourne, but it was a farce. The world no 1 tennis player at the time, here to compete in the Australian Open, was eventually kicked out of the country for not being vaccinated. He was briefly placed in the Park Hotel, right near my office, where Serbian flags of his supporters were mixed with other protesters still angry that genuine asylum seekers who have been there for many months and years longer are stilled trapped there. Djokovic complained about his hotel room, while his asylum seeker neighbours have not seen the sun or rain for months in most cases.

9) Welcome to the Virocene The term comes from Jude Fernando. Fernando suggests the Virocene is an epoch, so severe that it is changing global social interactions, political economies, and perceptions of risk and security. While some profit from it, class and racial divides are magnified. One real impact of Covid I followed was the referendum held in New Caledonia-Kanaky on 12 Dec 2021, a place I work and have visited many times. NC is a non-decolonised Pacific territory still part of France. An outbreak of Covid in late 2021 became deeply enmeshed in island geopolitics. It led to supporters of independence, the topic of the referendum, to call for a delay to the referendum date. This was the third and final chance at independence . The grounds were that so many indigenous Kanak had died that the customary mourning rites means they could not go to the polls, or campaign, out of respect for those they had lost. They pleaded with France to change the date, but it refused. These Virocene impacts warped politics on the archipelago, meant the referendum results were meaningless, and have created a political stalemate.

10) Recovery, and looking forward : weakly and strongly. I am still found on the porch, but less often these days. Even the cat has made it indoors so there are less menacing glances to passing small dogs on leads. Locally, the visits to the neighbours by tradespeople and delivery companies have subsided a little. Our messy house is looking a bit clearer, suggesting our motivation to clear it up is now better than during lockdown.

Prices of everything, here in a rich country with a high cost of living, have risen, partly in response to the toll of the late 2021-early 2022 Omicron variant on businesses and logistics.

House prices have really escalated, to insane levels. Richer members of society that I know or observe seem to have kept their jobs, or at least incomes. Schools and even higher education have reopened, although with many restrictions and new government edicts, including a hastily ‘job ready’ university fee realignment in 2020 to favour studying degrees in the disciplines the national Cabinet like best [by reducing the fees for STEM, and raising them for HASS of course]. As Raewyn Connell says, in her ‘notes from the sidelines of catastrophe‘, the worst set of government policies on higher education in decades.

But the pandemic has interpellated with odd forces. Capitalism has survived of course, somewhat dented by other factors like sanctions imposed by an aggressive China on Australia. The major authoritarian regimes are still in place, globally. The pandemic did not oust them. Hopes of a better world, ‘building back better’, in pronouncements many made in 2020, seem dashed in that respect. Global CO2 levels dropped but are rising again , even though many affluent people seem to have retreated from their obsessive desire to be hypermobile and to travel the world for non-essential reasons. Perhaps that is a sort of adaptive response to the pandemic, with a positive effect on climate change. Maybe we are just using more local energy instead tnough, to support the global IT architecture we are so much more reliant on for homeworking and deliveries. Hoped-for consumption and material throughput reductions, and degrowth, are rapidly disappearing.

The world is still crazier than any time I can remember since the late 1960s, and now Putin has invaded Ukraine, destabilising the world order. Covid hardly received a mention in the news about the invasion.

But the pandemic will be very hard to forget. Unless you are a cat.

* [non-Australians may not know that the country has a mixed view about cats, which were introduced predators, and can kill endangered small marsupial native wildlife if not closely monitored and fed regularly. Conservationists want them banned or kept indoors. ]

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Session on publishing in Political Ecology – four editors

POLLEN political Ecology conference, 26 September 2020. Scroll down for the video. If the link doesn’t work, you can still log in if you have a password for the conference.

https://event.pollen2020.exordo.com/session/55/the-politics-and-challenges-of-publishing-in-political-ecology

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Labour of Love: an Open Access Manifesto for freedom, integrity, and creativity in the humanities and interpretive social sciences

I contributed to this Manifesto, kindly coordinated by Andrea Pia at the London School of Economics. I guess we are calling for a revolution in a small area of academic practice. Much discussion happening on social media about this, nonetheless.

Andrea E Pia, Simon Batterbury, Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi, Marcel LaFlamme, Gerda Wielander, Filippo M Zerilli, Melissa Nolas, Jon Schubert, Nicholas Loubere, Ivan Franceschini, Casey Walsh, Agathe Mora, Christos Varvantakis. 2020. Labour of Love: an Open Access Manifesto for freedom, integrity, and creativity in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, Commonplace  https://doi.org/10.21428/6ffd8432.a7503356

We are a group of scholar-publishers based in the humanities and social sciences who are questioning the fairness and scientific tenability of a system of scholarly communication dominated by large commercial publishers. With this Manifesto we wish to repoliticise Open Access to challenge existing rapacious practices in academic publishing—namely, often invisible and unremunerated labour, toxic hierarchies of academic prestige, and a bureaucratic ethos that stifles experimentation—and to bear witness to the indifference they are predicated upon. We mobilise an extended notion of research output, which encompasses the work of building and maintaining the systems, processes, and relations of production that make scholarship possible. We believe that the humanities and social sciences are too often disengaged from the public and material afterlives of their scholarship. We worry that our fields are sleepwalking into a new phase of control and capitalisation, to include continued corporate extraction of value and transparency requirements designed by managers, entrepreneurs, and politicians. We fervently believe that OA can be a powerful tool to advance the ends of civil society and social movements. But opening up the products of our scholarship without questioning how this is done, who stands to profit from it, what model of scholarship is being normalised, and who stands to be silenced by this process may come at a particularly high cost for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

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Political ecology and the Australian bushfires (2019-2020)

Batterbury SPJ. 2020. Political ecology in, and of, the Australian bushfires. On Undisciplined Environments  site
https://undisciplinedenvironments.org/2020/02/11/political-ecology-in-and-of-the-australian-bushfires/

I wrote this having been around in SE Australia during this harrowing time, and to offer some thoughts for the global audience.

 

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Thoughts on life in Lancaster, UK 2017-2019

Since I often write about the places I have lived, I thought it was a good idea to write about the two and a half years I spent in Lancaster, UK. This entry touches on the highs and lows of this period of life, without mentioning any names or too much detail.  I am prepared for some of these comments to annoy a few academics   (some of whom probably deserved it, some not)  and townsfolk, or to be taken locally as criticisms from a ‘Southerner’ who resided fleetingly in the North of England. But although I grew up in London, I spent most of my adult life outside the UK. These days I am actually 16,000km south, in Melbourne Australia. And, for those academics still in search of a paying job, I probably seem very lucky.

From Jan 2017 to June 2019 I was based in Lancaster UK, as a Professor at Lancaster University. For someone who is slow to embrace change in middle age, this was a big move. I had spent the previous 14 years teaching in Melbourne, Australia, own a house there, and we (my wife, son and I) were well settled.  The last time I had worked full time in the UK was in 2001, when I left the London School of Economics to work in Tucson, Arizona. I did, however grow up in the UK, and I have parents, sister, and nephews there.

I attended a job interview in Lancaster in January 2016, in the middle of a cold winter. The city was recovering from a major flood a month and a half earlier, that took out the electricity substation and plunged parts of the city, and the University, into darkness until temporary generators were installed by the Army.  Having not seen my father for a while, he joined me in Lancaster and we looked around the city. Evidence of the flood was patchy, and we enjoyed the city with its shopping streets arranged in a cross, surrounded by the ring road that partly follows old city walls. Lancaster Castle has an interesting history [starting as a Roman fort, then built over, hosting the Pendle Witch trials in 1612, a women’s prison until 2011, a courtroom, etc. ] and the oldest streets, and the Priory, surround it. Much earlier, this city featured in the ‘War of the Roses’  – the  House of Lancaster was associated with a red rose, and the House of York, a white one. They battled roughly between 1455 and 1487. Apparently there are echoes in the drama series Game of Thrones, which I have never watched. To the east Williamson Park was stunning with its views west over the Lake District [photos below], the rather-too-close  nuclear power station at Heysham,  and masses of maritime wind turbines were visible stretching from Barrow to North Wales. The park, the Priory and Castle, and a few other historic buildings suggested a level of past affluence [Baron Ashton who commissioned the park, had wealth from manufacturing]. Lancaster was also the ‘4th port’  in Britain’s triangular slave trade with West Africa and the Americas.  The city was cold – this was January – despite the maritime position, only 5km from the west coast of England. 

Lancaster University does not have such a long heritage. It dates from the late 1960s on its site 4km to the south of town, without a train station, and it is often viewed only by people passing north and south on the M6 motorway or by train. During my interview we stayed just off campus. It was the same campus I had once visited in 1981, when I was retaking my Geography A level at a crammer college in London, and at that time Lancaster offered me a conditional place on a geography undergrad degree. I did not take it up. The professor who interviewed me back then had, understandably, retired by 2016 (although I got to know him recently). The campus is on a hill, accessed via a cycle path that takes a detour around the Vice Chancellor’s garden (I don’t drive to work, so the detour got to be annoying – it may be fixed soon as they finish the health campus extension). Since 1981 it has changed a lot with many new buildings. The ducks are still everywhere. The central, rather bland, concrete Alex Square, is still the heart of the campus but the number and quality of buildings has increased considerably including a centre devoted to the life and work of John Ruskin, an information technology centre with a restaurant that has a nice southerly view, a wooden creative design building (LICA), and new residence halls.  There is a wind turbine on top of the hill, the other side of the M6. The ‘spine’ linking the buildings was the subject of a drawn-out rebuilding project in 2017-18, finally looking better when done but the project was agonising to experience with up to 12,000 people trying to get to classes and meetings via detours. The reputation of the university is good, one of the top 20 in the UK by most measures. Although it is a ‘research university’ by any standard, the focus on undergraduate teaching is equal or in reality, greater, particularly because this pays most of the bills, especially since student fees were instituted in the UK replacing government block grants [the current full fees started in 2012–13]. The university seemed affable and welcoming, especially viewed against the larger and rather more elite institution I had been at in Australia.  By the time I finished the interview and arrived back home again, I was offered the Lancaster job. This was a great surprise and my family and we talked about it at length. In the end, my desire to round out a long-ish career as full professor, in a tailored role in my field (political ecology), got the better of me and I accepted the offer.  The family committed to one year in Lancaster, after my wife visited with me in mid 2016. With elderly parents and other relatives in the UK, I saw this fulfilling personal and professional aims. I set off from Melbourne with great hope in January 2017, on my own, straight into teaching.

Decades (actually, 17 years) away from a regular job in the UK had not prepared me for this return to the country. Many things were familiar [the supermarkets, the high train fares, regional accents that change about every 60km, decent newspapers and radio, M&S with its nice prepared food in hard plastic containers]. But now the nation was paralysed by Brexit, of which more later. I had also forgotten, or chosen to forget (from my 8 years spent teaching in British universities long ago) the numerous ‘systems’ now controlling teaching and research.  Other differences: in my previous roles in the UK, based in London at two universities, I was at a different stage of life. I had been pretty successful with publications and grants, and I was a popular teacher.  I was in my 30s then, had plenty of energy, no children, and was unmarried. I held simultaneous research grants in remote West Africa and in London while also completing a PhD in the first years. While at Brunel and the LSE I lived in Ealing and Harrow, and became quite involved in the local community. National research and teaching audit exercises had barely entered higher education back then. The degradation of pay, against rising cost of living that everybody experiences in the UK universities today,  had not yet set in. Payments into a university pension plan were secure [they are less so, now and there was a 14 day national strike about this in 2018].

Arriving in Lancaster so many years later, many things were different in the university environment, aside from the geography. I was older, for one thing, and I had to learn on the job. This was not a huge hardship, but it did provide interesting comparisons. Fortunately my initial work obligation was teaching a class where I could largely build on what I had been doing in Melbourne, so rewriting lectures was manageable. This cannot be a discussion of my views of working conditions, but the strangest thing (to me), was that I was not allowed to completely manage my own teaching, even as a new Professor and head of a research group and with 26 years of teaching experience. Teaching was controlled by people on two  teaching committees and by a number of rules.   I was very used to directing my own syllabus, assessments, and sometimes asking students what content that would like to add to a class, at the beginning of the semester. No such luck in the UK. For my own class I had to use last year’s agreed assessments set by a different lecturer. Assessment included an exam. I was horrified: I do not use exams. They freak out the students, make grading drag on into the summer break, and test what you can put down in two essays in two hours from a short list of questions vetted by other lecturers. Not until the third year of teaching this class could I get all of this changed, which the students of course appreciated. I should say that the British lecturers found all this quite normal and it is because of university and national teaching quality measures that increased oversight of what lecturers get up to in recent years [although with some negative effects – odd ‘quality control’ and the financial imperatives seem to have led to  too many 1sts and 2is given in the UK for example].  But it caused me sleepless nights.

On arrival I was very kindly lent a flat in the Castle Hill area, struggled to learn the various online teaching management packages that were completely new to me, and tried my best to settle into a totally new environment with two bags of belongings and a folding bike. In February I moved into a strange flat in Greaves Park which had nice high ceilings, in the back of an 1840s country house, which is used as offices (pic.).

parkfield lodge

Parkfield Lodge, Greaves Park, Lancaster. [driveway] I lived in a flat on the right. Entire large building sold for £320,000 in 2018! Housing is cheap.

This was February and it was freezing cold. Using my bike, I set about trying to find some furniture. I never found the right shops – ending up in Morecambe Market, where Steve sorted me out. The Market is an emblem for Austerity Britain- the food stall selling out-of-date stuff is a treasure.  I only discovered the secondhand furniture places in Lancaster later. It was pretty cold and two months later I was still barricaded in my bedroom with the radiators on, watching moisture drip down the back wall. Thermal inefficiency, not great when you are an environmental researcher.

At work, I gradually got the measure of the huge department I was in.  I already knew, geography [my original discipline] had been folded into a wider entity,  some years ago. This had occasioned a few retirements or resignations but it became part of one of the largest environmental centres in Europe, which is a good thing, as well as the largest department at the University. In 2017 many of the new colleagues were friendly, but not so much among most of the natural scientists and their students. They were not unfriendly, but we just had little in common academically and some of them had been there for years already, and had their own networks. This is a classic problem in universities, and I am a lapsed/non-scientist, on the other side of CP Snow’s ‘two cultures‘.

A digression on working in interdisciplinary settings. Lancaster operates a campus in Accra, Ghana and there was a lot of research and teaching taking place there, before and after I arrived. I am not a well known researcher on African cropping systems, but I do have years of research in West African rural communities, from a PhD in Burkina and ran a big research project in Niger. These led me to be pretty sceptical about the import of Western agritech innovations, like new crop varieties, to Africa without considerable forethought and with input from farmers. These might produce more crop yield in the lab, and some under field conditions, but as the anthropologist Paul Richards reminds us, they rarely adapt well to the social and economic environment of a semi-subsistence African village, where labour requirements, social norms, indigenous innovation, and gender relations determine what can be grown and where, in varying micro-environments. Those issues and behaviours have been developed over centuries, are quite remarkable, and exist despite constraints on crop production being considerable. Changing photosensitivity or improved pest resistance of plants bred in modern labs is essentially unimportant for farmers if the crop does not fit within local labour patterns and gender relations. Painstaking research is needed to work out these contexts – we could call it ‘technography’ as Richards does, or ‘Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) thinking’ as others do, or the ‘political ecology of agriculture’.  It should be part of trialling every scientific innovation but it is often skipped, scanted or deemed to be somebody else’s job. I have spent much of my research career illustrating how much better farmers are at managing harsh environments, than some scientists give them credit for, following the work of Mike Mortimore and others. I also challenge another myth – what Andy Stirling calls ‘incumbent’ approaches to innovation. We don’t have a ‘food security crisis’ if our global food surpluses were better distributed – it’s an access to food question in the countries I know, not a ‘need to produce more’ problem at this stage, assuming good distribution and overcoming power inequalities [a big problem to work on]. Agribusiness is not necessarily the friend of the poor and vulnerable, either, and ag science often  supports commercial operators de-facto without delving into this issue. Agribusinesses can afford to buy seeds, and take over land, better than semi-subsistence farmers.

I know, and I found, this type of talk is not popular among plant biologists, of the type that don’t consider such ethical issues or do such fieldwork. Why a failure to engage with basic and proven issues that determine whether lab research will be taken up? Or, why not follow through how seeds and plants are actually absorbed into and used in social systems? The failure to consider this point upset me on a few occasions – eg presenting to a less than sympathetic audience at an N8 AgriFood meeting.  And again when I was not invited to particularly crucial meetings in my department-lots of other junior and senior people were.  I’m not much of a lone worker, able to be head down and ignoring what is going on down the corridor, and a lot of it was plant biology.  I probably needed, if I had stayed around longer, to try to rescue my situation by securing funding for work on agricultural innovations that crossed from seeds to people and into the important social questions. But I guess none of this would have been well received. 

Really, just different priorities and philosophies at play. The problem of finding like-minded people was not insurmountable since the Dept.  also contained some friendly people including some stellar social scientists, with a different social circle.  And, a good group of those across campus in other departments – Lancaster was the home of John Urry who founded the Mobilities Paradigm [he sadly passed away before I arrived], Brian Wynne, and Andrew Sayer and Bob Jessop are still teaching. The Institute for Social Futures, established by Urry, still meets regularly and has core support. It’s not so big on the sort of work I do, but every university should have something similar.  When I joined Lancaster I soon realised our particular grouping on political ecology was better known outside the university than within [and our teaching was popular]. In debate about planetary and environmental matters in the UK, we were often listened to, but in internal university issues,  less so. Investment in hiring me [and appointing a successor in 2019], as well as some internal promotions and successes, were welcome exceptions to this. But I was hired in part to introduce some change and to raise the profile of social sciences in the light of various environmental emergencies. Sadly I am not sure I really managed that, for research or for teaching. 

Regular life for me in Lancaster revolved around very hard work in term time, less so in the vacations but still full time. On research, there were plenty of grants to apply for, more than when I left the UK in 2001, but unfortunately none of my/our applications  were successful  [long story – one was, apparently but without me, and another I had to leave and it later won E1.3m!]. I went to Ghana to start some new work on supporting small farmers – first time back in West Africa since 2001- and spent a lot of time editing work for the Journal of Political Ecology , writing, and helping on other tasks including managing the Lancaster Political Ecology research group and a lot of refereeing of articles, assessing job candidates, PhDs  and promotions. Some of this took me to London, Cambridge, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands, and I felt like a real European academic for the first time in decades. That was one of the attractions of leaving my comfortable 10sq km of Melbourne – to treat Lancaster as a European town.

I spent all but one year in the city on my own. I moved house once, to a small terraced house with a less than helpful landlord, when the building in Greaves Park was repossessed and changed hands. I went into town every day, and discovered three places to hang around and eat and drink coffee – the Hall [in an old chapel with distressed chic features, and quite high-end for Lancaster], the Whale Tail vegetarian café above the organic shop, Single Step, and Roots Café, which did not survive into 2019. Brew Cafe was doing well when I left. Paul from Brittany sold his crépes in the market and provided French conversation. Having visited one place or the other, there was shopping to do at the twice weekly market or a supermarket, and some cycling – to the seafront at Morecambe for example. The Bowland Fells behind the town to the East defeated me on my small folding bike. I did not have all that much else to do in town. Staff at the university had their social networks and much younger families too. Some lived further afield. I also spent many weekends visiting my elderly parents elsewhere in the UK, travelling for up to 6 hours each way to do so.

from williamson parkview from williamson 2

williamson 3

Images of and from Williamson Park, Lancaster. Unfortunately I lost all of mine, so these are from Tripadvisor and https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/512777107566794786/

I  should have helped out at the local community farm, but somehow never got there.  I did not participate much in three of the local pastimes – going to the pub [almost never, as a non-drinker], going Fell walking [almost never, and when I did, I fell and cracked a rib], and I have never taken any interest in supporting sports of any sort.  I remember hearing shouting coming from up and down the street in 2018, and realised England was playing a crucial game in the World Cup. The sports thing was a conscious decision when starting out as an academic, trying to save time for other activities, and it has proven resistant to change except when my son is competing. He was not there initially. I was not in any school social networks until we established those between Sept 2017-18 at the Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

The townsfolk were diverse in some ways, not in others. The  Lancastrians had grown up in the place, had distinct Lancastrian accents, and could handle the [often dreadful] weather and enjoyed the local culture. Of course they are a diverse bunch of people, but all are linked into social networks and local places. They complained a little less than the in-movers like me about various meteorological and economic issues. For example when rain or ice makes outdoor tennis at the club impossible, they travel 30km to Preston to play indoors! Between Lancaster proper and Morecambe across the river, the data show majority Conservative voters [Morecambe side] and majority Labour [Lancaster] even though Morecambe is much poorer. The views about Brexit are generally, but not exclusively, divided along the same political lines, despite Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s well known dislike of Europe. I discuss the stats below, but they need a finer-grained analysis. A widely quoted statistic is that Lancaster is 94-95% white, confirmed by the latest census from 2011. But there was certainly an important girl’s Islamic school and some people of colour, although few in the general population. There was a particular subgroup of local residents, progressive in their political and social opinions, with which I had affinity. They worked in various social roles, including at a community farm, as Quakers, in local NGOs and associations, in support to refugees and with asylum seekers. Great people and many chose to live in Lancaster. Just up the river in Halton is a communal housing project of some renown that has 5* energy rated housing, and generates electricity via a weir and solar.  I joined a small project fixing up used bikes for refugees in Lancaster – this proved successful and rewarding, and we met right through the dark winter months to restore and mend bicycles for people that needed them. I have done a fair bit of research on such altruistic things before and since, and it was nice to connect to this initiative.

It was apparent after 6 months in Lancaster that political divisions were founded in part on basic economic differences – although nobody from Lancaster would say they were  any worse off in terms of class or income divisions than other northern British towns, I suspect. The presence of two universities, and a large hospital meant several hundred or more highly skilled professional jobs. And 14,000 students with their spending power, present for about 8 months a year. As well as some local resentment towards them of course, among the majority non-university affiliated population.

There is much more to Lancaster – it has a small arts, music and theatre scene with decent venues. Campaigns on various social and environmental issues are frequent. And a few festivals. But the differences in political attitudes, levels of educational attainment, social class, and wealth were clear, and the unemployment rate high, particularly on the Morecambe side of the river [good article on Morecambe and Brexit, Nov 2019]. The political divisions were clear from the results of the various local and European elections I participated in during my time in the city. I had come from an inner Melbourne suburb with voting for the Greens above 25%, massive gentrification, and over-inflated property prices. Citizen activism was very high, and the population increasingly multicultural. In Lancaster, Greens only performed well in the local elections, and housing seemed extraordinary cheap. A good sized 3 bed house was much less than the price of a Melbourne studio flat. There was no gentrification at all that I could see, and plenty of vacancies on the High Street.

The culprit was ‘British austerity‘ which afflicted those reliant on any form of government support, and some not so reliant as well, as economic downturns also ate into retail spending, economic regeneration, etc. Austerity involved a dramatic and deliberate reduction in central government funding to local authorities and councils [the ‘local state’] after the global financial crisis of 2007-8, and this region was still struggling under this regime. Austerity was manifested as potholes in the local roads, zero budget for progressive infrastructure like bike lanes, no money to improve recycling [no recycling of plastic trays for example, even though there is a recycling plant elsewhere in Lancashire!], reductions in social services, and closed council-run public facilities [but the city museum and libraries did stay open]. Support for community endeavours had been reduced. Lancaster was by no means the worst – Morecambe has struggled economically for decades, as have other Lancashire towns like Fleetwood and Preston, and north into Cumbria. As an expat I had not really experienced austerity to this degree in a Western country. The last time I lived in the UK was in Wendover, Bucks for a few months in 2011 where it was not really so obvious in a wealthy village. During the GFC in 2007,  I was also in the UK – as a Fellow at ECI, University of Oxford and I was given a flat, rent free and surrounded by wealth. And I grew up in London, somewhat shielded from the 1970s economic disputes and strikes. So I was ill prepared, and the state of the North in 2017 was certainly different.

Politically, the country and the region were convulsed by Brexit discussions. Virtually no British academics supported Brexit. We tend to be international in outlook, and anti- or certainly less nationalist than many. I found myself on my own at home, listening to Radio 4 and the evening roundup of news from Westminster, shouting with disbelief in the kitchen and into the woodland behind the house. It was truly unbelievable; the Conservative party betrayals, Machiavellian political manoeuvres, the abject failure of the opposition Labour Party to commit to a pro-Europe stance or a second referendum, and the continual trotting out of Brexit being the ‘will of the people’ – as if the majority of voters and non-voters had made a rational decision and had a clue at the time about multi-layered governance or economic realities and trade imbalances. The conflation between Conservative party politics, as they still selfishly seek to make sure they are electable,  and the life-and nation-changing Brexit decision, is agonising. As I write [2019], there has been no advancement of the UK leaving the EU, the only credible plan having been formulated by Theresa May who is no longer Prime Minister, ousted by her own party, with her deal rejected three times in the Commons. Brussels dug its heels in. The virulent ‘leavers’ like Boris Johnson – now Prime Minister and an untrustworthy erratic right wing nationalist who just suspended parliament to avoid dissent –  and Naab, I have no time for at all. I have no faith that the UK will survive fine without the EU, and the economists tell us it will not. Symbolically, the efforts to leave the EU and claim ‘sovereignty’ appear to me to be, in reality,  xenophobic nationalism, and the referendum in 2016 saw many voting ‘out’ on Europe only because they were opposed to David Cameron’s form of conservatism and the poor living conditions they were suffering under Austerity.  Many of these being working class people without any or with few ties to continental Europe. They made their vote for Brexit one of protest about existing conditions in the UK, which were particularly bad outside the major metropolitan areas [which all voted to Remain] and certainly across much of Northern England. [However in numerical terms, Brexit was won by older and richer Southerners, Prof. Danny Dorling suggests]

As a student of New Caledonian politics in the francophone Pacific, I knew something about referendums on independence. These islands have three chances to vote on full independence from France, not just one [the first vote in 2018 resulted in a decision to remain with France, but by quite a small margin]. This is clearly what the UK needed – more than one try, or a different flagfall percentage. In sum, being in a small city with a strong regional identity and quite a considerable Brexit vote [Lancaster city probably voted Remain but just, although lumped in with Fleetwood – constituency vote was 51% leave, but Morecambe and Lunesdale 58% leave] gave me an appreciation of political events that I would not have got in London or the economically dominant South East. It also made me resentful.  I got to hear long diatribes about Europe and what it was costing Britain – from people who had scarcely been across the Channel. Claims of ‘immigrants’ taking jobs, must have referred to the small numbers of Polish, Eastern Europeans including Albanians and Romanians,  Turks, and others who have settled in the region (in the last census, Lancaster had around 8-9% born outside the UK, but that would include Ireland and other Northern Europeans and some transitory students). There were 2 Polish shops in Lancaster, then 1 by 2018 [perhaps reflecting departures]. This was not a region of mass immigration. So none of the rants made much sense to me. There were, anyway,  few jobs in the region that a recent immigrant could take.

When my son went to LRGS we found it was the school that my wife’s father had attended in the 1930s [he left to Naval College, and became a young Naval Commander at the end of WWII]. In national terms LRGS is very good state school for able students [and free]. It is not an ‘alternative’ type of school.  Several students from diverse backgrounds make it on to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge if they want to, there is a lot of after-school activity in sport and music, and a range of pupils including some from wealthier backgrounds. The boarding facilities are for students from out of the catchment, some from other countries, and they pay a boarding fee.  In 2019 it became co-ed in the 6th form. Families relocate to its catchment area and also for the Girl’s Grammar School down the hill in town.  My son, once he got over the shock of wearing a uniform and the stricter school regime than in Australia, performed in music events, as well as sport and rugby in particular.  The rugby teacher assumed he could play rugby because of his build and Australian background  – but actually there is almost no rugby in Melbourne, which is an AFL city and the home of that game! Rugby matches were sometimes cancelled at LRGS because of  ‘frozen ground’ – schools do not compete when the pitch is actually frozen, and this was a real problem in the winter of 2017-18. His rugby team came second in the region and he did very well in athletics, once boarding a coach for what he thought was a trip to a local competition, not knowing place names, and ending up competing and winning in Gateshead several hours drive away near Newcastle. Had we stayed, I think he would have remained at the school, and probably done well.

My wife and I attended, at various times, adult education classes in French, and choirs, opening up new avenues. No complaints there, and we made some friends along the way. We also visited my wife’s relatives, in Bridlington, York and the south east, and entertained a few visitors, one of whom, her cousin, took to Lancaster and came several times. But in late 2018 my small family had left again for good, and gone back to Melbourne. My son wanted to complete high school in Australia where the majority of his friends were, and my wife had had enough of the cold and wet winters [they really got her down], and could not find any work. They do not do ‘spousal hires’ in UK universities, at least not at Lancaster.  The reasoning is that the country is small enough to find work elsewhere. But in reality Lancaster was too far from major sources of jobs except Manchester, and she had tried three times in my Department for positions where she was extremely well qualified, but was unsuccessful, for unknown reasons. This is the reason some universities, in the US for example, offer meaningful assistance to spouses and partners looking for work. But maybe that is only for the ‘superstars’ in the UK. Finally I decided in early 2019, with all of this going on, I would return to Melbourne, taking a demotion to do so – a highly unusual thing among academics, who almost universally aim for promotions to full professor if they possibly can – the top position symbolically and in terms of pay and stability. I am not expecting any sympathy here, but ‘job vs. family’ decisions can be hard.

I sold up what I could of my belongings in May 2019, and gradually emptied the house over a month, with many useful and saleable things going to the local charity hospice shop or the council collection scheme.  So a lot of stuff was recycled into the local economy. A hybrid Honda went to a relative. Nine sacks of stuff I could not rehouse were left outside for the bin men when I closed the door and posted the key through the letterbox. I left with my two bags at the end of May, having worked really hard to complete all the teaching and administrative parts of the job. I actually spent a huge amount of time on this in the last few months, and taught a lot too. I taught only about 240 students in my time there, but I found the majority to be willing to learn, and a few have been in touch since.

General thoughts

Lancaster is a good town. It is cheap to live in by British standards, you can walk to all services – shops, doctor, sports facilities, and so-on. It has most of what people need, despite many vacant shop fronts. It has the best arts and music in the region. The countryside around, if you are interested in that, is very beautiful, although often wet and cold. Houses are cheap. You can be in the Lake District in 40 mins by train or car, and see it from the top of the town every day. But this is not a cosmopolitan, metropolitan place as I was more used to. I am very happy [for the people of Lancaster] that there are 2 universities there. This increases the human diversity, spending power, the range of cultures, and ideas and human capital.  When the students are not around in summer for example, the town is much poorer for it. And there is a population of refugees and asylum seekers, several of whom I got to know and who exist in a liminal state of uncertainty and without enough resources. They are supported, although less by the government in Westminster than by compassionate organisations and local people.

It has a culture that is ‘northern’ – this is hard to capture. My grandparents were ‘northern’ but chose to leave the region so I never grew up there: although most of my wife’s family identify with the North or were born there. People are less ‘precious’ than in more affluent parts of the UK, generally less wealthy [although not so in cities like York and Harrogate], and perhaps more stoical – a useful characteristic as the UK self-destructs under appalling self-centered leadership and political infighting and as it hurtles towards economic disaster by leaving Europe. There is a definite scepticism about London’s dominance of almost everything. Lancaster takes some work to settle into, as an outsider with absolutely no existing contacts, and I found I would need a few more years – partly because I worked in an environment where you had to build up your own networks – which I was expected to do in the office environment since I was actually a Professor and head of a group.  And partly because I am not from the North-West – in my life I had never even been to Blackpool, once one of the the country’s greatest holiday resorts,  and I had been to Manchester, the nearest big city, only twice!  I realised the community work I did, with the bike project, largely involved working with people who were born and raised somewhere else and with broad horizons. At the university, almost everybody I got to know came from somewhere else  .

As for British universities, of course ones like Lancaster are world standard and do very well – I think Lancaster is in the world top 150 in most ‘rankings’, whatever they are based on. Its teaching is much better than richer and more prestigious British universities, as recognised in various national surveys [in 2018 it was awarded a Gold teaching award, unlike some much more established institutions]. The students wrote much better essays than at the University of Melbourne where I teach a very similar 3rd year class. But this is achieved by a truly enormous amount of hard work by the teaching/research staff, that in some departments and disciplines, is not sustainable and not always that enjoyable, partly because it is over-managed [Prof Ailsa Henderson on this point for University of Edinburgh here – give us back our authority!] and time-consuming for some [my own teaching was do-able, at least when the family were not with me].  British academics and their managers blame the government for progressively winding back support to higher education ever since the time of Mrs Thatcher’s attack on the sector [she removed tenure, for example]. And for making them compete with each other for students. Students blame the government and the universities for instituting high compulsory student fees of over £9,000 a year. There is no way that academic’s pay has kept pace with the cost of living, although somewhat miraculously, most Lancaster academics can actually afford to buy a house on their salaries, which cannot be said for many other parts of the UK. 

Although my job was almost manageable in a 40 hour week [OK let’s call it 50], my particular gripe is with metrics and markets entering university life – and these are shared with Australia where I have written about higher education. It is easy, faced with ‘quality of teaching’ and ‘quality of research’ assessment exercises,  pressure to recruit students and turn around huge loads of marking, to forget about what academic jobs are really supposed to be about – ideas, invention, passion, knowledge, imparting information and skills and wisdom, in my case social and environmental justice, and ‘affirmative’ research.  Not trying and failing to publish in ‘4 star’ journal outlets, maximising journal citations, preparing for the national REF and the TQF etc., fighting for grant money, getting promoted very quickly, and dancing to the metrics of an audit culture. This mentality places an emphasis on staff performance, rather than staff satisfaction; it leads to competition between institutions instead of cooperation; and it ends up making many people miserable. My employers did try to reduce the effects of the metrification of academic life, within the budget constraint of needing to keep up the hours devoted to teaching and student support and committee work. They still valued ‘research grant income overheads’ from grants very highly [I won none, so I got no reduction in workload to compensate – only 20% of my time was officially allocated for research in 2018-9!], and there was stereotypical praise of course for ‘publishing in Science and Nature‘, the two top  science journals in the world. The social scientists were deeply cynical about this sort of thing. I have often argued that there should be university prizes for conducting research with no funding at all, and for publishing ethically, which means in outlets that are free of corporate control and open access to the public. I think many colleagues in science thought I was, quite simply, crazy on these two points.

My thoughts on ‘belonging’ more generally, having not really found a place in Lancaster, should probably to be told another time. I will not say anything more about the highs and lows of the place. Even if you contact me. There are really no answers to what makes people belong in a place. Elsewhere on this blog I have already told of my dissatisfaction with where I grew up, and where I went to university.  I was also happy to leave the US, where I lived for about 8 years in total.  I left West Africa early in 1993, because I was quite ill – I would have stayed longer. I loved Brussels. And West London, but I can’t manage the air pollution in London’s city centre anymore.

I arrived back in Melbourne in June 2019.  I might just ‘belong’ there the most, and I managed to get my old job back, but not under better conditions than when I left.  I returned with some misgivings. I hold Australian citizenship and can vote, but I am not proud of the country’s leadership, general intolerance, environmental record, and its reliance on exploiting its natural resources [JM Coetzee on Australia’s Shame]. Its public universities are hardly that anymore. Melbourne is a growing,  expensive global city of 4m.  I did not leave Lancaster on a sour note, and former colleagues were supportive. My job was re-advertised and has apparently been filled. The fate of the nation, Led By Donkeys [worth clicking]  in which the university and the town sits, however, is currently hanging in the balance.

2020: and then there was Covid-19….British mismanagement of Covid, many deaths….furloughs and financial problems at both universities due to lack of International students….  

March 2022: I managed to return for three days on a nice spring day with no rain. The haunts are still there, the bike project is still running, there is a new bike path across campus and more construction projects, and a new town is planned right close to the university. The town centre and campus now has its students back. 

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Folding bike in Lancaster

https://lancasterdynamo.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/simons-cycle-commuting-story-in-the-lancaster-guardian/

They shortened it

 

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Article on the OEP Master of Environment degree at Melbourne

Batterbury S.P.J.  and M. Toscano. 2018.  Seeking justice through interdisciplinary environmental education at postgraduate level: lessons from Melbourne, Australia. International Journal of Education for Social Justice / Revista Internacional de Educación para la Justicia Social (RIEJS)  7(1): 141-156.

https://revistas.uam.es/riejs/article/view/9583

Masters degrees that offer a broad understanding of environmental issues have been taught in universities since the 1960s. As the problems they address have increased in severity and become global in scale and reach, higher education offerings have flourished accordingly. Today, environmental Masters degrees offer a variety of specializations, are often embedded within university environmental institutes or centers, and they lead thousands of students into environmental careers, as activists, advocates, policymakers, technicians, resource managers, and researchers. They provide an opportunity to understand and critically debate mainstream concepts, like sustainability, the green economy, ecological resilience, environmental services, and good governance. The severity of environmental crises also requires a more radical curriculum: critiques of economic growth (including green growth), social and environmental justice, and the political ecology of unequal access to resources. In light of these complex demands and growing opportunities for environmental programs to address social and environmental justice, we discuss a unique and successful model for interdisciplinary environmental Masters teaching at a large Australian university that has juggled promotion of justice in its program along with meeting financial targets imposed by the neoliberal regime prevalent in Australia’s underfunded higher education sector. The program has a distinctive approach to interdisciplinary learning, permitting a very wide range of student choice, and unified teaching efforts across ten Faculties. This has required agile administration, and strong defense of an unusual approach to the management of environmental pedagogy. The Master of Environment program illustrates how taught postgraduate programs can offer an alternative space for personal, institutional and environmental commitment to social and environmental justice.

 

 

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Will Lancaster University’s Spine project ever be finished?

Between having a job interview at Lancaster University in Jan 2016 and starting work in January 2017, a major engineering project was commissioned – the rebuilding of the central ‘spine’, or outdoor walkway that links the whole campus together, north-south. A 2016 article has it thus: “According to tender documents, the aim is “to remodel and upgrade the Spine to provide a vibrant, light, safe, weather protected route, offering a variety of environments along its length, reinforcing its identity as the main campus thoroughfare”. Rick Mather Architects did the design, and you can see it here on a video. Mather were involved from 2014, tenders were called for in Feb 2016, and building started in July or August 2016.

SCAN-1It was clear that work needed to be done. Parts of the campus are old. Alex Square, in the middle, was already repaved and fixed up some years ago  , but the walkways connecting to it had not been.[we would still like our bike racks back outside the library – nowhere to park one!]

The staff and the students have now been living with this project for almost two years. The Spine has been blocked off, progressively, to allow building works and re-laying of the paving, some of it dating back to the early days of the university (which was founded in 1964 and moved to the current site in ’68).  The overhead canopy (which we have because of rain and snow, not sun) is also being replaced, some with green roofing on top (vegetation, to provide insulation and water retention).

All sounds good, but we are all wondering when the disruption is going to end. After 18 months only two less-frequented bits, at the north end, were finished. Yet the official  web says the project is ending “Spring 2018” [I last looked here on 2 Feb 2018-will they quietly alter it?]. There are frequent diversion notices elsewhere, in and out of buildings and across courtyards.  Despite these, as a new employee, I frequently found myself baffled or lost in the early months – as I have got to know the place, this happens less often. But pity the occasional visitor –  people attending university graduations for example, before Xmas break. There are several lessons for this daily observer, that emerge from the project.

  1. Big projects often overrun. This one has done so. After a year and a half, is is still not possible to walk from one end of the campus to the other. The main Alex Square, the hub of the campus, is blocked off (although partially open, end Jan 18 when I posted this).
  2. Project management needs to be really good. We teach PM on campus. But despite that,  it is not very visible, at least from the point of view of the people using the walkways. How come the main Square entrances, where the majority of the foot traffic goes, weren’t completed early in the project or during university vacations, to avoid disruption? Both, or one or the other, have now been blocked off for months. One person who works in management at the university said to me ‘why can’t they just finish one bit before moving to the next?’ (this applies to the North Spine). In April ’18 they took up the paving they had already laid, outside LEC, to redo it because it wasn’t flat. This must be costing a lot. (photo).

    spine1

    Late April 2018, paving between LEC and Furness. This work was completed months ago, and is now being redone.

  3. Keep everybody fully informed. Diversion signs are ok, but if you issue a notice to all staff and students about a diversion to allow works for X weeks, please get it done in that period. We were somewhat dismayed to hear that there would be 10 weeks of work occurring right during semester 1 of late 2017, on the south Square entrance walkway, when it could have been done much more expediently in the holidays.  Returning to work in January 2018, the barriers were still in place and the semester had started. The diversion page says now says till February, but when? 1 Feb is long gone and the blockage is complete (photo, late April ’18).

    spine2

    South Spine looking North, April 2018. This was supposed to be open end 2017, or Jan 2018.

    There has been no reason given as to why this target has not been met (the effect of bad weather in this part of the world must surely have been factored in already?). No pavers had been by February and there was a big hole, probably to do with fixing the rather poor underground drainage or other utilities which I am sure were in a bad state and needed extra work. So this work at the ‘entrance to ‘south spine’ is going to run and run. The north Square entrance is supposed to be blocked for three weeks – it has already been far longer than that. In April ’18, we also received notice of no access to Furness College, posted at 4.30 pm and starting the next morning!

  4. It is quite likely that contractors may have disagreements with the commissioning agency at some stage on any big project. In this case it was with Lancaster’s Facilities, who were,  the campus gossip said, already exasperated with slow progress.  There was a strike by the contractors in late 2017, eventually resolved but we got no information about why or how. Even during downed tools, though, the walkways were not opened up temporarily to let us through. Even where the blocked bit was safe because they hadn’t really done much there yet. Hard on the business owners up and down the spine, whose takings must be diminished. Further discussion is on the campus subtext, which says (issue 1/2/18) the scope of the project turned out to be a bit much for one of the contractors.
  5. Think local, partly for environmental reasons. Outside my building, some new shady deciduous trees were planned and appear in the original architect’s video, to enhance a courtyard. But we ended up with three pine trees from southern Germany instead (I was told), not trees from our surrounds. They were winched into place, fully  grown, at unknown cost. Seeing only their tops moving, from my upper floor office, was surreal. A small fern also appeared in a special metal grille the walkway, was destined to grow, but lasted a week before it disappeared. It was right where we walk outside LEC.  We have a bunch of plant scientists and ecologists in our unit – apparently their earlier suggestions on vegetation made during the planning phase, fell on fallow ground.
  6. Repeat lesson 2. Only do pneumatic drilling, or complete blockages to essential areas (like Alex Square) when the university is not in its teaching period. The difference? In semester, up to 13,000 people moving about. In the university holidays – several hundred. To say it has been hard work to get around, in the 10 minutes between lectures, and concentrate despite the drilling noise (which is needed, but not at peak hours please), is an understatement.

I did manual work for a number of years. It is hard graft. The key is to get good project management (materials and physical plant delivery, for example) and to have enough workers on site to meet the targets. This means a budget that does not undercut project delivery (requiring  overtime, for example- I see a little of that by Henry Boot but not much- hardly anybody around in the late afternoon). Who knows what is going on here, but perhaps it is a bit like academic teaching, where we have too few people, stretched too thinly?

Any university managers reading this are going to hate me, but this project reminds me very much of  Bent Flyvbjerg‘s work on project overruns (paper at academia with login needed). He works on analysing larger construction projects than this one, but the gist is that front-end estimates of costs and benefits – used in the business cases, cost–benefit analyses, and social and environmental impact assessments that typically support decisions on projects – are commonly significantly different from actual ex post costs and benefits,” and they are “ Over budget, over time, over and over again“.  There may be lessons for this rather smaller endeavour – plan for risks, threats, and human nature. And communicate and apologise. The webpage tells you what is going on, but never the latter (update – I noticed they started doing that after I wrote this).

 

Latest update – a section has been cancelled in light of the delays, May 2018

Sept 2018 – South Spine still not open. After a tantalising few days of being able to access from Alex Square…

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Socially just publishing: implications for geographers and their journals

Batterbury SPJ. 2017. Socially just publishing: implications for geographers and their journals. Fennia: international journal of Geography. 195(2): 175-181 DOI: 10.11143/fennia.66910

Available from here, scroll down

Or on Researchgate

This may be the most important article I have ever written (although not the longest). Academic publishing needs change, and prefiguring that change has implications for hiring committees, senior academics, and scholars of all types.  Part of a Reflections series on academic publishing in geography.

Abstract: There have been a range of protests against the high journal subscription costs, and author processing charges (APCs) levied for publishing in the more prestigious and commercially run journals that are favoured by geographers. But open protests across the sector like the ‘Academic Spring’ of 2012, and challenges to commercial copyright agreements, have been fragmented and less than successful. I renew the argument for ‘socially just’ publishing in geography. For geographers this is not limited to choosing alternative publication venues. It also involves a considerable effort by senior faculty members that are assessing hiring and promotion cases, to read and assess scholarship independently of its place of publication, and to reward the efforts of colleagues that offer their work as a public good. Criteria other than the citation index and prestige of a journal need to be foregrounded. Geographers can also be publishers, and I offer my experience editing the free online Journal of Political Ecology.

FENNIA is a non-profit peer-reviewed open access journal published by the Geographical Society of Finland since 1889.

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Fluid geographies

Satizábal P. and Batterbury, S.P.J. 2017. Fluid geographies: marine territorialisation and the scaling up of local aquatic epistemologies on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12199

RGS ‘Geography Directions’ publicity article https://blog.geographydirections.com/2017/09/12/the-fluid-geographies-of-marine-territorialisation-processes/

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