Things are looking very very bleak, and a lot of pain and confusion is sloshing around in the collective brain of the “climate movement.”
Time for a song, therefore, or a whole bunch of them. Hopefully not adding to the pain, but shedding light rather than heat (the last thing we need is heat), and getting us all to think about “now what?”
The usual disclaimers (1) apply.
Theses 1 to 4 – We’ve known for a long time, and we’ve known what happens
Thesis one: We have known that we’ve had a problem for a very long time
The climate issue did not begin in 2018. There was a tendency to discount not just anything that happened in 2008 (“yeah, grandad, that’s irrelevant, you lost, step aside and let the cool kids show you how it’s done”). Or 1998, or 1988.
But we’ve known, in the immortal words of Tiny Tim , (1967)
“The ice caps are melting.”
On a slightly smoother groove, a few years later, during the Malthusian moment, Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Going On?” with his song “Mercy Mercy Me, the Ecology Song.”
Just because other people lost, didn’t mean they had no useful intel for the battles ahead.
Thesis two: Despite what we want to believe, we aren’t always the best judges of what is going on
In “Changes” David Bowie sings
“And these children that you spit on
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
Yes and no, Davey, yes and no. Yes to the heard immunity. No to the “quite aware.”
A little cognitive humility was in order, and still is
Thesis three: (We have known that) things can come unstuck (or “songs for abeyance”)
We’ve had these waves of concern break against the rocks of real life.
In 19xx Gil-Scott Heron asked
“Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn? Was it just about not dying in the jungles of Vietnam?”
There are laws of gravity that you ignore at your peril. What goes up will probably come down…
Thesis 4: We know that we can double down instead of innovating
We know that there is a danger in repeating past battles, in trying to live your Glory Days over and over.
As Mr Frank Turner has it
“Well it was bad enough the feeling, on the first time it hit, When you realised that your parents had let the world all go to shit, And that the values and ideals for which many had fought and died Had been killed off in the committees and left to die by the wayside. But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left, And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest – By idiot fucking hippies in fifty different factions Who are locked inside some kind of Sixties battle re-enactment. So I hung up my banner in disgust and I head for the door.”
Theses 5 to 7 – What to expect
Thesis 5: We know what is coming
We know what is coming. There is, as by Creedence Clearwater Revival, had it, a Bad Moon Rising.
Thesis 6: Messengers get shot and smeared
We know that we will be written down in history, with bitter twisted lies, as Ben Harper sings, putting Maya Angelou’s poem to music.
We know that while you should never harm the messenger, sometimes folks do. Expect to be blamed for having been right and unable to get real change.
Thesis 7: Species be deathwishing
We know that four degrees is, er, probably “baked in”. And we want to see those lemurs burn.
It seems like the species really does have a deathwish.
(NB the Marxists will go “typical bourgeois deviationist, implying that everything isn’t the fault of the capitalists. Mystic mambo jumbo half-baked anthropology and psychotherapy spreads around the blame when it all actually pertains to Standard Oil, Carnegie and Andrew Undershaft.” To which I say, “yeah, eat me.”)
Theses – 8 to 11 So what is to be done?
Thesis 9 : Realise where you are (spoiler – you are After the Gold rush)
There was a gold rush, a sudden flurry leaving behind a sinister slurry. Amid the toxic tailings and the toxic tales of the reasons for our failings will come little insight. The cops and the COPs will cop the blame, as will the media, everyone we can do little/nothing about.
“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s”
Thesis 10: It matters though to stay keen, to try to stay in the game
Everybody’s changing, sure.
We should work on the assumption that Glasgow will come too late (in every sense), but particularly around the soi-disant non-hierarchical climate movement – if there is a set of protests and events, those will be run by the usual suspect NGOs, with the usual suspect repertoires.
We (you) should try to make a move just to stay in the game,
So little time Try to understand that I’m Trying to make a move just to stay in the game I try to stay awake and remember my name But everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same
hope that you can keep infrastructures of dissent intact so they have further usefulness if/when shit starts to a) hit fan b) get real.
While it doesn’t mean you have to listen people who force you to enunciate mea culpas as humilation and abnegation, it also means they are not obliged to take you seriously until you make a decent stab at saying the reasons behind the failure, till they hear the words “I was wrong and you were right” and think you might actually mean them.
In practice, some of the key skills that were lacking, still are as best I can tell are
Abeyance sucks, but it can also be a time to reflect and emerge stronger. The saving the world thing – well, the pressure is off, tbh – it was already irredeemably fucked before you tried to redeem it.
Last song not to make gender quota (though, um, sausagefestmuch?) but because it speaks so well to machismo and batshit-harmful notions of behaviours that use up and spit out other people, not caring for their needs (and to be clear, I have been in this ballpark, within spitting (at) distance of this kind of asshole. I claim no high moral ground)
There is so much to do, so little time. It is an emergency. We have to keep our heads. We have to share the loads. We have to stay in the game. We have to be as ready as we can be for whatever the future has in store, to make the moves, to play the cards that get dealt in this desperate not-a-game game.
I am writing in a personal capacity, not as a representative of any particular organisation that I might be a core group member of.
I have tried to bite down on the schadenfreude and the language of “up like a rocket, down like a stick” (look, I made it white!) . Probably failed. So it goes. If you’re a snowflake who can’t take the underlying tone of exasperation, you’re probably not really one of life’s rebels, now are you?
It’s interesting about lunching out, isn’t it? Because if the reason that you’re lunching out, is that you’re having a mental health crisis – anxiety, depression, etc – all of which are entirely rational response to the shitstorm that we’re in, then you’re probably not able to stomach having to admit to someone else that you’re not going to be able to deliver on something.
Because the syllogism goes
We are in the shit.
I have made a commitment to a group of people that is trying to get us all out of the shit.
However, it now turns out that that commitment – if I try to achieve it – will put me personally in the shit even more.
If I don’t do it, it leaves the group in the shit. And it reveals that I am somehow a weak or bad person (no it doesn’t actually).
And so whatever you do, there’s no path out. All the options are shitty… And in that situation, people tend to perseverate.
Because it’s not about what other people will think of you when you say that you’re not going to do something. Ultimately, a large chunk of it is what what you think about yourself, what you have to say to yourself about yourself.
So not lunching stuff out – if it’s being lunched out, because you’re freaking out rather than you just rather watch more Game of Thrones or you’re lazy – is actually a hell of a challenge
So, as per my recent Conversation article, the climate scientists have been attacked for (more than) thirty years. The UNFCCC is a hopeless case (see slightly-less recent Conversation article). It is easy to talk about how everything is fubarred, and what am I against. This below expands on the theme of attacks on climate scientists, talks a bit about what am I for, then critiques it, then critique that critique. It concludes with “so what does this MEAN, here, TODAY?”
This expansion below is in no way a criticism or rebuke of the editor or the editing process. I’ve added in bits to the Conversation article and put them in red. At the end of the article, I’ve added a whole bunch of new stuff, marking clearly where that starts.
Thirty years ago, in a small Swedish city called Sundsvall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first major report.
Even then, the major dilemmas facing those who sought rapid action were clear. An account by Jeremy Leggett, who had thrown in a well-paid job as a geologist for Shell to become Greenpeace’s climate campaigner, reported the events of that first summit, including an encounter with coal industry lobbyist Don Pearlman.
They had their heads down, copies of the draft negotiating text for the IPCC final report open in front of them. Pearlman was pointing at the text, and talking in a forceful growl… As I walked past, I saw him pointing to a particular paragraph and I heard him say, quite distinctly, ‘if we can cut a deal here…’
Although it seems so naïve now, I was shocked.
Days later, a delegate from the Pacific island of Kiribati pleaded with the conference for a breakthrough in the negotiations.
Concerted international action is needed to drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels. The time to start is now. In the low-lying nations, the threat… of global warming and sea level rise is frightening.“
He paused before concluding.
I hope this meeting will not fail us. Thank you.
Shortly afterwards the US delegation “tabled a catalogue of attempted emasculations” of the text. Along with the Saudi and Soviet delegations, representatives of the richest and most powerful country in the world “chipped away at the draft, watering down the sense of alarm in the wording, beefing up the aura of uncertainty”.
It would be a painful three decades for people anxious to see action on climate change. For the scientists investigating the problem, it would often be a personal battle against powerful interests.
The path to the summit
The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, had been worrying scientists since the 1970s. The discovery of the “ozone hole” above Antarctica had given atmospheric scientists enormous credibility and clout among the public, and an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals causing the problem, was swiftly signed.
“the US had a huge stake in the climate problem. It was the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Also, any measures at abatement of future emissions could significantly threaten its economic interests. Powerful fossil fuel lobbies with active support from a Republican White House were strongly opposed to any kind of action on climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 609)
“Due to lack of agreement, and for reasons that suited their own ideologies and agendas (see Section 3.3), a compromise was reached amongst participating agencies with the US recommending that an ‘intergovernmental mechanism’ be set-up to conduct scientific assessment of climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 611)
The Reagan White House worried that a treaty on CO₂ might happen as quickly, and set about ensuring the official scientific advice guiding leaders at the negotiations was under at least partial control.
“The US position was communicated to the WMO Secretariat and it helped shape resolution 9 of the Tenth WMO Congress which met in May 1987. This resolution recognized the need for an inter-disciplinary and multi-agency approach and asked the Executive Council of WMO ‘to arrange for appropriate mechanisms to undertake further development of scientific and other aspects of greenhouse gases’. The US also strongly influenced the WMO Executive Council resolution a week later, which in response to the call from the Congress, requested the Secretary General of WMO, ‘in coordination with the Executive Director of UNEP to establish an intergovernmental mechanism to carry out internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, impact and potential timing of climate change’. Shortly thereafter, UNEP’s Governing Body welcomed the WMO initiative and asked its Executive Director to work with WMO on establishing such an intergovernmental assessment body. This constitutes the famous ‘I’ of what was to later become the IPCC and is the single most critical element in its design. It is the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC that gives its assessments a special niche, distinct from the myriad other assessments and vendors. According to Jean Ripert, founder chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) who chaired the negotiations for a climate convention, the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC was in large part responsible for educating many government bureaucrats about the problem which made them more willing to come to the negotiating table. This, according to Ripert, was key to the signing of FCCC in 1992 (Ripert, 1997). However, having an intergovernmental status has imposed significant costs also: IPCC assessment summaries are widely regarded as being politically negotiated, which has, at times, undermined their credibility” (Agrawala, 1998: .611)
Meanwhile, another participant, Michael Oppenheimer, suggests
US support was probably critical to IPCC’s establishment. And why did the US government support it? Assistant Undersecretary of State Bill Nitze wrote to me a few years later saying that our group’s activities played a significant role. Among other motivations, the US government saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the policy agenda.
I suspect that the Reagan Administration believed that, in contrast to our group, most scientists were not activists, and would take years to reach any conclusion on the magnitude of the threat. Even if they did, they probably would fail to express it in plain English. The US government must have been quite surprised when IPCC issued its first assessment at the end of 1990, stating clearly that human activity was likely to produce an unprecedented warming.
So emerged the intergovernmental – rather than international – panel on climate change, in 1988.
Already before Sundsvall, in 1989, figures in the automotive and fossil fuel industries of the US had set up the Global Climate Coalition to argue against rapid action and to cast doubt on the evidence. Alongside thinktanks, such as the George Marshall Institute, and trade bodies, such as the Western Fuels Association, it kept up a steady stream of publishing in the media – including a movie – to discredit the science.
In a February 1991 letter to the vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, physicist Robert Jastrow crowed , “It is generally considered in the scientific community that the Marshall report was responsible for the Administration’s opposition to carbon taxes and restrictions on fossil fuel consumption. Quoting New Scientist magazine, he reported that the Marshall Institute “is still the controlling influence in the White House.” (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:190)
But their efforts to discourage political commitment were only partially successful. The scientists held firm, and a climate treaty was agreed in 1992. And so attention turned to the scientists themselves.
The Serengeti strategy
In 1996, there were sustained attacks on climate scientist Ben Santer, who had been responsible for synthesising text in the IPCC’s second assessment report. He was accused of having “tampered with” wording and somehow “twisting” the intent of IPCC authors by Fred Seitz of the Global Climate Coalition.
In the late 1990s, Michael Mann, whose famous “hockey stick” diagram of global temperatures was a key part of the third assessment report, came under fire from right-wing thinktanks and even the Attorney General of Virginia. Mann called this attempt to pick on scientists perceived to be vulnerable to pressure “the Serengeti strategy”.
By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defence difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd.
As the evidence became ever more compelling, the attacks on scientists escalated.
In 2001,Exxon was reported to be pressuring the new Bush administration to get rid of Bob Watson, the British climate scientists who was then chair of the IPCC. Exxon appears to have been successful because Watson didn’t get a second term. (see here)
The Bush Administration tried to silence Hansen in 2006 – there is an entire book – Censoring Science – about this.
In late 2009, just before the Copenhagen climate summit, emails among climate scientists were hacked and released. They were carefully selected to make it seem as if scientists were guilty of scaremongering. The so-called “climategate” scandal was not to blame for Copenhagen’s failure, but it kept climate deniers energised and helped muddy the waters enough to make it seem as if legitimate doubt persisted over the scientific consensus.
And at “just before 2 a.m. on February 19, 2011 the war on climate science showed its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives as it voted to eliminate U.S. funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Republican majority, on a mostly party-line vote of 244-179, went on record as essentially saying that it no longer wishes to have the IPCC prepare its comprehensive international climate science assessments. ” [sourcesourcesource] (It was a throwing-red-meat-to-the-base thing. It never got through the Senate).
Thanks to COVID-19, the next IPCC assessment report probably won’t be delivered before the delayed conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021. There probably won’t be anything in it that tells us more than what we already know – CO₂ levels are rising, the consequences are piling up, and campaigns for delaying meaningful action have been spectacularly successful for the last 30 years.
Some scientists, including Columbia University professor James Hansen, argue that the agonising efforts of scientists to avoid provoking accusations of alarmism have led to an innate optimism bias. The official science reported by the IPCC may in some cases be a cautious underestimate. It’s likely worse – much worse – than we think.
If the last three decades have taught the international community anything, it’s that “the science” is not a single, settled entity which, presented properly, will spur everyone to action. There are no shortcuts to the technological, economic, political and cultural changes needed to tackle climate change. That was true 30 years ago in Sundsvall. The only thing that has changed is the time in which we have left to do anything.
END OF THE CONVERSATION ARTICLE. Everything that follows has not had the benefit of their editing. They cannot be held responsible for owt!
And I will admit that the answer I’m about to give you does not satisfy me.,because there are consequences for not having achieved the emissions reductions that were required. We’re no longer talking about avoiding dangerous climate change – that is baked in. What we have to talk about then is how the pain is shared equitably, which may not mean equally.
Now, right there, three kinds of people will be up in arms. The first group I don’t care about – the ones who deny that climate change is a thing. The second group – and there is overlap or a sliding scale – are the techno-utopians, the Bjorn Lomborg school of people who think that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with more technology. Maybe they ought to read a little bit about anti-reflexivity, and see themselves in the mirror. And the third group are those who say, “Oh, you must never talk about pain or danger, because this will somehow scare people off.” Well, that’s to keep therefore telling fairy stories about how everything might be okay. That’s indistinguishable in my opinion, from the techno optimist bollocks. And I would rather treat people like adults and hope that they’re capable of understanding that the world isn’t how they would like it to be, and it won’t be like how they would like it to be.
So having said that, let me give you my unconvincing answers.
What climate change calls us to do, what we are required to do, as citizens, especially those of us with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, and the training to punch through lies, and the time to do it, and to communicate it… is to punch through the lies and to communicate and to movement build rather than mobilise.
And my one key distinction that I would like everyone to make is between the mobilizations such as the 2014 Climate March in New York, and the actual movement-building. There can be overlap, but these are distinct, and occasionally the mobilising gets in the way of movement-building, because it allows people to tick the box. “I’ve been on that March. I’ve sent my activists credibility tokens. And therefore, it’s now up to our lords and masters to take action.”
And this is tacitly said, even by people who know that their lords and masters have no interest in and no capacity to fix the problems that they themselves have been causing. This is what Camus would probably have called bad faith.
So responding to climate change is going to require the wisdom as opposed to the ignorance of crowds. It’s going to require daily local, regional national, international action as opposed to words. It is gonna require that we break out of the boxes, the mind forged manacles, that we resist the blandishments of not just the big corporations and the big NGOs, but also the voluntaristic millenarian “Everything must and can change now,” rhetorics of some of these newest social movement organisations and yes I am looking at you, Extinction Rebellion.
This is both an emergency and a long drawn-out process and we need to learn this preparedness for the very difficult changes to come will require sustained – and therefore sustainable – radical (that does not mean violent, that does not mean stupid) action, at every level.
So what kind of superheroes can do this? There are no superheroes. We are the ones we have been waiting for for a very long time.
Specifically, better organisations that are able to welcome new people, make use of the skills and talents they have, and help those individuals learn new ones. New understandings of how incumbents have resisted change not just through outright denial but also scams, like carbon trading and carbon offsetting, and, quote, green capitalism, unquote.
Also a recognition that the methods of the 19th and 20th century brought us the horrors of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Great Leap Forward, etc. We’re going to need new tools, we can’t go back and try the old ones again and again, which is what we’ve been doing.
Critique of the above
So the critique of this is fairly obvious, or the critiques plural. One is so already too late. Even if this reinvigorated or invigorated, intelligent civil society sprang into action, there are certain laws of physics and the consequences of 30 years of inaction are that it is already, quote too late, unquote, that we’re going to hit four degrees, that agriculture becomes impossible that there’s mass starvation, one or two nuclear wars and the collapse of human civilization, which we’ve seen in Hollywood films and we’ve seen in books. This is a, you know, a favourite science fiction trope. I strongly suspect the reality will be slower, grimmer and messier. The real tragedy has someone once said – I forget who – is that the world ends with a series of whimpers not a bang.
Another critique would be that if we are going to reduce emissions, it’s only going to happen with lots of the big bad technology that people like me are generally deeply suspicious of: Hello, nuclear power Hello. By energy, carbon capture and storage, Hello Space mirrors. Hello sulphur cannons and unprecedented international collaboration around some schemes like contraction and convergence.
Critiquing those critiques
So to these people, I would say firstly “you might be right. But even if those things happen, even if all those magical technologies and magic into existence, well number one takes ages for them to replace what we already have. So you need a plan to get rid of the incumbency. Good luck with that.”
And number two is it would address the broader problems related to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially methane, around the collapse of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, population growth and our spiritual crises.
The only way that we have a snowball’s chance in hell, and again, I don’t think we do, of dealing with all those is very diverse, persistent civil society action.
The next critique would be, “that’s fine for you and your little gang. Out of the six of you, all of you have been to an elite University, two of you have PhDs. One of you has a Master’s another is doing her master’s. And you have only one breeder among you. “
And I would say, “That’s absolutely true. But I never said that Climate Emergency Manchester was a model for how other groups should behave in terms of composition. And what we are trying to do with the Active Citizenship Toolkit is make it easier for other individuals and groups to assess the skills that they need, and the relationships that they need, what they have right now, what the gaps are, and how to close those gaps.
“We are not a vanguard, we do not pretend to be a vanguard. We are a small part of a local ecosystem. We can, we hope, be, at best an inspiration. We’re an example. And also one that speaks truth about power, not to power. The powerful know exactly pretty much what they’re doing: we’re speaking truth about power.”
So what does all this mean? Here and now? What do you do?
So, what if you are convinced that I’m right about the way the science has been attacked, I’m right about the way the international process is hopelessly bogged down and that I’m right about the inadequacies of the state responses, the corporate responses and the civil society responses.
What if I’m right about all of that? Well, that doesn’t give me or you permission to give up, to quit, to retreat into various forms of escapism, which is, of course, what our lords and masters would much prefer.
It doesn’t give us that permission. We have responsibility for the climate crisis in proportion, to not only to our individual carbon footprints – many aspects of which are beyond our direct control -but in proportion the level of privilege we have around education, habitus and cultural capital, social capital, time, access to resources and the de jure, if not always de facto. ability to use those rights.
That’s awkward because it means that people like me have a great deal more responsibility than some other people. That doesn’t mean I get to play “White Saviour.” It doesn’t mean I get to centre myself in debates and struggles. It does mean that I have to work persistently, consistently, iteratively intelligently or else my responsibility and my culpability, which is already huge, continues to rise.
So right here, right now, today what do you do in a crisis? Well, anyone who’s received, you know, astronaut training will say, “if you’ve got 10 seconds, you spend six of them making a plan.” So right here, right now today, it’s a question of drawing up a list of
what things you think you and a group of determined, like-minded people could achieve locally in the near future.
And it won’t be much because we live in tangled in systems with enormous embedded inertia. The institutions, as distinct from the organizations are obviously very powerful – they would not still be institutions, by definition, if they were not.
But nonetheless – what can you achieve? Do an audit? What skills knowledge relationships would you need to achieve that goal? What do you have? What are you lacking, where can find it?
Now these goals don’t spring from just the ether, or from inside your head. The important thing is to make a goal, even if it’s a rough and ready one and for it to be developed, refined, changed in conversation without the people, who obviously will only be involved, if to go resonates with them.
All this sounds like a hell of a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sign a petition or to go on a demonstration, or even get arrested to show that you care.
But those things we’ve tried, and we’ve tried for 30 years. Those might help mobilise in the short-term, but what we need are movements: dense as in extremely well connected networks of individuals and groups who understand what is at stake and understand that they are in conflict with other networks, other organisations, institutions, habits, vested interests in society.
And this is quite literally the fight of not just our lives, but that of future generations of human beings, and all the other species that we “share” this planet with.
“The struggle of man (sic) against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Milan Kundera
On 26th August 2006 the first “Camp for Climate Action” began, in the shadow of Drax power station in Yorkshire, then the biggest single point source of carbon dioxide in Europe.
The camp (and the shorter name, “Climate Camp”, missing the word “action”) became what used to be called “a thing” for a few years, before they pulled the plug on themselves in 2010, with a typically self-regarding statement (statement here, Guardian gloss here, PR Week gloat here).
It had come from activists’ frustration with ‘summit-hopping’. At the Gleneagles G8 in mid-2005 a bunch of hardened environmental NVDA types, veterans of Twyford Down, the M11, Newbury, Fairmile, Manchester Airport, GM, J18 etc asked themselves the standard sensible questions-
how come we are always reactive to the agendas of our Lords and Masters?
how come there is so little direct action on climate change?
And thus the idea of a Camp for Climate Action, to kick start (or reinvigorate – let’s not forget the Rising Tide stuff) a movement of people willing to take arrestable NVDA on the climate “issue” (the scare quotes because, well, it’s tied to everything, innit?) was born.
I wasn’t at Gleneagles, but I was at the one day meeting in January 2006 at MERCi (now known as Bridge 5 Mill) in Manchester which started the ball rolling. I knew at the time it would all end in failure, and remember a conversation on the day with someone. I was just kind of surprised at how exactly it played out. Still and all, it was an education…
Now is not the time (or it is, but I don’t have the time or appetite) for a detailed set of reflections, reminisces and attempts at passing on Lessons to The Next Generation. So a few scattered observations.
The Camp ended up being seen as an end in itself by many who had started out coming to drain the swamp but ended up fighting alligators. The tail wagged the dog, just from sheer exhaustion and the constant presence of immediate problems in need of solution. This was rarely articulated.
The Camp only happened because it was in the interests of the police to let it happen (they needed to justify the big big budget they had, quite separate from the undercovers horror that we found out about properly years later). The “taking” of the site, which at the time was a masterpiece of activists outwitting Mr Plod turned out to be a “wave-through”. They knew exactly what was going on, and it suited them to let it happen.
The Camp got loads of publicity because it was ‘silly season’ and ‘middle-class hippies in a field’ was a new story, sort of.
The facipulation of the discussion of the ‘strategically, does it make sense to have another national camp next year, and what else could we do?’ in October 2006 (back at MERCi) was a farce, and a crime, and those who did it should hang their heads in shame.
Within three years the Climate Camp “movement” had churned out its soi-disant radicals and was reduced to … summit hopping, at Copenhagen. There’s probably an irony/lesson in there somewhere.
And finally, this (and I have been mulling this for years, but it’s very live right now because of the job I am doing, which involves trips down memory lanes and into dusty musty (and digital) archives.)
It is very very hard to argue that Climate Camp left meaningful traces, that it saved today’s XR lot from having to learn from their own mistakes. That’s partly the fault of the XR crew- the usual arrogance of ‘youth’ (or newcomers), the “piss-off -grandad” problem, and partly the fault of the oldies for being so bad at keeping the conveyor belt of tradecraft etc going.
And a sidebar – my goodness academics can tell themselves all sorts of self-serving shite about the power of “data”, while running away from the lessons of history. This, like Climate Camp, is of course old news…
A couple of weeks ago the academic journal Globalizations published a new article. “Reforming global climate governance in an age of bullshit” by Dr Hayley Stevenson. I’m the social media editor of another academic journal, Environmental Politics, and I tweeted it from @Env_Pol. It got a lot of Twitter love… I asked Dr Stevenson, who I “met” while researching my PhD (she’s written about Australian climate politics and lived to tell the tale) if she’d be up for an interview. She very kindly said yes. Here it is!
1. Who are you? (e.g. where born, where did undergrad/PhD/post docs/where are you now, what have been your intellectual/academic interests?)
I am an Australian academic. My PhD is in International Relations and I have always been interested in how rules, norms and concepts travel across spaces and diffuse from the international to the domestic sphere (which of course is not a one-way process). The discipline of IR has real limits for understanding these processes, especially in an environmental context. So my reading has always been extremely varied – across different subfields of political science, ecological economics, sociology, etc.
I started studying environmental issues in 2005. A last-minute decision to attend a Friends of the Earth talk on climate change refugees ultimately changed the course of my PhD research. I knew nothing about climate change, but the injustice of it really struck me, and I have been writing and teaching about the politics of climate change and unsustainability ever since.
Following my PhD at the University of Adelaide, I spent three years at the Australian National University working as a postdoc with John Dryzek. From there I moved to the UK where I was based at the University of Sheffield from 2012-2017. I loved the intellectual environment in the UK – there are massive structural problems and enormous pressures in British universities, but there are also a lot of opportunities for early career academics: workshops, conferences, research funding schemes. I went everywhere and applied for everything! Of course, I ultimately discovered that academic busy-ness and hyper-mobility are fairly counterproductive (and probably mostly ego-driven rather than purpose-driven), so I have spent the past few years trying to create a context for more thoughtful work. This involved the decision to leave the UK and move to Buenos Aires, where I could happily keep my feet on the ground. Why Buenos Aires? I dance tango and it has always felt like home. I speak Spanish so it was possible to move here without abandoning my academic career. I now teach International Relations and environmental politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. Sustainability is still a marginal topic here – recycling is generally about as radical as it gets (there are movements against pesticides, deforestation etc. but they are small). But interest is growing, and it is genuinely rewarding to be able to guide students through their discovery of the politics of sustainability.
There are huge debates about the pros and cons of academic travel, and that´s probably a topic for another day. But I cannot talk about my own trajectory without touching on this topic. Climate change requires us to confront many contradictions, and this is one of them – for me it was a huge one. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to rethink this anyway. But I must say that life is so much better without airports – there is more time to think and read, and more energy for teaching.
2. When did you first read about the Frankfurt School – by which I mean bullshit, not any of that Horkheimer and Adorno thing – and when did you first think about applying it to global climate governance?
Honestly, I cannot remember. I have always been intellectually promiscuous, straying well beyond my own discipline. I think you have to do this when you study unsustainability; the insights that any single discipline can lend are limited. My most fruitful periods of reading are when I have spent time just wandering, like you might wander a city without a map, it´s hard to retrace your steps and you often wonder how you ended up where you are, but that´s when you find the most interesting things!
I read those little Frankfurt books – On Bullshit and On Truth – about five or six years ago and immediately drafted a paper plan. I had too many things on the go at the time, and it sat untouched for years. David Cameron was the British Prime Minister at the time, and I thought his “greenest government ever” was a perfect case study!
From time to time I would see the Frankfurt books in my shelves and be reminded of that paper plan. The concept of bullshit immediately resonated with me. As climate change moved from the political and social margins, I could see optimism growing. There was always a new announcement to celebrate, a new pledge, a new agreement, a new reason to be hopeful! But if we´re all environmentalists, then what the hell does that even mean? It´s meaningless, and I wanted a way to make sense of that meaninglessness.
Last year, Matt Bishop and Tony Payne invited me to contribute to a special issue on reforming global governance, and my immediate response was “look, I really don´t have anything new to say on the topic. I can´t see any reforms that are going to make much difference in the current climate.” And then I remembered this old paper that I´d sketched out several years before and I said “if this piece interests you and is not too polemical, I will write it, because it is really the only thing that I want to say about climate governance at this point in time”. Happily, the special issue editors were keen.
3. Did you have any hesitations about using the term in an academic publication, or any pushback from editors or reviewers?
There was no pushback. To be honest, I suspect most publishers would see the click-bait potential. I was slightly wary that readers would dismiss the paper in this way; that was my only hesitation. But actually I think it has resonated with what a lot of people were thinking. In earlier plans, I used the term “humbug” but this sounds straight of a Charles Dickins novel. Ultimately, I think we urgently need to talk straight about the climate crisis. Bullshit resonates in a way that humbug doesn’t.
Relatedly, are you worried about now being known as “that bullshit academic”?
If people find the paper useful in some way, I will be happy to be known in any way at all! Besides, there are a few of us writing on BS now. Perhaps it´s time for a Journal of Bullshit Studies. There´s no shortage of empirical material. 4. In the article (which is properly brilliant by the way – congratulations) you focus on international aviation, military aviation, bioenergy carbon capture and storage. Were there other sectors or technologies you had to drop for reasons of space/time?
There are so many other sectors and technologies that we should analyse. I wanted to look more closely at the Climate Emergency declarations. Ireland for example, declared a Climate Emergency while simultaneously purchasing carbon credits. I had to drop a section on corporate bullshit, which included the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The members of this initiative are the thirteen largest companies in the sector, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, and Saudi Aramco. So many corporate initiatives on climate change involve just sharing information or releasing data, so this was seen as more significant because it involves real money – a US$1 billion investment fund “to lower the carbon footprints of the energy and industrial sectors and their value chains”. That sounds like a lot until you calculate its actual significance, which I did. The combined annual net profit of members in 2018 (excluding Pemex, which recorded a net loss) was US$228.06 billion. Creating a $1 billion investment fund shaves less than 0.5% off their combined profits for just one year (the fund itself is not renewed annually). Profits for most of these companies soared in 2018 on the back of increased oil and gas production. These companies talk about how they are committed to the Paris Agreement, and it is pure nonsense.
5. What would it have taken for global climate governance NOT to have been bullshit?
(for discussion at a later date!)
6. Are there any countries or regions/cities you know of which aren’t bullshitting on climate change?
I don´t hear any political leaders talking about the contradictions and inconsistencies in their policies, or the uncertain assumptions on which they base their analysis. If you compare national pledges with the data on Climate Action Tracker you can see inconsistencies across the board. The Scandinavians are usually thought to be making the most genuine progress, but I don´t hear any Scandinavian political leaders acknowledging differences between production-based emissions and consumption-based emissions. Sadly I think the only ones that are not bullshitting are the villains who are honest about their indifference – Trump and Bolsonaro. Perhaps my impression is too sweeping. It would be great to see some analysis that convinces me that I am too cynical! I think that one of the greatest dangers of bullshit is that it breeds cynicism, which can become paralyzing.
7. What would you like to see the following groups do about the problem of bullshit, in the context of your call for ‘democratic reglobalization’ to “harness worldwide interconnectedness to bring the climate regime under greater public scrutiny and control, with the aim of producing better outcomes.” Specifically, what are the skills they need, and what are the barriers they would need to overcome? – Academics – Politicians – Civil society organisations
8. You note that “Few citizens have the capacity to readily distinguish truth from bullshit in the pronouncements of political leaders and policy actors.” – so, how could sympathetic actors (especially academics) help citizens gain the capacity?
[combined answers to 7 and 8]
I think a real problem is getting citizens to even care about detecting bullshit. The amount of money invested in maintaining unsustainable preferences is so much greater than that invested in developing concerns about sustainability. A marketing statistic that has always stuck with me is that in the 1940s in the USA, total spending on marketing was about $30 per capita. Now it is over $500 per capita. This is a major obstacle. Some cities around the world have managed to ban public advertising, but it is hard to sustain in the face of corporate pressure. So much money is spent ensuring that we think as consumers and not as citizens. I suppose if we were all granted a citizen’s wage and had more hours for active citizenship, this would help!
Bullshit detection requires a lot of time to get a handle on the nuances of different issues. Think of all those ecolabels – they are based on the idea that we have complete information and can tell the difference between things produced sustainably and unsustainably. But most people don’t have the time to investigate, or if they have the time they would prefer to spend it on other activities.
But there are citizens who do care, so how do we help them? Civil society organizations have developed lots of tools for easily understanding personal environmental impact (like carbon footprint calculators). I think those are important, but we still don’t really have accessible tools for making sense of national and local climate policies, and identifying the bullshit. Greater collaboration between academics, civil society groups, and digital designers would be fruitful to give citizens access to reliable tools to identify bullshit.
People of Colour are gonna be shocked – SHOCKED – to learn that rich white people are sock-puppeting them in an effort to stay rich.
Because, you know, it’s so unusual for powerful interests to totally disregard the actual long-term health of everyone else, and to claim to be benevolent while continuing to despoil and plunder. Yeah, so unusual.
Just in the space of today (so, not going near the David Starkey thing), we’ve got this
To stop a small city’s climate policy, fossil fuel interests sent in a front group, threatened COVID infections, and may have even manufactured a racism controversy.
my favourite bit is this –
Vines, of the SLO NAACP, was particularly incensed by the last-minute pile-on by business-focused minority groups from outside the community—but not because he thinks they were necessarily wrong about racism. In fact, he agrees that the economic impacts of the Clean Energy Choice policy—good or bad—will be discriminatory against Black and brown people.
“When you live in a racist economy, all policy that affects the economy is racist,” he said. “So they can make that accusation about anything.”
and this about the Global Warming Policy Foundation (not a charity, always read the label) from the folks over at DeSmogBlog.
It argues that groups that give international aid and financing, like the World Bank, are stymying energy development on the continent by imposing rules that prevent continued investment in fossil fuels. The report, which leans heavily on experts from the University of Witwatersrand’s clean coal centre, argues that clean coal is the solution to African electrification.
Amos Wemanya, a campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said the GWPF’s history of spreading misinformation on climate change means the group is not well-placed to advise on the continent’s energy policy.
“Africa does not need advice from the so-called experts, like Lawson, on how to make its people access energy,” he said.
Oh, and seriously, Heart of Darkness”? Seriously? Plugging into myths of the savage much? Dog-whistling to your rich old white chums much? Maybe take a read of what Michael Eric Dyson has to say.
Finally, as a white dude, it is probably quite fucking exhausting to be a person of colour, and to see the very language you are using to try to wrest power away from the goons with their knees on your neck mobilised against you. That shit – along with the actual deeds beyond the words – needs to be challenged. We gotta find a different way.
How to minimise the growth in pressure for major/systemic change?
If I were a technocratic boss, keen to insulate myself from calls for changes to the ways we do things – changes which would upset my cognitive equilibrium, changes which might upset people who provide me with party donations and a job once the voters finally wise up to me or my own party throws me under the bus- what would I DO?
What would I do if the usual tactics, of ignoring opponents, or smearing them (“fake news”, “myths,” the xxx lobby” were not working any more, were beginning to cost me political capital and credibility?
One thing I would do is HIDE. No, not hide, HIDE.
By this I mean I would point to “Heroic Infrastructure” – particular pieces of infrastructure which seem to hold out the promise for a better world (cleaner air, safer etc), which display some mix of policy, social or technological innovation.
This, I think, would be useful to
a) make it look like I was doing something
b) ‘buy off’ (cognitively) enough people and organisations who were part of any broad but loose coalition calling for change. Some of them would get so transfixed by, to choose an example entire at random – a Cyclops –
or another entirely at random example – pedestrianisation of a busy street, would get so proud of themselves for believing that The System Works that they would basically give up on being part of the pressure on me to get something done quickly.
The heroic infrastructure could be used as a kind of firebreak, preventing the spread of demand for change that would make my life more difficult.
And my life would thus be easier, because the diversion had enabled me to evade the need to actually do open, transparent and bold leadership.
HIDE. It’s the wave of the future, and remarkably cheap.
See also : resource testeria, avivocracy, technophilia
Nowt like having to give a presentation in a job interview (wish me luck) for focusing your reading…. (see last few blog posts).
Two super useful empirical-and-conceptual papers worth giving a shout out to.
Johnstone, Phil, Rogge, Karoline S, Kivimaa, Paula, Fratini, Chiara F, Primmer, Eeva and Stirling, Andy (2019) Waves of disruption in clean energy transitions: sociotechnical dimensions of system disruption in Germany and the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science, 59. pp. 1-13. ISSN 2214-6296 [researchgate]
In the same way that whenever I hear the word “science” being used I want to ask (and sometimes do) “do you mean production science or impact science?” whenever I hear the word disruption in future I am (likely to be) asking “which do you mean – technology, ownership and actors, markets and business models or regulation?”
Probably won’t make me popular, (nobody likes a smartarse) but will at least focus the discussion (?!)
Second, I’m enjoying
Kuzemko, C. and Britton, J. 2020. Policy, politics and materiality across scales: A framework for understanding local government sustainable energy capacity applied in England. Energy Research & Social Science 62 (2020) 101367
They point out that “Capacity is, essentially, about having access to, and using, the various resources and skills available, whilst recognising that they may change over time” before giving us this super-useful table.
Again, useful for thinking with, perhaps especially in relation to the Active Citizenship Toolkit, which is all about the capacity…
The title: Making the most of community energies: Three perspectives on grassroots innovation
The authors: Adrian Smith Tom Hargreaves Sabine Hielscher Mari Martiskainen Gill Seyfang
The journal: Environment and Planning A 2016, Vol. 48(2) 407–432
The DOI: DOI: 10.1177/0308518X15597908
Grassroots innovations for sustainability are attracting increasing policy attention. Drawing upon a wide range of empirical research into community energy in the UK, and taking recent support national government as a case study, we apply three distinct analytical perspectives: strategic niche management, niche policy advocacy, and critical niches. Whilst the first and second perspectives appear to explain policy influence in grassroots innovation adequately, each also shuts out more transformational possibilities. We therefore argue that, if grassroots innovation is to realise its full potential, then we need to also pursue a third, critical niches perspective, and open up debate about more socially transformative pathways to sustainability.
In plain English/tl:dr: You can get policy ideas onto the elite agendas, but only the bits the bosses currently find useful. If you want to transform stuff, ya better be wary of trading truth for access (My gloss)
The way the transformative potential (or aspiration) of strategic niches has been successfully absorbed, and now an additional ‘critical niches’ concept is needed…
“Summarising, we draw three distinct analytical perspectives from the niche literature: SNM (in which niche influence operates through self-evident improvements in the performance of an innovation), niche policy advocacy (where influence arises by aligning niche innovations with prevailing policy discourses), and critical niches (where influence changes the terms of debate and mobilises transformative action). Table 1 summarises the three perspectives by comparing them in niche terms of: (a) the roles played by local experiments, (b) the knowledge priorities involved, (c) the kinds of intermediation sought, and finally (d) presumptions about the nature of politics.” (p. 412)
“However, as research proceeded, we noticed discussion in the field was tending to bracket out more critical questions arising from CE development experience. We do not mean evidence about the difficulties of doing projects, of which there was plenty, and where SNM and policy advocacy perspectives helped. Rather, we mean critical debate about transforming energy regimes so that they become more open to some of the originating aims of community involvement and control, rather than CE becoming an adjunct to marginally reformed energy regimes. Critical issues cropped up in conversations with practitioners, yet neither our framework nor policy developments were exploring them in depth. Practitioners rarely persisted in these issues for fear that it would not help their cause in seeking policy support. This prompted us to develop the critical niches perspective and led to us going back through our empirical material to apply and test this new perspective.” (p. 420)
“SNM presumes a singularly rational form of politics: everyone learns the same, self-evident lessons. Consensus exists over the sustainable energy problem framing, which is that CE is beneficial, and policy will develop on the basis of evidence about the way to do CE better. Politics under niche policy advocacy takes a pluralistic approach in arguing why CE matters to policy-makers. CE analysed from this perspective identifies the work necessary to convince policy-makers that CE relates to their agendas. Arguments advance by drawing upon evidence from practical CE experience. Reforms can be pushed pragmatically; they should not depart radically from what prevailing regimes deem reasonable. Critical niches, in contrast, see reason in demanding the impossible. That is, they point to limitations under current policy discourse and seek to mobilise for something more transformative. The critical niches perspective sees politics in much more antagonistic terms. It insists upon issues side-lined by the power relations in CE niche advocacy and the exigencies of strategic development. CE projects that are a poor fit or unworkable under current energy regimes can orchestrate debate about restructured energy regimes under which the same projects are very sensible.”(p. 427-8)
“Practitioners and intermediaries are aware of critical issues. However, they also rely on opportunities provided by energy regimes: funding mechanisms effectively frame and shape CE initiatives. This raises important methodological implications. Had we limited research to a single perspective and method, such as a survey of SNM processes, we would not have picked up the more guarded critical voices. Working between perspectives with multiple methods meant, for example, that critical issues identified during participant observation at an event, could be pursued in one of our workshops, and become a question in interviews. Multiple methods enabled us to return to developments through different analytical perspectives and, especially for critical niches, notice evidence marginal in many toolkits and intermediary support, and absent in the DECC Strategy.” (p. 429)
Marc’s two cents: Another corking article. Shows some of the mechanisms by which the system (“man”) sustains itself. Somebody waves a cheque book or offers a pat on the head and bish bosh, the radicals become willing fig leaves. Big wheel keep on turning…
Should you read this?
Gupta AK, Sinha R, Koradia D, et al. (2003) Mobilizing grassroots’ technological innovations and traditional knowledge, values and institutions: Articulating social and ethical capital. Futures 35(9): 975–987.
This paper argues that there is currently a need for new theory on transformative social innovation that is able to provide empowering insights to practice, especially in terms of how social innovation interacts with transformative change processes. It identifies three ‘pitfalls’ that such theory-building needs to confront, and presents middle-range theory development, together with a focus on social relations and the processes of social innovation, as three elements of a theory-building strategy that responds to these pitfalls. In describing the implementation of this strategy in successive iterations between empirical case study research and integrative analysis, critical reflections are drawn on each of the three elements of the theory-building strategy. Taken together, these reflections underline the importance of maintaining a reflexive approach in developing new knowledge and theory on new social innovation.
In plain English/tl:dr: It is too easy to get (self)hypnotised by shiny new ideas or organisations, especially when words like transformative, social and innovation invite you to do so. So, how to do it theory-building well? Don’t rely on single cases, think hard and test and don’t let what you want to be to blind you to what is. Also , a no heroes policy is good…
This is a rich and wise article,
They admit that this is tricky…
The resulting pitfalls (presented below) thus synthesize earlier discussions on SI theory development, and distil what we see as currently the most important issues of concern:
Developing explanations of social innovation based on single cases, or small sets of cases, resulting in a tendency to focus on the empirical detail of single cases, and ignore, or even resist, attempts towards the systematic generalisation of insights and explanations.
Making unsubstantiated normative assumptions about social innovation. Normative formulations of SI that frame the purpose and outcomes of SI in unsubstantiated ways that neglect the complexity and diversity of real-world SI processes.
Reifying the agency of social innovation actors. Making overly simplistic assumptions about their ability to cause change in the world, rather than acknowledging the complexity of how their actions interact with, and can be shaped by, wider change processes.
If you let your normative commitments (which you may or may not be able to see) takeover, you are falling into traps..
Whether misplaced normativities take the form of neo-Marxist formulations of SI (Moulaert, 2016) or neo-liberal formulations of SI (see Jessop et al. 2013 for a critical account) both are ‘traps’ in terms of producing new scientific knowledge. Crucially, they do not adequately reflect the often paradoxical ambiguities, dilemmas, and contestations observed in real-world SI processes.
The pitfall of reifying the agency of social innovation actors
This pitfall concerns reification of SI initiatives and their ability to directly cause change in the world, rather than acknowledging the often messy, dispersed, and complex patterns by which strategic actions shape, and are shaped by, broader change processes. Such ‘agentic bias’, often accompanying the researcher’s engagement with situated struggles of SI initiatives, sits uncomfortably with social-theoretical insights on social transformation (Lévesque, 2013; 2016). It downplays the messy and distributed nature of political life, and the complexity that arises from the interaction between SI initiatives’ actions and the wider change processes that they are involved in.
… we maintained the reflexive awareness that SI, as a fundamentally dispersed phenomenon, is not easily attributed to distinct entities and mechanisms (such as selection, variation, retention). This tension between system-evolutionary explanations and relational description (cf. Geels 2007; Garud & Gehmann, 2012) emerged as an important backdrop to our theory development. Theorizing and empirically exploring all key concepts in relational terms, we arrived at quite open and relational categories and research questions in our case research guidelines, such as e.g. the ‘game-changing developments’ (rather than landscape), or the ‘dominant institutions’ (rather than regime).