Property, Weather and the Matter of Emotional Inheritance: Earth Day 2016

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Photo by Michael Hoffmann. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jennifer Hamilton

One line of questioning stemming from my current research project, ‘Weathering the City’, relates to the affective–social phenomenon known colloquially as ‘Australia’s obsession with property’. In exploring the dynamic relationship between weather and cities broadly speaking, I have found myself needing to understand the ecological dimensions of private land tenure in settler colonial Australia.[1] This so-called national fixation on home ownership, or what Louise Crabtree has called ‘mortgagee-homeownership’,[2] is, in the first instance, an emotional and aspirational desire for an apparently discrete parcel of land or floor space upon which to dwell. The daily appearance of op-eds in the mainstream media about property could lead one to believe there was no other way of relating to land or to each other. Far from being a fact of nature, of course, property was a mode of relating or ‘belonging’ to place imported to Australia by settler colonialists and violently overlayed on land that supposedly belonged to no one. But Aboriginal belonging to place or Country of course existed then and survives today. When considered as an import, settler colonial notions of property ownership becomes a peculiarly legal, economic and historically situated relationship with this land. This mode of habitation has been subsequently nurtured and sustained by decades of political policy, legislation and planning that have been materially geared towards parcelling land out as such. This model now dominates to such an extent in Australia that in separate works on property law, literary scholar Kieran Dolin and legal scholar Nicole Graham suggested that any change would amount to a ‘paradigm shift’.[3] In sum, the ‘property obsession’ or emotional attachment to particular pieces of earth is an affective and material colonial legacy deeply entrenched in contemporary Australia.

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Flooded street on 22 March 2010 in Perth, Australia. Photo by Michael Spencer. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The reason I am drawn to thinking critically about property in a project on weather is because wet weather intersects in complex ways with infrastructural systems geared towards delivering services to, and channelling waste away from, private home dwellings. Such homes can, within reason, be managed according to the aesthetic whims and consumerist desires of the individual owner(s).[4] In river- and sea-side places like Sydney, building codes are designed to deal with, or ‘risk manage’, potentially damaging weather events like the hundred-year flood or storm surge. Large networks of stormwater drains, water recycling and waste water systems undergird all development in order to manage the ebb and flow of storm and waste liquids and solids from homes. In many cases the stated purpose of such systems is to protect private property and human life. But these extraordinary engineering feats also invisibilise the collective relationship we necessarily have with other people, species and places on account of the rain. In fact, when it rains, anything that is able to be washed away from one’s home patch will be washed away and will materially and semiotically transmogrify into ‘stormwater’. In this regard, stormwater should be considered a communal soup in which every homely recipe from a given area is combined.[5]

Now in its 46th year, Earth Day is a call to humans to take responsibility for the environmental crisis. 22 April provides an occasion to collectively mark environmental concerns and take action. In the Environmental Humanities we think a lot about the ethics and politics of ‘responsibility’, a word which Donna Haraway has broken down into its component parts: ‘response’ and ‘ability’. By way of Haraway’s notion of ‘response–ability’ we can see that the acknowledgement of a responsibility to, say, the environment, or to people displaced by climate change or endangered species of animals, does not always directly overlap with our literal ability to respond.[6] How does one’s affective attachment to a private home affect one’s ability to respond to wider ecological concerns? For example, in a culture obsessed with purchasing private property, many people’s primary responsibility becomes the upkeep of mortgage repayments to a bank that is probably deeply invested in fossil fuels and a range of other problematic industries. Indeed, in a recent essay I argued, somewhat negatively, that because of the property market, and the physical and emotional labour time invested in maintaining one’s dwelling, little time or space is left for caring about the world beyond one’s home patch. As such, despite attempts to theorise alternative modes of responding to planetary crisis, there remains an extraordinary chasm between a sense of responsibility and our collective ability to respond.

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‘Night Storm near Sydney’. Photo by Nigel Howe. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Around the time of the Paris Agreement at COP21, Naomi Klein declared that ‘right now what is considered politically possible’ with regard to responding to the environmental crisis, ‘is deeply out of alignment with what is physically necessary’.[7] She was, of course, talking primarily about big corporations and nation states and the extent of transformation required to have any impact on the rapid anthropogenic changes occurring to the ecosystem we live within. In this statement, though, I also read echoes of Val Plumwood’s argument in ‘Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling’. She argues that caring for one’s home beautiful needs to be thought of in relation to less beautiful places that bear the toxic burden of Western privilege. She argues against going ‘off the grid’, and rather theorises an ‘ecojustice route to place’ that asks us to consider

what it would mean to acknowledge and honour all the places that support you, at all levels of reconceptualisation, from spiritual to economic, and to honour not just this more fully-conceived ‘own place’ but the places of others too. Such a program is politically radical, in that it is incompatible with an economy of privileged places thriving at the expense of exploited places. Production, whether from other or self-place, cannot take the form of a place-degrading process, but requires a philosophy and economy of mutual recognition.[8]

But, she argues, this project ‘is basically incompatible with market regimes based on the production of anonymous commodities from remote and unaccountable places’. Such a complex relationship with one’s home place seems impossible. I think this is not only because of the ‘dematerialisation’ of commodity culture, in which we buy commodities manufactured in unknown and faraway places, but also a kind of dematerialisation of the relationship to places closer by, as though the fence, title deed and emotional attachment to one’s own and owned home actually separates us materially.

Earlwood Cascades 3 from Jennifer Hamilton on Vimeo.

I often find myself engaged in ostensibly boring conversations with my neighbours during or soon after the rain. Weather brings us together emotionally, by way of shared annoyance at the cold snap or wonder at the rainbow. At the same time, living on top of a hill with a river on one side and a creek on the other, after rain I think of all the stuff of my life that I do share with the people on top of this hill. This stuff flows from the hill into the valley, into the river and out to sea. Weather also brings us together materially, by way of shared flow of toxic storm water. Is it possible to use these less noteworthy emotions to lessen the gap between the emotional and material relation? Can we find a way out of our inherited obsession with property into another mode of relation with the earth, with colonial history and with each other?

***

Jennifer Hamilton is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at The University of Sydney, funded by The Seed Box: A MISTRA-FORMAS Environmental Humanities Collaboratory at Linköping University, Sweden. She is also an adjunct lecturer in Ecocriticism at New York University (Sydney) and a 2016 Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Jennifer completed a PhD in English at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and her dissertation has been adapted into the book, ‘This Contentious Storm’: An Ecocritical and Performance History of King Lear, forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic.

[1] My first essay exploring the ‘property question’ in ecocriticism was recently published. See Jennifer Mae Hamilton, ‘“Labour against wilderness” and the Trouble with Property beyond The Secret River’, Green Letters 20.2 (2016): 1–16.

[2] Louise Crabtree, ‘Decolonising Property: Exploring Ethics, Land and Time, Through Housing Interventions in Contemporary Australia’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31.1 (2013), 100.

[3] Kieran Dolin, ‘Place and Property in Post-Mabo Fiction by Dorothy Hewett, Alex Miller and Andrew McGahan’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 14.3 (2014), 7; and Nicole Graham, Lawscape: Property, Environment, Law (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 3.

[4] At this point it might be appropriate to disclose that I don’t actually own or have a mortgage on a property. Having been a student and an under-employed person with a terminal degree in the humanities, I rent. Perhaps I will do this forever. Before I started my postdoc I used to blog about the garden at my rental home a lot more frequently, but I have a lot less time to tend to the blog now. The archive is freely available to read at www.earlwoodfarm.com

[5] For more on the politics and poetics of flows and admixtures, see Cecelia Chen, Janine McLeod and Astrida Neimanis, eds, Thinking with Water (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2013).

[6] Donna Haraway, ‘Staying with the Trouble: Xenoecologies of Home for Companions in the Contested Zones’, Cultural Anthropology (2010): http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/289-staying-with-the-trouble-xenoecologies-of-home-for-companions-in-the-contested-zones (18 April 2016).

[7] ‘Naomi Klein on Paris Summit: Leader’s Inaction on Climate is Violence Against the Planet’, Democracy Now: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/30/naomi_klein_on_paris_summit_leaders (18 April 2016).

[8] Val Plumwood, ‘Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling’, Australian Humanities Review 44 (2008): 139–51.

 

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