Opinion

Re-Inventing the Social: Eco-Design, Care and Climate Justice

At our SEI Amplified event last week on Reducing the Impact of Heatwaves, Associate Professor Tess Lea explored the intersections between climate change, housing and social justice and the ways we can prepare for uncertain futures; ultimately, with “tremendous acts of care” and “a complete reinvention of the social”.

Image by Jonathan Zeman, via Unsplash.

I’ve just come back from an Indigenous Climate Justice Summit in the centre of Australia that brought together key traditional landowners and ceremonial leaders, and a younger generation of Indigenous activists. I’ve been working as an anthropologist looking at Indigenous social policy for my entire adult career, and extraordinarily, this was the first time that real talk about climate change was not on the periphery, seen as some kind of east coast or Pacifric Islander concern, but was core and centre of what Indigenous people foregrounded as important not only to their survivability but to how social worlds need to be rearranged, whether housing, health, resources, land rights or ecological management is the focus. I suspect it was because this was an Indigenous-informed agenda, not one organised by the standard institutional forms of worry. There was no partitioning.

I learnt they don’t wake up to birds anymore in Tennant Creek. That there are no male native honeybees in the trees around Borroloola, which means there is no fertilising of the flowering gumtrees which means there’s no food for the bats which means…which means… there’s a cascade of things that they’re observing. In Yuendumu, there are no new houses to be built because there is no water, and these are places which have the highest population growth and the highest demand for housing in Australia.

So with apologies for my deliberately polemical tone today, I want to talk about what is needed, and not just focus on heatwaves. We’re surrounded by a wave of things that are starting to combine and coalesce, biosecurity concerns amongst them. So thinking holistically, as Indigenous leaders are doing, must be our guide.

I was born in Darwin, and it matters that I think from the margins—as one snobby person Oxford once said, “Oh, you’re from the periphery’s periphery then.” Here at the University of Sydney, I have also founded the Housing for Health Incubator. That incubator is a partnership with Healthabitat, a not-for-profit group that has been working for three decades to do something seemingly simple—which if you’ve ever dealt with Indigenous policy means very complicated—the very simple issue of just repairing and maintaining those things inside anyone’s house that are essential if you’re to be able to live in that house healthily. Such amenity matters not just to heatwaves, but to surviving climate change. Can you turn on the tap and get drinkable, palatable water? Can you wash yourself and your kids? Can you flush effluent away safely? These are not radical concepts; they are very key to population health. In the majority of the houses tested, no you can’t, for the straightforward reason that things are put in upside-down, back to front and with the wrong material choices for the circumstances, or, more often, they’re not maintained. 92% of the circumstances behind failed health hardware are beyond the tenants’ control, due to lack of repair and maintenance or poor material choice. This matters.

I can extrapolate my work from regional and remote Australia and look at the neglect of the subterranean pipes and infrastructures in this city, where we already lose 30% of water in any given moment just through leakage. Given the drought we have just been through, you would think that needs fixing before we move into the more radical changes that are coming. So legacy infrastructures are one of the things that I would be saying are key to preparedness for climate change. Repairing and preparing the legacy infrastructure that we have in capital cities and any of our regional centres are front and centre of climate change preparedness.

But back to what I know is already happening, and the vulnerable people living hard lives, who will live harder lives in even harder places. Some places will not be liveable. It’s too hot, it’s too flood-prone, it’s underwater or it’s without water. That will put more pressure on other places, metropolitan and regional settlements, which might act as places of survivability for internal climate refugees. For we will have internal climate refugees. So I’m putting forward a bit of a plea that we think about the investments needed now into the kinds of habitats and neighbourhoods that we would want because as we are currently configured, we will be relying on systems of abandonment, zones of sacrifice and a carceral regime which pretty much locks up those that don’t fit into the models of privileged care. So, when thinking about alternatives we should do more than imagine how houses are designed and configured to manage heat or fire, to think of houses as configured within networks within social relations within ecologies.

At the same time as we’re investing in communally planned regional and urban centres to operate as survival zones for our collective futures, I would like that we also reduce everyday institutionally enslaved labour, to instead work four hours a day, to spare four remaining hours for the municipal shared work that we need to undertake to live collectively and live together well. We need to share the resources, laundries, ovens, sustainable energy sources. We need to collectivise and socialise insurance systems because un-insurability is a sure-fire mechanism of reinforcing disadvantage here and now, let alone in any kind of future. We need to socialise our public transport, and reclaim the streets, not only for safe walking at night by women but safe inhabitation by non-humans too.

When you elect me as your dictator, benevolent of course, I will command services are arranged for easy walking for people to access. There will be only public transport, no private cars, only vehicles for delivery, emergency and help work. Tree canopies, water harvesting and water capture in those dug up roads will create shade and pathways and bicycle lanes and homes for critters. This needs to be gender-sensitive design in my brave new world because, briefly, safe designs for adolescent females, LGBTQ youth and women with children turn out to be good designs for elderly people and good designs for differently-abled people. Let’s design around just that small little target group and get a universal benefit.

The concept of thermal autonomy is one that I would also be advocating for. That is the ability of people to control their circumstances and their living environments. That probably isn’t through air-conditioning, unless this is needed for health management, but there are designs for greater thermal performance in housing that need to be mandated. We have very, very, thin environmental codes written into new housing at the moment. If we thought about the vulnerability of tenants who cannot adjust their housing, they cannot put things in, they cannot put shading in and necessarily keep their tenancies, we would mandate universal design requirements for all housing, and only allow tax deductions when these are demonstrably met. In my brave new world, we will be doing tremendous acts of care through abolitionist social design, which incorporates thermal autonomy, and destigmatises renting. I say this in the same moment that being able to isolate in houses is being emphasised as the best way we can be good citizens. As a call, it presumes a lot about housing and health, methinks.

The lowdown is that we’re preparing nothing like this. We are looking at none of our legacy infrastructures, let alone doing the forward work for all of this eco-design preparedness that in my brave new world would help us go forward. But let me press on. No more golf courses. Let’s turn them into wetlands and forest corridors because biosecurity is also related to ecocide and we’ve been pushing all of the bats that keep on bringing us all these diseases into our urban habitats because they do not have food anywhere else. That’s how climate change, housing and social justice can intersect

We get the picture, yes? Calling for a little policy renovation here or an advisory notice there is okay but radically insufficient.

All I’m asking for is a complete reinvention of the social.


Tess Lea is an Associate Professor who specialises in the anthropology of policy. Her fundamental interest is with issues of (dys)function: how it occurs and to what, whom and how it is ascribed. Looking at extraction industries, everyday militarisation, houses, infrastructure (e.g. plumbing and roads), schools, and efforts to create culturally congruent forms of employment and enterprise from multiple perspectives, her work asks why the path to realising seemingly straightforward ambitions is so densely obstacled. She is also exploring ways in which Aboriginal families might tell their stories and commandeer policy openings and closings for their own ends. For this pursuit she is working closely with Professor Elizabeth Povinelli from Columbia University and the Karrabing Film Collective.