12 years a slave to the rhetoric

It’s twelve years since the first climate camp, in the UK. Twelve years since that outfit decided to camp its way into a trap of its own devising. This year, the IPCC released a report saying we’ve got 12 years to have completed a transformation of our energy systems/economies, or else you can kiss goodbye to the Holocene (and of course, the IPCC is a small-c conservative body: the reality is far worse).

Anyway, we’ve also seen, this year, in the last 12 weeks or so, the giddy rise of “Extinction Rebellion” (hereafter ER). The people I’ve spoken to, who have memories going back to 2011 or 2006, compare it to Occupy or to Transition Towns respectively. The words “flash in the pan” get used by others; me, I prefer “Up like a rocket, down like a stick.” But we’re so short on hope these days, that people are willing to suspend their critical faculties, and chide anyone who keeps them. So it goes.

Fwiw, I think there are huge dangers to the millenarian rhetoric (see Jonathan Atkinson’s points in this), the naivete about the British state and the work that would be needed to keep it vaguely honest and,  besides the clunky Overton window, ignorance about the basics of social movements literature (though much of that is worth ignoring, of course).

So what will happen? Well, prediction is a mug’s game of course. Call me a mug.

On the way up, ER will – I suspect – effectively be inadvertently chugging for Friends of the Earth and other culpable/complicit/comedic organisations. These beneficiaries of ER’s work will get invited onto the airwaves to give the “reasonable” (i.e. craven eco-modernist) viewpoint, while being asked to distance themselves from the “irresponsible” “eco-loons” of ER (who understand – and are willing to say – just how much trouble we are in).

er trajectory-page001

If (I think when) ER peaks/implodes, then on its way down, some erstwhile ERors will pass through those very groups, on their way “out” of activism. Some may stick around, but not many – their mindset, experiences etc will simply not a good fit for those organisations, that eschew millenarian thinking. Others will try to create new organisations, some of which will survive.

This time it’s different

Of course, as investors will tell you, the four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different”. It may be that the words of the scientists cut through, and that the “12 years” meme gets more traction with Jane Public. If the UK hosts the 2020 COP, that will sustain the wave for a bit (the opportunity for a good emote on home turf), and the Met will be grateful for all the overtime. But

a) fear sends people into inaction more easily than action. Or into religious salvation narratives.

b) ER will need to play a blinder, and from the (limited) evidence I’ve seen, I don’t think it has the capacity to do that, or even the awareness that it lacks the capacity. It has a few repertoires, that it is imprinting on (it’s early days of course, things may change!). Most organisations stick to those initial repertoires, and if people want to use others, they have to form different organisations, with all the costs that that entails (exit, voice and loyalty and all that).  Meanwhile, the effectiveness (both internal and external) of the small set of repertoires, well, it has a half-life, a shelf-life.  Externally, opponents learn how to counter it, internally, it stops giving the same ‘buzz’ and effervescent/bonding affect/effect.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong, and there are things that could be done to make this trajectory less likely , but probably won’t be.

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Event report: PIECES of advice about (energy) policy engagement #EnergyPIECES

On Monday 10th December about 60 PhD students and ECRs (early career researchers) gathered in Cambridge for an interesting event, with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title “Engaging with energy policy: a masterclass for Social Sciences & Humanities PhD and early-career researchers.

Hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy (Cambridge University) and the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, this was an event of two halves.  In the first we heard sat in a tiered lecture theatre hearing from various people with perspectives and advice that could/would be useful to a career in energy policy engagement (aka green confucianism). In the second we got to pick each others’ brains, primarily for the benefit of some people who will be doing secondments with outfits such as the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Energy Saving Trust and Practical Action.

Chris Foulds of the GSI and Robert Doubleday of CSaP opened with a defence of the importance of the Social Sciences and Humanities in offering broader perspectives on energy policy and the rationale of the “PIECES” project (I do sometimes wonder if there could be an annual prize for the best retronym). This was followed by Neil Simcock of Liverpool John Moores talking about the Energy Geographies Research Group and, well, energy geographies and Kate Jones, speaking on Vitae, which has developed several handy tools for personal and career development.

In the Q and A the good point was made that focus on an individual (female researcher’s) ‘resilience and need to be ‘more assertive’ can simply be compensatory for bad systems (nobody, though, dropped the P b-bomb – Patriarchy).

After a refreshments break, a panel discussion on “what makes the Social Sciences & Humanities unique when engaging with energy policy(makers)?”  There were four panellists

  • Alena Fielding, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
  • Liz Hooper, Practical Action
  • Amber Sharick, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC)
  • Tom Hargreaves, Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group, UEA

Since it was never made clear if the meeting was happening under the Chatham House Rule, I’ll not ascribe any specific advice to any individual.

  • Think of the three Rs –  Rigour – (sine qua non); Relevance – timing, and luck, Opportunities may pass and not come back; Relationships
  • Be aware that there are specific individuals – who will be very busy and have their own mental frames of reference – who you need to convince
  • Engineers do clever things that don’t resonate with policymakers…(question of politics priorities/personalities, resource constraints/time constraints, context/consensus)
  • Be clear, structured, let go of being pure.
  • Don’t take people who support you (more senior, less senior) for granted.
  • There was a reference to work around four key questions; where are we going with energy transition?, who wins loses and how?, is this desirable?,  what should be done?  STEM avoids asking these questions, ESS doesn’t
  • Policy space has existing momentum
  • SSH provides answers/evidence that don’t fit with existing assumptions/patterns etc
  • As an academic you may produce things that policymakers actively don’t want to engage with
  • Engaging with policymakers can be very disruptive of work patterns, and throw a lot of stress into a group, as other people end up picking up slack at short notice while you go off to (interminable and short-notice) meetings.
  • Stand up for the value of SSH
  • Don’t bow to pressure to simplify or reduce complexity to realise short term impact
  • Don’t focus only on policy decisions, but look across and  engage across multiple actors in the energy system
  • Don’t just focus on decision-moments, seek longer-term learning
  • Consider using “Trojan Horses” – approaches which get you into closed cultures and then stimulate reflection
  • Provide constructive alternatives
  • Don’t just sling mud and criticise – provide additive alternatives
  • Be diverse
  • Engage multiple audiences, play multiple roles, experiment with different techniques
  • Don’t just shout louder, but also know when to dig your heels in and kick off
  • Get experience on the ground
  • Work in partnership
  • Enhance your skillset (e.g. excel, GIS): Think about the things you can’t get away with not knowing.

The afternoon was given over to small group work about policy engagement (who, how, when, why etc) and brainstorming for the upcoming internships. I blathered about sustainability socio-technical transitions, the multilevel perspective and a few other things. This was apparently useful.

So, a good day – exposed to some new ideas, met some new people…. Finally,  thanks to the organisers for the travel bursary and the enough-detail-but-not-too-much emails beforehand

Sorry to Bother You, but you should defo see Sorry to Bother You

This is a film where, with some reservations, you should believe the hype.  From the bravura opening scene, where we see the desperate hero’s job interview lies get ruthlessly exposed, through to the deeply weird and unsettling climax, this socialist parable is a scabrous and strange attack on, well, almost everything.  Your jaw will be on the floor, your sides will ache. Meanwhile, you’ll learn some new shorthand for the way capitalism makes stooges and cowards of us all.   Oh, and there is eye-candy for whatever your tastes might be.

The basic plot: a young black guy needs a job.  He gets one with a dodgy telemarketing company.  Told (by Danny Glover, no less) to use his white voice, he quickly climbs the ranks.  But the “How to succeed in business without really trying” goes deeply awry, not because of his colleagues’ striking for better conditions but because… ah, that would be telling.  Suffice to say, shit gets weird, with allegory made flesh…  There’s an excruciating ‘rapping’ sequence, an animation film within a film that is Sesame Street on acid and… oh, I could go on.  It’s at least fifteen minutes too long, but you forgive it for its energy, its cynicism, its beauty.  Do not miss this film, which sits somewhere within all of the following:

Horror, bodies Get Out and The Fly

(Reality) television Series 7: The Contenders and They Live

Politics Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, In Time, Elysium,

How on earth did this get made- Bulworth

Black politics/representations of blackness Soul Man, (and others, just can’t think of them right now).

Ehre heads. On the (f)utility of theory

Short post but hopefully not a shitpost.

Went to a thing recently.  There was a good ‘sweeping overview’ history of the twentieth century around Keynesianism/neoliberalism (though it undersold the importance of ICT and containerisation for my taste).

Halfway through I scrawled to a colleague “Five quid says he says nothing/has nothing to say about ‘what is to be done?’. ” I later added ‘hundred’ and then ‘thousand’ between the five and the quid.

Safe bets.

Yes, Paris is dead/worthless. Apparently small nations might be able to do something by appealing to local ‘patriotism’  and ‘honour’  (in German, that’s Ehre) around carbon emissions reductions.

(They haven’t, and, um, free-rider, but never mind).

My actual question would be – How can you give a forty five minute lecture about the future – and specifically ‘the breakdown of systems’ – without mentioning environmental degradation and pressures even once?  Why is that a good and productive thing to sit through.

Answers on a postcard to the usual place

#Climate delay and consequences in a simple metaphor

So recently I was having to explain the delay in doing anything about climate change since 1988, when it became a public policy issue, to a bunch of young women.

One of my go-to metaphors is if you’re dieting to get into a wedding dress, then if start six months before the wedding, losing a pound or two a week, it’s no problem.  Leave it later, and it’s starvation.  Leave it later still, and you’re looking at liposuction, bruising, pain and general horribleness.

Young women have enough crap going on with being body-shamed and all the rest of it that I decided, before opening my big fat patriarchal mouth, to come up with a different analogy.

This is what I came up with.

Imagine you’re invited to a party with y our friend.  You could walk – that’ll take about 60 minutes.  You could catch the bus, that’d take about 30 minutes. Or you could drive.

  • If you keep playing on your X-box, until 50 minutes before you’re supposed to be at the party, then you’d have to run at least some of the way.
  • If you stay on the X-box until 25 minutes, the only choice left is driving.
  • If you leave it to five minutes to the party starts, you MIGHT still make it, by driving both illegally and like a maniac, but there is a good-to-excellent chance that you will kill innocent pedestrians and/or yourself.

I didn’t tell them that the party’s over and that they’re gonna be left with the clean-up.  Why spoil their day, eh?

 

Spiders, trouble, students, decentering…

I am the TA (teaching assistant) on a rather excellent course called ‘Wildlife in the Age of Humans’.  It’s a delight to be a) engaging with cool ideas b) helping smart students engage with cool ideas.

The latest seminar was on ‘conviviality’.  The lecture had dealt with scorpions coming up through shower grates and what to do about it, troublesome baboon troops in Cape Town and penguins in Sydney.  The students were asked to do some reading (most had) and then we gathered. This powerpoint tells a bit about the conversation that ensued (but obvs, no names).

Started out with this meme

spider four memes

I gave everyone one vote, and the bottom right one was a clear winner (it’s also my favourite).

I then asked their attitude to spiders-in-da-house, giving the options
Who is ‘contract out the squashing’?
Who is ‘do the squashing myself’?
Who is ‘catch and release’?
Who is ‘meh, welcome’?

Most everyone was a ‘catch and release’ person.

The task that had been set was

Read the articles and focus on how borders figure in these accounts and the type of politics they give rise to in relation to conviviality and co-habitation.
What type of practices is this “conviviality-paradigm” suggesting? Will conviviality be a borderless world?
How can we understand “affective ecologies” as something that moves beyond human-centric forms of nature conservation and conviviality?
You should all be able to present 2-3 observations from one or all three of the articles

I asked for volunteers to read out each of the three. I made sure we were all on the same page about the word ‘conviviality’ (it’s a less common word than you’d think. I forgot to give Illich a shout out. Doh!)

A couple could give a definition of affective (to do with emotions) and I had someone read out this quote I’d found –

“Affective Ecology is a new branch of ecology concerned with emotional relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world. The basic instinct that guides the evolution and maturation of a well-tuned relationship with the living world seems to be biophilia, our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally (The Biophilia Hypothesis). ”

http://www.biourbanism.org/biophilia-and-gaia-two-hypotheses-for-an-affective-ecology/

I then showed, without sound, the first minute of this

And pointed back to the earliest lecture, on Romantic notions of nature. I threw in some comments about neoteny and anime, because I was showing off could.

I asked for any French speakers – there were none, so pointed out that monstre means ‘to show’ and its where we get both the words demonstration and monster – the latter being something that shows us something (about ourselves) that we’d rather not see, not acknowledge.  I have a reputation for throwing in the pop culture references, so went this time for “The Tempest”,  Some people had seen it, but not recently to recall the plot, so  gave a super quick recap and explained that you can do a convincing coloniality-reading of it.  Prospero’s  “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” got a quotecheck.

Then, finally, (it was now quarter past the hour), on to … working in pairs for a few minutes, generating thoughts on baboons, scorpions and penguins.  Someone had to leave at half past the hour, so  let her choose.  We went with scorpions.  Good discussion about where in a house they appear, senses of vulnerability and violation etc.

Showed this from a very reliable news source.

spider sitting on shower wall

 

Then useful discussions about penguins (charismatic, harmless, how to balance their needs and the tourism dollar – some robust opinions!).  This, on Australia, led to some discussion of the acclimatisation societies and the introduction of species to Australia because Shakespeare (him again!) had name-checked them, and how this had stopped because of the economic damage.   One student noted (perceptively!) how much of the contacts between Old World and New were shaped by powerful white men going off what they’d read in the Bible or whatever.  I threw in a brief (and probably inaccurate) bit on Aristotle and the Great Chain of Being,

We had a bit on baboons and their moral agency (debatable) and what they would do if they lived near such troops.

Time was moving on, and I wanted to throw some Haraway in (as always). First  I asked them about McDonalds and the touchscreen thing – turns out, bacteria get everywhere, eh? Some new about it, all were grossed out.

So, the Haraway. I had someone read out the quote. Which quote? This quote (and I pointed out beforehand that some unkind souls, referring to the repetition in the latest book, feel it should have been called ‘Staying with the Tedium’.)

‘Staying with the Trouble’ insists on working, playing and thinking in multispecies cosmopolitics in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’

Nobody could guess at unpacking it (it’s not as bad as Butler though), so I gave a push on what ‘play’ is about – finding your capacities, how you affect the world, are effected by it etc- then what cosmopoliticss are (and yes, Godwin’s Law blah blah, I talked about the Nazis and their hatred for rootless cosmopolitans).  There were really good comments then on the killing of entire ways of being (victories, defeats, negotiations) and the meaning of the word cunningly.  [See an account from a tutorial last academic year].

Time almost up, so then suggested that further decentering of humans could be seen in two concepts

Symbiont /ˈsɪmbɪɒnt,ˈsɪmbʌɪɒnt/

Noun an organism living in symbiosis with another.
Holobionts are assemblages of different species that form ecological unitsLynn Margulis proposed that any physical association between individuals of different species for significant portions of their life history is a symbiosis. All participants in the symbiosis are bionts, and therefore the resulting assemblage was first coined a holobiont by Lynn Margulis in 1991 in the book Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation.[1] Holo is derived from the Ancient Greek word ὅλος (hólos) for “whole”. The entire assemblage of genomes in the holobiont is termed a hologenome.

And recommended, if they wanted their worlds turned upside down –

  • Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World
  • Tsing, et al. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene

Anthroposcenic  Anthropological gits and shiggles. #moraledrain #oldfartclimateadvice

IMO, we need a new word:  The Anthroposcene.

Defined as: the space (scene) where everyone who uses the word  Anthropocene unself-consciously (without finger-wavy ‘air quotes’) gathers to exchange book recommendations, memes, attention, credibility etc.

And where everyone who has just woken up – thanks perhaps to the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees report – to the fierce urgency of …. 30 years ago, when climate change first got some public attention.

The Anthroposcene is, of course, full of scenesters, all of them believing that they’re the cool kids, and everyone else is a pale copy, hipsters, wannabes, drones and followers.  Each has their own take on how we get here, on what has to happen next, what will happen next  While busily chasing grants, clicks, bums on seats, and whatever else passes for metrics in these imperial days.

“What’s my scene?” indeed

Sigh.

Right, enough tossing off word salad.  On with the show.: Anthropological gits and shiggles.

In the temporary absence of she who knows better, she who must be obeyed, I seem to have recidivized into a filthy and tawdry habit, which after momentary ‘pleasure’ leaves me feeling hollow and sordid.  I refer, of course, to … attending meetings.

This week I went to three, count ’em THREE, when old me, better me, wiser  would have steered well clear. I even paid good scarce money to attend one of them. Still, I’m not completely beyond redemption, at least I had the good sense to walk (not flounce) out of all three, before the end.

Two of these meetings purported to be about network building.  Er, no, not really.  One I had higher hopes for, but these were dashed fairly quickly.

Did I learn anything? Yeah, very little bits and pieces, but nothing that was worth the time drain, and, to be brutally honest, the MORALE drain.  I lay in bed this morning, next to/under cats, rather than walking around the park with a backpack full of books, which makes me feels good, and is slowly getting rid of lard.  Why? Because the week’s worth of accumulated despair that even our so-called progressive/radical/democratic/radical/artsy people  can’t break free from stale repertoires which we KNOW, from endless bitter experience, DON’T WORK.  The full force of the state will come down on us all soon, especially if the Extinction Rebellion crew get their wish and a climate-state of emergency is declared.  The window for doing things differently is already small enough, and yet we seem unwilling, or – scarier still – unable to see how to do things differently.

Specifics, I suppose, are demanded of me.  So I will do it as mostly a series of ‘don’t’s.  Yeah, yeah, I know you’re supposed to frame your suggestions positively, but life is too short etc etc.  These are from the three meetings.

  • DON’T imagine that giving people name badges and asking them to say where they are from is in any meaningful way discharging your responsibilities, as organisers, to facilitate the formation of loose connections. Seriously.
  • Round tables are such a cliché.  I realise I wrote about this years ago [footnote 1], but don’t assume that round tables make discussions easier.  And just because there are round tables, doesn’t mean that you’re not actually sat in rows, being ego-fodder. The host/organisers of your event will want to blather on about themselves. That first 20/25 minutes that they do that will set the (wrong) tone for the day.  Seriously.
  • Maybe learn from the plea of People of Colour activists who ask white activists not to centre themselves and their emotional needs.  And take that into our own meetings?
  • You want a network, you believe in democracy, activism, networks.  Great. Don’t tell me (for 25 minutes). Show me.  Get us DOING it.  There will be time enough for your  organisational ego-needs to be met later. And if there isn’t, well so what?
  • Don’t have us on the tables answering the questions that YOU set.  Find ways of finding out what the people in the room want to discuss. It’s not rocket science. It’s open space.
  • Don’t put the “how do we build a movement”  stuff at the end of the day, when everyone is tired,  bored, having to leave. If it’s the most important thing of the day, then is should be threaded through the day, and should be headlining, no?

Oh, there’s more, but I already wasted enough time and energy GOING to these wretched things, and more again writing this blog post. And none of us is going to live forever.  A decade might even be a push, if it all unravels as quickly as it might.

So, in the very very unlikely event that I ever drag my sorry fat arse to another “network creation” event, here are 10 predictions which I will turn into a checklist and then blog against.

  1. They will give us name badges and ask us to point on a map where we came from today. This won’t be used in any meaningful way (i.e. facilitating connections between hyper-local people), but will give the all-important appearance of giving a damn.
  2. There will be round tables that we are sat at, as if this is somehow inherently democratic.
  3. The day will start with an overlong explanation of why we’re here (we know) and an advert for the host organisation and/or the venue owners. This will suck (up) at least 30 of the first, crucial, 30 minutes
  4. There will be a q and a after that, but no opportunity to discuss among ourselves our questions/thoughts, so the q and a will be dominated by usual suspects.
  5. We will be asked to respond as tables to questions set by the organisers.
  6. There will be a video-vox pop booth, a honeypot for narcissists, and an opportunity for the organisers to show how cool and democratic they are.
  7. There will be minimal (zero) attempt to effectively connect attendees on the basis of their stated needs and current abilities (no skill/knowledge swap shop, for instance).
  8. The ‘how do we build a network?’ question will be raised, but only given any time at the very end, when some have left (physically or mentally) and everyone is tired/looking at their watches. It will not, therefore, be anywhere near as effective as it could have been, but some flipcharts will be filled with different coloured scrawls, which looks good in a blog post about the event, so that’s alright then
  9. Integrating people who can’t physically be there will not be done in any meaningful sense (or any sense whatsoever), despite there being, you know, information technologies that would make this possible.
  10. If you raise concerns/complaints about this, you’ll be disregarded as pathologically negative and negatively pathological, or something. Who cares, frankly.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. From here:

In the Bad Old Days of Industrial Capitalism, where nature was not respected, venerated and Valued, then we would have been sat in rows, listening to the various big cheeses at the front telling us that while there were some problems, everything would be alright as long as the current system was refined and tweaked.

badolddaysIn the New Collaborative Days of post-Industrial Capitalism, where nature is most definitely being Valued, we sit… at round tables, with some of us having therefore to twist around on our seats to listen to the various big cheeses at the front telling us that while there are some problems, everything will be alright as long as the current system is refined and tweaked.

We have swapped a system that was at least honest about who talked and who listened for one which is uncomfortable for some, who have to pretzel themselves in order to fit, but with the same underlying result.

Words, ideas, videos