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Farmers’ sense of place and mental wellbeing in an era of rapid climate change: A case study in the Western Australian Wheatbelt

Ellis, Neville (2016) Farmers’ sense of place and mental wellbeing in an era of rapid climate change: A case study in the Western Australian Wheatbelt. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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A positive ‘sense of place’ is vital for good mental health and wellbeing, particularly amongst people who maintain close living and working relationships with the Earth. However, environments important to peoples’ health and wellbeing are under threat from anthropogenic climate change. Shifting rainfall patterns, rising temperatures and more frequent severe weather events are desolating environments at a faster rate and on a greater scale than at any time in recorded human history. While climate-driven loss of place is understood in the academic literature to have negative emotional and psychological impacts upon Indigenous populations, this knowledge has rarely informed research examining climate change and its risks to similarly emplaced non-Indigenous people.

Over recent years, climate change and its impacts upon Australian farmers has received growing research interest. Adverse climatic/seasonal conditions (such as drought) have been shown to negatively impact agricultural regions and rural communities, as well as farmers’ mental health and wellbeing. However, little research has investigated farmers’ sense of place or its relationship to farmers’ mental health and wellbeing, particularly in the context of a changing climate. The thesis explores these connections amongst family farmers living in the Western Australian Wheatbelt, a region that has experienced some of the most severe and abrupt climatic changes in Australia. Since the 1970s, winter rainfall has decreased by 20 per cent and seasonal variability (temperature and rainfall) has intensified. Highly dependent upon favourable seasonal weather conditions and exposed to climate-driven market fluctuations, Wheatbelt farmers are argued to be uniquely vulnerable to local-to-global climate risks that threaten not only their economic base, but also their sense of place and mental wellbeing.

The research employs a qualitative case study design situated within an ‘ecohealth’ theoretical framework. Farmers’ sense of place and lived experiences of climate change were examined using a three-part interview series conducted with twenty-two farmers during the 2013-14 agricultural season. In addition, climate-change impacts upon the broader Wheatbelt region (conceived here as a large socio-ecological system) were documented by interpreting data collected from secondary sources and knowledge obtained from fifteen key informants representing various government, community and private organisations.

The thesis findings reveal that farmers’ sense of place is a powerful determinant of their mental health and wellbeing. In addition, climate change was found to undermine farmers’ place-related mental wellbeing as a consequence of its negative impacts upon farmers’ homelands and their broader regional socio-ecological contexts. The thesis offers novel insights into Australian farmers’ sense of place and its importance for their mental health and wellbeing in particular, and, more generally, contributes new theoretical and applied research understandings of people-place relationships and their relevance to mental health and wellbeing in an era of chronic and worsening climatic change.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Management and Governance
Supervisor: Albrecht, Glenn and Brueckner, Martin
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