2008 Symposium Report

A Brief Report on the 2008 RGS-IBG Economic Geography Research Group Symposia

University of Manchester

14th-15th May

The 2008 RGS-IBG Economic Geography Research Group Postgraduate Symposium and Annual Symposium were hosted by the University of Manchester. In keeping with previous practice these two events were held back-to-back, on May14th and May 15th.

The Postgraduate Symposium on Wednesday May 14th was structured around 8 papers that collectively expressed much of the epistemological and thematic diversity of contemporary economic geography. In the morning session, Ian Cook (Manchester) presented an empirically-informed critique of scholarly approaches to business improvement districts drawing on his recently-completed PhD research into the expanded role (in the UK) of private sector elites in urban governance. This was followed by an assessment from David Grover (LSE) of the determinants of environmental technology uptake, based on a study of emission-technology adoption in the London black cab industry. Allison Wylde (London Metropolitan) completed the morning’s presentations with a discussion of the impact of large, public sector contracts on small and medium-sized enterprises. The context for her paper was the ‘Olympic shock’ to the Lea Valley, the site of much construction for the 2012 Olympic Games.

After lunch on the lawn outside the Arthur Lewis Building – the new, purpose-built structure which houses Geography and other units in the School of Environment and Development – participants in the postgraduate symposium re-assembled for two afternoon sessions. A paper on decision-making in the residential housing market by Sejeong Ha (LSE) kicked off the early afternoon session. Sejeong developed a model of the inverse relationship between market knowledge and distance moved, in which individuals preferred renting to house purchase if moving over larger distances. Katharine Jones (Manchester) presented a compelling preliminary analysis of the role and scope of temporary staffing agencies in recruiting labour to the UK from the ‘A8’ countries (which joined the EU in 2004). Piotr Niewiadomski (Manchester) closed the session with a striking account of the urban and regional transformations underway in certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe associated with the rapid geographical expansion of international hotel chains. He theorised the regional development implications of corporate geographical expansion in the hotel sector by drawing on a global production networks (GPN) approach.

After a short break, David McCollum (Dundee) opened the final session with an engaging discussion of employment instability – the ‘churning’ of individuals between work and joblessness – and its importance for understanding the limited success of efforts to move people from welfare to work. He described an experimental policy approach towards sustaining employment underway in Glasgow, and presented preliminary evidence on the capacity of this project to improve employment stability. Robin de la Motte (Manchester) drew the proceedings to a close with a theoretically-rich presentation that situated the ‘neoliberal revolution’ in Latin America in historical context. Informed by David Harvey’s understanding of neoliberalism as a restoration of class power, his presentation considered whether the electoral success of the left in Latin America in the last few years also marked a re-negotiation of neoliberal economic policies. For most presenters the postgraduate symposium was a valuable chance to introduce work that was still in progress; for all it was an opportunity to hone presentation skills, to create new connections, and to gain feedback in a supportive setting. Discussion continued at the end of the day over drinks and dinner on the Oxford Road.

The Annual Symposium was well attended and took the form of six, relatively short presentations with plenty of time set aside for discussion. Gavin Bridge introduced the day’s proceedings and laid out the rationale for the symposium’s thematic focus on ‘Economy, Nature, Space.’ He pointed to a range of external phenomena – high commodity prices, the centrality of discourses of environmental constraint in contemporary politics, the growing market for environmental goods and services – that are symptoms of ‘resource economies’ and ‘environmental economies’ now taking shape, and which call out for the attention of a critically-engaged economic geography. And he noted how an extensive trafficking of ideas between economic and environmental geography over the previous decade (and more) has bequeathed to economic geography a robust set of theories and tools for understanding and critiquing transformations of the non-human world, and the way environmental change – large and small – is part and parcel of the problematic of sustaining economic growth and accumulation. Economy, Nature, Space was intended to capture this sense that economic geography has something to say on the matter of nature.

In the opening Keynote Address, Richard Walker (UC-Berkeley) laid out a neo-Marxian analysis of the socio-economic transformations underway in China in fine style. Vividly conveying the rapidity, scale and unevenness of Chinese growth, he compared the contemporary ‘Chinese Road’ to capitalism with its classic emergence in the UK, Europe and the US. This comparative analysis illustrated the centrality of the social and geographical transformations relating to land in China – in particular, the emergence of a land market and its role in reworking rural-urban distinctions – and the significance of the internal frontier as an outlet for surplus capital (via investments in infrastructure and construction). The Rise of China – and the reconfigurations of space and nature with which it is associated – was also central to the presentation by Marcus Power (Durham). Presenting some initial results from his ESRC-funded work (with Giles Mohan) on Chinese involvement in Africa, Marcus placed contemporary Chinese investments in energy and resource extraction in the context of over fifty-years of Chinese development interest in Africa. He challenged populist depictions of Chinese investment as the ‘dragon let loose in the dark continent,’ provoking a lively exchange of ideas about both the social and environmental implications of Chinese actions in Africa and the extent to which Chinese ‘imperialism’ was different to that associated with European or North American interests.

In the third paper of the day Dan Buck (Oxford) posed one of the fundamental questions underlying contemporary environmental politics: to what extent do environmental pollution and apparent resource limitations challenge the capacity of capitalism to reproduce itself? Answering this ‘ecology question,’ he argued, requires a nuanced understanding of the relationship between resources and technology that avoids both the techno-optimism of ecological modernisation and undue pessimism about physical resource constraints. In a tautly-argued paper Dan sought to re-locate critical questions about innovation, resource supply and pollution within theories of the self-expansion and accumulation of capital. After lunch outside in the early summer sunshine, Diana Liverman (Oxford) presented a stimulating analysis of the ‘new carbon economy’ emerging around carbon offsetting – the mechanisms and practices that enable carbon emitters in one locality to offset their emissions by purchasing ‘credits’ from emission reduction projects located elsewhere. Her presentation combined theorisation with rigorous documentation of the geographies and economies of carbon offsetting, and directly supported her claim that carbon offsetting ‘works’ as a spatial fix by making possible cheaper alternatives for emission reduction in the developing world.

The empirical component of Diana’s presentation highlighted the creative agency of individuals engaged in developing markets for trading carbon offsets. David Gibbs (Hull) expanded this interest in how environmental policies (and the normalisation of certain environmental behaviours) can create new spaces for innovation and commercial activity. His presentation centred on the figure of the ‘ecopreneur’ – a hybrid form combining environmental awareness with business acumen – that plays an increasing role in the literature on sustainable business and transition management. While critical of this literature for its lack of attention to questions of power, David argued that a research agenda could be built around the contemporary role of the ecopreneur to better understand their capacities to act as agents of ecological modernisation, and to examine differences to conventional entrepreneurs in modes of organisation and management.

After tea, biscuits and further discussion, Erik Swyngedouw (Manchester) made the last of the day’s presentations. Earlier speakers had drawn attention to different moments in the contemporary reconfiguration of resource and environmental economies and, to different degrees, had highlighted the political questions associated with these new spatialisations. In a provocative and passionate engagement with what it means to be political, Erik took issue with the apparent consensus on many environmental issues – in particular, on sustainability and climate change – for the way that it reduces politics to the practice of managing local conditions so as to meet a global ‘necessity’. Drawing on the work of French philosopher and political theorist Jacques Rancière, he argued that the ‘properly political’ had been largely evacuated from contemporary environmental politics to produce a form of politics that was inherently reactionary and conservative. Not surprisingly this position – with its suggestion that many social movements engaged in struggles over the environment are not properly political – created some of the liveliest discussion of the day, and which continued well after the formal end of proceedings. The day concluded with beer, wine and Italian food.