Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: utilitarian

Day 2 at ISSRM 2017

Hard to photograph a panel while you're on it: the ears of Stedman, Measham and Jacquet.

Hard to photograph a panel while you’re on it: the ears of Stedman, Measham and Jacquet.

1:30 am again so might as well reflect on another solid day at ISSRM.  A late start for me today thanks to that insomnia. First I had a fun mentoring session over lunch with two up-and-coming  female scholars, one finishing her PhD and one pre-tenure. I love participating in the mentoring program each year at ISSRM and appreciate folks like Paige Fischer organizing it.

Next I headed to an energy transitions panel (above) which was a bit of a follow-on from one I organized last year. This time Tom Measham (CSIRO) organized and chaired, and I served on the panel with Rich Stedman, Jeffrey Jacquet and keynote Neil Adger . It was a great turnout, and resulted in a really rich discussion about myths, subjectivity, governance and equity in the context of energy transitions. Lots of food for thought. We five started consuming that intellectual nourishment in barley form later at the ‘Pipes of Scotland’ bar which four of us closed down at midnight.

A subsection of the Norrbyskar scale model showing cable cars of sawdust heading for value adding.

A subsection of the Norrbyskar scale model showing cable cars of sawdust heading for value adding.

Immediately after the panel it was off to the field trips, mine to Norrbyskär, a fascinating island community that was designed around lumber production in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ruled on principles of temperance, paternalism, and clear social hierarchies, the island was entirely engineered: saw and planing mill joined by raised railways, and lumber drying structures everywhere not taken over by regimented housing and other buildings. Today the houses are occupied by seasonal residents, but the island hosts a great museum and cafe with a delightful scale model (left), and a miniature set of buildings for kids to play in. They had skilled and knowledgeable tour guides, and offered a diverse dinner of traditional swedish fare.

A wonderfully quirky addition was an end-of-year art exhibit by Umea Academy of Fine Arts students in an adjoining room. It was not obvious that the art show was open because of a downed banner at the entry. Turned out that was one of the art pieces: Josefine Ostlund’s We’re Building Natural Habitat (material description: “Banner from construction site”). Students visited in May and describe that they felt ‘watched’ by the empty houses, so reflect on the place in terms of “power, architecture and dreams”. It was wonderfully uncommercial work. Neil Adger’s favourite was Suffering is optional, by Linnea Johnels, material description “Beds, gun holes”, which she describes as “working with the frustration and worry that forces itself on you at night”. I can relate. Godnatt.

Neil Adger with Linnea Johnels 2017 piece, Suffering is optional.

Neil Adger with Linnea Johnels 2017 piece, Suffering is optional.

 

Everything Now!

A balm to my sketchy mood on this unsettled Friday is Arcade Fire’s new anthem of consumerism, Everything Now. Besides its irresistible groove, the video is a showcase of energy landscapes and other used up utilitarian infrastructure, and the lyrics skewer the attitudes that propagate our footprint:

Every inch of sky’s got a star
Every inch of skin’s got a scar
I guess that you’ve got everything now

The only way it could be more perfect for my research program would be if there were some livestock trundling through that rangeland. Happy weekend, everyone.

Convenient untruths in Alberta

Last week brought fascinating insight around energy transitions in rural Alberta, which feel worth discussing the day after President Trump pulled the USA out of the Paris Accord. The last day of my field trip there with colleague John Parkins and a few students we spent investigating the context of a wind energy proposal. We visited a local councillor/reeve for the municipal district, the host landowners and some opponents in our mini case study. It produced much food for thought. This post is name and hyperlink-free to avoid identifying the specific proposal, or the generous folks who gave their time to talk to us.

Some interesting issues arose in those discussions that are not commonly part of the discourse elsewhere, such as the lack of regulation around wind infrastructure, including end-of-life remediation and responsibility. This was raised by the eloquent reeve, as well as one of the opponents. It was a good reminder that just because regulation generally comes as a result of mistakes or accidents, we should not wait until that happens to develop strong expectations and governance. It would be unlikely, but awful, if turbines were orphaned in the way that so many oil and gas wells are in Alberta.

Even more compelling, however, was the way that industrial history, social dynamics and politics drove discourse among opponents. Most of the farmers in this area host oil and gas wells or compressor stations on their properties, and earn good money doing so. Some of these make noise, and some smell, and sometimes there are spills. But such risk and/or disbenefit has been normalized: this is the way that it has been for a long time. Similarly very large farming infrastructure like grain bins and elevators are accepted in the landscape as “the way we make our living”. This is the same way the landowners hoping to host the wind farm see it: just another way to make money off their land. They are ready to bear any disbenefits from hosting, but they largely dismiss such concerns. They see the opposition as a response in part to their cultural difference, which sets them apart from the local community, and the annoyance of others at the success of their livelihood model.

Despite this highly utilitarian landscape, and sparse population, a few of their neighbours asserted that wind presented more risks, e.g. to nearby grandchildren, than the oil and gas exploration or climate change itself.  Every possible reason for wind opposition was touched upon, but without clear evidence, apparently in part fed by the online echo chamber. We heard strong  denial of human-caused climate change.  Renewables were seen as useful only for when oil and gas ran out. Otherwise we heard that renewables were unnecessary because of new ‘clean’ (and conveniently distant) coal and gas thermal plants. These voices did not differentiate between visible particulate pollution and invisible greenhouse gas emissions. The key opponent was a longstanding member of the community with many relationships to leverage; it will be interesting to see if the social implications prevail.

Time Team

When I need to unwind I watch Time Team on YouTube. Tony Robinson (Sir, knighted in 2013), once comedian and actor and now activist and amateur historian, hosts this show that features three-day archaeological digs, generally within the UK. It is in its 20th season, which puts it in slim company. It is fascinating for anyone interested in landscape change, human modification and the meaning of place. Last night’s episode, Beacon of the Fens, was from Season 16, and examined a small rise on the edge of the English fenlands (marshy areas). It’s relative prominence has made it a beacon for millennia, but it is now farmed. They found pottery and remains of a burnt wattle and daub dwelling from a stone age settlement, bronze age axes, evidence of a wooden church, and a medieval stone chapel, as well as landscape modifications (causeway, enclosures) of manor houses, etc. These were all overlaid in situ over time, and then largely forgotten in all but the name: chapel hill. And what was winging away in the background for most of the shots? Massive wind turbines.

Oilfield landscape brand

The logo of the new Halifax-based clothing brand.

The logo of the new Halifax-based clothing brand.

I have been seeing a few new t-shirts around lately, riffing on the East Coast Lifestyle brand (the logo of which centers on a classic nautical anchor), but proudly featuring a spurting oil derrick, and the name ‘Oilfield Lifestyle’. It turns out this is a Halifax product, indeed by a member of our school family. I have always known, as someone who grew up in a pulp and paper town, how otherwise unattractive infrastructure that provides a livelihood can become an important landscape feature (e.g. for giving directions) and doggedly defended as part of local identity. I think this new brand is another example of that kind of normalization. It suggests that not only can people become accustomed and attached to infrastructure that provides a recognizable recreational and aesthetic amenity (like a headpond), but even that without such assets. It is not surprising this derives from the east coast; many east coasters do the long commute to Alberta to work in the oil sands, and so the lifestyle this brand supports is one that includes many red-eye flights. As a landscape scholar, however, I am interested by the use of a stylized but archaic-looking derrick rather than pump jack, pipeline or open-pit mine. I wonder how accurate this branding is of the landscape in which its wearers toil.

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