Staying with the muddle
: learning to live well on anthropocene island

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


An archetypal anthropocene place, Canvey Island in the Thames estuary, Essex, UK, offers fertile ground for exploring questions about how to live well, together, in today’s “troubled times” (Haraway 2016). ‘Reclaimed’ from the sea by Dutch engineers at the beginning of the 17th century, a densely populated human community with deprivation levels above the UK average now inhabits this 18.5km2 drained wetland. Sitting 3m below mean high water level and defended by a 7m high, 3.2km long sea wall – and a complex network of pumps and dykes – the tallest point on the island is the old rubbish dump, now ‘returned to nature’ as Canvey Heights Country Park. Host to the petrochemical industry since the construction of an oil terminal in 1936, the island received the world’s first delivery of liquified natural gas in 1959, and soon became “one of the most potentially lethal residential areas in Britain today…virtually hemmed in by a concentration of oil, gas, and chemical installations” (Turner, 1975). Today, however, the site of an abandoned oil refinery on the island is one of the most biodiverse places in the country, home to at least one species previously thought extinct in the UK; just one example of “the arts of living on a damaged planet” (Tsing, Swanson, Gan & Bubandt, 2017) that can be found here.

These stories and more, combine to position Canvey as both exceptionally vulnerable to anthropocene problems and deeply implicated in their causes. This thesis asks what can be learnt when we pay close attention to the modes of inhabitation a place like Canvey Island demands, and take seriously the potential of its lively materiality. Using Haraway’s assertion of the importance of “intensely inhabiting specific bodies and places as the means to cultivate the capacity to respond to worldly urgencies with each other” (2016, 7) as a starting point, this thesis develops an orientation to research that is place-based (but not place bound (Escobar, 2001)), resulting in the emergence of a ‘muddled methodology’ that accounts for and attends to the particular undisciplined, mobile, sensory, immersive, relational, more-than-human worlds of Canvey Island.

Taking the reader on a series of walks through the island, analysis is tethered to specific, but tentacular (Trombley, 2017), sites: together we learn possibilities for living well with precarity at the sea wall; for living well with discomfort and disorientation at the wetland; and for living well with ruin at the wick. By emphasising the richly emplaced, intimate, more-than-human relational experiences of some of Canvey’s human inhabitants, this thesis develops a mode of attention and understanding that neither adheres to traditional, idealised (White, Middle Class) notions of environmentalism nor appropriates the concepts of Indigenous others, but instead makes visible and knowable a way of ‘being ecological’ that, due to prevailing norms, values and expectations regarding who, what or where ‘matters’, tend to too often go unnoticed, ignored or dismissed.
Date of AwardMay 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorMatthew Adams (Supervisor), Julie Doyle (Supervisor) & Lesley Murray (Supervisor)

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