#329      27 min 22 sec
Return to Eden?: How we “consume” nature and what it says about us

Marketing researcher Dr Robin Canniford discusses how consumers -- through their pursuit of outdoor activities often involving sophisticated equipment -- seek to assemble romantic experiences of nature. With host Elisabeth Lopez.

"Here's the problem. That story of pristine nature, as not contaminated by culture, underpins so many economies, be they tourism economies or the ability to advertise four wheel drives effectively. People want to tell themselves the story of leaving culture and becoming more primitive, at one with nature. " -- Dr Robin Canniford




Dr Robin Canniford
Dr Robin Canniford

Robin Canniford is co-director of the Cluster for Organisation, Society and Markets (COSM). His research investigates the intersections of community, nature and markets. Recently he has written about the everyday practices of consuming 'nature'; the politics of 'primitivism' as a way of portraying ‘man in nature’; and the ways in which nature can be understood by superimposing 'voices' from a variety of sources, both human and non-human. His work is informed by archival, arts-based, and ethnographic methods. Theoretically, he is interested in material-semiotic approaches. Robin is co-editor of the 2015 book Assembling consumption: Researching actors, networks and markets.

Credits

Host: Elisabeth Lopez
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Audio Engineers: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

Host: Elisabeth Lopez
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Audio Engineers: Jeremy Taylor and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel - See more at: http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/327-great-expectations-millennial-generation-makes-its-mark-workplace#sthash.Wso3p7vm.dpuf
Host: Elisabeth Lopez
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Audio Engineers: Jeremy Taylor and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel - See more at: http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/327-great-expectations-millennial-generation-makes-its-mark-workplace#sthash.Wso3p7vm.dpuf
Host: Elisabeth Lopez
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Audio Engineers: Jeremy Taylor and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel - See more at: http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/327-great-expectations-millennial-generation-makes-its-mark-workplace#sthash.Wso3p7vm.dpuf

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VOICEOVER
This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Hi. I'm Elisabeth Lopez. Thanks for joining us. Given that most of us live among the lights, noise and crazy pace of city life, it's not surprising that nature is held up as the antithesis of and the antidote to all of that. The idea of getting away from it all underpins a large part of what's called the experience economy, nature based tourism, sports like white water rafting and corporate development programs that pit people against the elements.
When we think about nature, or when marketers want us to think about nature, we often turn to the idea of wilderness as a place to recharge, to be spiritually transformed, to test one's surroundings and one's self to really find ourselves. What does that say about us, and do we really find what we're looking for?
Our guest on Up Close is interested in how businesses and consumers converse with the natural world. Dr Robin Canniford is Co-Director of the Cluster for Organization, Society and Markets at the University of Melbourne. He's been researching surfing culture to find out how consumers assemble romantic experiences of nature.
Welcome to Up Close, Robin.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Thank you very much for having me. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ
You spent eight years studying surf culture. What did that tell you about what people are looking from nature?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Well, I think people tend to like to and do these things, whether it be surfing, climbing, white water rafting, hang gliding, for that sense of challenge and, certainly, for a little bit of a sense of uncontrollability, losing ourselves in a place which can't be exactly controlled on a daily basis. Sometimes these sublime experiences can be so awe inspiring that they lead almost to a nature worship, perhaps, we might call magical. 
And if you think about the origins of magic we might say that those are culturally developed to control the uncontrollable in nature; whereas we traditionally associate magic, perhaps, with traditional societies. I think the investigations into how people consume nature - be they surfers or climbers - often we find forms of new age spirituality emerging amongst those consumption practices.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Yeah. You've collected things like diary entries from people, talking about surfing in terms of consummation and almost a marriage-like experience.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Yes. I think the perspective I took to this research was a long term project where I tried to embed myself quite deeply amongst the people who are doing these kinds of consumption activities, and also to participate in them myself and collecting multiple kinds of data from poetry to, as you say, diary entries, to the paintings that people are doing on beaches or in the mountains. Really, it became instructive in the multiple ways that people use nature and, at times, on quite a deep level for people; quite touching to collect that data.
What really emerges is that, I think, many people feel that they've lost touch with the sacred, and being in nature is, perhaps, one way to re-achieve that link without having to resort to religion, organised religion, as such.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So a god shaped hole or a surf shaped hole?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Yes, I think so. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Were there any challenges in embedding yourself into this subculture because, as you've noted, there are many different types of surfers with different, almost competing, desires about what they want from surf?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Well, surfing for me was an easy choice because I've been a surfer since I was a teenager growing up in the south-west of England with the chilly North Atlantic; [It] was always very attractive to me. But yes, I think this is one of the interesting things about doing this kind of research, is observing the sometimes competing stories that people tell themselves in the same geographic spaces. 
As an example, with climbing: different interpretations of climbing have always existed around how much gear, metal gear, we should place into the rocks as safety devices. Some climbers have a tradition of leaving the rock as untouched as possible. Other climbers are more concerned with safety and those stories that build around the geographic use of nature, along with the technology, that is applied to those geographies tend to lead to different stories that people tell themselves.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
There's an interesting irony, isn't there, in that, often, marketers sell the latest in technology with the message you have to have this incredibly sophisticated technology in order to recreate a truly authentic experience in the wild.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Yeah. I think it's where these technologies and these stories come together with material geographies that we begin to see some of the most interesting connections and interpretations of nature and, indeed, some of the paradoxes that begin to emerge.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Robin, how far does this romantic thinking or yearning go back? Is it inherent in people? Or does it have a history?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
I think that's a very good question, Liz. Certainly, in terms of what I'm talking about here, it goes back to at least the industrial revolution, when a variety of social commentators and artists bemoaned the dark satanic mills and, instead, began looking to the crags and the forests and the mountains for models of a better way of life.
Equally, in some senses, I think we can trace this back into biblical terms as well of the wilderness as a place of healing, and hermits and saints going off and living in the wilds to redevelop those lost virtues again. So a lot of these stories that people tell themselves now by consuming nature - and, perhaps, some of the ways in which brands sell experiences in nature - draw on these quite aged, quite longstanding cultural interpretations of nature as a space outside of culture.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So you've mentioned brands like Patagonia and Billabong. How hooked in are they to the lineage that these ideas have?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
So, in a sense, nature offers us the opposite of modern culture and a chance to undo the damage of urban life to undo those civilised restraints that we've built up over time. If you think about just wandering around a city or existing at work, there are numerous tacit rules and norms and codes of behaviour that we have to obey.
When people go to nature they can undo these things. Historically, this has been called primitivism. Primitivism is a pretty important story that relates to romanticism in a lot of ways, but its results are much more interesting to my mind. It's such a partial Janus-faced concept, such a double edged way of labelling things, and the meaning of primitive is always incomplete. 
We can think of concepts like the savage as the indigenous populations of uncharted continents, and it's been a figure of fear. But, at the same time, there's the noble savage, the opposite of that figure, which is a model for the life that we've lost. I think, from early exploration literature and ethnographies from Shaftesbury, Diderot - certainly, the stories that returned with the South Seas explorers - Louis Antoine de Bougainville and John Hawkesworth - these were tales of sex and indulgence that happened in nature. Primitivism became a pretty popular consumable product in the 19th century for reasons that allowed people to contemplate the excitement, sexuality, all kinds of stereotypes of the other, that we ourselves, in European society, had, to some extent, lost.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
I guess the main difference between then and now is that most people didn't have a hope of going to the South Seas in those days.
ROBIN CANNIFORD
Well, I think that's very true. For those people ethnography itself - the stories that came back with those early explorers and their scientific counterparts in the 19th century - became a very popular consumable product, and in film and literature, stories of these indigenous populations and their primitive lifestyles were consumed quite popularly. And that entered equally into anthologies, comics, reviews and even pornography as well, that primitivism became a trope and a theme in all of these consumable products at that time.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
You're listening to Up Close. I'm Elisabeth Lopez, and our guest today is Dr Robin Canniford. Robin, let's talk about the way in which the corporate world uses nature.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Yeah, sure.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Programs like Outward Bound test the limits of physical endurance to flush out true leaders and how we really could be at work. Profits aside, how much value is there in this idea?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Outward Bound has been running for many years, perhaps develops in educational principles of the 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to harden particularly young men for service towards the economy and the military and overseas colonial services. Outward Bound, in a sense, is education in nature, to develop virtues that, perhaps, we wouldn't get in culture. So in similar ways this harks back to trying to make us more primitive through education in order to allow young men who will serve nations to become more effective in their jobs. Now, fast forward a hundred years, and companies still want to develop these lost virtues of hardness and reliability and roughness and toughness.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
This all sounds very well if you're trying to capture a male market, but does any of this resonate with women?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Well, I think phenomena like Tough Mudder, Tough Guy, these events where we set up, if you like, very artificial natures, have been popular across the gender divide. Equally, if you look at consumption practices like surfing and sailing and climbing, the gender divide - certainly, for me - is not, perhaps, as marked as it is in other more traditional sports like football or rugby. 
Certainly, in surfing, the sponsorships and the salaries and the prizes that women can win in competitive surfing are not comparable to men. But, rather like horse riding or rock climbing, there's no reason why women shouldn't or can't participate on the same levels. I think nature is gendered. The stories that we tell ourselves in nature and that are used to sell things by brands through nature are both gendered and they are constructed by nationhood as well.
The way that Australia traditionally done nature is reflected in the Australian landscape, which is incredibly hard and harsh. The only option, really, in the desert - certainly, for the western explorers - was battle, such a harsh landscape is it; whereas the stories that we, perhaps, tell ourselves when we're in the English countryside - epitomised by, say, the Cotswolds, the green rolling hills and the beautiful dry stone walls - they're quite different. So nature is done by nationhood, and nature is done by gender as well, I think. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So, Robin, you've observed that people behave very differently in their expectations of nature and how they see it, according to whether they live in a natural environment that they have been able to subdue or whether it is yet to be subdued. Tell us a bit about that.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
I think this is very interesting from a historical perspective. Some of the research that I've done with regards to how Hawaii was framed from first contact through to the middle of the 20th century, especially around this activity of surfing, we see an application of these stories of nature, in particular, again, primitivism, this chance to escape culture and redevelop our lost virtues and recontact nature and become ourselves, more natural people.
I think we see the way that is framed changing according to the status of Hawaii as an emerging colony and as an emerging economy as well. On first contact - and, subsequently, with the arrival of missionaries from New England in the early 19th century - we find that Hawaii is painted with a variety of classical primitive stereotypes which are not particularly positive, especially for missionaries. So Hawaii was a place of unbridled sexual indulgence. Hawaii was a place of indolence and paradise connotations that, perhaps, we had lost in western societies. 
But through institutions of education, economy, military service and religion, Hawaii was, if you like, in inverted commas, civilised, and sports like surfing - part of the old ways were really expunged from Hawaii. What's interesting is what happens when these institutions of economy, school, religion and military service have been really firmly emplaced in the new colony. 
When Hawaii is sending soldiers out to mainland America, when all of these churches of the peculiar New England pattern have sprung up all over the Hawaiian islands, surfing and Hawaiian culture is reframed, not as something to be looked on as a bad primitivism, but something much more exotic, a good kind of primitivism, and a chance, importantly, for white wealthy tourists to go to Hawaii and redevelop that lost spirituality and that lost contact with nature, primitivism and surfing become something that uphold a tourism economy. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So once these ideologies are no longer competing on a level playing field - someone has won - suddenly, the other becomes quite exotic.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Yeah. This is what's so interesting about those stories we tell ourselves in nature. Nature can be anything our psychologies demand, based on what we need to know at any particular time. Now, this introduces us to a very interesting idea in business called marketplace mythologies, which is the idea that - as individuals with personal psychologies and as societies with various tensions and problems - mythologies are ways of solving those problems, and nature emerges again and again, and primitivism in nature, contact with nature, emerges again and again as a way of framing a way out of our cultural problems. This is how you can leave. 
So that would be a nice example of nature being problematic at one period in history, and then opportunistic at another time in history. It's supporting tourist economies. The meaning of entering nature and being at one with nature completely changes according to those economic principles.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
You've written about the betrayals that nature itself offers up. Betrayal is quite a strong word to describe what happens when nature simply doesn't co-operate with our expectations.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Well, at a very concrete level, nature just doesn't do what we want it to do. That is a foundational principle in ideas of magic, the sublime and, indeed, the primitive. Nature just sometimes doesn't obey what we want to do and forces us to react spontaneously and redevelop those lost virtues of adaptability and, perhaps, even spirituality. Nature constantly reminds us that we're not in charge. That's probably quite good for us but, at the same time, the idea of a betrayal is that nature can thwart or stop our agency, our abilities to act and develop economies and businesses in the ways that we'd like. 
There was a nice study by Michel Collon in the mid-'80s where he went and looked at a fishing economy on the west coast of France. And his study has influenced me in the variety of data that he tries to collect to understand this fishing economy. He looks at the traditional stuff, the supply and demand of, in this case, shellfish, which are being grown off the coast of Brittany. He also interviews the fishermen and, at some stage, he goes and interviews the scallops themselves, these shellfish living on the bottom of the sea. His conclusion is that, well, the scallops just aren't going to play ball. The scallops just weren’t fastening on the scallop farms and they weren’t breeding properly. In this sense, from there he develops the idea that nature has its own will, if you like, its own agency, its own ability to act on economies and betray them, if it feels like it.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
You're on Up Close. I'm Elisabeth Lopez, and we're talking to Dr Robin Canniford about how we consume nature. Robin, you say that nature is often treated as an externality in business research and in business schools which focus on green branding and the benefits of corporate social responsibility, regulations, things like that. Tell me about the uneasy relationship brands have with nature.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
In some senses, the way that nature is treated through branding practice is still quite crude and not necessarily helpful. Brands, in some senses, use a particular story to frame natural landscapes in a way that allows consumers to live out a particular marketplace mythology, live out a story that makes them feel better in their lives.
So brands like Patagonia offer consumers the opportunity to tell themselves stories about their effectiveness in nature and their ability to live and contact nature in effective ways. This does - the symbolic violence to nature, a stereotype's nature, in the same way that primitivism has stereotyped indigenous populations. It's just something for us to frame in an exciting way and then use.
Now, that, for me, sits quite uneasily with what we find when we look at nature in more detail and see that it's very contingent. It depends on the varieties of technologies large and small that we bring to nature. It depends on the variety of stories that we tell ourselves in nature; some of them very positive, some of them not so positive. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So what model of marketing should brands be moving to?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
I think the quite crude ways of looking at nature - even by a brand like Patagonia - have been, to some extent, pulled back in favour of much more complex views of nature as hybrid. Nature and culture is constantly imbricated, like in these scallop example - nature and culture tied together through various networks - is something that is shouting at us from the rooftops these days. We simply can't sustain the idea that nature is somehow separate from culture these days. 
From the largest levels of climate change and what are becoming known as hyperobjects - things like rubber, car tyres, polystyrene - these are consumable objects that will far outstrip our current civilisation. They will be around for many millions of years, floating around in the Pacific Ocean.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
And, as you've acutely observed, it's difficult for a surfer, for instance, to reconcile the fact that they're using a board that uses unsustainably harvested - or produced resources - reconciling that with a love of just deep nature.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
This is where things get really interesting. The idea that nature and culture are tied together is becoming much more apparent. Now, at a very concrete level I think surfers have started a lot of charity organisations and social movements to try and clean beaches. I've got friends back in the United Kingdom - the Widemouth Task Force - who go and do beach cleans regularly to try and purge these very cultural industrial factors from the beach. Patagonia themselves have tried to make their products less harmful to nature. There is an increasing awareness at quite a wide level, I think.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
And but the myth will endure in the marketing itself, won't it, of being able to separate off pristine nature that is not contaminated by culture.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Here's the problem. That story of pristine nature, as not contaminated by culture, underpins so many economies, be they tourism economies or the ability to advertise four wheel drives effectively. People want to tell themselves the story of leaving culture and becoming more primitive, at one with nature. 
But I think that's actually very damaging to the natural environments that we seek to support. It's only through recognising the hybridity and, perhaps, abandoning these false stories, that we can begin to move forward, think of nature and culture as deeply connected. And then, at a micro level - the level of yours and my everyday lives - start thinking about how we can redress some of these problems and redesign economies, redesign markets and marketing, to work with nature, co-operate with nature in ways that leave natural environments, perhaps, a little less damaged.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
What about those who say that in order to preserve nature we need to consume it?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
I think that's a very interesting and quite a difficult question. For me, it's how we consume nature that will determine the preservation of what we call nature. Now, I think that nature itself is a constructed concept. Part of that construction comes from the stories that we tell ourselves around nature but, equally, part of that construction comes from the natural geographies themselves, these ideas of betrayals, these ideas of nature not doing what we want.
So I think that the necessity to consume nature is always there. What are the ways that we can try and improve how we consume nature? Well, a concept I'm working on is this idea of redress. This is to say that we can continue to use natural geographies and environments, but the way that we use those geographies has to change, both in the technologies that we develop and bring there, and in the stories that we tell ourselves.
So an idea of redress would be thinking about if we're building in - take the south-west of England, where I'm from. My little house in the south-west of England is built out of cob, which is a traditional material made out of stone, clay type mud, straw and cow manure. This building has been standing for some 200 years; very simple building material, very reliable building material, using straw bales as well, good insulation qualities, and it comes from right there. So it's a technology that's short on supply chains. 
Supply chains in business research, they're not the sexy end of business research but, actually, they're very, very interesting. Again, tracking back to that brand Patagonia that I keep talking about, Patagonia have been quite responsible in trying to shorten, or at least be honest about, supply chains globally. This is one way of thinking about nature and using nature, brining different technologies to bear in ways that leave natural environments, perhaps, a little less touched or use natural environments more efficiently, indeed.
Now, the stories that we tell ourselves when we're consuming nature, this is slightly more complex and, possibly, more controversial. I think it's time to stop telling ourselves that nature is the opposite of culture. I think it's time to stop telling ourselves that we can be, if you like, modern primitives when we go back to nature. The Australian literary theorist, David Tacey, talks about regarding nature through poetry. 
If we've lost spirituality in our lives, I think one way that people, perhaps, feel comfortable expressing spirituality, especially around nature, is through poetry. But rather than trying to contact the stereotypical versions of nature as a place to be primitive by co-opting and doing symbolic violence to other cultures, I think all of us in our own cultures have our own myths and poetries around the landscapes that we grew up in.
One particular wonderful example of this poetic way of looking at nature that has changed my life, possibly, is Alice Oswald's T S Eliot prize winning poem, Dart, which is a poem about a river in Devon, the county where I'm from. In researching this poem she tied together multiple voices from the source of the River Dart all the way to the sea. And she interviewed hill walkers and canoeists and a guy who runs a hydroelectric plant, a fisherman. But at some point in this poem the voices of local myths, folk tales, start to emerge. And then, at one stage, incredibly movingly, the voice of the river speaks to us from the poem as well.
You know this might sound like complete madness, but I think in terms of developing business models, ways that we politically, ethically and poetically contact nature, I think we need to be tying together multiple voices, voices of engineers, voices of business people, voices of politicians, but, equally, voices of artists and children, mapping these voices together and, in this way, I see ourselves building more all-encompassing, hopefully, more positive environmentally conscious ways of seeing nature and culture not as separate, but as tied together.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Robin, would you be able to read us a few lines from that poem?

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Yeah, sure. Here's an extract from Alice Oswald's book long poem, Dart. 

the West Dart speaks a wonderful dark fall
from Cut Hill through Wystman's Wood

put your ear to it, you can hear water
cooped up in moss and moving

slowly uphill through lean-to trees
where every day the sun gets twisted and shut

with the weak sound of the wind
rubbing one indolent twig upon another

and the West Dart speaks roots in a pinch of clitters
the East Dart speaks coppice and standards

the East Dart speaks the Gawler Brook and the
Wallabrook
the West Dart speaks the Blackabrook that runs by the 
prison

at loggerheads, lying next to one another on the 
riverbed
wrangling away into this valley of oaks

ELISABETH LOPEZ
We've been speaking to Dr Robin Canniford, Co-Director of the Cluster for Organization Society and Markets at the University of Melbourne. Robin is the author and co-author of a number of articles on surfing culture and consumer tribes. Robin Canniford, thanks so much for coming in.

ROBIN CANNIFORD
Thank you very much for having me on.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
If you'd like more information or a transcript of this episode, head to the Up Close website. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia, created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. This episode was recorded on 26 November 2014. Producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. I'm Elisabeth Lopez. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We're also on Twitter and Facebook. For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2014, the University of Melbourne. 


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