Nukes, prestige and dime-store psychology

The bang was big. In  16 July 1945, humans got to start using the power of the sun. First to fry people, but then – and this is not understood enough – with the hope (okay, maybe it was a bit of a fig-leaf) of the “peaceful use of nuclear explosions”. What’s this, you say? Yes, for tunnels, canals, artificial harbours. All covered in Scott Kirsch’s “Proving Ground”.

And in the late 1960s, after 20 plus years of prestige it started to go wrong… By 1975, the awful “environmentalists” had spoiled everything. Three Mile Island was a late kick in the teeth.

And, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out in their 2010 “Merchants of Doubt” – the big beasts behind the campaigns of denial (against ozone depletion, acid rain, the tobacco-lung disease link, let alone climate) were … nuclear physicists.

It’s covered nicely by Myanna Lahsen in (e.g.) Experiences of modernity in the greenhouse: A cultural analysis of a physicist ‘‘trio’’ supporting the backlash against global warming

There’s also an examination of Swedish denialists that mentions their masculinity-
A Green fatwa? Climate change as a threat to the masculinity of industrial modernity

Basically, as Chris Freeman puts it in this article

“The prestige of science in general and of physics in particular ha[d] probably never been higher.”
(Freeman, 1996:28)

And that prestige was stolen from them. By the ozone/SST thing, by oil spills and by a loat of other “scares”.  They would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids…

For contra view, see this –

Friday, Eli wrote about recent papers by Myanna Lahsen, and Naomi Oresekes, Erik Conway and Matthew Shindell about the Marshall Institute’s founders, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow and Fredrick Seitz. Lahsen came to the conclusion that after retiring these three attacked climate science and scientists to make up for a loss of status. Oreskes and Conway thought not, in Eli’s word’s
But at about that time, the director of GISS, Robert Jastrow, concluded that the days of generous NASA support for planetary studies were numbered, and he thus began to direct institutional resources towards Earth applications.
The Marshall trio pushed the line that climate scientists are in it for the $$. Nierenberg, Seitz and Jastrow were simply reflecting on what they had done.

Beating nukes into plowshares

I thought I was cynical enough.  Nope, not by a gazillion miles.  Turns out both the US and the Russians were keen on using nukes for peace.  Some of this I knew, but I didn’t realise it was quite so extensive…

“Project Plowshare was the overall United States term for the development of operation plowshare
techniques to use nuclear explosives for peaceful construction purposes. It was the US portion of what are called Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE).”




And the Australian connection – from Scott Kirsch’s 2005 book “Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving”

proving grounds by scott kirsch

The line from Stalin to Putin

This from the Big issue in the North 16-22 May

Charlotte Hobson, author of The Vanishing Futurist was asked “Can you draw a line between Stalin and Putin?
And she replied

Varlam Shalamov, the great chronicler of Stalin’s gulag observed that it was the mindset of the common criminals that dominated the camps – and by extension the whole country. Amoral, brutal and primitive, this mentality terrorised and crushed the millions of ordinary citizens who passed through the camps as thoroughly as any physical hardship. Under Brezhnev it quietly spread and flourished; under Yeltsin it revealed itself; but under Putin it has found a new confidence.


Review of Vanishing Futurist in Grauniad.

Thrashing thrashing

Ah, we have so many ways of distracting ourselves. Most of us do, anyway.
I quite like this (though a brain is not a computer!)

It is the same with a computer cache: there will be a hierarchy – from super-fast memory in the microprocessor itself all the way down to a hard drive (slow) and offsite backup (very slow). To speed things up, the computer will copy the data it needs for the current task into a fast cache. If the task needs to be switched too often, the machine will spend all its time copying data for one task into the cache, only to switch tasks, wipe the cache and fill it with something new. At the limit, nothing will be achieved. [Peter] Denning described this regrettable state of affairs as “thrashing.”

Harford, T. 2016. An algorithm for getting through your to-do list. Financial Times Magazine, August 6/7, p.45.

In other word, what we all know – one thing at a fucking time, if you can, room of one’s own etc.


Video: What is absorptive capacity?

And here is the script that I more or less stumbled through.

So, what is absorptive capacity?

According to the seminal 1990 article by Cohen and Levinthal it’s “a firm’s ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends”

Extending this, Zahra and George (2002) say it is ‘‘is a set of organizational routines and strategic processes by which firms acquire, assimilate, transform, and exploit knowledge for the purpose of value creation.’’

They break that down into potential absorptive capacity – around acquiring and assimilating and realized absorptive capacity – around transforming and exploiting. Too much of the later – from routinising, can lead to a competence trap, but I’m digressing…

There’s also “relative absorptive capacity” – which firm has more, but I’m digressing…

It’s tied up with notions of innovation, organisational learning (natch), dynamic capabilities, competence traps, deliberative learning, knowledge management combinative capabilities and a bunch of other interesting terms.

Ways to think about it

Don’t think of a sponge though – that is too passive a metaphor. So is a bunch of keys that would “unlock” other knowledge.
It’s much messier, more fluid and iterative than that, and as Aribi, A. and Dupouet point out it is a non-linear process with feedback loops within and between the stages.

There are lots and lots of unanswered research questions for the capitalists, check out Volberda et al. 2010 for a nice listing. But

What are the barriers for social movement organisations?

  • They don’t want or “need” to learn (our old friend the smugosphere)
  • They have pitiful or absent knowledge management structures
  • They have a high turn-over of personnel
  • They are up to their neck in alligators, and have forgotten that they came to drain the swamp

Things you should read

Aribi, A. and Dupouet, O. 2016.Absorptive capacity: a non-linear process. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, Vol. 14, pp.15-26.

Gebauer, H. Worch, H and Truffer, B. 2012. Absorptive capacity, learning processes and combinative capabilities as determinants of strategic innovation. European Management Journal, Vol. 30, pp.57-73.

Jimenez-Barrionuevo, M, Garcia-Morales, V. and Molina, L. 2011. Validation of an instrument to measure absorptive capacity. Technovation. Vol. 31, pp.190-202.

Lichtenthaler, U., 2009. Absorptive capacity, environmental turbulence, and the complementarity of organizational learning processes. Academy of Management Journal 52 (4), 822–846.

Murovec, N., Prodan, I., 2009. Absorptive capacity, its determinants, and influence on innovation output: cross-cultural validation of the structural model. Technovation 29, 859–872.

Todorova, G., & Durisin, B. (2007). Absorptive capacity: Valuing a reconceptualization. Academy of Management Review, 32(3), 774–786.

Volberda, H., Foss N. and Lyles, M. 2010. Perspective – absorbing the concept of absorptive capacity: how to realize its potential in the organization field. Organization Science Vol. 21,(4), pp. 931–951.

Concept fetishism and leather skirts

So a fetish is a god we create and then forget that we created and get down to serious worshipping of.  There’s a rather good Doctor Who story from 1976, that was going to be called “The Day God Went Mad” but ended up being called “The Face of Evil” that outlines this with added flesh-eating worms and Louise Jameson in a leather mini-skirt.

Marx of course used the notion of a “fetish” to talk about “commodity fetishism” – you can read more here. Or this from wikipedia

commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production, not as relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade. As such, commodity fetishism transforms the subjective, abstract aspects of economic value into objective, real things that people believe have intrinsic value

So the obvious problem for ideas-mongers is that they fall in love with the categorisation tools that they invent, and mistake the map for the territory (insert Borges reference about here).

Canon laser photocopiers can help us here;

Another example is the Canon laser photocopier which produced digital signals that could be electronically digitally processed, stored or transmitted simultaneously to a number of distant slave printers. The analog system of its conventional predecessors were unable to network. The new technology was the application of a laser and electronic information processing step inserted between the original optical and print systems. The digital processing subsystem allowed the production of a technologically new laser digital copier. Utterback would label the movement from analog to digital technology a market broadening, competence enhancing, radical innovation. Yet for Rothwell and Gardiner, radical technology embedded in a reinnovation does not constitute a radical innovation, instead just a redesign on an ‘innovation’. Thus, they would label this innovation an incremental innovation with a subassembly change. Kleinschmidt and Cooper would label it a moderate innovation, and to Abernathy and Clark the copier technology evolution is a regular innovation.
(Garcia and Calantone, 2002: 118)


So, I offer a label to help us remember that the axes we create can end up being axes we grind (see what I did there?).  I offer the world… “concept fetishism”.




Garcia, R. and Calantone, R. 2002. A critical look at technological innovation typology and innovativeness terminology: a literature review. Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 19, pp.110-132.

And those references

  • J.M. Utterback Mastering the dynamics of innovation, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA (1996)
  • R. Rothwell, P. Gardiner Reinnovation and robust designs: producer and user benefitsJournal of Marketing Management, 3 (3) (1988), pp. 372–387
  • E.J. Kleinschmidt, R.G. Cooper The impact of product innovativeness on performance Journal of Product Innovation Management, 8 (1991), pp. 240–251
  • W.J. Abernathy, K.B. Clark Innovation. mapping the winds of creative destruction Research Policy, 14 (1) (1985), pp. 3–22

Video: The Greening of Industry/Eco-innovation

More or less the script I burble. Stuff in square brackets didn’t get said or referenced, because the damn thing was already 5 and a half minutes…

The whole field of “green innovation” is a Rorschach test. We see in the blobs what we want and need to see. Capitalism mutating into something ecologically friendly, capitalism wrecking the planet. The system working, the system shirking… This video throws out questions raised by the idea of “eco-innovation.” It also gives a quick overview of the changing academic perspectives on “the greening of industry”. It is of course, a work in progress, and if you think I am wrong, lemme know

So what is eco-innovation, anyhow?

Kemp and Pearson (2007) define it as

the production, assimilation or exploitation of a product, production process, service or management or business method that is novel to the organisation (developing or adopting it) and which results, throughout its life cycle, in a reduction of environmental risk, pollution and other negative impacts of resources use (including energy use) compared to relevant alternatives”.

So why do companies “go green”?

  • Is it simply to greenwash, to get the eco-nuts off their backs, and onto softer targets?
  • Is it a bargaining chip against the risk of proposed regulations that would be more stringent?
  • Is it an opportunity to attract and retain staff who Care About These Things?
  • Is it for competitive advantage (the Porter hypothesis). Especially a first mover advantage [The timing of incorporation of regulatory signals in the corporate structure and strategy is important for determining the relationship between regulation and innovation. Early compliance has been linked to competitive advantage (Porter and Van der Linde, 1995; Rothwell, 1992) as companies develop compliance capabilities, which, in turn result into early mover advantages. (Paraskevopoulou, 2012: 1064)  [I should also have said something about simply saving production costs here, but didn’t]

  • Is it to have a planet left to sell stuff on?

Of course, “it depends” – It might be any of those, any combination of those. It depends on the particular industry, the market, the governments and states, the times.

There’s no one simple answer. There are lots of complicated questions though!

Who engages in eco-innovation – is it the “little guy” – the niche actor trying to save the world or patent some cool stuff and then get bought out? Do the little guys have the cash and the organizational capacities – smart enough staff, good enough absorptive capacity? [“most literature on eco-innovation is focused on large mature firms, practically neglecting SMEs (Schiederig et al., 2012).” (Diaz-Garcia et al. 2015:16)]

Is it the big beasts, the elephants trying to tap dance in search of new customers, or just to keep the ones they’ve got? Are they too drunk on past successes? Under what circumstances will pressure groups scare them into acting?

It depends.

How does this “eco-innovation” play out?

Is it incremental, constant small refinements of a dominant design, or is it radical and potentially competence-destroying?

It depends.

Where does it come from?

Does it come from a “laboratory” or is it user-lead (insert guff about prosumers here).

It depends

Does it come from “transition regions” or “industrial districts”?

It depends.

What kind of innovation are we talking about?

  • The same product used differently?
  • A different product used in the “same” way?
  • A new product used in a different way?

What of the “rebound effect”, can we escape Jevons’ Paradox?

There’s a bunch of other questions too.

What happens at the level of an industry (over and above individual firms jostling for advantage. Are there industries that can’t plausibly re-orientate? (How) will they fight to the death?

Which regulations in a “policy mix” might drive faster innovation in the “right” direction?

What are the trade-offs between “green” and “responsible” and so on?

What about innovations that help sustain an ultimately unsustainable system (man)? Are they ‘green’? Says who?

All good questions – what does the academic literature have to say? How long have you got? For now, this –

according to Penna, 2014 the literatures can be broken down into three periods, with an expansion from a largely firm-based economics/costs model between the 60s and 80s,

As Hoffman’s work shows, corporate environmentalism emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s in direct response to the increasing government regulation following various environmental disasters.

By the 1990s things had evolved into “environmental innovation can create win-wins” – having your cake and eating it too – (ecological modernisation etc)

A third wave takes a more sophisticated approach that brings in organisation theory, innovation studies, evolutionary economics, neo-institutional theory, and looks at an entire field (including governmental and non-governmental players).

In their excellent “Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations Processes of Creative Self-DestructionChris Wright and Daniel Nyberg argue that corporate environmentalism provides a way for corporations to incorporate critique and respond by justifying their actions (‘we can be trusted to be good corporate citizens and environmental managers through self-regulation, market logics and tech innovation’)

So, it’s complicated and “it depends”.

What would actual greening look like? There’s a whole bunch of terms – circular economy, closed loop, steady state, degrowth etc. All of them anxiety management devices, bargaining in the face of a remorseless Green Reaper.

Oh well.

Those images

The battery powered car

Painting chimneys

Porter hypothesis slide from
Rennings, K. Symposium on The Porter Hypothesis at 20


Jevons Paradox


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