Author Archives: Jen Dickie

“On Yer Bike”: Sociotechnical Perspectives of Cycling

Jen Dickie

Complex Cycle Lane Markings. I'm glad I was walking! At the junction of City Road and Middle Street, Beeston.  The copyright on this image is owned by David Lally and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Cycling hit the headlines last week when David Cameron announced that £94 million would be invested across eight cities and four National Parks to promote cycling in England.  The scheme, described by the prime minister as the start of “a cycling revolution” is reported to be the largest single injection of public money into cycling in England.  Whilst pro-cycling campaigners welcome this investment, they argue that more funding, spread consistently over future decades, is needed if Britain is going to “transform into a continental style ‘Cycletopia’”.

Haroon Siddique and Peter Walker report in The Guardian that the fund will pay for both upgrades to existing cycle networks and create new ones in a bid to make it easier and safer for people who already cycle, and to make cycling more appealing to those who don’t.  The government is encouraging local councils to “up their game” to deliver cycling-friendly infrastructure from the design stage, and will assist this process by cutting the red tape that “stifles” cycle-friendly road design.  The government’s press release outlines a wide variety of improvements that will be implemented as part of this scheme, including; expanding the network of 20 mph zones in urban areas and 40mph limits in rural areas, the introduction of ‘Trixi’ mirrors at junctions so that HGV drivers can see cyclists more easily, contraflow measures so that cyclists can use one-way streets, mini-signals at cyclists’ eye height, filter signals, trials of different roundabout designs and options for larger advanced stop lines at junctions.

Before implementing any changes, the government should perhaps look at experiences of similar schemes, such as the Launceston Bike Network in Tasmania, Australia.  In their paper for Area, Roger Vreugdenhil and Stewart Williams describe how this scheme became subject to “intense community conflict” or “white line fever”, whereby the seemingly innocuous white lines depicting the cycle lanes were likened to acts of vandalism, causing confusion to road users and were seen to increase territorial ‘them and us’ behaviours.  They argue that cycling and infrastructure should be reconceptualised as an “urban sociotechnical system” and that by recognising this, transport policy and planning may be able to overcome such resistance in future schemes.

The public response to the English scheme has been interesting; the BBC published a report outlining the details on Monday 12th August, by Tuesday morning there were 1051 comments posted from the public.  It is well known that there is conflict between road users, particularly car drivers and cyclists, and this is well reflected in some of the comments.  There are, however, some who show a more balanced view, recognising that a cultural change is needed and that all road users need to be more educated if we are to become a cycle-friendly country.

books_icon Roger Vreugdenhil and Stewart Williams, 2013, White line fever: a sociotechnical perspective on the contested implementation of an urban bike lane network, Area, DOI: 10.1111/area.12029

60-world2 Government shifts cycling up a gear, Government press release, accessed 20th August 2013

60-world2 Cycling groups welcome announcement of £77m government fund, The Guardian, 12th August 2013

60-world2 Cycling gets £94m push in England, BBC, 12th August 2013

Consumption, Behaviour Change and Sustainability

Taken by John O'Neill: View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.Jen Dickie

On Tuesday, the House of Commons International Development Committee published a report on global food security.  Issues around the changes in the supply and demand of food at a local and global scale are discussed and calls for food wastage to be reduced, nutrition programmes expanded and a revision of agriculturally derived biofuels are some of the recommendations made.  However, in The Guardian yesterday, Fiona Harvey focussed on a more specific warning from the MPs’ report, stating that the British public “should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world”.  Although only one of many factors contributing to the global food crises, the MPs’ suggest that by cutting down meat consumption, pressures on agricultural land will ease, deforestation and obesity will be reduced and recent food price inflation will stabilise.  The report emphasises that this is not just a national issue but a global one, highlighting that China has doubled its average meat consumption per person per year from 20kg in 1985 to 50kg today; whilst high, this consumption level is still shadowed by the UK, who averaged at 85.8kg in 2007.  However, the report recognises that simply “urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable”, and instead suggests a campaign for behavioural change is needed where we see meat as an “occasional product rather than an everyday staple”.    

The timing of the International Development Committee’s report is of particular relevance as it was UNEP’s ‘World Environment Day’ on Wednesday.  The theme for this year’s celebrations is Think.Eat.Save, an anti-food waste campaign that encourages you to become more aware of your food choices and the environmental impacts they may have.  Sustainable consumption is described by UNEP as being about ‘doing more and better with less’, not just in terms of food, but for all renewable and non-renewable resources.  

Whilst food consumption behaviours are the main focus of these activities, Meryl Pearce et al. report on the consumption and conservation behaviours of water in three parts of Australia in an article for The Geographical Journal.  They compared householders stated water use with their actual consumption and found that high water users knew that they were high consumers of water, and that location, household size and annual household income were good predictive factors for high per capita water use.  Interestingly, their study also found that having a healthy garden was seen as a “symbol of economic status in the neighbourhood”, and therefore more important than conserving water.  Pearce et al. suggest that successful behavioural change campaigns need to offer “alternatives that do not lead to any loss in social welfare or status” and that by promoting the growing prestige associated with sustainable living consumption behaviour could change for the better.             

books_icon Meryl Pearce, Eileen Willis, Loreen Mamerow, Bradley Jorgensen, John Martin, 2013, The prestige of sustainable living: implications for water use in Australia, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12016

60-world2 Eat less meat for greater food security, British population urged, The Guardian, 4th June 2013

60-world2 Global Food Security: First Report of Session 2013–14, House of Commons International Development Committee, accessed 4th June 2013

60-world2 United Nations Environment Programme, Think.Eat.Save.  World Environment Day, accessed 5th June 2013

The Rise of the South: Beyond Expectations or a Warning about Our Future?

Jen Dickie

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk black deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel on-target, Sunday, September 4, 2005as work progresses to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal, New Orleans. (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers photo by Alan Dooley).  This work is in the public domain.On the 14th March, the United Nations Development Programme published the 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, which describes how the “rise of the South is radically reshaping the world of the 21st century, with developing nations driving economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and propelling billions more into a new global middle class”.  Crediting sustained investment in education, health care and social programmes as well as increasing international engagement, the report states that the “world is witnessing an epochal global rebalancing”.  Whilst the UN’s press release focuses on the “massive poverty reduction” and that more than 40 developing countries have demonstrated growth beyond expectations, Claire Provost highlights some of the more negative findings from the report in her article for The Guardian.  Her article focuses on the warning from the UN that unless action is taken to tackle environmental threats such as climate change, deforestation and air and water pollution, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050.  The report highlights that climate change is already exacerbating “chronic” environmental threats, and stresses that although everyone is affected, “they hurt poor countries and poor communities the most”.

In an article for The Geographical Journal, Nigel Clark, Vasudha Chhotray and Roger Few discuss the relationship between natural hazards and disasters and how best to address the “uneven exposure and resilience of different social groups”.  They argue that human-induced climate change and its associated impacts have further added to the already complex nature of natural disasters.  Questioning the concept of global environmental justice, they discuss issues such as the tendency of powerful political and economic actors to take advantage of disasters and how traditional coping mechanisms have been eroded by ‘global modernising forces’; however, they state that whilst aid responses can be distributional and/or rights-based, the idea of justice is likely to stem from “ordinary human virtues of care and compassion”.  Following this argument, Clark et al., offer the notion that current generations of humans may be more likely care about the environment and the challenges it, and our future generations, face if we consider ourselves as owing an incalculable debt to past generations who survived a magnitude of natural disasters and therefore made our existence possible.

As growth in developing nations continues, the challenges facing them will change.  The UN highlights that sustainable economies and societies will rely on new policies and structural changes, and that these are needed if human development and climate change goals are to be aligned.  However, it is clear that policies alone will not be enough.  If we can show the same resilience and respect for our environment as our ancestors did, and view our actions as something we ‘owe’ our future generations, perhaps attitudes will change.

books_icon Nigel Clark, Vasudha Chhotray, Roger Few, 2013, Global justice and disasters, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12005

60-world2 Environmental threats could push billions into extreme poverty, warns UN, The Guardian, 14th March 2013

60-world2 Press release: “Rise of South” transforming global power balance, says 2013 Human Development Report, accessed 18th March 2013

60-world2 Human Development Report 2013, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, accessed 18th March 2013

Stop Horsing Around – Governance of the Meat Industry, Consumer Confidence and the Blame Game

Jen Dickie

Basashi (raw horsemeat) from Towada. Photograph taken by Richard W.M. Jones and released under the GFDL. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.On the 15th January the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) published a report stating that horse and pig DNA had been detected in beefburger products available from retail outlets in Ireland.  The FSAI reported that whilst the presence of pig DNA had a plausible, although clearly still unacceptable, explanation –cross contamination in meat processing plants, there was no reasonable explanation for the presence of horsemeat.

Since then, the ‘horsemeat scandal’ has dominated our headlines with a steady stream of shocking revelations about the meat industry and its regulations, supply chains and possible links to the criminal underworld.  The timeline of findings and events published by the UK Food Standards Agency demonstrates not only the extent and seriousness of the investigation, but the unfolding complexity and (to some) the surprising lack of transparency of the meat industry.  What is clear, however, is that as the number of products testing positive for horse DNA rise, consumer confidence is plummeting and accusations of blame are flying. 

Whilst Felicity Lawrence provides an ‘essential guide to the horsemeat scandal’ in The Guardian, explaining the involvement of Europe in our meat supply chains in particular, Reuters report on the “accusations, denials and threats to sue (that) reverberated round Europe on Friday as meat traders, food processors, retailers and governments all rejected blame”.  However, as the pressure on Governments to act grows and claims of mis-labelling, negligence and fraud ricochet across Europe, Reuters describe how the accused believe they are being used as scapegoats for the politicians who are struggling to explain these breaches in food safety controls.     

As the saga continues, and questions are raised about how this substantial quality control failure has been allowed to happen, the meat industry will find itself under increasing scrutiny.  In a timely article for The Geographical Journal, Laura Devaney provides interesting insight to the operating logics, performance and impact of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (the institution that first reported the presence of horsemeat in beef products) since its formation 10 years ago.  Using interviews with food industry stakeholders, Devaney highlights the “dynamic coexistence of both neoliberal and biosecurity agendas” in the work of the FSAI, which reflect the “new ways of securitising food… (that attempt to) protect society and allow it to prosper, but enable the deregulated free trade of safe food”.  However, Devaney also discusses the conflict between the neoliberal agendas that promote self-regulation in the food industry and the biosecurity measures related to ensuring public health and food safety.  It is this conflict that appears to be the key component in the current horsemeat scandal.  

In these times of economic austerity the demand for cheap, mass-produced processed food has grown, it is therefore not a surprise that the complex nature of supply chains and the de-regulation of the food industry have been taken advantage of.  As always, ‘lessons will be learned’ from this latest food scare but in the meantime, instead of pointing the finger of blame, regulations need to be tightened and consumer confidence regained.

books_icon Laura Devaney, 2013, Spaces of security, surveillance and food safety: interrogating perceptions of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s governing technologies, power and performance, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12001

60-world2 Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide, The Guardian, 15th February 2013

60-world2 Horsemeat blame game ricochets across Europe, Reuters, 15th February 2013

60-world2 Timeline on horse meat issue, The Food Standards Agency, accessed on 19th February 2013

60-world2 FSAI Survey Finds Horse DNA in Some Beef Burger Products, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, accessed on 19th February 2013

Avalanche! How Trees Hold the Secrets of the Past…

Jen Dickie

Stob Ghabhar, Scotland. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Richard Webb and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Last month, tragedy struck in the Scottish Highlands when an avalanche swept four climbers to their deaths. The experienced mountaineers were descending the Bidean Nam Bian peak on the southern side of Glencoe when the avalanche hit, causing them to fall 1000ft (c. 300m) before being buried under dense snow.  In a report for The Independent, Richard Osley describes how the tragedy occurred shortly after the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) issued a warning that human-triggered avalanches were likely in the Glencoe area and the risk was rated as ‘considerable’.  The SAIS reported that on the day of the avalanche, there did not appear to be much depth of snow on the hills of Glencoe, however, there were areas of “mainly hard, unstable windslab” that overlay “a persistent softer weaker layer”; in these conditions more compact blocks of snow can separate from the surrounding snow resulting in a ‘Slab Avalanche’, this type of avalanche is responsible for the majority of avalanche-related fatalities.

As the popularity of the winter sports industry grows, there is increasing pressure on scientists to predict where and when avalanche events will occur.  Dedicated research centres such as the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research are continually improving our understanding of avalanche formation and dynamics and therefore providing increasingly reliable warning services, however, they highlight that we are still unable to accurately predict “why, when and where an avalanche will be released”.

In an article for Area, Mircea Voiculescu and Alexandru Onaca describe how they have applied dendrogeomorphological methods to assess snow avalanches in the Sinaia ski region in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains.  By combining climatological and nivological (physical properties of the snow) analyses with information on disturbances recorded in tree growth, they argue that historical avalanche activity can be reconstructed, including the frequency, magnitude and return-period characteristics of the events.  This knowledge, they argue, can be used to make assessments of risk in areas such as the Carpathian Mountains, where the geomorphological understanding of local avalanches is limited.

As winter sports become more popular with non-expert communities, there is growing pressure to identify high risk areas and to provide appropriate warning systems that non-experts can understand.  It is clear that real-time observations and local knowledge are key to identifying avalanche risk, however, this research shows that by combining different techniques and approaches, we can increase our knowledge and understanding of hazards such as avalanches, and provide essential risk information to previously unmonitored regions such as newly established winter sports resorts.

books_icon Mircea Voiculescu and Alexandru Onaca, 2013, Snow avalanche assessment in the Sinaia ski area (Bucegi Mountains, Southern Carpathians) using the dendrogeomorphology method, Area 45 109–122 doi: 10.1111/area.12003

60-world2 Four climbers die in Glencoe avalanche, The Independent, 20th January 2013

60-world2 SportScotland Avalanche Information Service, accessed on 18th January 2013

60-world2 The WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, accessed on the 18th January 2013

Adding Fuel to the Fire: Australia’s Heatwave and Bushfire Epidemic

By Jen Dickie

Bushfire in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia by Thomas Schoch.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licenseWhilst the UK suffered its wettest summer in 100 years and is currently under a blanket of snow, pictures showing the devastating effects of the epidemic of bushfires that have hit Australia, linked to a record breaking heatwave this January, have been appearing in the news.  In The Observer last Saturday, Alison Rourke reports how firefighters are struggling to control what have been described as the “most atrocious fire-fighting conditions in 30 years”.  A combination of high temperatures and strong winds have resulted in the situation being given a fire danger rating of ‘catastrophic’, the highest possible rating.  In a special climate statement released by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) on Monday, the heatwave event is described as being persistent and widespread, affecting large parts of central and southern Australia.  The combination of dry conditions since mid-2012 and a delay in the monsoon are thought to have exacerbated the susceptibility of the landscape to bushfires.

While Tim Flannery from The Guardian argues that these “raging wildfires are forcing many to rethink their stance on climate change”, the immediate focus is largely on the improvements in communication, weather prediction and management of the outbreaks, particularly since the tragedy in Victoria in 2009 where 173 people lost their lives.

In a paper for Geography Compass, Christopher O’Connor, Greg Garfin, Donald Falk and Thomas Swetnam review trends in human pyrogeography research, where they discuss the interactions among of fire, climate and society.  In particular, they highlight that geographers have the necessary tools to “change operational management actions and societal preparedness” and advance the study of the complex nature of pyrogeography.  They investigate, among other themes, the frequency and extent of wildfires, the role climate plays as a driver of fire occurrence and the impacts of human modification of the landscape; however, they emphasise that our current understanding of the interactions needs to be improved if we are to predict what might happen in the future.  Whether you believe in climate change or not, it seems that there have been more and more extreme weather events hitting our headlines over recent years; however, as the understanding of the complex relationships among fire, climate and society improves, hopefully society will become increasingly more prepared to deal with them in the future.

books_icon Christopher O’Connor, Gregg Garfin, Donald Falk, Thomas Swetnam, 2011, Human Pyrogeography: A New Synergy of Fire, Climate and People is Reshaping Ecosystems across the Globe, Geography Compass 5, 329-350

60-world2 As Australia heatwave hits new high, warning that bushfires will continue, The Observer, 12th Jan 2013

60-world2 As Australia burns, attitudes are changing. But is it too late? The Guardian, 11th Jan 2013

60-world2 Extreme January heat, SPECIAL CLIMATE STATEMENT 43 – INTERIM, Climate Information Services – Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 14th Jan 2013

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees: Deforestation and the Challenges Facing Conservationists

Jen Dickie

Illegally felled rosewood log in Marojejy National Park, Madagascar.  The original author does not wish to be named for safety reasons.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenseAt the end of November, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a British NGO, published a damning report on China’s involvement in the illegally logged timber trade.  China’s rapid economic growth has seen the demand for timber and wood products for both domestic consumption and re-export increase substantially, earning its crown as the world’s biggest importer, consumer and exporter of timber and wood products.  Laurence Caramel and Harold Thibault in The Guardian Weekly summarise some of the key findings of the report highlighting that public enterprises, which are often controlled by provincial governments, play a significant role in this lucrative trade.

Despite accusations of being “the largest importer of stolen wood”, China ironically has enforced strong measures to protect and grow its own forests, including a logging ban across 41.8 million hectares of natural forests and initiating a reforestation programme.  Whilst the EIA acknowledge the Chinese Government’s forest conservation efforts, they argue that the gap between supply and demand has led to China “exporting deforestation to a host of countries around the world”.

On Monday, a report from Simon Speakman Cordall in The Guardian outlined the extent to which the Vietnamese forests, and the people who live there, are at risk from illegal loggers and poachers.  Blaming economic and social problems such as unemployment and alcoholism on an increase of attacks on forest guards, Cordall explains how the Carbon and Diversity (Carbi) project, an alliance of the Vietnamese government, WWF and the German Development Bank, aims to facilitate a sustainable future for the people and the wildlife of the area whilst also  acknowledging the conflict between the importance of conservation and the welfare of the people whose survival and livelihoods depend on forest access.

The complex nature of forest politics is demonstrated by Ivan Scales in his article for The Geographical Journal.  Scales explores the relationships among environmental narratives, identity politics and the management of forest resources in Madagascar, a country that has received global attention for being one of the most biologically diverse places in the world but one that has also had its hardwood forests pillaged.  He argues that more attention should be paid to local views and beliefs of the forest, particularly those associated with local practices of forest clearance, and that these should be incorporated into existing and future conservation policies.

As the global demand for timber increases, the challenges facing both conservationists and the communities who rely on the forests will intensify.  These threatened forests are viewed as a global asset, however, rather than focussing on just the bigger issues it is clear that conservation policies need to focus more on how indigenous cultures understand and interact with their environment.

 Ivan Scales, 2012, Lost in translation: conflicting views of deforestation, land use and identity in western Madagascar, The Geographical Journal 178, 67–79

 China at the centre of ‘illegal timber’ trade, The Guardian Weekly, 11th December 2012

 Vietnamese guards brave attack to reverse destruction of the forest, The Guardian, 17th December 2012

Carbon and Biodiversity Project (Carbi),  accessed 18th December 2012

 Appetite for Destruction: China’s Trade in Illegal Timber, Environmental Investigation Agency, accessed 18th December 2012