From the sublime to the sustainable, and back again

Some have odd titles, but many debates at the RGS conference are deadly serious, writes Matthew Reisz

August 27, 2009

With topics ranging from urban flea markets to the gentrification of fishing villages, the subjects covered by the Royal Geographical Society's annual conference are certainly diverse.

And some of the papers' titles are particularly obscure. One that stands out, for example, is called "Camping across the oceans: the ship at sea as queer space".

But, with more than 1,000 papers and speakers from 40 countries, the conference - the largest of its kind in Europe - is also addressing many crucial challenges relating to transport, migration, the credit crunch and climate change.

The conference, which is being held at the University of Manchester, opened on 26 August, and continues until the end of the week.

Although it has always featured academics presenting blue-sky research alongside material that might actually feed into policy, Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), notes a shift towards the latter.

She also points to growing participation from across Europe and Asia, and particularly from China, and a resulting focus on how "geography can contribute to policy using local expertise".

One of the key themes of this year's event is "The Rise of China and its Implications for the Developed World". Dr Gardner also hopes to reach out to new constituencies with sessions on "Art and Geographical Knowledge".

One of the main events is a video link with Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where the University of Manchester's Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI) is launching a report, Moving Forward in Zimbabwe.

The study, which has been produced by a team of Zimbabwean academics and researchers, seeks to "stimulate focused debates" about the policies most likely to help the troubled country make progress.

David Hulme, executive director of BWPI, said this "should raise issues relevant to British aid and development policy".

"But it also aims to link Zimbabwean intellectual resources with the outside world, making clear that Zimbabwe is changing, so that aid donors, if sanity returns to the country, recognise the technical capacity there and ensure that Zimbabwean academics get built into research projects," he said.

Closer to home, Will Medd, lecturer in human geography, and his colleagues at the Lancaster Environment Centre, present research on the longer-term impact of the flooding of the Humber through "the stories of 45 participants who kept diaries for an 18-month period while they were trying to get their lives and homes back on track".

Even more policy-relevant, Paul Upham and Mercedes Bleda, from the University of Manchester's Sustainable Consumption Institute, have investigated carbon labelling - whereby products in shops are labelled to indicate their carbon footprint - and "found little evidence that consumers would use carbon labels on a scale sufficient to make significant emissions reductions".

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