Letter on #climate and business that the FT didn’t publish :(

Thank you for your coverage of the impending Business & Climate Summit, by the ever-reliable Michael Stothard and Pilita Clark (April 21). They quote Jean-Pascal Tricoire, CEO of Schneider Electric and one of the organisers, as saying

“The [carbon] price needs to be high enough to make a difference and not volatile, so companies can factor the price into their long-term planning.”

It is now 2015, with global concentrations of carbon dioxide at 400ppm.  They were significantly lower in May 1992, when, a carbon tax was mooted for Europe.  According a report in the Economist at the time “The proposed carbon tax has been subject to the most ferocious lobbying ever seen in Brussels.”

Two questions come to mind;

Will those responsible for the successful campaigns to block meaningful action when it still had some slight chance of success ever face justice?

Will our children forgive us allowing the victory of short-sighted selfishness and the deliberate creation of ignorance at the expense of their futures?

I suspect the word “no” suffices for both questions.

Emancipating who from what? Risky business around “emancipatory catastrophism” and #climate change.

Beck, U. (2015) Emancipatory catastrophism: What does it mean to climate change and risk society?  Current Sociology Vol . 63 (1) 75-88.

Didn’t like this.  Sorry to speak ill of the dead (and seriously, RIP Ulrich Beck), but this to me smacked of palimpsesting some wishful (millennial?) thinking onto the ugly “facts” (yes yes, Latour this, Haraway that blah de blah) of climate change.

Beck, who gave us “risk society” and “reflexive modernisation”

and much else was an interesting and fruitful thinker.  When I first heard of this article, I was intrigued and hopeful.  Here’s the complete abstract ;

The metamorphosis of the world is about the hidden emancipatory side effect of global risk. This article argues that the talk about bads produces ‘common goods’. As such, the argument goes beyond what has been at the heart of the world risk society theory so far: it is not about the negative side effects of goods but the positive side effects of bads.
They are producing normative horizons of common goods. This is what the author defines as ‘emancipatory catastrophism’. Emancipatory catastrophism can be seen and analysed by using three conceptual lenses: first, the anticipation of global catastrophe violates sacred (unwritten) norms of human existence and civilization; second, thereby it causes an anthropological shock, and, third, a social catharsis.

[Catharsis?  Well, there will be some letting of fluids.  Oil and blood mostly.  We’ve been doing it to other species and our own for a long time.  Now we are doing it to generations as yet unborn…]

Beck and his ilk, children and peddlers of the Enlightenment, need to believe, ultimately, that their fellow hairless apes will see the (secular) Light.  It’s a belief that helps them get out of bed in the morning and keep scribbling.

Perhaps the topos of climate change is even a form of mobilization thus far unknown in human history that breaks open a sanctimonious national autistic world with the vision of the impending apocalypse. The global climate risk, far from an apocalyptic catastrophe, is instead – so far! – a kind of ‘emancipatory catastrophe’.
(p. 79)

Which is merely, surely, the “information deficit model”.  Beck knew better than this, but apparently couldn’t bring himself to look the gathering storm in the eye.  Better to have your back turned?

He concedes that it won’t happen automatically –

The social catharsis, however, must not be misunderstood as something that automatically happens and is inherently caused by the event as such. It is the product of carrier groups engaging successfully in ‘cultural work’, in ‘meaning-work’, in transformative work of activists in witnessing the (distant) suffering of others (Kurasawa, 2004, 2007).
page 80

But is unwilling/unable to admit that the historical actor does not exist (or maybe he does.  The stuff at the top of page 82, “Verwandlung” and all that, becomes no clearer after multiple readings.)

There’s some interesting stuff where he drags up Karl Mannheim

Mannheim talked about utopia as a transformative force for generations. The difference is that global risk is dystopian vision, which, however, has a significant power of mobilization because it is about the existence of humanity. As discussed earlier, global risk has unintended side effects beyond ideologies and political programmes. The key to the ideas of global risk is that bads produce normative horizons of common goods…. However, what keeps the cosmopolitized fragmented generation together is the reflexivity and reflection produced by global risk. This reflexivity and reflection in the face of global risk, i.e. in the face of the existential threat to humanity, stands for what Mannheim calls ‘entelechy’.
(Page 85)

I’ll put this article aside, come back to it in a month or three and see if there’s more here than I currently think. If so, I’ll blog again, and link from here.

If you aren’t so theoretically inclined you could try “A Paradise Built in Hell,” a big fat hopeful book by Rebecca Solnit.  Meanwhile, the 2008 article  “Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself” by Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, Social Forces 87 (2)  is a MUST READ.

Beck didn’t mention it, but this narrative of climate change as an opportunity for a radical transformation/renewal is an old narrative, stretching back far beyond Naomi “This Changes Everything” Klein all the way to the 1980s, when environmentalists saw it as a potential master narrative for replacing the anomie, sterility and wastefulness of suburban living and consumerism with something better.   They lost.  We lost.  And pretending or ignoring that we lost helps no-one and nothing, except perhaps the rich, clinging by their fingernails, bodyguards and pet States to their precipice. For now.

Questions I ask myself about “Responsible Research”

What gets researched (and by extension, what doesn’t)

Who does the research?

With what resources (and what strings attached – what’s the accountability)


When the results are “in,” how are they presented? When? Where? To who? Who is “allowed” to dispute the methodology, how?

What is then DONE with the results?

How do they feed into public discourse?

Are future generations and other species ‘at the table’ in any format at any stage? (Ombudsman etc)

As for innovation, well same questions, but – does this innovation help prop up unsustainable/unjust socio-technical systems (Sailing Ship effect etc) or does it (as far as anyone can predict!!) accelerate regime destabilisation and replacement by other niche actors  (That’s horribly reductive and binary a way of thinking…)

The bargaining phase and academics.

“Ecological Modernisation”, “(Ecologically) Sustainable Development,” “Stakeholder Engagement,” “Adaptive Governance,” “Co-design,” “Distributed Governance,” “Strategic Niche Management,” “New International Economic Order,” “New World Order,” “New Public Management,” “Social innovation,” “deliberate social-ecological transformations ,” “earth systems management,” “environmentally conscious manufacturing,” “closed loop” “circular economy” “steady-state”.   

I am sure you can come up with some of your own. The list goes on and on and on.  All magic incantation.

We are like the sorcerer’s apprentice, desperately word-salading out the spells in the hope that one of them will tame the beast, the “juggernaut” as Anthony Giddens called it in his book “The Consequences of Modernity.”

The juggernaut; the twins of 1) a cerebral cortex full of powerful abstraction and 2) opposable thumbs for gripping a femur or a space station.  Both in the service of a lizard’s brain, in a ‘civilisation’ that two hundred years ago, after binge-ing on occupied land, stumbled on fossil fuels.

What a species.


Of mobile phones and climate change – false hopes of transformative leaps…

jammedkeysChances are you are reading this on a device that has a “QWERTY” keyboard.  Is that the most ‘sensible’ format for fast and accurate typing? Probably not – the most common letters in English (AERTSNI)  should surely be clustered around the (right) index and forefingers.  Why do we have QWERTY?  Because back in the day of manual typewriters, typing too fast meant you’d get your keys all tangled up.  Not a problem now, but everyone got very very used to QWERTY, and the (mental) switching costs would be too high.  It goes, in the academic trade, by the names “path dependency” and “lock-in.”

Fascinating, but what has this got to do with global bloody warming, you may well ask.  This; we have gotten very used to burning carbon.  And switching is going to be harder than we hope.  That, in a nutshell, is the message in this short 10 year old article –

Unruh, G. and Carrillo-Hermosilla, J. (2006) Globalizing carbon lock-in Energy Policy 34, 1185-1197.

(Unruh wrote some rather good articles, and indeed came  up with the term “carbon lock-in”. You should defo read the first two (see below for details).  In the threquel,  he and his co-author put paid to the fantasy that developing countries might (easily) “leapfrog” the West’s polluting path and industrialise with solar panels and wind-turbines as their energy source.)

“After all, the ‘developing world’ did it with their telephone network.”  Which is true, but as disingenuous and hopelessly optimistic as the “we made an ozone treaty, how hard can it be to make a carbon treaty?” line that you used to hear for a few years after the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

Unruh and Hermosilla make two very good points about this

However, while the parallels seem to indicate energy technology leapfrogging is possible, the example of cellular telephony leapfrogging needs to be critically reviewed for its applicability to current energy situation. One of the keys to the rapid adoption of cellular networks by developing countries appears to be the fact that the technology had been substantially developed, refined and commercialized by industrial countries decades before the developing country investments.
(Unruh and Hermosilla, 2006:1187)

And that there is already an schema for existing ‘energy provision’ infrastructure (and some very-keen-to-sell-more-of-their-kit outfits)

In the case of the power supply equipment sector, the industry’s increasing returns driven, winner takes-most dynamic has lead to a consolidated, oligopolistic market dominated by a handful of transnational giants (Sagar and Holdren, 2002). The nature of supplying large technological systems tends to favor enterprises large enough to deliver complete packages of capital, expertise, manpower and financing. The core competencies of these companies reside in supplying relatively standardized hydrocarbon-based technology packages and projects that can be adapted to local conditions. Logically, such firms have a preference for marketing their existing profitable technologies rather than pushing for the adoption of alternatives. In fact, organizational studies have shown that large established companies are often incapable of commercializing alternative technologies that can make their current products obsolete (Ven de Ven, 1986; Leonard-Barton, 1992; Christensen, 1997).
(Unruh and Hermosilla, 2006:1188)

They also point out that

Many countries are promoting rapid industrialization through the adoption of policies, regulatory frameworks, and development strategies that have proven successful in industrial countries. An important element of this development approach is the accelerated construction of key industrial infrastructures, like energy and transportation networks. In this context, fossil fuel-based energy technologies appear to be proven, low relative cost solutions that can respond to the demands of rapid industrialization and quickly provide needed power. However, adoption can become a path-creating choice that can set a positive feedback cycle in motion leading to ongoing reinvestment in fossil fuel based energy technologies.
(Unruh and Hermosilla, 2006:1188)

They then go on to look at strategic niche management (which they like), carbon capture and storage (“meh”), capture-ready designs (“double meh”) and “air capture of carbon dioxide”  (artificial trees, basically).  It’s a good article. Should be read by anyone who wants to extinguish any irrational lingering optimism about the fate of the species.

Things from their reference list I should probably read
Degreene, K.B., 1981. Limits to societal systems adaptability. Behavioral Science 26 (2), 103–113.

Degreene, K.B., 1991. Large technology-based systems and the need for paradigm shift. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 39 (4), 349–362.

Degreene, K.B., 1994. The challenge to policy-making of large-scale systems—evolution, instability and structural-change. Journal of Theoretical Politics 6 (2), 161–188.

Lackner, K., 2000. A guide to CO2 sequestration. Science 300, 13 June.

Other articles you should at least be aware of.

Escaping carbon lock-in Energy Policy, Volume 30, Issue 4, March 2002, Pages 317–325 Gregory C. Unruh

Understanding carbon lock-in Energy Policy, Volume 28, Issue 12, 1 October 2000, Pages 817–830 Gregory C Unruh

A hard slog, not a leap frog: Globalization and sustainability transitions in developing Asia Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 76, Issue 2, February 2009, Pages 241–254 Michael Rock, James T. Murphy, Rajah Rasiah, Paul van Seters, Shunsuke Managi

The politics of socio-technical transitions #03

Here’s the third post on this topic, ahead of a symposium on Monday. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

Mostly I’ll be extolling the virtues of;

Newell, P. and Paterson, M. (1998) A climate for business: global warming, the state and capital. Review of International Political Economy Vo.. 5 (4) 679-703.


Grazia Cecere, G., Corrocher, N., & Gossart, C. & Muge Ozman, M. (2014)Lock-in and path dependence: an evolutionary approach to eco-innovations Journal of Evolutionary Economics Vol 231: 1037-1065.

with a couple of digressions and notes-to-self.

This (Newell and Paterson) is my bread and butter, and though I’d read it yonks (about 6 months), I’d forgotten how good it is, both on the theory but also the rich series of anecdotes.

Here are some clippings.

These groups have adopted a number of arguments to defend their hostile position towards action on climate change.

They have emphasized remaining scientific uncertainties concerning global warming, in order to suggest that the scientific evidence is inadequate as a basis for limitations on CO2 emissions.

They have engaged in what most commentators regard as highly misleading campaigns in the mass media, suggesting that there is no evidence for global warming.

They have argued that the costs of emissions to industrialized economies of limiting emissions will be very high, and will significantly reduce GDP.

They have also argued that this will have other economic consequences, in terms of large job losses, with a high degree of regional concentration in areas involved in, for example, coal mining, oil extraction and processing, or car production.

They have also tried to construct transnational alliances with other states, particularly with OPEC states with which they have clearly consistent interests, but also with developing countries in general, trying to persuade them that the adoption of emissions limitations by industrialized countries would have severe economic impacts on them, primarily through increases in prices for energy and manufactures (Johnson, 1997).
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:683) (emphasis added


Oil companies are often also gas companies, and in the short term can cushion any impacts of limits on oil use with increased gas sales, in transition towards an economy based on renewables. (Shell, for example, anticipates in its internal models an entirely solar economy by the end of the twenty-first century.) Coal companies, by contrast, have no such cushion.
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:692-3)


US concern to protect its energy industries again surfaced at the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC) in Nairobi in September 1991, where the USA showed itself sensitive to the energy sector being singled out and proposed that agriculture be cited as well (ECO, 1991b: 3).15 Concern for these industries on the part of governments explicitly worked its way into the text of the Climate Convention. Article 4 (part 10) states that special consideration should be given to those countries whose economies are ‘highly dependent’ on producing or consuming fossil fuels, the very economies whose transition to a post-greenhouse economy is most urgently required (United Nations, 1992: articles 4.10 and 4.8). The World Coal Institute (WCI) and other groups were instrumental in the drafting of this proposal in collaboration with such states as Australia. The fact that the negotiations witnessed governments anxiously protecting the very industries that contribute on a large scale to the greenhouse effect bears testimony to the particular strength of the energy lobby and brings into focus the problem of expecting states to regulate sectors of industry with which they share key interests.
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:687)

I had less time, oddly, for Moore, M.-L., O. Tjornbo, E. Enfors, C. Knapp, J. Hodbod, J. A. Baggio, A. Norström, P. Olsson, and D. Biggs. 2014.Studying the complexity of change: toward an analytical framework for understanding deliberate social-ecological transformations. Ecology and Society 19(4): 54. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06966-190454 I say oddly because I used to really like the Social-Ecological Systems way of looking at things.  But it seems too abstract, too biologically driven.  I could be wrong…

The Cecere et al. paper was interesting too, and good on the differences between eco-innovations and standard innovation, evolutionary economics (naturally, given the journal it appears in!) and the types of path-dependence.

The extent to which lock-in and path dependence generate costs and inefficiency to the economy has been more carefully discussed by Liebovitz and Margolis (1995), who distinguish among three forms of path dependence. The first-degree path dependence is a situation whereby the influence of some initial events on the final outcome does not create any inefficiency in the economy. The second-degree path dependence is characterized by the scarcity of information in the initial phases of decisional process, which leads to regrettable outcomes that are not remediable. Finally, the third-degree path dependence refers to situations in which an inefficient outcome could have been avoided because of the existing better alternatives.Witt (1997) also suggests that the (detrimental) effects of lock-in need to be considered in light of the existing conditions – e.g. effective availability of better alternatives. In particular, the original model of Arthur (1989) relies on the assumption that technological lock-in amounts to foregoing wealth increases.
Cecere et al. (2014:1042)

It’s good on “cost-related factors, technological niches and complexity” “role of stakeholders” etc
Overall, this seems to be a comprehensive (disclaimer – I am not as on top of this field as I one day hope to be) overview. The glossary of terms “Definitions of eco-innovation” at the end though, IS really helpful

So, what have I learnt/what would I add from the reading?

1) blocking coalitions are a Crucial Thing

2) Cobb and Ross “Agenda Denial”

agenda denial-page001

and the counter-rhetorics way of thinking.

Other things I defo should read –
“Business and the genesis of the European Community carbon tax proposal”
“The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of business in the regulatory process associated with the carbon tax proposal. The first part of the paper describes the Community’s climate change policy, noting first the essential features of Community environment policy-making, the role of consultation with industry and the significance of the ‘subsidiarity’ principle. This part of the paper moves on to examine the carbon tax proposal and its evolution since 1990. The second part of the paper addresses the specific role which business played in influencing the development of the carbon tax proposal. The general strategy of business was to block the proposal entirely. The paper identifies the potential impacts of the tax on business, implications for corporate strategies and the specific channels through which business influenced the tax proposal, by participating in public debates, through representations to different directorates of the European Commission or by making a case to national authorities. The final part of the paper attempts ta draw some lessons about: the business position in relation to large scale environmental problems such as climate change; business responses to economic instruments such as the carbon energy tax; and the wider relationship between public authorities and business in regulatory processes. The question of whether this relationship has entered a new phase or whether there is still ’business as usual’ is addressed.”
Ikwue, T. and Skea, J. (1994) ‘Business and the genesis of the European carbon tax proposal’, Business Strategy and the Environment, 3(2): 1–10.
How does that compare to Australian coal industry (and broader capitalist sectors) successful efforts  to scupper a carbon tax in the early 1990s?

What would I write about if I could (had the time) around the politics of socio-technical transitions

  • The failings of social movement organisations (and what – in theory- to do about it) as niche actors/regime co-creators
  • The collapse – generally – of responsive states. Policy-making has become ever-more-insulated, more neo-liberalised. States stripped of their capacity, their confidence, their legitimacy.  (In the Anglo-Saxon world).

Counter-rhetorics and sympathetic strategies…

This below is from page 62-4 TABLER, R. (2008 ) The social construction of a special needs program for hurricanes PhD thesis University of South Florida.

It is, imho, a better way of thinking about state-corporate rhetoric and agenda denial, than the standard “legitimacy” framework devised by Lindblom and so on (though those are good!)

Counterrhetorics are approaches taken by the community to argue against the depictions made by stakeholders (Ibarra & Kitsuse, 1993). Here the community either makes an attempt to deny the problematic status of the condition and/or prevent the call to action. Using sympathetic counterrhetorics, the community accepts that there is a problem in part or whole, but will block the request for corrective activities.

There are five categories of sympathetic counterrhetorics (Spector & Kitsuse, 1987): naturalizing, cost involved, declaring impotence, perspectivizing, and tactical criticism.

In naturalizing the problem, the community accepts the existence of the problem, but there is no call to action because the problem is accepted as inevitable.

When the cost involved in correcting the problem outweighs the perceived benefits, there is no call to action due to budgetary constraints.

A community declares impotency, when it really does want to solve the problem but cannot due to lack of resources.

When perspectivizing, the community takes the stance that the claim is the claimmakers opinion, separate from the actual state of affairs.

Using tactical criticism, the community acknowledges the claims made but object to the methodss used in communicating the problem.

The community uses unsympathetic counterrhetorics, when denying that there really is a problem and there is no need for corrective activities. There are four categories of unsympathetic counterrhetorics: antipatterning, telling anecdote, counterrhetoric of insincerity, counterrhetoric of hysteria (Spector & Kitsuse, 1987).

Using antipatterning, the community maintains that the claim identifies isolated incidents, not a full-blown social problem.

When using a telling anecdote, the community denies the generality of the problem.

When the community uses counterrhetoric of insincerity, it is suggesting that there is a hidden agenda.

By using counterrhetoric of hysteria, the community is implying that the claimant’s claims are not rational or are emotional bases, rather than being based on a proficient evaluation of the state of affairs.

Citations are – Spector, M., & Kitsuse, J. I. (1987). Constructing social problems (2nd ed.). Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Ibarra, P. R., & Kitsuse, J. I. (1993). Vernacular constituents of moral discourse: An interactionist proposal for the study of social problems. In J. A. Holstein & G. Miller (Eds.), Reconsidering social construction: Debates in social problems theory (pp. 25 – 58). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Niche to meet you, meet you niche… The Politics of SusTrans #02

Unless I win t’lottery on the weekend, I’ll be at a symposium on Monday, about the politics of socio-technical transitions. My blog about the first two papers is here, fwiw. This one will cover the second two papers. There may be a third post before, on the fifth (optional) paper and some other stuff I wanna talk about (around the stories we tell ourselves to get up in the morning).  It depends how much I get done this weekend on the paper about emancipatory catastrophism, third wave feminism and “Carbon Diaries 2015/7” I get done. It’s not like the Dystopias conference at which I have to present it is next week or anything. No, wait…

Whenever I write about niches, I like to get a few quotes out of the way first.

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
Ch. 6 of Macchiavelli’s The Prince


…Harwood blinks. ‘It’s what we do now instead of bohemias,” he says.
“Instead of what?”
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.”
“We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of Geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to re-commodification, not in the same way. We don’t know why exactly.”
William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties


I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.
Gilbert K. Chesterton


The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

And (finally!) a video about “Strategic Niche Management” around a paper by two academics, Gil Seyfang and Alex Haxeltine

Right, finally, the two papers. First up

Smith, A., Raven, R., 2012, ‘What is protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability’, Research Policy, 41(6), 1025-1036

This one … is a corker.

It’s short, but took me ages to read, not because it was badly written (quite the opposite) but because the richness and volume of the ideas-per-square inch.

Basically they want to add “empowerment” to the literature about niche protection. But they are very alive to the (often justified) criticism of state’s “picking winners” and the ‘if you build it [a trough] they will come [and squeal with anger when you try to get their snouts out of it]” problem.  Especially when the bureaucrats who administer the programme have no interest in admitting failure, because they want to protect both their own careers and the arses of their political bosses.

“Historical experience indicates how difficult it can be for governments to credibly compel protected firms to learn and acquire new innovative capabilities, and that even well-intended governments can find it hard to independently withdraw public protection from infant industries that are not improving (Schrank, 1997). This might be because those industries have become politically significant constituencies for them to be abandoned (e.g. important for the labour and/or capital interests upon whom government elites are dependent).”
(Smith and Raven: 2012:1030)

It would be a real dilemma for a “sympathetic” minister, to be seen to be picking winners. If the minister knows the people, it will be “jobs for the boys”, if he/she doesn’t, and hasn’t looked the recipients in the eye, then he/she shouldn’t be gambling state money. Either way, they will end up skewered in Private Eye. And, as Barry Jones (Australian Science minister 1983-1990), timing is everything – if you are premature, nobody is happy. But I have digressed….

Smith and Raven are also very aware that a beautiful theory can be – if not slain – quite roughed up by some ugly facts.

Moreover, while the two broad patterns are analytically attractive, we expect in empirical work to find a more messy and dynamic reality, in which different actor networks debate different adaptations to niche innovation under different regime circumstances (cf. Smith, 2007). It is here where a more sophisticated analysis of political narratives becomes helpful by providing an agency-based and politics-informed framework for understanding shifts in the resource interdependencies that drive niche development.
(Smith and Raven: 2012:1034)

Oh, and The table (1) about what you can do to create/protect/empower/”stretch and transform” a niche will be dead useful for structuring purposes if/when I write something on how the Australian coal industry has done its level best to scupper/slow the growth of renewables (wind and solar esp).

References for after the Great Relaxation

Hommels, A., Peters, P., Bijker, W.E., 2007. Techno therapy or nurtured niches? Technology studies and the evaluation of radical innovations. Research Policy 36, 1088–1099.

Lampel, J., Meyer, A.D., 2008. Field-configuring events as structuring mechanisms: how conferences, ceremonies, and trade shows constitute new technologies, industries and markets. Journal of Management Studies 45 (6), 1025–1035.

Law, J., Callon, M., 1994. The life and death of an aircraft: a network analysis of technical change. In: Bijker, W.E., Law, J. (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Star, S.L., 2010. This is not a boundary object: reflections on the origin of a concept. Science, Technology & Human Values 35 (5), 601–617.

Steenblik, R.P., 1995. A note on the concept of ‘subsidy’. Energy Policy 23 (6), 483–484.

Von Tunzelmann, N., Malerba, F., Nightingale, P., Metcalfe, S., 2008. Technological paradigms: past, present and future. Industrial and Corporate Change 17 (3), 467–484.

Hess, D. (2013) Industrial fields and countervailing power: The transformation of distributed solar energy in the United States Global Environmental Change 23 847-855.

Is… also a corker. Where I come from “GI” stands for gastro-intestinal. As in a “GI bleed” is bad news (for you, but not for the companies that sell swabs and medical equipment, and, if the surgery goes wrong, the person who then gets your bed). Here “GI” means Grassroots Innovation.

GIs bleed, in either case – Hess details what happens to niche actors when they mix it with the big boys. Usually they lose. If they “win” it usually means their radical ideas get shorn away and the private-profit-making bits get absorbed into The System (Man). And they are probably only even going to get absorbed if there’s another big outfit that can use said innovation in the never ending turf battle. As the one bearable moment in “The Phantom Menace” went, “there’s always a bigger fish.”

Such is the nature of our large technical systems, eh? Curiously, Hess doesn’t mention the charmers at the American Legislative Executive Council.

Some quotes

The multiple environmental challenges facing the world today—climate instability, shortages of food and water, irreversible ecosystem damage, and persistent chemical pollutants— require fundamental changes in technological systems. The changes are shaped not only by technological innovation and competition in the marketplace but also by political processes that involve conflicts among social movements, corporations, and governments. One example for which such political processes are especially important is the role of grassroots innovations (GIs) in sustainability transitions. This study will contribute to research on GIs and technological change by developing a political process perspective that focuses on the role of the industrial power of large corporations in shaping contention over sustainable technology.
(Hess, 2013:847)


Fields are relations of conflict and cooperation among agents (individuals, organizations, or informal networks) who have a shared stake in a particular outcome (such as the mix of electricity generation) but differential capacity to influence the outcome. Agents in the field possess different types and levels of capital (e.g., financial, environmental credibility, political), and in most fields they can be categorized as occupying dominant or subordinate positions, such as the fossil-fuel and nuclear-energy generation companies and the much smaller and less powerful renewable energy companies and GI projects.
(Hess, 2013:849)

And what does all this mean in practice? Big boys’ rules

Although there is municipal ownership of electricity distribution (and in some cases generation) in several large cities in the U.S., municipalization is a challenging road to a sustainability transition. The transaction costs are high, because cities must borrow to pay the IOUs for the power lines, they must develop the expertise and ability to manage a LTS, and they often face years of battles in courts and in elections due to challenges from the IOU. In recent decades, few cities have undergone municipalization in the United States. San Francisco tried, and its story has become a warning to other cities…..
In 2001 two ballot propositions would have enabled the city to municipalize its electricity, but they faced strong opposition from the IOU. Both ballot propositions were defeated, one by a narrow margin of 500 votes. Advocates tried again in 2002, but their campaign expenditures of $50,000 did not match that of the IOU, which spent over $2 million. In general, IOUs have intensely resisted municipalization efforts, just as cable companies have resisted efforts to undertake public ownership of broadband Internet (Greeley and Fitzgerald, 2011).
(Hess, 2013:850)

And is this sort of nonsense happening in Australia? You. Betcha.

Some references for after the Great Relaxation
Avelino, F., 2011. Power in transition: empowering discourses on sustainability transitions. PhD Dissertation. Erasmus University. See here!

Coley, J., Hess, D., 2012. Green energy laws and Republican legislators in the United States. Energy Policy 18 (1), 576–583.


Also, while looking for Reagan’s “Solar Socialism” speech, I found this

Your President Jimmy Carter was the first politician to promote an industrial revolution with renewables,” Fell said when we met in his Berlin office in April. “I looked to the USA in the 1970s. There was wind power in California and solar power on the White House. I thought, ‘Oh, this is wonderful! Why can’t we have this in Germany?'”

For a time, the United States led the world in developing renewable energy. At one point the Carter administration’s Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) made the dream of a renewable energy economy so real that it set off alarms in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East.

“The big powers are seriously trying to find alternatives to oil by seeking to draw energy from the sun,” Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani warned his colleagues. “We hope to God they will not succeed quickly because our position in that case will be painful.”

Four years later, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan. The new administration considered SERI a prime example of what it derided as “solar socialism.” The budget of the world’s leading solar institute was slashed and before long it was back to (oil) business as usual.

As Fell tells it: “Reagan said, ‘Go away with this shit of renewables.’ And that was that.”

A generation of Germans picked up the renewable torch that the Reagan administration tossed aside and bought up SERI-produced patents at fire-sale prices. The renewable energy revolution didn’t end. It moved overseas and was renamed die Energiewende.

and dredged up this from t’memory;

COMMITTEES Environment, Recreation and the Arts Committee Report

Thursday, 17 November 1994
Mr Chynoweth “I would like to make some comments on various aspects of our report. In the first area we have made a recommendation regarding finance for solar hot water units. In the 1960s I used to work in Darwin, at the time when the federal government built the majority of the housing there. It insisted that solar hot water systems be fitted to all defence houses and things like that.

Mr Lindsay —And also for national parks, aviation and so on.

Mr Chynoweth —Yes, DCA, et cetera. That government decision forced Australia to set up its own solar heating manufacturing industry. That is the sort of area we can get into once again. Even in Melbourne I have a solar heater in my backyard and I use it for heating my hothouse and swimming pool. I am one of the people who actually use one; however, not many people in Melbourne do it. We could have great savings in Melbourne. Other cities should have it. The Commonwealth government should be giving tax incentives. I know we recommend energy cards and all those sorts of things to try to get people to move more into this area. We are world leaders in solar hot water technology; there is a great market there and we can move in there very quickly. I am quite certain that it will create many thousands of jobs.

Stories we need to tell ourselves…. Politics of SusTrans #01.

Life, as Tom Lehrer said, is like a sewer; what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. With that in mind I am going to write two (three? four?) blogposts about a symposium on the politics of sustainability transitions that I’ll be at next Monday.  Two or three before, based on the readings, with reference to interesting bits, references to chase down after the Great Relaxation (June 4th, 5.30pm, since you ask). Perhaps one afterwards about what was said and learnt (Chatham House rule etc etc).  Thus is niche development accelerated.  Or something.

First up is “What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions” by James Meadowcroft

This is a really good piece, full of clarity and insight.  So naturally I’ll start with my quibbles.

  • I hate the first word of the article “Governance”, since I think it basically smuggles in all the old power/hierarchies that we are theoretically (ho-ho) challenging.
  • To say that transition is “essential if human activities are to be brought back within ecological boundaries” creates the notion of pre-lapsarian balance.  To channel my inner Latour; “We have never been sustainable.”
  • I also think there is work to be done to “unpack the idea” (please, shoot me now) of ‘government intervention’ (p. 327), both the word ‘government’ (shurely “State”?) and “intervention” (because, you know, the Real Economy is there, and states are parasitic.  Note, I don’t think Meadowcroft means or believes this, but the terms matter.  #nitpicking? And he probably deals with this in his 2005 piece – Meadowcroft, J. Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy, 10, 479–498.)
< /quibbles>  It’s well strong on the Dutch experience of “transition” “planning”  (The Dutch have been talking a good game since the late 80s, see my blog post about early ’90s CCS rhetoric, carbon taxes and so on.)

It’s strong on the fact that these rhetorics are (seen as) soothing business as usual rituals dominated by ‘regime actors’.  [Transruptive is what we need, but we won’t accept that, won’t do it.  We will comfort and soothe ourselves into early shallow graves.]

Enormously quotable bits

Is it not just as likely that after even half a century of effort there will still be significant dimensions of flux? These systems really are very large, very complex, and very diverse. The more so if we consider not just their local and national, but also their international, ramifications. Indeed, these ‘generic’ systems are themselves composed of subsystems that can qualify as ‘large sociotechnical systems’ in their own right. The ‘energy system’, for example, can be decomposed in a variety of ways, and each of its elements may be undergoing change of various kinds. And of course the big systems are interlinked in various ways (energy to transport and agriculture, for example). Moreover, these sorts of functional subsystems (based on production/consumption activities) are interpenetrated by other types of social subsystems (the legal system or the political system) that are also undergoing change.
(Meadowcroft, 2009:328)

That is to say, it’s a kluge.

Literatures of institutional economics, the sociology of technology, and innovation studies all point to ways in which society can become trapped in sub-optimal outcomes. Incumbent technologies enjoy huge advantages including pre-established infrastructure, relative ease in obtaining finance and insurance, developed networks of suppliers, familiarity to customers, embedded technical standards and training routines, and a tight ‘fit’ with existing regulatory approaches. The close integration of the various components in an established sociotechnical system, as well as mutual adaptation over time with other major subsystems, make innovation that overturns dominant designs difficult. Economic actors associated with established technologies are not enthusiastic about alternatives that would render their competencies obsolete. And since economic strength (investment, income, exports, employment) can be converted into political influence, they can place substantial hurdles in the path of nascent rivals.

The modern fossil fuel economy displays characteristics of a mature sociotechnical domain, with close integration among the components of the hydrocarbon industry (exploration, extraction, transport, combustion, retail); interdependence with support and supply enterprises (finance, insurance, maintenance, equipment manufacture, training, and research); co-evolution with other functional subsystems (chemical industry, electricity distribution, transport, agricultural production); and with broader patterns of human activity and settlement (the design of cities, patterns of international trade). The result is to ‘lock-in’ a fossil fuel-based energy system and to ensure a ‘locking-out’ of ‘alternative carbon saving technologies’ (Unruh 2000, p. 828).
(Meadowcroft, 2009:329)

And the Dutch are talking about this a lot.  And assessments have been done of the talk/action ratio –

Assessments of the impact of these initiatives have been offered by a number of analysts. In a recent article, researchers closely associated with the perspective offer their reflections. Kemp et al. (2007) emphasize the positive impacts of transition management with respect to five problems that beset steering for sustainability: ‘dissent and ambivalence about goals’, ‘dealing with uncertainty’, ‘distributed control’, ‘political myopia’, ‘determination of short-term steps for long-term change’, and the ‘danger of lock-in’.

Although their evaluation of the Dutch energy transition program is largely positive, they point also to several ways in which ‘transition initiatives differ from the model of transition management’: first, ‘outsiders are barely involved’ and the process has been ‘dominated by regime actors’; second, so far ‘demand-side issues and wider issues of societal embedding have been neglected’; and third scant attention has been paid to ‘strategic issues of integrated system analysis and problem structuring’.
(Meadowcroft, 2009:333-4)


Loorbach makes similar points elsewhere, noting that the exercise did not begin with a ‘fundamental reflection on the sustainability problems’ of the energy system. Instead there was a scenario-based modeling exercise, and the overriding preoccupation has been to encourage business innovation and develop markets in sustainable energy products. Civil society organizations have been ignored, as have consumption (as opposed to supply) issues. Loorbach is rather critical of the Taskforce—noting it is dominated by regime actors (its chairman is the CEO of Shell Netherlands), and that their vision is not an inspiring societal agenda developed through bottom-up consultations, but more of an accelerated business-as-usual model. And Loorbach suggests this raises the question of how to move forward to ‘transitionize’ regular energy policy making (Loorbach 2007). A perspective further removed from the process is offered by Kern and Smith (2008).
(Meadowcroft, 2009:334)

References to chase down for after the Great Relaxation

Backstrand, K. (2003). Civic science for sustainability: Reframing the role of experts, policy maker and citizens in environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics, 3, 24–41.

Howlett, M. (2009). Studying public policy: Policy cycles and policy subsystems (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howlett, M., & Bennett, C. (1992). The lessons of learning: Reconciling theories of policy learning and policy change. Policy Sciences, 25, 275–294.

Kemp, R., Rotmans, J., & Loorbach, D. (2007). Assessing the Dutch energy transition policy: How does it deal with dilemmas of managing transitions? Journal of Environment Policy and Planning, 9, 315–331.

Loorbach, D. (2007). Transition management: New mode of governance for sustainable development. Utrecht: International Books.

Meadowcroft, J. (2005). Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy, 10, 479–498.

Pal, L. (2005). Beyond policy analysis. Scarborough: Thomson/Nelson

Wildavsky, A. (1973). If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing. Policy Sciences, 4, 137–153.

The second piece a chapter by Hubert Schmitz a recent book on “the Politics of Green Transformations”. I went to the launch of that and wrote an exhaustive and exhausting blog post – “Of Green Transformations, Leondard Cohen and the Elephant.”

The key thing to understand about this “socio-technical transition” [which, for the record, I firmly believe will not happen] is that it is the first to be ‘directed’ and the first that needs to happen on a very short time frame (ideally in the past, if the latest ignored climate scientist warnings are anything to go by).
So Schmitz’s meta-question, above “what, why, how, who and when?” is “how do we up our game?” And I am not sure he really gets his head around it (or that anyone can).  For me (disclaimer: I am odd, depressive), the key question is what have we been doing WRONG these last 25 years? Because all the rhetoric has been there, and yet the emissions climb, the infrastructure gets embedded, the assumptions rust on.  So clearly our scientists or our social movements or our ‘governance’ structures are not fit for purpose.  More moral exhortations and extortations aren’t going to cut it. Or “wouldn’t have cut it”, since the real position is of looking back at past failure and forward to inevitable cataclysm. See, told you I was depressive.

The moment has passed.  Our last shot probably wasn’t Copenhagen (“climate policy” is irrelevant, frankly).  Our last shot was probably the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, at which point it was theoretically (and politically?) possible to imagine at least a Green Keynesian answer.  You can do a thought experiment where a South Korean style global reorientation might have got lots of low-carbon technologies and assumptions going, and how a bunch of people might have started thinking about atmospheric drawdown of carbon dioxide (sadly though, the laws we need to change are not laws of states, or laws of economics; they’re laws of physics).

The moment has passed.  Shakespeare said it well four hundred years ago –

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.” Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

Or, more prosaically;

The arguments that the financial crisis can be turned into an opportunity for green investment have been examined in a recent article by Geels (2013). In ‘The impact of the financial-economic crisis on sustainability transitions’ he concludes that the early crisis years (2008-2010) created a window of opportunity for positive solutions. But since 2011 this window has shrunk and political support for green policies has weakened. In the UK, Germany and other countries, public debate began to concentrate on the cost of shifting to renewable energy. The effect has been to slow down rather than fast-track the green transformations.

Schmitz, 2015

Imma close out with a couple of quotes

“I said good bye to me friend, hung up the phone, sat down and wrote this epitaph: “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy”

Kurt Vonnegut , A Man without a Country


“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes

References to chase down for after the Great Relaxation

Osterhammel, J. (2014) The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ [Holy cow it is 1100 pages long….]

Next post;

What are niches and how do you protect/nurture them?  What works at the firm level (hiring really really smart people, staying out of their way and sliding pizza under the door) is not gonna work at the macro level, now is it?

Of the Australian iron ore price plummet and mining’s “social licence to operate”

Iron Ore royalties leave, just when we needed them most…

All is not well in the great Southern quarry that tourists know for its koalas and Ramsay St. For the last ten years  selling iron and coal (and building infrastructure to sell ever larger tonnage) kept Australian mining companies busy, and rich.    But since early 2011 the price that mining companies (and the royalties governments get) has been plummeting(1).   If you want the gory details of the iron ore boom and bust, Mike Sainsbury and Mike Seccombe have both written excellent articles recently.

The gist is this;  the price for a tonne of iron ore is now under $50 (and still heading south), less than is a third of the $150 it was only a couple of years ago. The main customer for all this iron ore (which, along with coking coal, is used for making steel) is China  And it turns out that the Chinese
a) have not retired/mothballed as much of their own iron mining capacity as was predicted, and have cut taxes on their own producers ( Sanderson, 2015)
b) are recycling more of their old steel. (Who knew, that you could do that, eh? It turns out that “steel is 100 per cent recyclable. Steel created 100 years ago can be recycled today and used in new products and applications.” I’m quoting from an article (Howes, 2009) in which the national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union tried to claim that steel workers were in ‘green jobs.)
c) are building fewer houses than was predicted even recently. Perhaps they can’t find enough ghosts to live in the ghost cities they built?

So, with assumptions of profits turned to dust, a bunch of “smaller” mining companies (e.g. Atlas) are doing mothballing of their own,  because they are losing money on every tonne they dig up. Meanwhile the big boys (especially Rio Tinto, BHP and Vale) can scrape by (or indeed ‘thrive‘) because they have got deeper pockets and run more efficiently (i.e. economies-of-scale and more automation). Still, even there the market is sending signals –   “BHP, Rio and Vale were among the eight iron ore miners put on negative credit watch by Standard & Poor’s this week.” (AFR, 17th April).

Meanwhile, the Western Australian government has a whacking great hole where a goodly chunk of their budget used to be. (They were expecting to be creaming off royalties per tonne. Fewer tonnes equals more migraines for the treasurer).
Last September, back when the Iron ore was selling at $85 per tonne  the economics editor of the The Western Australian put the edges of the hole at $1.7 billion.

It’s a wider, deeper and blacker now… The next state election is almost two years away, but nobody is predicting a magical price rebound anytime soon

Immediate implications
The Australian Financial Review(AFR;  think” Financial Times”, only not quite as pink) has some predictions and observations about this–

[Western Australian] Premier Colin Barnett has repeatedly expressed palpable anger at the threat to state revenues and the Pilbara’s mining landscape that is posed by the big boys’ approach to growth. (April 15th)

As the AFR (April 16th) points out.
There is a clause in each and every one of WA’s iron ore mining agreements that says an operator must “ship from the company’s wharf all iron ore mined from the minerals lease and sold and use its best endeavours to obtain therefore the best price possible having regard to market conditions from time to time prevailing… there is very well-informed speculation that this is the point that Barnett intends to labour in meetings that he will schedule with the local bosses of Rio and BHP over the coming weeks, and that he will again remind them that they require further state approval of retention licences and of future development plans.

Longer term implications (or “where can I buy one of these ‘ social licences to operate?’”)
The AFR (April 15th) wrings its hands that the “social licence to operate [of BHP and Rio Tinto could face the most severe test in this country since native title”, warning that “the winners of iron ore’s Darwinian struggle have a Himalayan public affairs challenge ahead.”
[For non-Australian readers- “native title” refers to the legal headaches that come up once you’ve admitted that the land the white Australians ‘found’ in 1788 wasn’t empty after all.]

Social licence to operate? That’s corporate/academic speak for how ‘legitimate’ business is perceived to be. Suchman (1996) is the key text, if you’re that interested. Especially since the 2002 Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development report the global mining industry has been paying more (than?) lip service to whether they have the tolerance of the communities they operate in.  Let’s go to some academic classifications

According to … Lindblom (1994) also identified four strategies an organisation seeking legitimation may adopt. The organisations can use external disclosures to seek to:
(1) educate and inform its “relevant publics” about (actual) changes in the organisation’s performance and activities;
(2) change the perception of the “relevant publics” – but not change its actual behavior;
(3) manipulate perception by deflecting attention from the issue of concern to other related issues through an appeal to, for example, emotive symbols; or
(4) change external expectations of its performance.
(Yongvanich and Guthrie 2004:8)

Note that nothing in the above says “demonstrably pay your taxes.” And here the Australian narrative goes to levels that a satirist just would not dare push it. It is an exquisitely bad time to be perceived to be tax-dodging, but that’s what BHP has achieved, (with Rio Tinto in the same fleet, if not the same boat.)

As Leonore Taylor reported on 10th April

BHP Billiton executives have infuriated a Senate committee by refusing to say how much the Australian Taxation Office believes it is owed because of the way the mining giant channels profits through a marketing hub in Singapore.
They also declined to say how much tax it paid in that country.
The Senate economics references committee has now demanded BHP Billiton answer its questions. Continued refusal could ultimately result in the company being held to be in contempt of the Senate.

[This ‘transfer pricing’ was identified by Bernard Keane (2011) as a more important issue than ‘foreign ownership’.] Meanwhile, the corporate behemoth Glencore, which swallowed Xstrata in 2011 and is licking its lips at the prospect of swallowing Rio Tinto (2), is doing what it can to look good. It is going to relocate its coals sales from Singapore to Australia. This follows “a clear signal this week from Joe Hockey, Australia’s treasurer, that he would block any formal takeover proposal [of Rio Tinto] due to concerns about protecting the country’s tax base.” (Smyth, 2015)

Meanwhile, the New South Wales government has changed the law to give Rio Tinto permission to mine “Saddle Ridge”
– (which in 2003 had said it would never do). Why does this matter? Because it would make the town of Bulga uninhabitable.  The locals aren’t going to take this lying down.

So, to recap –  the mining companies are laying off workers, causing budget chaos, selling coal to anyone who’ll burn it (Japanese emissions are up)  and are apparently unbothered about being seen as tax dodgers. And now they want to pick fights with farmers, wine-makers, the tourism industry and people who are fighting for their homes. That is quite a display of … confidence.

(1) This “commodity cycle” is one of the oldest stories in commodities, but always seems to come as a surprise to our “groundhog day” brains.)

(2) The story of all the attempted takeovers of Rio Tinto – by BHP, Chinalco etc –  is fascinating, but not one for now.

Australian Financial Review (2015) Let them eat iron ore dust 15th April

Australian Financial Review (2015) Magnificent Seven to Atlas’ rescue 16th April

Australian Financial Review (2015) Miners go from rock stars to ore wars 17th April

Howes, P. and Leahy, M. (2009) Steel is green as the wind The Australian 25th March

Keane, B. ( 2011) ‘Selling off the farm’ isn’t the problem for the mining industry Crikey 30th June

Mitchell, T. (2015) Dumping On Bulga: How The NSW Government Abandoned An Entire Town To Big Coal New Matilda 8th March

Sainsbury, M. (2015) How Big Iron’s mistake cost you billions Crikey 9th April

Sanderson, H. (2015) Iron ore sinks further after Chinese tax cut Financial Times 11th April, page 19

Smyth, J. (2015) Glencore to shut Singapore coal hub amid tax concerns Financial Times 11th April, page 15

Seccombe, M. (2015) Resources bust worse thanks to Howard-Costello The Saturday Paper 18th April

Suchman, M.C. (1995), “Managing legitimacy: strategic and institutional approaches”, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 571-610.

Taylor, L. (2015) BHP Billiton refuses to reveal tax bill estimate to Senate committee Guardian 10th April

Yongvanich, KI. And Guthrie, J. (2004) The Australian Mining Industry’s Sustainability Reporting: An Examination of Legitimation Strategies Macquarie Graduate School of Management Working Papers