Dissertation Abstract

Endurance: Life Narratives, Drought and Climate Change in the Mallee

Anderson, Deb L  2012  

School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne (Australia), 319 pp.

This thesis draws upon oral histories recorded during a remarkable period of contestation over climate knowledge in Australia to investigate cultural conceptions of climate. It makes an original contribution to knowledge as the world’s first study to document the lived experience of drought and perceptions of climate change through a close reading of oral histories, shedding critical light on what drought means for Australia, for identity, in a climate-change world.

The thesis is cross-disciplinary in its approach, use of sources and analysis. Through an examination of how the past shapes present understandings of climate, it begins by exploring ‘drought’ as a cultural concept whose primary connotations are less related to rainfall than to an overarching, mythic narrative of endurance. It then explores the history of drought redefinition in Australia, revealing ongoing contestation between lay and official discourses on nature. In particular it argues that scientific and political constructions of drought, which encompass a definitional shift from ‘natural disaster’ to ‘manageable risk’, can obscure the realities of its lived experience and the historical and cultural dimensions of climate.

The bulk of the thesis investigates twelve life narratives derived through an extensive oral history collection conducted in rural Australia – a series of annual recordings with members of dryland farm communities in the semiarid Mallee wheat-belt of Victoria from 2004 to 2007. Fortuitously, the timing of the study coincided with a momentous shift in Australian public awareness of climate change. The oral histories captured significant moments of reflection and self-reflexivity on the meaning of climate, revealing contestation over expertise and experience as inherently partial forms of knowledge, and exposing core interpretive problems of climate change.

The histories were found to embed discourses of drought anchored in the remembrance of past survival, of uncertainty as rural change posed a threat to Mallee livelihoods, and of putative adaptation to changing climatic conditions. In that context, while illuminating the broader power and application of oral history, this thesis investigates the notion of the self-preservative power of narrative for a threatened culture. For, despite shifts in climate change perception, these discourses of survival, uncertainty and adaptation arguably represent a historical, battler narrative of endurance, revealing both livelihoods and identities at stake.

Amid divisive debate over rural futures, this thesis argues for the significance of the historical and cultural dimensions in understanding issues of climate in Australia. In turn, this prompts rural cultural researchers to take seriously how interpretations of climate themselves endure due to their usefulness in social and cultural systems, especially when narratives of enduring drought can operate as a shield from historical and contemporary truths.