Challenging the status quo in urban planning practice: Why I decided to enrol for the Master of Research.

Lara Mottee, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie (Australia) and University of Groningen (The Netherlands), writes a compelling account of her path from environmental consultant to activist researcher:

In 2016 I embarked on a journey from consultancy into higher degree research. At this point in my life I had a successful 12-year career as an Environmental Scientist at an engineering firm in Sydney. I had the kind of career that many young students dream of – the kind that I dreamed of as an undergraduate geography student. Working in infrastructure engineering meant I was offered a variety of work opportunities on different projects across Australia. But my favourite was always working on transport infrastructure. I always felt a great sense of pride when working with the government on public sector projects. I liked the idea that the work I did would help people in their day-to-day lives.

But something was bothering me about the types of projects I worked on. We’d write in our impact assessments and planning applications about the ‘need’ for the project and make a lot of promises to the public…. But I wondered did those ‘promises’ ever come to fruition? Once my part of the process was done… I never seemed to find out what happened on the other side – to me the part after I finished my work was a giant black box. And more and more I’d see complaints from an empowered public, dissatisfied with the transport ‘product’ they were provided… and I’d wonder again what happened to those promises we wrote about. I decided I wanted to know more about the decision-making and planning processes I was a part of and figure out how I could improve my social impact assessment (SIA) practice, to lead to a better outcome for the public.

My Master of Research (MRes) research problem

In my MRes I investigated how effective the management strategies that we prepared in impact assessments were against in meeting the intended project aims established during planning. I chose the Parramatta Rail Link (PRL) project as a case study, as it was a larger rail project that included the old Epping to Chatswood heavy rail line to Macquarie University (MQ), and another section between Epping and Parramatta. Despite the project having full planning approval, with engineering and assessment complete, the second section was never constructed. In my research I adopted a multi-methods qualitative approach to look at the question:

How can the effectiveness of management and mitigation strategies proposed in SIAs for urban transport projects be judged against key policy objectives?

I started the research thinking that the answer to this question could be solved with improvements to impact assessment practice (such as designing good practice management strategies) to be implemented by practitioners like myself. By the end of the research, I realised that it was the wider planning and decision-making process that had the greater influence on the outcomes of a project. Implementing good practice was one important aspect, but the practitioner had very little influence on whether policy objectives would be met. I realised I needed to look more closely at the planning and decision-making process, before I could suggest improvements to practice that might achieve better social outcomes for the public. The MRes research therefore became an important pilot study for my PhD research.

Between the end of my MRes Journey and the start of my PhD, I also wrote a publication about my research:

Follow-up and SIA in urban transport-infrastructure projects: insights from the parramatta rail link

Something I couldn’t have achieved without the opportunity to do higher degree research, and the support of my MRes supervisor, Emeritus Prof. Richie Howitt.

Turning the MRes into a PhD

At the end of my MRes, Richie and I agreed there was a bigger issue that needed to be explored further. It didn’t take much to expand the question we were asking to include more case studies and think about how the conclusions could be expanded into a 3-year research program.

The other opportunity that presented itself at the end of the MRes was the connection made to the University of Groningen through my examiner. I’d always wanted the opportunity to do research overseas and to explore whether we as planning professionals could learn from the experiences of governments abroad. I applied for a ‘sandwich track’ scholarship and was accepted into a coutelle PhD program with the University of Groningen (RUG), in the Netherlands. This means that once I finish, I will graduate from MQ and the University of Groningen with two degrees. I have been able to spend the past amazing two years doing research in Amsterdam, while living in Groningen with my husband (and recently my newborn daughter!) and enjoying the benefits of the European lifestyle.

Lara in the field. Photo: Lara Mottee

My PhD Research

My co-supervisors at MQ and RUG and I developed a new research question, that built on the MRes findings, to investigate the planning issues in Australia and the Netherlands:

How is the assessment and management of social impacts of major urban transport projects influenced by their urban geographical context and planning practice?

We added two more cases to compare the Parramatta Rail Link case: the South-West Rail Link (Sydney, Australia) and the North-South Metro Line (Amsterdam, The Netherlands). The first case was considered ‘successful’ by traditional measures (under budget and on time) and the second considered unsuccessful on those grounds by their respective governments. Both projects delivered on the ‘need’ for the project, but how social issues were assessed and managed over time differed greatly.

Early in the journey I discovered that the planning process in the Netherlands was very different to Sydney. It’s much more consultative overall but there’s less opportunity for legal appeal in the approvals process. The statutory planning approvals are also led by the metropolitan policies and plans, technical business case development and project planning, rather than the stages of an Environmental Impact Assessment. This discovery again changed the way I thought about urban planning and the possibilities that improved impact assessment practice might bring. It helped me challenge my ingrained thinking about impact assessment practice and consider other ways of doing infrastructure planning, management and approvals. It also taught me that maybe in Australia we are implementing good practice, and that we shouldn’t be too hard ourselves, but that we should be careful not to become complacent in the rush to tackle our problems of rapid population growth. Even countries with far older systems of planning can learn from us, particularly when undertaking ex-ante assessments and ex-post management and monitoring of social issues.

You can read more about the findings of my research in the papers I’ve published here:

Limitations of Technical Approaches to Transport Planning Practice in Two Cases: Social Issues as a Critical Component of Urban Projects

Reflecting on How Social Impacts are Considered in Transport Infrastructure Project Planning: Looking beyond the Claimed Success of Sydney’s South West Rail Link

Metro infrastructure planning in Amsterdam: how are social issues managed in the absence of environmental and social impact assessment?

Why enrol for the MRes program as a planning professional?

Now I assume if you’re reading this you might be a planning professional and you’re probably crazy busy skim-reading through. So this part of the blog is for you. Here are my top 7 reasons for doing the MRes at the Department of Geography and Planning at MQ:

  1. Investigate the topic of your choice – founded in a real-world problem that is of interest to you.
  2. An opportunity to advocate change– to ask the hard questions as the outsider looking in, rather than as the planner within practice.
  3. Work with an excellent group of academic researchers and supervisors that have strong professional networks.
  4. To take a career break, to reflect on the past and consider the future.
  5. Become a published author of a significant piece of writing.
  6. Attain a postgraduate qualification and training in research methods.
  7. Undertake a ‘pilot study’ as a pathway entry to a PhD with a fast-track, should you decide more research is needed!

Also keep in mind there are part-time and full-time options and a potential stipend, giving flexibility to remain in the workforce alongside the research.

Take-home message

Although the MRes was the beginning of an academic journey for me, it really doesn’t have to be for everyone. The flexibility it offers in shaping your own project and investigating your own problem is unique and rewarding. The intensive program provides you the support you need to dive deep into a real-world problem and transfer that learning back into professional practice in a short timeframe. So ask yourself, are you questioning the way we do things in urban planning practice? Do you think we can do better, but aren’t sure where we’re going wrong? Then maybe it’s time to take a step back from the face-paced practice environment and spend some time as an activist researcher, an outsider looking in, to advocate for something better.

If you’ve got any questions, Lara would be happy to hear from you:

For a greener future, we must accept there’s nothing inherently sustainable about going digital

Jessica McLean, Macquarie University

Digital technologies are often put forward as a solution to environmental dilemmas.

The spread of the internet came with claims of a huge reduction in printing, and by replacing paper with bytes, we thought we’d reduce our negative environmental impact

But this early promise of solving environmental problems may not be delivering because digital devices, like most technologies, also have environmental impacts.

Devices are powered by electricity – often produced in coal-fired plants – and are manufactured from materials such as metals, glass and plastics. These materials also have to be mined, made or recycled.

So, while digital technologies can facilitate environmental benefits, we shouldn’t assume they always do. My research published this year shows much more needs to be done to debunk such myths.

Measuring digital eco-footprints

It’s difficult to measure the environmental impacts of our digital lives, partly because the digital ecosystems that facilitate the internet are complex.

Read more: Sustainable Shopping: the eco-friendly guide to online Christmas shopping

The United Nations Environment Assembly defines a digital ecosystem as “a complex distributed network or interconnected socio-technological system”.

Simply, digital ecosystems are the result of humans, digital infrastructure and devices interacting with one another. They rely on energy consumption at multiple scales.

The term “digital ecosystem” relates to ecological thinking, specifically in terms of how human-technological systems work.

However, there’s nothing inherently environmentally sustainable about digital ecosystems.

It’s worthwhile considering digital ecosystems’ environmental impacts as they grow.

In 2017, it was reported in Nature that internet traffic (to and from data centres) was increasing at an exponential rate. At that stage, it had reached 1.1 zettabytes (a zettabyte equals one trillion gigabytes).

As our digital use continues, so do our carbon emissions.

Dangers of data centres

Data centres majorly contribute to the carbon emissions of digital ecosystems. They are basically factories that store, backup and recover our data.

In April last year, it was estimated data centres around the world used more than 2% of the world’s electricity, and generated the same amount of carbon emissions as the global airline industry (in terms of fuel use).

Read more: Sustainable shopping: is it possible to fly sustainably?

While there is debate about the impact of flying on climate change, we’re less likely to evaluate our digital lives the same way.

According to British Open University Professor John Naughton, data centres make up about 50% of all energy consumed by digital ecosystems. Personal devices use another 34%, and the industries responsible for manufacturing them use 16%.

Tech giants such as Apple and Google have committed to 100% renewable targets, but they’re just one part of our giant digital ecosystem.

Also, on many occasions, they rely on carbon offsets to achieve this. Offsets involve people and organisations investing in environmental projects to balance their carbon emissions from other activities. For instance, people can buy carbon offsets when booking flights.

Offsets have been critiqued for not effectively reducing the carbon footprints of wealthy people, while absolving guilt from continued consumption.

A carbon-filled road ahead

With more digital technologies emerging, the environmental impacts of digital ecosystems are probably going to increase.

Apart from the obvious social and economic impacts, artificial intelligence’s (AI) environmental implications should be seriously considered.

A paper published in June by University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers revealed training a large AI machine could produce five times as much carbon as what one car (including fuel) emits over a person’s lifetime, on average.

Also, this figure only relates to training a large AI machine. There are various other ways these machines suck energy.

Similarly, bitcoin mining (an application of blockchain) continues to consume large amounts of energy, and is increasing on a global scale. According to the International Energy Agency, bitcoin mining uses more energy than some countries, including Austria and Colombia.

Putting the ‘eco’ back in digital ecosystem

The digital ecosystem that supports our devices includes storage systems and networks that aren’t in our homes or workplaces, such as “the cloud”. But we should still take responsibility for the impact of such systems.

Satellites are in space. Wires run beneath footpaths, roads and oceans.

All the while, the Internet of Things is creeping into old technologies and transforming how we use them. These underground and distant aspects of digital ecosystems may partly explain why the growing environmental impacts of digital are sidelined.

There are some ways people can find out more about responsible tech options. A 2017 guide by Greenpeace rated digital tech companies on their green credentials. It assessed a range of corporations, including some managing digital platforms, and others hosting data centres.

But while the guide is useful, it’s also limited by a lack of transparency, because corporations aren’t obliged to share information on how much energy is needed or supplied for their data centres.

Read more: High-tech consumerism, a global catastrophe happening on our watch

Holding big tech accountable

The responsibility to make our digital lives more sustainable shouldn’t lie solely with individuals.

Governments should provide a regulatory environment that demands greater transparency on how digital corporations use energy. And holding these corporations accountable should include reporting on whether they are improving the sustainability of their practices.

One immediate step could be for corporations that produce digital devices to move away from planned obsolescence. One example of this is when companies including Apple and Samsung manufacture smartphones that are not designed to last.

Digital sustainability is a useful way to frame how digital technologies affect our environmental world.

We need to acknowledge that technology isn’t just a source of environmental solutions, but also has the potential for negative environmental impact.

Only then can we start to effectively transition to a more sustainable future that also includes digital technologies.

Jessica McLean, Senior Lecturer in Geography, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Macquarie HDR students share their success at the GSNSW 2019 awards

Lillian Tait and Milena Bojovic, HDR students in the Department of Geography & Planning at Macquarie University, were the recent recipients of awards from the Geographical Society of NSW (GSNSW). Lillian won the Jim Rose award for Best Paper at the GSNSW Honours/Masters Conference 2019 and Milena won second prize for the GSNSW Photo Competition. They write about their experiences:


In November, I presented at the GSNSW Masters/Honours Conference 2019. I was uncertain about whether I’d be able to attend due to the catastrophic weather conditions the day before and threat of bush fires along the train corridor between Newcastle and Sydney. Thankfully my route was not impacted (unlike, sadly, much of our state) and I made it to the ultra-modern Western Sydney University Liverpool City Campus. The morning was filled with interesting and impressive presentations from Honours and Masters students from nearby universities. The topics varied widely, reflecting the exciting possibilities for study within the discipline of geography. Within human geography, research topics ranged from heritage maintenance, renewable energy transitions and heatwave resilience to reciprocal relationships with trees and arranged marriages among Bangladeshi-Australian communities. While most of the research was based on the Australian context, there were a few exceptions in the case of urban planning in Nigeria and anti-poverty Randomised Control Trials in Indonesia. I was sad to miss the only physical sciences presentation that occurred in the other room about palaeoflood records of Nitmiluk Gorge, Katherine NT. Needless to say, I was blown away by the quality and interesting content within each presentation.

Presenters at the Honours/Masters Conference 2019

Dr. Rae Dufty-Jones presented three Jim Rose awards and one new category made up on the day for ‘best question-asker from audience’. The latter category was awarded to Vikram Tyagi from Sydney University for his engaging questions throughout the morning. The ‘highly commended presentation on a physical geography topic’ went to Pana Paretos from UNSW on his Nitmiluk study and the ‘highly commended presentation on a human geography topic’ went to Crystal Arnold from University of Wollongong for her beautiful paper on reciprocal relationships with trees working within Yuin ontologies of oneness within Country. I was the very happy recipient for the ‘best paper at conference’ for my presentation titled ‘Wokwok en Wekwek Mijimit Bla Faindim Dismob Stori Blanga Yurapanji | Walking and Working together to find these stories about Urapunga’. The presentation explored the collaborative oral history project I have been working on this year with Ngalakgan and Ritharrŋu co-researchers, Margaret and Rhonda Duncan and Ngalakgan country itself. Margaret and Rhonda were thrilled to hear about the award and we are excited to use the generous prize money to send us to the next destination for our on-going research.

After the awards, there was the innovative ‘bake your thesis extravaganza’ in which students were encouraged to turn their thesis into something edible. This was the part of the day I had been most looking forward to. While many people forgot, there were some delicious offerings on the table including brownies, cupcakes, cookies and a gingerbread house (pictured below). I made an iced tea from a bush medicine that grows around Urapunga called Gulbarn, also known as melaleuca citrolens. You can drink it as a tea or inhale it and it helps for colds and coughs.

Bake your thesis extravaganza

The subsequent GSNSW Awards night was a fun and quirky mix of geographical trivia (of which I knew basically no answers), delicious food, and awards for early career researchers and emerging geography students. GSNSW have done well to create such a supportive and celebratory environment and I’d highly recommend attending both the conference and awards night to any future MRes students!


When I got the email calling for submissions for the photo competition, I was really excited as I had taken a lot of photos during my fieldwork in the South Island of New Zealand Aotearoa, during January/February this year. I was researching vegan communities in the South Island so my photo album on my desktop was full of Instagram-worthy vegan meals, idyllic scenes of farms, community events I attended and some close ups of flowers and bees that I came across during my travels. When considering what image best summed my experience that fit the competition theme “in the field”, I ended up choosing a protest sign I had spotted on a back fence in Christchurch. One of my participants had taken me on a tour of Christchurch during my first week of fieldwork and was showing me all the vegan hot-spots. We stopped at this sign next to a busy highway and discussed why New Zealanders were so concerned about the effects of dairy farming on the environment and how the practice of veganism is one way to actively address some of these concerns. (See award winning photo as our featured image)

My description for the photo was:

This is an image of a hand painted signed nailed onto a residential fence, facing a busy major road in Christchurch, New Zealand Aotearoa. This image was taken during my fieldwork about vegan societies in the South Island. The sign is emblematic of the local communities (both vegan and non-vegan) growing concerns towards further dairy expansion in the South Island, such as proposed dairy expansion at the MacKenzie Basin. The effects of dairy farming on the waterways is a topical issue in New Zealand Aotearoa, as dairy run off pollutes the regions waterways, rendering rivers and streams unswimmable. 

Milena receiving her award

Attending the awards night to receive my prize was a lovely experience. It was great to see other members of the society and see so many successful students and academics receive their awards too. The whole experience led me to reflect on other ways we can communicate our research through more than written or spoken word. Looking at the photos from the first and third prize winners showed that images are just as important in terms of communicating our ideas, thoughts and findings in the field.

My Work Experience at Macquarie Uni

St Ives High School year 10 student Elizabeth Ma has written about her week spent at Macquarie University as part of her work experience. Her blog provides an interesting perspective on the work of the university as seen through young eyes.

For my year 10 work experience, I chose to spend a week working at Macquarie University in sustainability. I went to various parts of the campus and worked with the Sustainability Officer, Lecturer in Geography and Planning and attended the Human Geography in Action student project presentations. I learnt a lot and met a range of different people with different roles.

Sustainability Officer, Belinda Bean

On Monday and Wednesday I worked with Belinda Bean, who is the sustainability officer at Macquarie University. Sitting within the Sustainability Department, Belinda looks after managerial and operational aspects of sustainability. This includes embedding sustainability into processes at the university so that sustainability becomes the default option for staff. I would love to have a job like that, changing the way things are done to improve sustainability would be so fulfilling. I spent some of the Monday morning in the Permaculture Demonstration Garden on campus, where I learnt about permaculture – which is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

‘Permaculture is essentially an amalgamation of the word “Permanent Agriculture”. It combines landscape architecture with sustainable agriculture and ecological principles.’

Belinda explained that each element of the garden has a specific purpose, from the vegetables that we eat, to the dichondra (or kidney weed) that provides ground cover and keeps the soil as moist and nutrient rich as possible. The garden is organic and almost everything is recycled. They use a natural fertiliser, ‘weed tea’ which they make by soaking the weeds which they have pulled out of the Garden in water to recycle all the nutrients. I learnt that the design of a garden greatly impacts its sustainability. For example, I learnt that planting nitrogen fixers, such as legumes, boosts the growth of the plants around them.

More information about the Macquarie Uni Permaculture Garden is available here.

Walanga Muru pavilion

Later in the morning, I attended a meeting with representatives of the printer company that provides for all the printing at Macquarie Uni. It was very interesting to sit in the middle of a meeting room and observe what everyday work meetings are like. In the afternoon, I attended the inaugural cultural knowledge exchange circle. This event was sponsored by Walanga Muru, which means ‘follow your path” in the local language of the Darug people. They are responsible for the university’s approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success. The Cultural Knowledge exchange circle was all about how staff and Macquarie University as a whole, can contribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education outcomes. It was great to hear the practical implementation each department is doing.

Lecturer, Dr Miriam Williams

On Tuesday and Thursday I worked with Dr Miriam Williams who is a lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning. Her role includes research and teaching. This involves setting up the iLearn site with student access to course materials, marking, designing assessments, and writing workshop and lecture materials. Her job also involves a lot of research to stay up to date with the latest findings. To do this she researches a variety of resources including academic material, journal articles, interview transcripts, books, data, etc. Part of her teaching role includes thinking about how students learn and ways in which to present information to come away with knowledge. Miriam also does field work as part of her research, such as interviewing people at The Food Pantry in Marrickville for a study on community food initiatives, and volunteering for similar organisations. She also writes journal articles and blog posts, submits grant applications and ethics applications to ensure research is done properly, attends a lot of meetings for research and programs, provides feedback on PhD students work, answers a lot of emails, and most importantly, drinks a lot of tea. During my time with Miriam I researched the contribution community gardens make to facilitate sustainability, social connection and wellbeing in the city.

My work experience at Macquarie University was not exactly how I pictured it, it was better. Going into work experience, I expected to sit in an office and be bored for five days, but this was definitely not the case. My work experience week was filled with new learning experiences, attending meetings, lectures, presentations, researching and more. Overall my work experience was a great opportunity to see what different roles in the university involve and I learnt a lot from it. 

Encountering the anthropocene

Tom Duloy, a Master of Research student in the Geography & Planning Department at Macquarie University writes about his personal encounters with the Anthropocene.

Quite frankly, the idea of the Anthropocene terrifies me. Having been raised in a culture which promotes individuality, independence and ‘rationality’, it’s difficult to cope with a problem like climate change which seems to laugh in the face of any kind of individual or ‘rational’ response. I was first introduced to the idea as it is discussed in the field of geoscience – a geological era of the planet earth, the salient features of which are marked by the impact of the human species. This image of the Anthropocene presents humanity with a race against time to curb their contributions to destructive planetary forces which likely threaten the viability of human and non-human life in the near future. I feel devastated emotionally when I try to comprehend an earth ‘full of refugees, human and not, without refuge,’ (Haraway, 2015, pp. 160) and the sheer scale of human and non-human misery, struggle, starvation and widespread disappearance this carries with it.

Charlie, the family pet. Source: Tom Duloy

It’s hard to feel satisfied with modernity, such as it is. My own experience of being a human is one marked by both Western ‘modernity’, and physical pain and discomfort. Due to the innovations of modern medicine I can tell you that this is because I have a condition called ‘small fibre neuropathy’, an issue with my peripheral nerve endings which means I receive ‘pain’ signals at skin level across the entire surface of my body.

I can also tell you that the biggest impact this knowledge has had on my life, rather than the various medications I have trialled on the recommendation of modern medicine, is to be able to justify to other people why I struggle with or don’t enjoy (at times, a controversial suggestion) most physical elements of modern city life that are expected to be routine – shaking hands, hugs, sharing enclosed spaces in lifts, in cars, planes and on public transport, playing sports/exercising, pursuing/taking part in intimate physical relationships with other people, playing with pets – the list is staggering. To tolerate, participate in or even to enjoy activities and rituals which involve physical sensations very often seems to be tied to people’s expectations of a ‘healthy human’.

Prior to my diagnosis last year, without a ‘scientific’ explanation for the negative impact exposure to large amounts and varieties of physical sensations has on my wellbeing, people would more often react negatively, dismissively, or imply there was something wrong with me behaviourally. In fact, this contributed to years of misdiagnosis of what I was experiencing as a ‘fear’ of inter-personal physical contact, years when I internalised that perspective and thought less of myself for not being able to overcome my ‘fear’. It’s ironic to think that now modern medicine has confirmed something physiologically ‘wrong with me’, that I feel less isolated, and people’s reactions to choices I make to limit physical exposure are generally more sympathetic (and that this improvement circumvents the recommended primary treatment plan).

Although the feeling is less severe now that I seem to receive more understanding from other people, I still feel somewhat ‘less’ than the standard of a functioning human. Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me rejecting the toxic expectations of the modern cult of humanity, but I rather like the idea of a ‘more-than-human’ or ‘post-human’ existence. To feel like I’m a part of a larger organism or organisms at once feels like transcending the trappings and emotional anguish of an individual expectation to ‘solve’ the atrocities of human-driven environmental degradation, at the same time as opening possibilities for being part of a more harmonious existence (or at the very least – that my wellbeing is not contingent on being ‘human’).

The suggestion of embracing the opportunity to be a part of a great, tentacular ‘chthulic’ set of diverse global organisms and ecologies (Haraway, 2015, pp. 160) and in this process ‘making kin’ as/with something greater than the modernist definition and expectations of ‘human’ feels very much like a privilege the modernist project has done its best not to earn. In a personal sense, I find appeal in a renaissance of human (post/more-than-human/compost) identity, stemming ‘from the more radical strand of philosophy that, in Foucault’s words, ‘endeavour[s] to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known.’ (Plumwood, 2009, pp. 114).

I’ve typically thought of myself as a pragmatist. Perhaps I am – even just in the sense that I feel better emotionally when I apply myself pro-actively to things that upset me. I like the proposition that I could ‘live and die well’ as ‘a mortal critter in the Chthulucene’; that a practical way I could do this would be a part of collective efforts to foster and build biological/cultural/political/technological opportunities for recuperation and recomposition of terrans. (Haraway, 2015, pp. 161) ‘Mourning’ as an essential part of this process feels like not just permission to feel devastated by struggle human ‘progress’ is creating, but also an impetus to mourn. A responsibility to mourn. A tool to assuage my own guilt for being ‘human’? Maybe, more positively, part of the means to overcome an identity I don’t find personally constructive.

I wonder though, if this ‘desire’ or emphasis on what I ‘want’ or ‘appeals to me’ plays into precisely the patterns of human individuality/exceptionalism which could prevent me from being a functioning part or making a positive contribution to a post-human society. Maybe a desire to be ‘functional’ or ‘positive’ reflect ingrained (Western) modernist cultural values. Conscious of the link between desire or ‘wants’ and consumption, my reflexive hope is that I can find a way to meaningfully engage with this kind of constructive ecological thought and action and ‘make kin’ with other beings/persons in relationships that aren’t just a pattern of ‘consuming the idea of being functional’. I think the fundamental shift in resolving this dilemma might entail a change in perspective of the world, its spatial and material resources and non-human organisms as ‘belonging’ to humanity, to a view that ‘humanity’ belongs to the world, as part of a grand family of all earthbound biotic and abiotic systems. Cheerily, mortality doesn’t look as much like the end to functioning and responsibility to contribute, but rather as a continuation of an eons-long existence as ‘compost’ and kinship with the earth family. It’s easy to feel more solace in this kind of thinking than in the more fatalist, catastrophist depictions of the Anthropocene. Perhaps it’s a positive thing that the Anthropocene could mean the end to ‘human’ as it is currently understood by western modernity.

As much as my neurological condition has impacted on ‘inter-personal’ relationships, an inter-species ‘kinship’ need not necessarily be impacted by this part of my being in the same way. I’m thankful that for the most part I have a healthy bodily microbial ecology – aside from the odd cold. I’ve come to respect that my digestive health has as much to do with the labour of the millions of bacteria co-inhabiting my body as it does with what type of food I choose to eat. Although I have an aversion to physical exposure to critters, that doesn’t mean that I can’t advocate for their dignity and agency, as I would a person.

“Sometimes, advocating for human rights can mean advocating for more-than-human rights. Advocacy for humans whose disability care relies on animal companions/carers (therapy animals, guide animals), can include supporting the accommodation of and education about these companions/carers and their right to presence in spaces which typically exclude other-than-human animals. Advocating for human rights can also mean challenging the ongoing environmental degradation and reduction in biodiversity which stems from certain human practices – processes which lead to immediate and long-term consequences of uneven proliferation or disappearance of non-human species, which in turn affects human quality of life.”

It’s interesting to consider how ‘human’ identities are constructed in relationship to other species at certain ‘points of contact/encounter’, whether this is through division between humans/animals as separate categories, or in how animals play important and diverse roles of interdependency in the systems and rituals of different human cultures (as discussed in ‘Animals, Plants, People and Things, A review of Multispecies Ethnography’, Ogden et al 2013, pp. 10). My nuclear family have kept cats since I was an early primary-schooler. As I mentioned when I introduced my neurological condition, I have a terse relationship with pets, who in their expressions of affection or desire for my attention often exacerbate the pain sensations that I cope with. This is a personal contradiction that I’ve found with the idea of keeping pets, a human-constructed interaction, being loving/intimate/contributing to human wellbeing, whereas I have found myself resentful of our cats’ presence in my everyday living arrangements and undermining of self-care strategies.

Charlie. Source: Tom Duloy

Funnily, however, since my diagnosis I have had far more forgiveness for my family’s current cat, Charlie. I’ve come to appreciate him like a little brother, a creature that I do have an inclination to protect (which I realised on one occasion that he suffered the trauma of being stuck in a plastic bag) and who I’ve noticed comes to give me more attention when I myself am feeling distressed. I think having come to better understand my own needs and limitations has aided my appreciation of Charlie and his. Now, rather than feeling he detracts from my experience as a human, I think our relationship is actually healthier since I’ve decided to change my own behaviour and responses to him. I do still resent the way in which domestic animals fit into capitalist systems of ‘consumption’ and ‘aspiration’, but I understand that this is because they often aren’t respected as conscient or equal beings, rather interacted with or sought out as novelties which modern life can provide. While I can’t quite shake the feeling that’s the main reason why myself and Charlie currently live in the same house, and not because I truly enjoy this form of interspecies cohabitation, I’m certainly aware that the positive turn in my relationship to him has come alongside my own experience of my changing identity as a human.

The Anthropocene/Chthulucene could be ‘a race against time to remake the culture (of philosophy)?’ (Plumwood, 2009, pp. 115) by reconsidering our ontological and practical relationships to other species and world systems through ‘increasing wellbeing for diverse human beings and other critters as means and not just ends’ (Haraway, 2015, pp. 162). This proposition seems pertinent to the race to avert human-driven environmental crisis. On a personal level, the creation of new multispecies identities is potentially promising in the deconstruction of toxic cultural (in my case, western/modern) expectations of ‘humans’, especially in the realm of psychological and physiological health. At the very least, it seems practical to consider the incontrovertible impact the ‘non-human’ inhabitants and systems of the world have on our own identities.


  • Haraway, D., (2015). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, 6, pp. 159-165
  • Plumwood, V., 2009. Nature in the Active Voice. Australian Humanities Review, (46), pp. 113-129
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The writing of the disaster: landscape inscriptions and testimonial de-scriptions in post-disaster Tōhoku, Japan

Richard Carter-White, lecturer and researcher in geography at Macquarie University, writes about his collaborative research into the effects of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in Tōhoku, Japan, and the continuation of this research during a recent trip to Swansea University.

Since 2016 I have been working with Swansea University geographers Marcus Doel and Sergei Shubin on a collaborative project investigating the post-disaster landscapes and communities of Tōhoku, the northeast area of Japan devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 2011. We began this collaboration while I was based at the University of Tokyo, and in July 2017 the three of us undertook a field trip to various sites around Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, where we were generously and expertly guided by Sébastien Boret of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS), Tōhoku University. While the name Fukushima and the nuclear catastrophe it has come to designate is now known the world over, this was a valuable opportunity to witness the extent to which the disquieting coastal landscapes of Miyagi (as well as Iwate prefecture) continue to exhibit the traces and scars of the earthquake and tsunami that tore apart and upended the everyday fabric of these places. The staggering, absurd proportion of these disasters is hard to imagine, particularly on a calm, bright summer’s day, even as their authorship upon the landscape is plain to see.

L- Outside the abandoned town of Namie, Fukushima
R- Remnants of Yuriage, Miyagi, after the 3.11 tsunami

 This notion of the disaster as that which writes (inscribes) at the same time as it escapes and even destroys comprehension (de-scribes) while obligating certain forms of anticipation, management and recovery (pre-scribes) – in a sense, the disaster as both absent and yet powerfully, overwhelmingly present – is one of the major preoccupations of a key theoretical inspiration for our project, the poststructural philosophy of Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003). Although Blanchot isn’t especially well-known within geography, he was a contemporary of and important influence upon more familiar theorists whose work has been adopted in Cultural Geography, particularly Jacques Derrida, and we have found his work to be remarkably suggestive for our project. Blanchot offers numerous concepts for theorising forces of negativity, passivity, impossibility, and other elusive features of social existence which come to the fore during times of disaster. One that I have found particularly helpful is his etymological reading of the word ‘disaster’, which, broken down into its constitutive elements, refers to the loss (dis) of a guiding star or point of orientation (astro). This conception of ‘disaster’ as an experience of profound disorientation and loss allows for a broad interpretation of the term, encapsulating a range of scales from the global to the intimate, while also providing conceptual precision for our research into how people make sense of their lives and world in the wake of an event of ontological disruption. We presented the initial findings of this research in a co-authored paper presentation as part of the ‘Estranged landscapes’ session at the 2018 RGS-IBG Annual Meeting in London.                  

L – Radiation reading outside the Fukushima exclusion zone
R – Ukedo Elementary School, Namie

In August and September this year I had the opportunity to travel to the UK in order to spend a concerted period of time working on this project with Marcus and Sergei at the Geography Department of Swansea University , courtesy of the ACU Swansea University Fulton Fellowship . Prior to heading to Swansea there was also time to attend this year’s RGS-IBG Annual Meeting, in which we followed up on the previous year’s conference activity by organising a session based entirely on Blanchot’s work entitled ‘Maurice Blanchot’s Disturbing Geography’, in which we hoped to get a sense of the extant geographical reception of Blanchot’s work . The three of us each presented an individual paper, exploring our own distinctive application of Blanchot’s philosophy to the context of post-disaster Tōhoku, with other contributors presenting on themes related to anti-fascism and genocide memorialisation. My own paper drew upon a phrase of Blanchot’s that I keep returning to –  ‘the writing of the disaster’, a deliberately ambiguous construction that implies the disaster’s autonomous authorship as much as it does the recounting or depiction of disaster by an external party – in order to reflect on some distinctive characteristics of tsunami survivor testimony, and what this tells us about the ongoing traumatic aftershocks of that disaster. Elsewhere, I enjoyed some excellent papers in a session entitled ‘Calamitous ‘events’? Exploring perceptions of disaster timeframes’ , and was particularly encouraged by remarks from the session organisers on the need to engage with disasters as ‘existential’ events with their own distinctive phenomenology; this is, I think, one of the ideas I was trying to get at with my own paper.

Thanks to the ACU, after the conference finished in late August I was able to spend the entirety of September in Swansea, working closely with Marcus and Sergei to continue our research and plan the next stages of our project. This part of the trip felt like something of a homecoming for me, as my very first academic conference presentation, back when I was a PhD student at the University of Exeter, was at the Engaging Baudrillard conference hosted at Swansea in 2006. (From Baudrillard to Blanchot, I appear to be progressing through the A-Z of poststructural theory at 13-year increments. The good people of Swansea should look out for my paper on Hélène Cixous in 2032.) Over the course of September one of our main priorities was to work on a paper aiming to introduce Blanchot’s writings to a geographical audience, elaborating on the relevance of his work for ongoing debates in geography on relationality, community, representation, temporality, subjectivity and witnessing, while we also spent time developing new areas of empirical investigation into the Tōhoku triple disaster and its reverberations across contemporary Japan.

The visit concluded with an internal Human Geography workshop, in which I was fortunate enough to present my research on tsunami testimony alongside members of the Geography Department who presented on themes including neoliberal financialisation, psychoanalysis and film, cultural imaginaries and/of the climate crisis, photography, and geographies of compulsion and compulsive behaviour. The event encapsulated the fascinating diversity of research undertaken at Swansea’s Geography Department , while the theme of disaster also facilitated some inspiring interdisciplinary conversations with the physical geographers in attendance.

I’d like to thank Marcus, Sergei, Siwan Davies and everyone at Swansea for their wonderful hospitality, and for providing such an intellectually stimulating environment in which to develop this ongoing research. My thanks also to the ACU and Macquarie University for this fantastic opportunity.

The ever changing moods of the Swansea sky, a highlight of my visit.
All photos by Richard Carter-White

SONGSPIRALS Book Launch: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country

Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Kate Lloyd from Macquarie University’s Geography and Planning Department write about the launch at the Garma Festival of their co-authored book.

Rosie and Siena proudly holding their mums’ book after the book’s launch at the Garma Festival, August 2019.

“We want you to come on a journey, our journey of songspirals. Songspirals are the essence of people in this land, the essence of every clan. We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.”

This is an excerpt from our new book, Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines, by the Gaywu Group of Women. We are so excited to have just launched the book at the wonderful Garma Festival at Gulkula in North East Arnhem Land.

Songspirals are sung by Aboriginal people to awaken Country, to make and remake the life-giving connections between people and place. In our book, we invite the reader to learn more about songspirals, sometimes known as songlines or songcycles, and especially about women’s place in them. For Yolŋu people from North East Arnhem Land, women and men play different roles in bringing songlines to life, yet the vast majority of what has been published is about men’s aspects of songlines. Songspirals is a rare opportunity for outsiders to gain an intimate and generous insight into Aboriginal women’s role in crying the songlines. Songspirals are ancient songs, poems, ceremonies and maps that allow Aboriginal people to navigate vast distances, but they are much, much more. Songspirals are radically different ways of understanding humans and their place within the environment. This book invites the reader on a journey of songspirals, of tears, understanding, surprises and wisdom.

Songspirals is written by the Gay’wu Group of Women, the ‘dilly bag women’s group’, a deep collaboration between five Yolŋu women and three non-Aboriginal women over a decade.

The Gay’wu Group of Women after the book launch at Garma.

Sisters Laklak Burarrwaŋa, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Banbapuy Ganambarr are elders of the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land. Each is a community leader in her own right. Laklak is a caretaker for the Gumatj clan, founder of the family’s successful tourism business Bawaka Cultural Experiences, and has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University. Merrkiyawuy was principal of Yirrkala School and is now Director for Yolŋu Education. Ritjilili works for Miwatj Health and Bawaka Cultural Experiences. Banbapuy is the main spokesperson for the family, an author, artist, weaver and teacher. Their daughter Djawundil Maymuru has been on the board of Laynapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation and is a key member of Bawaka Cultural Experiences. Ritjilili, Merrkiyawuy and Banbapuy were awarded the honour of being 2019 Yolngu Heroes at the Garma Festival.

The sisters have collaborated on a series of cultural and research projects with Kate Lloyd and Sandie Suchet-Pearson from Geography and Planning at Macquarie University, and Sarah Wright, Future Fellow in Geography and Development Studies at the University of Newcastle. We all just love working together and have co-authored 2 other books – Weaving Lives Together at Bawaka, North East Arnhem Land and a book for young adults, Welcome to My Country. We are looking forward to ongoing work together, including a series of milkarri workshops in North East Arnhem Land.

You can learn more here:

Garma launch:

Celebrating the awarding of the 2019 Yolngu Heroes award awarded to Ritjilili, Merrkiyawuy and Banbapuy at Garma 2019: Radio National Interview:



Allen & Unwin: