Category Archives: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

The Geographical Imagination and Britain’s Entanglements ‘East of Suez’

By Benjamin Sacks, Princeton University


British and Bahraini foreign ministers break ground on Britain’s new naval base, formally ending a 40-plus year-old ‘East of Suez’ policy. (c) The Independent, 1 November 2015.

The phrase ‘East of Suez’ looms large in our geographical imagination. Long after the end of formal empire and even the Cold War, it embodies a particularly Orientalist conception of exotic peoples, vibrant Kiplingesque colours and untapped wild landscapes. Why does this term still conjure such emotional responses, and why is it back in the news?

In the midst of this month’s unsettling developments, from terrorists attacks in France, Mali, Egypt, and elsewhere, to the constant media frenzy surrounding the US presidential campaign, Britain quietly moved back ‘East of Suez’. On 1 November Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa ceremonially began the (re)construction of HMS Juffair (first erected in 1935) in Mina Salman Port, Britain’s first permanent military base east of the Suez Crisis since 1971. The new base will provide logistical, materiel, and offensive support for Royal Navy operations in the Middle East and South Asia. Rather more surreptitiously, Britain has also heavily invested in expanding Oman’s Duqm port, 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Masirah Island, to accept Royal Navy vessels (including the forthcoming Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers). In both cases the war against ISIS, Yemeni militants, and bolstering defence, trade, and communications links have been cited as reasons for expansion.

In step with the British Empire’s dissolution, the Aden crisis, financial problems, and unstable domestic developments, in 1968 Harold Wilson decided to close all formal military bases east of Egypt’s Suez Canal, thereby reducing military costs and refocus Britain’s diminished post-War resources on NATO, Europe, and the North Atlantic theatre. While many commentators praised Wilson’s decision as opening a new, postcolonial chapter in Britain’s foreign policy, others believed that the move was a dangerous, short-sighted mistake. The 1982 Falklands War and 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars galvanised both supporters and opponents of the ‘East of Suez’ policy. As The Economist argued however, ‘In reality, Britain never left the Gulf’. Even after 1971 Britain maintained significant military and geopolitical influence in Oman, the Gulf States (Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar), Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as at Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory and at Hong Kong (until 1997). Arguably, it enjoyed greater success through so-called ‘soft-power’, maintaining strong economic and broadcasting relationships with Arabian and South Asian states.

Why does ‘East of Suez’ remain such an emotionally-charged phrase for contemporary audiences? A quick survey of British newspapers evidences how Labour, Conservative, and independent journalists all use the term to evoke particular political sentiments. The Independent used it to highlight anger from human rights campaigners. The BBC, while noting criticism of UK-Bahraini ties, also discussed the latter state’s longstanding relationship with Britain. The Telegraph simply described ‘East of Suez’ as a ‘welcome renewal of friendships in the Gulf’.

Irrespective of where one’s political beliefs lie on the spectrum, geography and geographical writing have played central roles in embedding ‘East of Suez’ in our collective conscious. The Royal Geographical Society’s extensive archives reveal how this phrase was used to promote particular imaginations and responses throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Early, Orientalist-charged uses of ‘East of Suez’ underscored geography as an imperial discipline. Between the 1880s and the First World War, Suez expanded from the Canal and Peninsula, to a symbolic geostrategic marker, and finally to a border between ‘known’ and ‘unknown’, ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In an 1886 memorial, ‘East of Suez’ meant exactly that. The largely undocumented Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal. This reference nonetheless is important, for it provides us with evidence as to how the RGS conceived of the Suez Canal in the 1870s-1890s: as a geographical place. This narrow notion soon changed, however. In the Georgian period Ernest Young, a Belle Epoque travel writer on Siam (Thailand) and Finland, deliberately (and vaguely) described the geography in-between Europe and Russia and Southeast Asia as ‘Somewhere East of Suez’, conveying a romantic notion of uncharted mountains and pirate-laden waters. As the RGS reviewer laconically noted, Young’s Orientalist perspective was undoubtedly a function of his day job as a schoolmaster. The following year Rachael Humphreys, an early female FRGS, published Travels East of Suez, reiterating the term’s intensely imperial meanings. This time, ‘East of Suez’ referred not the Near East nor Fertile Crescent, but to the Indian Subcontinent. This broadness suggests the pre-First World War use of ‘East of Suez’ to describe a generalised, homogenous Asian ‘Other’, exoticising the grand adventure of Britain’s colonial exploits beyond the Canal. Belle Epoque literature, from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1900-1901) to near-endless accounts of British explorers, undoubtedly influenced Humphreys’ selection of her title.

By the 1930s ‘East of Suez’ was firmly entrenched as the Empire’s dividing line between Europe and an occasionally mysterious Asia. In 1936 Kenneth Mason recalled the moment aviation came to India: ‘I look back with mixed feelings to twenty-five years ago, when in December 1910 the first plane seen east of Suez arrived at Allahabad and began what were optimistically called “joy-flights”‘ (5). Here ‘East of Suez’ enjoyed a physicality, the sense that it served as an actual obstacle for the advancement of British civilisation, a feat that must be traversed each time the Empire sought to impose a European convention onto the Orient.

The War changed all that. ‘East of Suez’, even to the RGS, became a byword for Britain’s need for oil. G M Lees’ 1940 article, for instance, defined ‘East of Suez’ as Arabia, and Arabia as a potential oil source for the British war effort.

By 1968, when the newly-published monograph Great Britain in the Indian Ocean 1810-1850 was reviewed in The Geographical Journal, the consequences of Britain’s Asian ‘adventure’ were very much on reviewer Antony Preston’s mind. ‘As Great Britain’s “East of Suez” commitments are under such heavy fire’, he wrote, ‘one may well wonder how we came to be saddled with so many treaty obligations and colonial responsibilities’. ‘East of Suez’ had ceased to be a term of imperial excitement. Instead, it succinctly described the weight of imperial fatigue, eating away at a post-War Britain eager to tighten its finances and responsibilities.

In the wake of the 1982 Falklands War and the RGS’s now-famed 1983 discussion of the islands’ environmental and political geography, such political geographers as John House (Oxford) used ‘East of Suez’ as a term to describe the expansion and limitation of Soviet naval operations in relation to British and American counterparts. ‘East of Suez’ no longer carried a clear imperial meaning; instead political geographers identified it as a fault line between Capitalism and Communism. Bizarrely, House declared that the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean ‘would be of little significance in the global nuclear balance’ (13), thereby forgetting two millennia of history. In the twenty-first century, ‘East of Suez’ conveys two distinct, but intertwined meanings: the return of formal British military bases to the Indian Ocean (see Blake 2009), and the expansion of British soft power in South and Southeast Asia.

RGS Sources

books_icon (1886) Geographical Notes, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography8(5): 328-38.

books_icon C R M (1914) Review, From Russia to Siam, by Ernest YoungThe Geographical Journal 44(6): 586-87.

books_icon (1916) Review, Travels East of Suez, by Rachael HumphreysThe Geographical Journal 47(2): 138.

books_icon Mason K (1936) The Himalaya as a Barrier to Modern CommunicationsThe Geographical Journal 87(1): 1-13.

books_icon Lees G M (1940) The Search for OilThe Geographical Journal  95(1): 1-16.

books_icon Preston A (1968) Review, Great Britain in the Indian Ocean 1810-1850, by G S GrahamThe Geographical Journal 134(1): 134.

books_icon House J (1984) War, Peace and Conflict Resolution: Towards an Indian Ocean ModelTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 9(1): 3-21.

books_icon Blake R (2009) Airfield Closures and Air Defence Reorientation in Britain during the Cold War and its Immediate AftermathArea 41(3): 285-99.

News Sources

60-world2 Lindsay I (2014) HM Ambassador’s speech to the Bahrain Business Forum, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 10 December.

60-world2 (2015) British Secretary of State for Defence visits OmanBritish Embassy Muscat, 1 October.

60-world2 ONA (2015) British Secretary of State for Defence hails Sultanate’s efforts in solving regional crisisMuscat Daily, 1 October.

60-world2 (2014) We’re back: A new naval base in Bahrain is an echo of the pastThe Economist 13 December.

60-world2 Merrill J (2015) Royal Navy base construction begins in Bahrain as Britain seeks a return to ‘East of Suez’The Independent, 1 November.

60-world2 Gardner F (2015) UK builds first permanent Middle East base for 40 yearsBBC News, 1 November.

60-world2 More C (2015) A welcome renewal of friendships in the GulfThe Telegraph, 1 November.

Airshow Geographies

By Benjamin Sacks, Princeton University

Airbus wide-body aircraft display, 2006 Farnborough Airshow. Courtesy MilborneOne/Wikimedia Commons.

Airbus wide-body aircraft display, 2006 Farnborough Airshow. Courtesy MilborneOne/Wikimedia Commons.

Every two years the world’s most important defence and civilian aerospace manufacturers decend onto a rural Hampshire airport to show of their latest, greatest, and (in some cases) most lethal hardware. At the 2014 Farnborough Airshow Boeing and Airbus competed for orders of their next-generation 787 and A350 wide-body long-haul aircraft; Boeing went so far as to fly its aircraft through a stunt routine to convince potential buyers of the 787’s manoeuvring capabilities. Wifi manufacturers announced roll-out of their flight-based technologies on major airlines. Bombadier and Embraer announced new regional jetliners, and the British, French, and American air forces announced orders and program extensions. In June 2015 Farnborough International, the show’s organisers, publicised plans to begin a new airshow in September 2017, in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. But the Shoreham airshow crash on 22 August 2015 – in which 11 people died – serves to remind us of the inherent dangers of bringing low-flying aircraft, often still undergoing flight tests, so close to crowded audiences.

Airshows, like airspace, constitute contested geographies, spaces of performance, politics, power, and technology. Despite their prominent place in aviation history, few geographers have critically examined the airshow as contested space. In a 2001 Area article, Heather Nicholson (Leeds) recounted the importance of such specific sites as airshows in childhood geographies; the airshow, like zoos and carnivals, become privileged spatial memories; important markers in a child’s expanding world (p. 134).

Matthew Rech (Newcastle) has redressed this gap in his 2015 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers study, ‘A critical geopolitics of observant practice at British military airshows’. Approaching airshows through what Fraser Macdonald termed ‘observant practice’, or how “types” of seeing (e.g., ‘gazing’, ‘glancing’, staring) can manipulate — and be manipulated by — show controllers through dazzling demonstrations, fly-bys, and promotion or suppression of particular images and narratives (p. 537). Site selection for instance can play important subliminal roles, the selection of a “country site” as Farnborough, intended to evoke a timeless England, or Brize Norton, a famed RAF base with barriers, signs, and other symbols of ‘secrecy, security, and safety’ (p. 538). Such images convey strength, ‘prowess’, ‘an architecture of control’, and nationalism, as well as more child-like wonder, amazement, curiosity, and sheer excitement. The consequences — particularly from a fiscal standpoint — can be huge.

Rech’s argument has a strong historical foundation, lending additional credence to his contemporary, sociological observation. From the 1910s, airshows conveyed the ‘rhetorical force of flight’: a host of metaphorical meaning ranging from the airman, who seemingly took on superhuman qualities wherever he (or she, from the 1930s) went, to the ‘futurist aesthetic’ of the aircraft themselves: their glistening fuselages, engines, the triumph of metal over nature. Rech is careful, however, to also stress what is not displayed: the most secret, most advanced, most important aircraft. This balance between display and intimidation, and secrecy and the threats of the unknown, remains central to any airshow geared toward military hardware.

The audience undergoes a physiological and psychological process when attending an airshow, particularly one with air force equipment. In what Rech refers to as ‘technofetishism’, the moral barriers between casual weekend observer and the lethal equipment on the other side of the tape blur; internal questions concerning the aircraft’s or system’s purpose is clouded in excitement and pride in the nation-state (pp. 541-42).

60-world2 Aviation Week (2014) Farnborough airshow accessed 6 November 2015.

60-world2 Tovey A (2015) Farnborough flying high as it lands China air show deal The Telegraph.

60-world2 Johnston C and Jenkins L (2015), Shoreham plane crash: seven dead after fighter jet hits cars during airshow 22 August.

books_icon Nicholson HN (2001) Seeing how it was? Childhood geographies and memories of home movies Area 33(2): 128-40.

books_icon Rech MF (2015) A critical geopolitics of observant practice at British military airshows Transactions of The Institute of British Geographers 40(4): 536-48.

The Quest for No Man’s Land

By Noam Lesham, Durham University, UK, and Alasdair Pinkerton, Royal Holloway University of London, UK. 

A migrant camp on the Slovenia-Croatia border, September 2015. Photographer: Elliot Graves, FOXEP

A migrant camp on the Slovenia-Croatia border, September 2015. Photographer: Elliot Graves, FOXEP

Recent news reports of new ‘no man’s lands’ emerging across Europe conjure an image of migrants trapped in places that are considered to be somehow “in between”. Typically that means in between hastily erected border fences, such as those that have suddenly appeared on the Hungarian borders with Croatia, Serbia and Austria, or at reinstated border posts between Schengen-area countries.

This re-emergence of ‘no-man’s land’ in the popular vocabulary is just its latest incarnation. In Western cultural memory, ‘no-man’s land’ traditionally invokes the killing fields of the First World War. Disseminated and popularised through journalistic accounts from the Western Front, the no-man’s land became known as the ultimate locus of physical and corporeal destruction. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, no man’s lands have been associated with anywhere from “ungovernable territories” and the spatio-legal limbos of the ‘war on terror’, to plighted deindustrialised urban boroughs in North America.

This growing proliferation prompted us to ask the seemingly simple question that lies at the heart of our paper published by Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: What is no-man’s land? The answers to this question seem intuitively obvious, yet bewilderingly broad.

At its core, our article sets out to rethink the significance of no man’s lands to the political and social challenges of the present. Revisiting over 1000 of the term’s history, we focus attention on the realities of life for individuals and communities who live, work in or travel through these space. Rather than empty sites or “dead zones”, we argue that no man’s lands are living spaces. While the withdrawal of traditional forms of power often results in material dilapidation and heightened vulnerability of populations, we find that no man’s lands often become sites of political activity and cultural creativity.

We recently completed a 6,000 mile journey in search of no-man’s lands past and present. This took us from the mediaeval Nomansland in Herefordshire, through the French villages decimated in WWI, the route of the Iron Curtain and the Cypriot Buffer Zone. We were hoping to reach Bir Tawil on the Egypt-Sudan border, the last unclaimed territory on earth, but this never transpired.

As we were crossing Europe, the Schengen Agreement was coming under immense pressure with old borders reinstated almost overnight. It was then that the media use of no man’s land began proliferating. However, the new no-man’s lands of Europe may be opening up along the lines of national borders, but also in spaces hundreds of miles from Europe’s ‘edges’. Pedestrian underpasses, train platforms, and even train carriages can and have become, however briefly, sites of restriction, enclosure and abandonment.

Second, these no-man’s lands are highly dynamic – they migrate, they move, they materialise and de-materialise with startling rapidity in response to shifting political decisions (perhaps especially so when there are differential political decisions across borders), police activity or the presence of NGOs and international humanitarian activity.

Rethinking no-man’s lands in the 21st century is a key challenge that will require a more rigorous engagement from historians, geographers and political scientists. At the same time, and as we are reminded daily, this is also task with concrete policy implications, one with immense social and political stakes.

About the authors: Noam Lesham is a lecturer in the Department of Geography at Durham University and Alasdair Pinkerton is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more about the Into no man’s land expedition, co-led by Noam and Alasdair, at  .

60-world2 Aronson G 2015 Egypt threatened by ‘ungoverned space’ on Libyan border AL-Monitor

60-world2 BBC 2015 Migrant crisis: Trapped in no-man’s land at the Croatia/Serbia border

books_icon Leshem, N. and Pinkerton, A. (2015), Re-inhabiting no-man’s land: genealogies, political life and critical agendas. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12102

60-world2 Raven B 2014 No man’s land: Unwanted land piles up in Jackson County  M Live Media Group

60-world2 Iyengar R 2015 Hungary reopens Budapest train station to stranded refugees after two days Time 

Geographies of youth work, volunteering and employment #YWW15

By Sarah Mills, Loughborough University

Today marks the start of ‘National Youth Work Week’ (2nd – 8th November 2015). This annual event is a celebration of youth work and its achievements, but is also a time to reflect on some of the challenges across the youth work landscape. Paul Miller, interim Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency, stated at the event’s launch that:

“Youth Work Week is a time when people from every part of the sector can come together to celebrate and promote what youth workers do and the transformative contribution they are making to young people’s lives.” (NYA, 2015)

This was the case at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club in Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s, the focus of my recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. As part of a wider national post-war reconstruction effort for the organisation as a whole, one group in Manchester took a radical step of employing a professionally trained youth worker – Stanley Rowe (Figure 1). During his employment, Rowe completely revived and rejuvenated the Club and it became a crucially important space in the lives of hundreds of young people living in the city (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Stanley Rowe at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Figure 1: Stanley Rowe at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester. With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Figure 2: Young people at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Figure 2: Young people at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester. With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Rowe’s background in youth and community work inspired a new emphasis at the Club on young people’s ‘voice’ and they established their own Club Committee. Indeed, young people’s voice is a theme still very much on the political agenda, as both the theme for this year’s National Youth Work Week and the 2015 UN International Youth Day in relation to ‘youth civic engagement’.

In the article, I use the historical example of the JLB & C to make a series of wider arguments about youth work, volunteering and employment more broadly. Both Rowe and his voluntary base encouraged young people to volunteer in their local communities, both as a route to employment but also as a response to faith-based duty (although it is interesting to note that Rowe himself was non-Jewish). More importantly however, the paper considers some of the opportunities and tensions that arise between volunteers and employees when they work alongside one another, under the same remit here of providing a service to young people.

The current landscape of organised activities for young people outside of formal education in the UK is composed of diverse schemes funded and delivered by the state, voluntary organisations, charities, religious institutions, neighbourhoods, families or a combination thereof. Most of these spaces and schemes are sustained through a mix of paid and unpaid labour, with a complex relationship between volunteering and employment. Indeed, this dynamic has become increasingly politicised in the UK, for example in the provision of libraries and other public services. This paper emphasises some of the emotional challenges of volunteering and employment and the sheer volume of work involved in sustaining these types of spaces through holding them together in place.

Overall, this article explores the spatialities of informal education, drawing connections between the historical record and contemporary youth work practice.

About the Author:

Sarah Mills is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Loughborough University.


books_icon Mills, S. (2015) Geographies of youth work, volunteering and employment: the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and Club in post-war Manchester, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40 (4): 523-535

60-world2 National Youth Agency (2015) ‘NYA launches Youth Work Week 2015’ Available at:

60-world2 UN (2015) ‘2015 International Youth Day: Youth Civic Engagement’ Available at:

Listening to Nature

By Paul C. Adams (University of Texas)

The current geological era has been dubbed the Anthropocene. This term is meant to signify that humans now ‘have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system’. We are affecting so many systems simultaneously—atmospheric, terrestrial and aquatic—that earth scientists are at a loss to understand exactly how human actions are entangled in many of the processes of environmental disturbance they are observing. Are things changing because we’ve added something (like pollution), taken something away (like the animals we fish and hunt) or transformed something (like the rivers we have rerouted and channelized) or all three? The engineering mindset that got us into this situation may be the wrong approach to get us out. It might help to think in a radically different way, developing a respect for nature as a host of interdependent, intercommunicating organisms, and thinking of each place as what I call an ‘enviro-organism’. To see why I move in this direction, we have to take a step back and reflect for a moment on what people mean by ‘nature.’

Nature confronts us with impressions of the unbelievably large and the incredibly small. The New Horizons spacecraft departed from the earth at a whopping 58,000 kilometres an hour but it took nine years for it to reach Pluto.  The length of the voyage merely to the edge of our solar system reminds us that our planet is a mere speck in the universe. Meanwhile, the physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, are stretching our understanding down to the very smallest scale phenomena. The particles they study cannot really be thought of as things in a conventional sense, but they are necessary for the existence of more thing-like things such as atoms and molecules. And the scales of time taken into account by physicists and astronomers are equally alienating. Nature pushes us to our limits, extending human awareness to scales that are too large or too small to feel a sense of involvement. There is something awe-inspiring about imaginatively voyaging from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the interior of atoms to the far edge of the universe, but these elements of nature seem to have no place for humanity as we know it.


adams-blogpic-Geological-time-spiral. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Geological Time Spiral. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

There is of course another side to nature. When a dentist from Minnesota shot a lion named Cecil in 2014, there was international outrage. When sea stars (‘starfish’) began to tear themselves to pieces off the west coast of North America there was widespread concern. There is now a new concern about 12,000 square kilometres of coral that is expected to die over the next year because of climate change. It is more than a bit disturbing to many nature-lovers that hundreds of frog species are predicted to go extinct by the end of the century. In these cases, ‘nature’ appears as something fragile, something to care about, and something we should be taking care of. Nature’s middle scales are more easily embraced within human concern than the scalar extremes studied by astronomers and physicists.

Nature means radically different things and this raises questions. If the nature around us has all been humanized in some way, if it is not entirely wild like Pluto or entirely strange like subatomic particles (some of which are technically classified as ‘strange’), and furthermore if it is frequently unruly—unpredictable and occasionally dangerous, then why should we care about it? How can we make sense of our passion to save lions, frogs, corals, or starfish? Are our caring feelings misguided? Do they betray emotionalism more than our capacity for rational thought?

I would argue that a beginning of an answer lies in thinking of nature in a fundamentally different way—not as strange (like elementary particles and galaxies) or tragically compromised (like endangered species and ecosystems), but as a collection of beings that have things to say to us, beings we have only started to attend to, beings we could learn important things from if we knew how to listen. In my article ‘Placing the Anthropocene: A Day in the Life of an Enviro-Organism’, I offer a glimpse of nature as a collection of living and nonliving things that communicate with us and with each other. I propose that we should meet these fellow creatures in a spirit of dialogue, or even in a spirit of orchestral performance. By doing so, our ambivalent relation to nature becomes clearer. This attitude to nature helps us find a place for ourselves as observers filled with awe and scientific curiosity, but also as caretakers of a small corner of the universe.

About the author:

Dr. Paul C. Adams is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.

books_icon Adams, P. C. (2015), Placing the Anthropocene: a day in the life of an enviro-organism. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12103

60-world2 Capecchi C and Rogers k 2015 Killer of Cecil the Lion Finds Out That He Is a Target Now, of Internet Vigilantism The New York Times

60-world2 Dunnakey A 2015 Coral reefs endangered by bleaching in global event, researchers say CNN

60-world2 Lee J 2015 Starfish are still dying, but here’s reason for hope The National Geographic

60-world2 NASA 2015 New Horizons: The First Mission to the Pluto System and the Kuiper Belt

60-world2 Platt J 2015 Frog Mass Extinction on the Horizon Scientific American 

60-world2 Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’

Before same-sex marriage: finding ‘homonormativity’ in rural Wales in the early 1980s

By Gavin Brown (University of Leicester)

World Pride Toronto (June 2014). Photo Credit: Gavin Brown

World Pride Toronto (June 2014). Photo Credit: Gavin Brown

On 26 June 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Four days before marriage equality was approved in the United States, the Pitcairn Islands, with a population of just 48 people (and no known same-sex couples) also joined the growing list of nations to recognize and allow same-sex marriage. The accelerating acceptance of same-sex marriage around the world is part of a wider trend, over the last two decades, of greater social tolerance towards sex and gender minorities in many countries. This has been accompanied by new forms of legal recognition and protection for lesbian, gay and transgender people in some countries (at the same time as more repressive legislation has been threatened or enacted elsewhere).

Geographers and other social scientists have attempted to understand and make sense of these changes in social attitudes. One popular explanation is that these changes are an expression of a ‘new homonormativity’. This concept was first articulated by Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, who argued that the incorporation of some lesbian and gay people (particularly those in settled couples) into American society’s normative understandings of appropriate sexual conduct was an expression of ‘the sexual politics of neoliberalism’. By this, she meant that society was increasingly willing to accept and support lesbian and gay people who took responsibility for their own well-being (without recourse to state welfare benefits) and who preferred to express their sexuality within domestic spaces rather than the public sexual cultures of earlier (lesbian and) gay neighbourhoods in major urban centres. Homonormativity is said to have domesticated gay culture. ‘Homonormative’ lifestyles are understood to be socially liberal, but fiscally and sexually conservative.

As I have previously argued (Brown 2012), although there is a lot of merit in many analyses of contemporary ‘homonormativity’, too often they focus on the experiences of people living in major urban centres (in Europe and North America) at the expense of those living in provincial cities, smaller towns and rural areas. By studying lesbian and gay lives in a wider range of locations, it is possible to reconsider what it means to be socially ‘normative’, and what it takes for sexual minorities to fit in, or feel part of, different types of localities. The geographical study of sexuality and sexual politics is diminished if scholars over-emphasize urban (and specifically metropolitan) sexual cultures at the expense of other places.

In the 1970s, lesbian and gay subcultures became more visible in the urban landscape and many lesbians and gay men migrated to large cities in the hope of finding community and the possibility of leading more open lives. At the same time, and in parallel with a wider ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, smaller numbers of lesbians and gay men left the cities for a ‘simpler’, more self-sufficient, and ‘environmentally friendly’ life in rural areas. I have recently been revisiting the archives of a lesbian and gay organization from the period, the Gay Rural Aid and Information Network (GRAIN), which offered practical support and encouragement to gay people who wanted to move to rural England and Wales (see my paper published recently in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers). Although many in the network believed that they were socially and politically progressive, I find their rejection of urban gay subcultures and their promotion to domestic-level self-reliance, to be more complex and contradictory, at times being socially and sexually conservative. Even so, the economic practices pursued by these lesbian farmers and gay smallholders were far removed from the emerging (urban) neoliberal economies from which they had fled. They engaged in all sorts of non-waged labour, domestic production, bartering and skill-swaps. Some of these practices were part of their ideological commitment to living sustainably on the land; but they also helped to embed them, as lesbians and gay men, in the existing diverse economies of the rural areas to which they had moved. Although these people (and the places where they lived) are very different to those normally considered in debates about contemporary ‘homonormativity’, I believe traces of emergent homonormative beliefs and practices can be found in their lives.

Thinking about the diversity of economic practices and social relations that might be associated with the emergence of homonormative attitudes over recent decades emphasizes that ‘homonormativity’ is not as a single entity, but a cluster of traits, relationships and values. Geographers can make an important contribution to understanding homonormativity by demonstrating that homonormativities are multiple, as well as time and place specific. A cultural and historical geography approach to these questions can help find traces of homonormativity in some very unexpected places.

About the author:

Gavin Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester where he leads the Critical and Creative Geographies research group.

60-world2 BBC (2015), ‘US Supreme Court rules gay marriage is legal nationwide’, 27 June,

books_icon Brown, G. (2012), “Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives,” Journal of Homosexuality 59 (7): 1065 – 1072.

books_icon Brown, G. (2015), ‘Rethinking the origins of homonormativity: the diverse economies of rural gay life in England and Wales in the 1970s and 1980s’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, doi: 10.1111/tran.12095

60-world2 The Guardian (2015), ‘Pitcairn Island, population 48, passes law to allow same-sex marriage’, The Guardian, 22 June

60-world2 Halberstadt, A. (2015), “Out of the Woods”, New York Times, 6 August.

The Life and Death of Zero Carbon Housing Policy

By Andrew Karvonen (University of Manchester), Gordon Walker (Lancaster University) and Simon Guy (Lancaster University)

On 10 July 2015, the UK government announced that it was abandoning its 2016 commitment to require all new housing in England and Wales to be zero carbon. In ‘Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation’, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne cited the zero carbon housing policy as a constraint on new homebuilding and an apparent drag on the productivity of the UK economy. The announcement served as an anticlimactic and rather brutal conclusion to a decade of active working towards decarbonising the future housing stock in England and Wales. This particular case provides a fascinating window on wider debates over sustainable transitions and the politics of reducing carbon emissions (see our paper Walker et al. 2015, recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers).

About a quarter of the total UK carbon footprint is attributed to the construction, operation, and demolition of the British housing stock. Housing thus provides an important target for climate change mitigation policies. In December 2006, the mainstreaming of zero carbon housing was kickstarted in the UK with the introduction of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH). The CSH established a ten-year period of innovation for the homebuilding industry to improve the energy efficiency of new-build houses, culminating in the regulatory zero carbon standard taking effect in 2016. The Government simultaneously funded cutting-edge housing developments through the Homes and Communities Agency to demonstrate how zero carbon housing could be achieved in practice.

Park Dale zero carbon social housing scheme in Wakefield

Park Dale zero carbon social housing scheme in Wakefield

The UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions through the CSH was significant and tangible. The definition of ‘zero carbon’ was intentionally left to housing industry stakeholders (homebuilders, building professionals, policymakers, and NGOs) working together through the Zero Carbon Hub to ensure that the target was achievable. In the ensuing years, debates about the definition of zero carbon have revealed how deeply fossil fuels are embedded in the economy, planning regulations, and the daily life of British households. Reducing carbon emissions involved a wide range of discussions that centred on how energy and housing are connected. While some of the deliberations were highly technical and involved building scientists devising strategies to reduce carbon emissions through improved efficiency and renewable energy sources, others revolved around how to reduce and manage the costs of low-carbon strategies and technologies and how homeowners should (or should not) be drawn into shifts towards new patterns of zero carbon living.

As the zero carbon standard evolved, there was a clear separation between how a house was designed and built versus how it was occupied and lived in. This was particularly evident in March 2011 when the definition of ‘zero carbon’ was changed to create a distinction between ‘regulated emissions’ such as space heating, ventilation, hot water, and fixed lighting versus ‘unregulated emissions’ from plug-in appliances such as televisions, computers, and tumble dryers. This watered down the ambitions of the zero carbon target considerably by restricting the CSH to design and construction of building fabric and energy supply. The CSH effectively became just another requirement of building regulations (although one that was more stringent than existing energy performance requirements) while avoiding a broader social commitment to low-carbon lifestyles.

The demise of zero carbon housing regulation diminishes but does not signal the end of the carbon reduction agenda. The Government apparently continues to work towards carbon emission reduction targets, although they are not specific to the housing stock and do not have a clear route to reduce domestic emissions. And it is likely that some if not all of the stakeholders in the homebuilding industry will continue on the innovation journey that began in 2006. The technical, economic and construction principles developed through the CSH might continue to influence the homebuilding industry (especially if they are not perceived to add to the costs of housing). However, without the regulatory push of Government, it is likely that decarbonisation of the housing stock will slow considerably rather than become embedded in the mainstream practice of homebuilding. Meanwhile, a bubbling undercurrent of localized experiments, demonstration projects, and community based initiatives will continue to take a more expansive approach to low-carbon housing design, development, and living that recognises domestic carbon emissions as unavoidably wrapped up in the combination of both the built environment and occupant practices.

About the authors: 

Dr Andrew Karvonen is a Lecturer in Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Manchester. Professor Gordon Walker is based in the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University and is the co-Director of the RCUK funded DEMAND Centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand). Professor Simon Guy is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Lancaster University.