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Researching sustainability: material semiotics and the Oil Mallee Project

Bell, Sarah Jane (2003) Researching sustainability: material semiotics and the Oil Mallee Project. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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      Abstract

      Sustainability responds to crises of ecology and human development and the relationships between them. Sustainability cannot be adequately described using disciplinary categories arising from the modern dichotomy between nature and culture. Sustainability research requires a methodology that reflects the reality of its subject.

      This thesis presents material semiotics as a methodology for sustainability research. Material semiotics refers to the work of actor-network theorists and latter developments of alternate spatial metaphors for material relationality. Actor-network theory is a methodology that describes human and non-human actors in the same terms. It follows actor through networks of material relationships that they constitute and are constituted by, depicting heterogeneous objects without recourse to prior categories of nature or culture. The description of material relationships in fluid and regional, as well as network, spaces expands the descriptive power of material semiotics to include Others and to better represent complexity.

      The Oil Mallee Project is a case study of sustainability in the Western Australian wheatbelt. Indigenous eucalypts, oil mallees, are planted on land that was cleared for agriculture. The above ground biomass can be processed for eucalyptus oil, electricity and activated carbon, and the rights to carbon stored in the extensive mallee roots, or in unharvested trees, can be sold. The Project responds to a number of sustainability issues, including ozone depletion, land degradation, climate change and rural decline. This thesis follows the actors that comprise the Oil Mallee Project to describe its complexity, multiplicity and sustainability. Qualitative interviews with actors in the Project and the wheatbelt provided the primary data, which is supported by documentary material.

      Three contingent phases can be identified in the history of the Oil Mallee Project - eucalyptus oil industry, dryland salinity management, and greenhouse response. The Project has persisted because it is simultaneously a regional, network and fluid object. Mallees grow well in the tough conditions of the wheatbelt. Mallees can be integrated with existing networks of industrial agriculture. The Project has achieved contingent stability in policy documents and the networks of scientific research. The fluidity of the Project has enabled it to change shape and identity in response to threats and opportunities, and as relationships break and form, without complete disruption. Specific humans have been central heroes in different phases of the Project. The mallees themselves are the only actors that have been consistently central to the identity of the Project.

      Sustainability requires knowledge of the relationships between humans and non-humans that constitute the multiple crises of ecology and human development. Sustainability is the re-ordering of those relationships in ways that make possible ecological integrity and human fulfilment. Material semiotics is a methodology for knowing sustainability in ways that reveal the possibilities for such re-orderings.

      Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
      Murdoch Affiliation: Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy
      Supervisor: Stocker, Laura
      URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/291
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