Holy Moses or “There’s never an irony policeman when you need one”

We watched the documentary. Excellent if problematic, it was basically a morality play: a bunch of old white powerful men in a self-designed and policed echo chamber are eventually brought low by a scrappy band of diverse (gasp) women. And so immediately after the film there was to be a discussion. And a bunch of old white powerful men sat around and started to talk among themselves about their memories, while (BME) women watched on from the back of the room.

Reader, I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

There really never is an irony policeman around when you need one.

The documentary was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a skilfully made but partial hagiography of Jane “The Death and Life of American Cities” Jacobs, and the battles she fought – and won – with the infamous Robert ‘The Power Broker’ Moses. Moses was drunk on the sort of power that being part of the winning side in an World War gives you (planes, tanks and atomic weapons). Moses then planned to redesign New York City to his own particular purposes. Not captured in the film (one of its silences) was just how fantastically racist (even “by the standards of his day”) Moses was. This would have complicated the straightforward (largely white) narrative that got told. So be it. Anyway, Jacobs, a journalist and all-round good egg, fought Moses over his plans to drive a road through Washington Park in 1954. Then, a few years later, Moses had a hard-on for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and co beat him again.

The documentary then took a good turn – looking at the Chinese government’s falling-in-love with Moses’ technocratic dreams. It didn’t have time to explore the new resistance (e.g. the Shanghai maglev doesn’t make it from the airport to the city centre). There are other problems of course.

For a film that celebrates “diversity” it didn’t have that many non-white faces (though to be fair, it did have some). It didn’t historicise- would it have killed them to say who Moses’ hero was – Haussmann of Paris (instead we got heaps of Le Corbusier. Interesting, but, meh). It could have further contextualised Moses’ will to power (he was both a regime and a Nietzsche actor) by better referencing the chaos of the Depression and the “successes” of US planning and power during the war, and put it alongside the white heat of 1950s ‘successes’ (DDT, the space programme, blah blah), and also pointed to the collapse of that faith not just with Jacobs, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. But to be fair, this was a documentary that needed to have a Bad Guy and a Good Guy (well, gal). It wasn’t, after all, an Adam Curtis documentary. My rule of thumb of a documentary – do I feel I know enough, but do I still want to know more? The answer in this case is an emphatic yes.

Meanwhile, Jacobs instantly puts me in mind of Rachel ‘Silent Spring’ Carson (mentioned by one interviewee) and more latterly Elinor Ostrom. Moses harks back to Haussmann but also to a near contemporary, Robert McNamara, an equally ‘modernist’ figure who prosecuted the Vietnam War (3 million dead at the time, more since from land mines and defoliants etc) with the same gusto and the same playbook as Moses did the enemy ghettos of New York.

Back to the ‘discussion’. Would it really have killed any of the initial speakers to look around the room and say ‘hey, if we’re gonna have a discussion about diversity, it would help if we were all in a big circle. You don’t have to say anything if you join the circle, and you don’t have to move to be in the circle if you don’t want, but we can hardly honour Jacobs and the documentary-maker’s capital M Message about inclucivity if we don’t at least try to reshape the space for conviviality in the Illich sense, rather than a Powerful White Men get to Express-their-opinions-Way.’

Didn’t happen, at least while I was there: I then invoked the law of two feet. Also, I have a thesis to finish.

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Nice power/authority distinction

I have been – by wiser heads than mine – warned off trying to bite off much more for The Thesis, and we all agree with the imperative to Get The Damned Thing Finished.  So, am not going to open up the box marked “power” more than a little peek…  That’s for a mythical post-doc…

Meanwhile, Gerard Henderson (I’m not really a fan, but “stopped clocks” and all that) had this to say this morning about the Barnaby Joyce fiasco (the latest one, I mean) on ABC’s Insiders this morning (18 February 2018)

“As we know in politics, politicians often think they have power.  They don’t really have power, they have legitimate authority. They may make powerful decisions, but what they have is authority. Once you lose your authority, once you’re de-authorised, like Barnaby Joyce is, it’s very difficult to hang on….”

Reminds me of Somerset Maugham‘s observation in Then and Now (his imagining of Machiavelli past his prime) about the thing politicians not being able to survive being ridicule/mockery….

Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.

Guilty Pleasure: Jackson Lamb thrillers

Pointy end of the thesis is upon me. I am getting it done. I’d possibly be getting it done marginally quicker if it weren’t for Mick Herron‘s “Jackson Lamb” thrillers.

I stumbled on the first, Slow Horses in a charity shop in Glossop (as you do). The conceit looked amusing – what if MI5 had the same problem as any other large organisation – there are always people who should never have been recruited, who have screwed up or burnt out but are too difficult to sack directly (they know where the bodies are buried, or would cause awkward scenes). So, what do you do, you slough them of to somewhere and give them meaningless work until they quit… It probably happens, who knows.

So, we have Slough house (get it – Slow, slough of despond, sloughing off dead skin – ain’t English wonderful?), a nondescript building near Barbican where assorted drunks, gamblers, anti-socials and so on are under the caustic eye of one Jackson Lamb, a gross and harsh figure, somewhere between Pantagruel and the police chief Rawls in The Wire.

The Wire analogy is not amiss – in both we see law enforcement agencies struggling with budgets, office politics, incompetence and malice, before they even get round to their ostensible job (protecting the punters).

So far there have been four books (I gave the first to my mother-in-law, who went out and got the next three, read them and gave them back via the book delivery service also known as The Wife).

Slow Horses deals introduced Lamb’s charges – there’s a bravura opening sequence involving a young agent-in-training, River Cartwright trying to track down a terrorist in King’s Cross tube station. It all goes wrong…

I’ll copy and paste the Amazon blurb –

when a young man is abducted, and his kidnappers threaten to behead him live on the internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself. But is the victim who he first appears to be? And what’s the kidnappers’ connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone involved has their own agenda . . .

Dead Lions is the equally satisfying sequel – a clever weaving together of Cold War concerns, vaulting ambition and London’s super-rich.

The third, Real Tigers, has one slow horse kidnapped and the others not sure what is going on. There is a description of one British politician (a large loud blond who says things like ‘cripes’ and so on) that must have had the libel lawyers earning their keep…
This, about MI5’s problem with storing its hard-copy files was fun –

“For once, it seemed, Ingrid Tearney and Dian Taverner had been of one mind. A Confidential Storage facility was required, separate from Regent’s Park, and ticking three main boxes; acreage, security and a potential for plausible damage. In other word,s somewhere files could easily be said to have been lost to fire and flood, or eaten by rats, or consumed by mould.” (p68)

The fourth, Spook Street, finally succumbs to the hoary old “old mission/blowback/the Cold War” device for its plot and gets away with it thanks to Herron’s writing ability.

Each book takes place over a matter of days (in Spook Street one very very busy day indeed), with back stories slowly unfolding, punctuated with sudden and plausible violence

Herron can write dialogue, and create characters (it matters when slow horses die, and they do.) He’s good at mis-direction and his plotting and pacing are excellent.

Tl:dr This is a series to keep up with. But AFTER MY THESIS.

Collegiality v bureaucracy v palm trees and Stamford Raffles. And Instagram.

It’s been a while since I posted, because I have been
a) thesising
b) writing a book chapter (intimately related to a) above))

Still, this and a book I just read (see next post) deserve recording for posterity (or at least until the electricity systems collapse).

My friend Mark Carrigan (top bloke, btw) has just written a v. good post “the social struggle between collegiality and bureaucracy”.  It’s not long, and it’s a corker.

It put me in mind of The Peter Principle (people are promoted to their level of incompetence and stay there) and the way people who couldn’t do a job at the coalface got eased (or eased themselves) sideways into ‘management’ and then gradually rose/climbed their way up.  While often harbouring resentment/envy (consciously or unconsciously) of those who could Do The Job.  And then punished those people for being competent, collegiate etc.  Herman Melville wrote a whole novella about this, Billy Budd.

It also put me in mind of something I read (in a Granta?) of a factory in Wales where there had been a lovely view of the hills… till someone calculated they could extract more work if people didn’t sometimes stop and look at those hills, and had the windows bricked up.

An older example of this and a newer, really scary one.
Older one – Stamford Raffles.

When Sir Stamford Raffles went to Singapore, he went by way of Indonesia and saw how self-reliant people were with the palms that provided them with everything they needed. He said ‘These people are ungovernable’. There was nothing the government could give them that they wanted or needed. So what had to be done was clear. Cut the fucking palms down, so they became dependent, and hence governable. You can’t govern independent people. They have no need of anything you can bring them.”

Bill Mollison (founder of ‘permaculture’) in Jeremy Seabrook’s book ‘Pioneers of Change’

And more recently (like, now) from this terrifying article
The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we’re so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation. Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding “likes” from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.
Instagram denies this – MRDA.

Tom Uren and the class war

So, to my shame I don’t know enough about people like Tom Uren.  That shall be rectified #afterthethesis.  For now, this, from a speech he gave in 2007, which touches on his time as a POW working on the Burma railway.  Talk about natural experiments…

“There are many people and experiences that have nurtured my life. But my experience serving under Weary Dunlop has had a lifelong and lasting experience on me. We were at a place called Hintock Road Camp or, as Weary called it, Hintock “Mountain” Camp. “Weary” is a name of respect. He would tax our officers and medical orderlies and the men who went out to work would be paid a small wage.

“We would contribute most of it into a central fund. Weary would then send some of our people out into the jungle to trade with the Thai and Chinese traders for food and drugs for our sick and needy. In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivised a great proportion of our income.

“Just as the wet season set in a group of about 400 British camped near us for shelter. They had tents. The officers took the best tents, the NCOs the next best and the ordinary soldiers got the dregs. Within six weeks only about 50 of them marched out—the rest died of dysentery or cholera. In the mornings when we would walk out to work, their corpses would be lying in the mud as we passed them. Only a creek separated our two camps. On the one side the survival of the fittest – the law of the jungle – prevailed, and on the other side the collective spirit under Weary Dunlop. That spirit has always remained with me.”

Canute in reverse: Macron’s climate summit

Today thousands of the great and the good will gather in Paris for the latest in a long line of climate summits. Initiated in July by French President Emmanuel Macron, it falls on the two year anniversary of the Paris Agreement.  With three goals –  “Take tangible and collective action, innovate, support one another”  – it is part of his efforts to maintain France’s status as the pace-setter on climate change, in ever-growing contrast to the Trump administration’s enthusiastic environmental vandalism.  Trump was explicitly not invited, in fact.

The event is the latest in a much longer line of climate summits which try to focus attention and generate momentum. However, while most previous summits have been involved mitigation policies, motherhood statements and unmemorable memos about more meetings, this one may be different..

Summits going on

While ‘summits to solve problems’ are time-honoured, and can lead to new organisations (the 1975 Rambouillet talks to discuss economic problems led to the formation of the G7) political gatherings on climate change date back to the early 1980s.

Climate scientists and switched on politicians (including a young Al Gore) attempted to sustain momentum that had been building under Carter and was fading under the new Reagan administration.

Eight years later, George HW Bush promised on the 1988 Presidential campaign trail to use the White house effect against the greenhouse effect’ and to hold an international conference within a year of taking office. However’ once in office he dragged his feet.” When the event finally happened in April 1990 it emerged that the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change, Bert Bolin, had not been invited.

The climate summits have come thicker and faster since then, either through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , alongside it (eg. The UK effort at the UN security council,) or in a spoiler role – the efforts of George Bush Jnr and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, both who refused to enact the Kyoto Protocol to create an ‘Asia Pacific Forum on Clean Development and Climate.

The motives of the summit-callers vary. It might be to highlight intent and bask in a contrast (as Macron is doing here). It might be to regain lost ground – in 2007 Kevin Rudd, who would soon become Australian Prime Minister after ‘the first climate change election’, called a National Climate Summit to wrest back the climate agenda, after John Howard u-turned on his climate policy intransigence and asked a senior public servant, Peter Shergold, to investigate an emissions trading scheme.

(Malcolm Turnbull, now Prime Minister and then the new environment minister, dismissed it; “I’m afraid to say that the people who are going, however well intentioned, are being used by Kevin Rudd as props to promote himself.”)

Turning the tide

canuteSo far so normal. The climate debate has always been about managing the politics; political summits have always been about the signalling of virtue and/or holding back the tide as best as possible. This one though, has Macron as Canute commanding the tide to come in.

There are two interrelated reasons why this is one to watch. Firstly, the unity of the fossil fuel industry is splintering. The coal industry fear after the Paris conference that hey would “be hated like slave traders” is coming true, despite Trump’s ‘coal is back’ efforts. The Bonn climate conference saw the announce of a ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Michael Bloomberg is funding a global ‘beyond coal’ effort. Coal is being thrown under the bus.

Secondly, and perhaps not unrelated, is the technological and economic developments which see “clean energy approaching a tipping point.”  The price of solar panels collapsing, new interest in concentrated solar thermal and great enthusiasm (the upswing of the hype cycle ) around energy storage. Investors are shifting to renewables, and doubtless there will be more announcements of new renewables being made. The summit will be not so much virtue signalling as venture (capital) signalling.

There will be trouble ahead

The danger then is not that Macron’s summit will extend a policy stalemate, but that it will entrench the notion – pushed aggressively and slickly by Shell – of gas as a ‘transition’ fuel (it is not) and reinforce the comforting belief that the techno-cavalry with arrive to save us.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s commitment of keeping global warming to less than two degrees (let alone the probably impossible 1.5), we are going to have to accelerate not just the growth of renewables, but also understand that incumbents will fight in clever determined and diverse ways to defend their interests. For those geeks who have pay-wall privileges, here is new academic work on overcoming policy resistance,

For those who continue to need to believe that we can get out of this mess, the real danger is no longer intransigence, but that summits like this will be used to reinforce a business as usual with a green lick of paint.

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