A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

Best of British?

Autocar magazine has released a list of the top 100 British cars, as voted for by its readers. But how exhaustive and/or authoritative is it, and what is a British car anyway?

Original and best - the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Original and best – the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The original BMC Mini has topped a poll of the 100 best-ever British cars, as voted by Autocar readers. This isn’t really much of a surprise. After all, Issigonis’s baby was a truly revolutionary car that transcended class, becoming a much loved icon and as much of an emblem of national automobility as the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat Nuova 500 and Ford Mustang.

That the Mini should be followed in the poll by the McLaren F1, Jaguar E-type and Range Rover (surely the original Rangie, rather than it’s current, somewhat bling, iteration?) is also unsurprising, as they too are all automotive icons in their own way. After that, things get a bit muddier.

Nissan Qashqai. Subaru Impreza. Honda Jazz. Renault Megane. All make the list, but are hardly ‘British’ nameplates, although the Qashqai and the Jazz are built in Sunderland and Swindon respectively. On that basis, surely the iconic Citroën DS qualifies, built as it was in Slough for a time in the 1950s/60s.

Number 5 in the list is the Yamaha MOTIV.e. The ‘what’, you ask? Well, the Yamaha MOTIV.e is only a concept at the moment, developed by Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, though one which promises to revolutionise the car manufacturing process. A great British car? It could certainly be a great British engineering success story. But it isn’t just yet.

So what constitutes a British car? One that’s built here? Designed here? Engineered here? Maybe it’s wood and leather interiors, or some intangible ‘other’ – an underdog-ness perhaps, or a stiff-upper-lip-ness?

I think that two quotes can help provide the answer to this question. Noted academic John Urry from Lancaster University has previously described the car as “the quintessential manufactured object”, while writer and former Design Museum director Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book Sex, Drink and Fast Cars that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”.

Storming the poll at number 80 - Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Storming the poll at number 80 – the Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

This would suggest that what makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist of where and by whom it was created, whether this pertains to a car’s inspiration, engineering or manufacture – all qualities exemplified by national automotive icons like the Beetle, Fiat 500, Ford Mustang and, yes, the Mini.

A globalised and interconnected world, however, aided and abetted by car manufacturers’ predilections for platform-sharing and badge engineering, necessarily makes it harder to define the national identity of a car, as the ‘time’ and the ‘place’ of a car become less distinct. Would a BMW Mini be any less British if it was manufactured abroad? Is the Citroën C3 Picasso any less French for being manufactured in Slovakia? Was the last generation Fiat Panda any less Italian for being made in Poland or, for that matter, any less ‘Panda’ for sharing a platform, its underpinnings, with the current Fiat 500 and Ford Ka? Does any of this matter?

My PhD concerns how we ‘consume’ the car as avatar, artefact, icon and experience, and I would contend that only we can answer the question of what a car ‘is’, and decide how a car answers back to us (or not, as the case may be), based on our own nature, our own essence, our own affect. Whether a particular car is attractive, desirable, offensive, or even nothing at all, only we know.

This means that, in addition to the observations above, what also makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist in which a car is regarded and consumed, and by whom. How we answer the question of what a car is can be manifest in surveys such as the Autocar best of British poll. Yet there are some who claim that the meaning of such ballots can be baseless or even arbitrary.

They may have a point. After all, the meaning of a car is very much negotiated and contested, and can change over time; memories and reputations of cars can be both trashed and rehabilitated. However, it is because of this negotiation and contestation that these polls can also provide a snapshot of the national automotive psyche.

As for the Autocar top 100 itself, I’m just rather chuffed that the Triumph 1300 made the list, beating the Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the process. Although I would like to know what happened to the Austin Metro…

Oh Metro, where art thou...? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Oh Metro, where art thou…? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

How do we go from here?

Somewhere around here I suggested that this blog would pertain to my PhD study, as well as to other automotive, environmental and geographical gubbins that take my fancy. As such, I would like to use my first academic(ish) post to introduce my research. How is the way we ‘consume’ the car manifest, and will the need for more environmentally friendly personal transport change our relationship with the car forever?

We aspire to the car, we want the car, and we desire the car. But will the way we regard the car stop us from choosing a less polluting, low-carbon car? (Picture: classicfordmag.co.uk)

The transport sector is responsible for up to 25% of all man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions. The dominant source of CO2 within the transport sector is the car, which is responsible for just over half these emissions. In other words, just over 10% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions come from the use of our beloved cars.

The need to act so as to mitigate the environmental impacts of our actions, or, as I call it, the ‘environmental imperative’, demands that we adopt a low carbon mobility to mitigate the environmental impacts of our movements. However, contemporary society – whether by dint of the spread of suburbia, various shift patterns or a fragmented public transport system seemingly run for profit and not for the public – appears to demand a low carbon automobility.

Much has been written about the costs, impracticalities and/or technologies of low carbon vehicles in academia and in the media. But how many of us think about the way in which we consume the car ‘as object’? How might the environmental impact of the car be influenced by the contemporaneous socio-cultural consumption of the car?

When I use the phrase ‘consume the car’, I don’t use it as a reference to how and why we use it; any motorist will tell you that the car is very useful, very convenient, if a bit pricey these days. Instead, I use it in reference to how we regard the car as status symbol, as icon, as cultural artefact, as avatar, as experience. I believe that how we ‘consume’ the car is fundamental to the environmental impact we have individually as motorists, because such consumption influences our choice of car, how we view the car, how we aspire to the car, how we drive the car, how we feel the car.

And why we will keep on wanting, if not needing, the car.

However, the pursuit of various low carbon automotive technologies as a means to address the environmental imperative could suggest that the nature of the car may change. In one of his columns for CAR magazine in 1996, Stephen Bayley described the car as a mature product, in that we know what it is, what it does, what to expect from it. We’ve become conditioned to the car and how it works which, in turn, impacts upon how we consume it. Yet various low carbon technologies – such as hybrids, electric vehicles (EVs), range-extended EVs, fuel cells – surely render the low carbon vehicle an immature product, in that while we may know what it is, the way in which it does it will, in some cases, be new. Low carbon vehicles may require new knowledges, new behaviours, new strategies, and also produce new experiences which, together, might impact upon how we consume the car.

As the adoption of low carbon vehicles is being left to the market and to the vagaries of consumer choice (with, admittedly, the odd governmental nudge), it is pertinent to ask whether the ways in which we use and regard the car today – our existing automobilities – can aspire to a future low carbon automobility, to find out whether irrationalities of the way in which we consume the car – our automotive peccadilloes, if you like – can be reconciled with the rationality that the environmental imperative demands. How do we consume the car? How will we reach a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to? Will we enjoy it when we get there?

To answer the question in the title of this post (which is also the working pre-title of my PhD study), we need to ascertain where ‘here’ is. I would say that ‘here’ is the latest automotive propulsion technology, whether this technology is electric, hybrid or an internal combustion engine with the low-carbon fixes and fuels, and the associated (im)practicalities of these technologies; ‘here’ is the comparatively high cost of this low carbon technology, which may well decrease over time; ‘here’ is what we know about the environmental impact of motoring and what we are prepared to do (and to pay) to mitigate and/or ameliorate it; and ‘here’ is the contemporary socio-cultural consumption of the car.

As mentioned earlier, the first definition of ‘here’ has been well documented by both academia and the technical media, as battery improvement continues apace, fuel cells are continually developed, and the internal combustion engine is constantly refined and made cleaner. In addition, the second and third definitions of ‘here’ have also been subject to a wider discourse. However, the final definition of ‘here’ is just as important, as it is through the social, cultural and experiential aspects of the car that we can begin to appraise a holistic consumption of the car. By framing the socio-cultural consumption of the car within an environmental context, and also within a technological context, it may be possible to reconcile the irrationality of car consumption with the rationality demanded by the environmental imperative, and so provide a new perspective upon the appetite and potential for low carbon automobility.

In 1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes made what now appears to be an extremely prescient observation, when he suggested that the Citroën DS may mark a change in the ‘mythology’ of cars, noting that “until now, the ultimate of cars belonged to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual and object-like”. The power race practised more recently by, for example, some of the German marques, together with a mindset fomented by certain TV programmes, suggests that this mythological change hasn’t been universally adopted. That said, an environmental imperative fostered by the threat of climate change suggests that a change in our automotive perceptions may be overdue. Might an environmental awareness acquire such a status within automobility that supplants the ‘bestiary of power’ of which Barthes writes?

Any changes in the way we consume the car may provide an appropriate answer. As a result of my PhD, I hope to have answers to some of the above questions in due course.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Cartechnical website, the link to which is here.