The spectre of Tom Cruise hangs over the latest Bond film

fectreA taped message. An agent forced to go rogue in his battle against a secretive globe-spanning violent criminal gang.  His boss initially pursuing him, but by the end getting out from behind the desk and getting his hands dirty.  Confused talk about democracy. An extremely beautiful and much younger European woman at his side, potentially seducing him away from all the violence and the killing. They go the secret lair in North Africa, and this is followed by a shoot-out on the banks of the Thames, with the baddies including moles-and-traitors-within-M16…  The forces of, well, good force, prevail.

Yes, Mission Impossible 26, with the indesctructible Tom Cruise wasn’t bad, earlier this year.  And the Bond film ‘Spectre’ was fun too, following a formula that doesn’t bear too much thinking about.  It’s one of those film you enjoy at the time (if you like fist fights, car chases, explosions and gorgeous European women) but dare not think about for more than a few seconds afterwards, in case the enjoyment evaporates like mist when the sun comes out.

How long can Daniel Craig keep it up? How long does he WANT to?  Will Lea Seydoux be back?  All questions I won’t think about for another two and a half years, till the next one comes out…  By then, Greengrass and Damon will have produced Bourne 4 (filming now!) #dontfuckitupplease

Verdict: If you have 3 hours of your life (including trailers and adverts) that you want to throw away, then go for it.

Oh, btw, Shell, we have that ‘hybrid world’ – thanks in part to you…

Yesterday I posted a piece on Shell’s beautiful (in a Leni Riefenstahl kind of way) new advert in which two vegan, pierced women act as spokespeople for the exploration, extraction and burning of natural gas.  I should have pointed out that this advert is also an appropriation of the whole “we need more women in STEM” thing. And even more than that, I should have pointed out that we already have the hybrid world they are saying they’d like, just not quite in the way they probably mean…

As the late Ulrich Beck said in a May 2014 discussion with Bruno Latour –

“… global warming is already transforming the world dramatically. For example: there is no longer such a thing as a purely natural weather event. Equally, no weather event can truly be described as artificial, that is human induced. By changing so substantially the composition of the world’s atmosphere, humans have not simply brought a new category of weather into being – ‘human weather’, for example, as distinct from ‘natural weather’. Rather, the planetary system which yields distinct weather at distinct times in distinct places is now a both-and-system – it is a hybrid system yielding hybrid weather. Whatever the weather outside this window today – whether storm or calm, whether heat wave or cold wave – it is a result of this new co-produced natural-societal system.”


Simians Cyborgs and Shell: on corporate propaganda and fallback positions

 The oil major Shell has a blisteringly slick and seductive new advert that extols the virtues of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ (which it isn’t).  As a piece of propaganda, it would make Donna Haraway guffaw with delight.

It’s 80 seconds of ‘Jenna and Cory’ who live together extolling the virtues of hybridity.  They are ‘alternative’ (dyed hair, tattoes, piercings, vegan), living in a twee rural setting, and techno-geeky (there’s drone porn) who are trying to make a “hybrid house” – one of them is “super-nerdy, she takes everything apart”.

They think “in a few decades they might be able to rely solely on solar and wind energy, but we can’t do that right now” (we’ll come back to this). Instead they advocate natural (love that word) gas, because it’s the most “sustainable way to fuel your life”.  The words “climate change” do not, of course, appear.

This is a straightforward reverse-McCarthy, an “innocence by association” gambit, aiming for a halo effect from all the nice crunchy granola things it’s putting on the screen. Readers with long memories might recall the applauding dolphins and sea lions from 1991, when they heard that another oil major, Conoco, was going to use double-hulled oil tankers.

In 80 seconds it ticks a huge number of boxes – woman-as-nature, ecological modernisation and corporate citizenship.  It really renews the  “whole earth catalogue” (Stewart) brand  for the 21st century and appropriating the (false ) notion of “hybrid vigour”.  The ad agency most definitely deserves its fee.

These adverts, in which nature is redeemer and advocate are not new –  Esso had a ‘Tiger in the Tank’ and SSE has a soleful looking orang-utan shilling for it. The use of feminism/female empowerment to sell products goes back (at least) as far as the notorious “march” of actorvists called “Torches of Freedom”  in 1929, organised by Edward Bernays for “Lucky Strike” cigarettes, tying smoking to women’s liberation. We should be taught how to deconstruct advertising in school, of course.  But Berger (1972), Williamson (1978), Goldman and Papson (1996) are not, to our shame and loss, on the primary school curriculum…

Meanwhile, back in 2015, Shell are so confident of the righteousness of their message and  the value of dialogue that….comments on the video are disabled. Perhaps they are learning from the ‘bashtag’ experiences that other corporations have weathered of late. Still, it’s had more thumbs down than thumbs up…


Shell and other companies’ history

Shell is justifiably proud of its advertising prowess, which dates back to the 1920s and especially the 1930s. As its own website says –

“But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, [emphasis added] reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics.” [And some are even National Trust-worthy]

Sadly at the same time Shell supremo Henri Deterling was palling around with Adolph Hitler – the latter speaking at his funeral in 1939.After the war, Shell’s mojo (briefly) deserted it- there’s an hilarious advert of a salad covered in oil.

If crimes against aesthetics were all that it was up to, you’d be forgiven for laughing. But as Andy Rowell writes

“In the post-war years, Shell manufactured pesticides and herbicides on a site previously used by the US military to make nerve gas at Rocky Mountain near Denver. By 1960 a game warden from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game had documented abnormal behaviour in the local wildlife, and took his concerns to Shell, who replied: “That’s just the cost of doing business if we are killing a few birds out there. As far as we are concerned, this situation is all right.”

But the truth was different. “By 1956 Shell knew it had a major problem on its hands,” recalled Adam Raphael in the Observer in 1993. “It was the company’s policy to collect all duck and animal carcasses in order to hide them before scheduled visits by inspectors from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game.” “

The 1990s were a particularly bleak time for Shell’s PR folks. They lost the Brent Spar battle, and the execution of 9 Nigerian activists, including author Ken Saro-wiwa presented them with real PR problems  They started talking about sustainable development (Livesey, 2002) and also re-jigged their advertising, and were happy with the results (Victor, 2005).

Renewable outrage

However, Shell’s recent attempt to drill in the Arctic been catastrophic, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Greenpeace has them bricking it – Lego have ended a tie-in deal, and the combination of American kayakers, a giant polar bear stalking their HQ and Emma Thompson are giving them new headaches.

It’s in this context that this advert, advocating natural gas as a transition fuel, must be read. It’s a classic ‘you may not like us, but you need us’ statement.  Further, the claim that renewables might be viable in a few decades is particularly interesting (and audacious).  Costs of renewables are plummeting, and ‘grid parity’ (dangerous term) is approaching.

Shell, and other oil majors, might be wise to be nervous.  And according to the excellent journalist Arthur Neslen, Shell  has been lobbying the EU to undermine its next renewables target. As Goldman and  Papson (1996: 200) observe –

“…in a sense, the advertising provides covering fire so the lobbyists can quietly do their work. The battles are often won in the lobbying trenches, but they cannot be won if public opinion, or more importantly, public opinion amplified by the television media, keeps attention focused on images of environmental degradation.”


Thanks to Guy Diercks for bringing this advert to my attention.  While I retain any kudos for this analysis, all libel writs and threatening letters should be directed to him.

Further Reading
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Robert Goldman and  Stephen Papson (1996) Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising New York ; London : Guilford Press

Greenberg, J., Kngiht, G. and Westersund, E. (2011) Spinning climate change: Corporate and NGO public relations strategies in Canada and the United States. International Communication Gazette 73, (1-2), pp. 65-82.

Levy, D. Reinecke, J. and Manning, S. (2015) The Political Dynamics of Sustainable Coffee: Contested Value Regimes and the Transformation of Sustainability Journal of Management Studies

Livesey, S. ( 2002) The Discourse of the Middle Ground: Citizen Shell Commits to Sustainable Development Management Communication Quarterly vol. 15 no. 3 313-349.

In this study, Foucauldian theory is used to interpret a corporate social report published by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group to reveal the contours of an emerging corporate discourse of sustainability and the knowledge-power dynamics entailed by social reporting. The report could be read simply as a corporate attempt to re-establish discursive regularity and hegemonic control in the wake of challenges by environmentalists and human rights activists. However, the author interprets it in the context of the larger socio-political discursive struggle over environment and social justice and finds that Shell’s “embrace” of the concept of sustainable development has transforming effects on the company and on the notion of sustainability itself. This contradictory and ambiguous result is characteristic of discursive struggle, which is where, according to Foucault, power is played out and social change occurs.

Pulver, S. (2007)  Making Sense of Corporate Environmentalism: An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry Organization and Environment 20 (1) pp. 44-83.

Verity, J. (2005) Shell: an advertising success story. Strategic Direction Vol 21 (9), pp. 15-17.

Judith Williamson (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.

Of Monbiot, Manchester and miserable ‘feral’ futures.

Nature as redeemer, nature as escape, nature as the solace for our “gridded, controlled, mannered urban lives.” So far so romantic.
Well, nature is on the road, and she’s gunning for the lot of us. We’ve poked the beast, and now it really is waking up. On a quiet day, you could hear it snoring. Nowadays you can hear it going about its morning ablutions while preparing to unleash a can of whoopass on the species wot woke it up.
Which made the Manchester Literature Festival event I went to all the more weird. Row upon row of staggeringly white (this is Manchester?) people, of a certain level of (cultural) capital – not so many upward omnivores here – sat in rows while downloadGeorge ‘Feral’ Monbiot and Sarah ‘Carhullan Army’ Hall stood at t’podium. Hall read from her latest novel, The Wolf Border, which is about a woman, Rachel, involved in a project to reintroduce wolves to the UK. George does what George does well – some witty observations, confidently delivered with a smile. I first saw him do this at the Schumacher Lectures in, bosh, 1996?, when he alarmed the assembled ‘hippie’ gentry by advocating for land rights in the FIRST world. (They were underwhelmed, given the tacit deal with the Schumacher Lectures is that rich people get to be telescopically philanthropic, not locally so. But I digress).  He did not epater la bourgeoisie on this occasion however, but advocated the roaming of the four-legged beasts, especially ones that might contest the ‘white plague’ (sheep, not TB). And deer. [What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out? No eye-deer. What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out and his legs chopped off? Still no eye-deer. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?]

This is all well and good, but as the host alluded to, there are slightly bigger fish (well, planets) to fry. So, uncharacteristically, I stuck up my hand and asked this.
“On climate change. We’ve been warned since 1988 by the scientists and some politicians. We’ve done nothing. We WILL do nothing. So we are going to get acidified oceans, seven metres of sea level rise and four degrees plus of warming. Given that, to be provocative, what does it matter if we re-introduce this species or that. “Mother Nature” will introduce – and eliminate – species over the next hundred years as she sees fit.” 
George’s answer was in two parts. I will try to report each fairly, and then editorialise.
1) You mustn’t say that we will do nothing, that we are doomed, because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The species is hugely altruistic, it’s just a few (percentage) who are screwing it up.

2) Ecosystems with lots of biodiversity (and apex predators etc) are more resilient to shocks.

George – if you’re reading this and I’ve been unfair, lemme know. Ditto if anyone who was there is reading this…

What I wanted to say in response, but obviously didn’t.

1) The “you mustn’t say we’re doomed because that means people will give up” argument is beginning to get on my tits. I think it can and should only be made by people who have done a thorough job of studying WHY our response has been so poor (it’s not ALL Exxon’s fault) and – this is the crucial bit – have some clearly-stated suggestions about HOW TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY ‘GOING FORWARD’. George may have these, but he didn’t say them on Sunday (fair enough – folks were coming to hear him talk about wolves and rhinos, not social movement strategy).
We don’t say “you shouldn’t tell people with lung cancer that they have lung cancer because then they’ll get upset.” We expect to treat ourselves/each other as adults, who can read a Keeling Curve, read the emissions trajectories and understand the concept of climate sensitivity, and do some pretty rudimentary guesstimating.
ALSO, it’s not my ‘doom’ that is killing the species’ chance of seeing the 22nd century in reasonable shape. It’s capitalism, technological hubris, consumerism, population, the failure of social movements to cope with neo-Gramscian passive revolution strategies, and good old fashioned inertia baked into ‘the System’ (, “man”).

2) Hmm, that’s

a) curiously anthropocentric and

b) kinda misses the point about the shocks to the System. The second half of the 21st Century is (probably, okay, probably) going to make the first half of the 20th look like a picnic. This or that species of wolf is not going to mean there isn’t starvation, plague, war and all of that zombie apocalypse stuff. Wishful/magical/totemic thinking to think otherwise, no?

Sarah Hall’s answer I can’t categorise so clearly (I’m sexist man only paying attention to men? Maybe. Or just getting old? Or both). She seemed to be saying, with the example of the 2005 floods in Carlisle, that the cities will be affected, and it’s only when that happens that we will do something.

Worth reading on this “back to Nature” malarkey

  • EM Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops
  • Kingfisher Lives by the late Julian Rathbone, denied the Booker Prize – because one of the judges, the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, could cope with the incest, murder, cannibalism, but not the (in context) dropping of the C-bomb.
  • Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast
  • And of course all the feminist sci-fi/spec fiction writers – Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass), Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler.  And I STILL haven’t read Carolyn ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant. #lazy

PS Thanks to CG for the ticket!!

#Carmichael – Of subsidies, coal mines and nation-building #auspol #climate

carmichaelmapWho’d try to build a new coal mine?  The divestment campaigns are slowly convincing banks to steer clear (), the coal price is in the floor. The Indians seem to be (finally) increasing domestic production and their solar price is tumbling.  The environmentalists and their pesky skinks are slowing things down, the social licence to operate looking being undermined .  And now the Federal government, previously a reliable source of support, might be blinking. While Malcolm Turnbull’s Resources Minister, Josh Frydenburg continues to argue that there is a ‘strong moral case’ for selling coal to the developing world.  (This argument that predates Peabody Energy’s notorious ‘Advanced Energy for Life’ by 20 years ).

Perhaps tellingly he did not put taypayers’ capital – and his own political capital – where his mouth is. He

“hinted that Adani was unlikely to get access to any cash under the $5 billion northern Australia infrastructure concessional loan kitty. “This wouldn’t be a priority project for us,” he said. Asked if Adani will be seeking taxpayer subsidies, Mr Frydenberg said it was a “commercial operation and needs to stand on its own two feet”.

The dilemma for Adani and its supporters is that to get its coal from the newly re-approved Carmichael mine, 400km inland, to the Abbot Point terminal on the Great Barrier reef would require a very expensive and controversial 400km long railway.

Meanwhile, in the US a producer in the Powder River Basin has welcomed delays in the construction of a West Coast coal export terminal, saying they “believe these agencies and environmental groups are doing the coal producers a favour by not approving or supporting the approval of these terminals”

Perhaps on the basis that the price for coal is already quite low enough, thank you.

Straws in the wind

There are straws in the wind that the incumbents are worried that overproduction is hurting their interests.  In May the chair of global commodities trader Glencore, Tony Hayward (he of the ‘I’d like my life back’ gaffe when head of BP during the Deepwater Horizon disaster) called for an end to subsidies for fossil fuels, but as a prelude to the introduction of a global carbon price, although cynics might say that this is simply a way of slowing down a price’s arrival.

More tellingly, last week the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the head of Glencore’s Australian coal operations was opposed to governments funding new entrants, saying  “Bringing on additional tonnes with the aid of taxpayers’ money would materially increase the risk to existing coal operations,”

Nothing new under the sun – nation building

Australian federal support for energy giants is nothing new.  In 1981 historian Richard White observed in his magisterial “Inventing Australia” that

“There was wide agreement that it was the government’s responsibility to provide much of the infrastructure for development, although private industry might reap the profit. An example was the establishment of B.H.P’s steel-works at Newcastle in 1912, the biggest single step towards industrialisation. State and Commonwealth Labor governments disregarded the federal party platform and helped establish B.H.P.’s steel monopoly by contributing land, power, harbour facilities, government contracts and financial support from the new Commonwealth bank.”

(page 115) [See also this excellent article about BHP’s history]

It should be remembered, for instance, that it was Labor’s Federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese who, in May 2013, extended the “Major Project Facilitation” status of the Galilee Coal Project.


When is a subsidy not a subsidy and who would  benefit  if they were cut?

Late last year the London-based Overseas Development Institute released a report,  the “The Fossil Fuel Bailout”  which estimated that “exploration by coal and energy companies is subsidised by Australian taxpayers by as much as $US3.5 billion ($4 billion) every year in the form of direct spending and tax breaks”.   It’s an argument also made repeatedly by the Canberra-based Australia Institute.  The Minerals Council of Australia’s response to these attacks is that “government funding and tax breaks for exploration are not subsidies but legitimate tax deductions for business” and that “official estimates of subsidy to the mining industry are actually quite small when compared to estimates provided by various lobby.”groups.

As Richard Denniss, Chief Economist of the Australia Institute who is campaigning for a moratorium on the construction of new coal mines made clear at a seminar in Manchester last week, by restricting supply in an era of rising demand, a moratorium would in part benefit the owners of existing mines.  This may explain some of Glencore’s recent statements.

Reframing ahead of a U-turn?

Predicting the twists and turns of government policy is a mug’s game.  Perhaps the fact that the Federal Minster Fryenberg has demured  means nothing. Or perhaps it means that the Turnbull government thinks that it’s one thing to give planning approval to Carmichael six weeks before the Paris climate conference, but quite another to throw more tax payers’ money at the scheme during an alleged budget crisis.  It could be that they are laying the groundwork (hoho) for a graceful exit from giving capitalists capital.  Time will tell.

What, however, is certain is that, with all the different controversies around mining – the dust, the stresses for and social consequences of fly-in fly-out workers, the noise, the potential dangers to the reef, and above them all climate change – there are many more battles to be fought between the miners and their opponents. The regulatory and financial powers of both the state and Federal governments will be a key battleground.

Terrible meetings? Here’s a nesta reasonable ideas…

According to the American humourist Dave BarryMeetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot masturbate.” (As in, meetings aren’t just ego-potlaches, they’re also for the recycling of anxiety and responsibility).
While meetings might be full of wankers, they’re surprisingly joyless experiences. “Nesta”, a UK think tank, thinks it has some ideas on “Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

meetingslonelyThey sort of do, but the paper, as it states is “part of a larger research programme” and couldn’t/is not intended to stand on its own.
The author, Geoff “Connexity” Mulgan explains that we have “old formats and new tools”, ponders on “why so many meetings?” and then offers advice on “linking meeting format and purposes” (see Barry above) and gives some recommendations;

  • The ends and means of meetings need to be visible
  • Meetings need active facilitation and orchestration
  • The best meetings are often multi-platform, and use visualisation as well as talk and paper

Good meetings make the most of their participants – and rein in the extroverts, and the most opinionated and powerful

“one recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test also used to measure autism, that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes); relatively equal turn taking in conversation; and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness).” [Woolley, A. W., et al. (2010) Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. ‘Science.’ 330(6004): 686-688.]

    • Good meetings begin and end with a deliberate division of labour
    • Good meetings benefit from a conducive physical environment that heightens attention
    • Good meetings apply ‘Meeting Maths’: balancing time, scale, knowledge and breadth
    • Good meetings are cumulative – part of a longer process
    • Some of the best meetings don’t happen (or why you shouldn’t hold unnecessary meetings)

Mulgan then goes on to give succinct explanations of flipped conferences (send in youtubes of your presentations first, then turn up and engage), world cafe , dynamic facilitation, open space technology, the revolutionary thinking method (no, I am not making this up) , De Bono Six Thinking Hats, Sytegrity (see above for RTM), buurtzorg, holocracy governance meetings and agile.
As he drily observes
“There is relatively little evidence about when these work and when these don’t, and an odd feature of innovation in this field is that new models quickly crystallise as highly prescriptive methods, with little feedback to help them improve, or create hybrids, and very little formal testing or evidence.”

So, this is definitely worth a read, and perhaps thrusting into the hand of the stale activocrats who run stale meetings (for all the good it will do). As to what’s missing-
Parkinsons Law of triviality
Any sense that the radicalism of the “open space” will be captured, co-opted and used as a marketing gimmick, or just done so cack-handedly that it will empty the terms of meaning (Instead of ‘how not to be bossy‘)
The psychological needs of both the bosses (to be in charge) and the attendees (to be infantilised)

“The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.”

I think there is a glancing reference to Jung [can’t find it now], but nothing on the fantastic psycho-analytically informed work of Rosemary Randall – “Collective and Community Group Dynamics… or your meetings needn’t be so appalling”- which someone has helpfully scanned and uploaded onto the interwebs

Other concepts worth exploring

“Energy Slaves” and convicts- a story of Australian attitudes to labour and mining #climate

Jean-Francois Mouhot who wrote an article Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage  published in Climatic Change in 2011, He also makes the point that

147energyslavesThe history of slavery and its abolition shows how blurred the frontier between what is considered good and evil can be, and how quickly it can shift. We have a mental image of slave-owners as cruel, sadistic, inhuman brutes, and forget too easily the ordinariness of slave ownership throughout the world. To many, slavery seemed normal and indispensable. In the US, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Lifestyles and healthy incomes were predicated upon it, just as we today depend on oil. Similarly, many slave-owners lived with the impression that they were decent people.

In Australia there are ongoing debates about the morality and the economics of betting our future prosperity on ever-increasing coal exports to an energy-hungry Asia.

And in the same way that Mouhot and others would have us think about fossil fuels and slaves, we should think about Australia’s convict past and the arguments about whether that was a Good Thing – and who it was a good thing FOR.

“There was at the same time a campaign both for and against transportation going on in Australia itself. Those who benefited from the cheap labour of convicts could not agree that depravity was contagious. As early as 1822, their views found their way into the Bigge Report. Bigge had concluded that the children of convicts were a ‘a remarkable exception to the moral and physical character of their parents’. In 1838, in the New South Wales Legislative Council, the supporters of transportation resolved that it continue. They claimed the Molesworth Committee had misrepresented the moral condition of the colony, and that the rising generation, far from being corrupted by convict depravity, were impressing  ‘ a character of respectability upon the Colony at large.’ Earlier these same men had been more disposed to argue the contagion of convict depravity as a reason to oppose free institutions in the colony: that, after all, would have detracted from their own influence.

However, it was not only the colonial supporters of transportation who resisted the image of the colonies as corrupted for generations to come. There were local capitalists who saw more benefit in skilled free immigrants than in convict labour, and they knew that ‘sober and industrious’ workers would not be attracted to a moral dungill.”

White, R. (1981) Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980. Sydney: Allen & Unwin .page 25

And so we have a battle between the way things have been done – fossil fuel extraction, both capital intensive and highly centralised, and the vision of renewables, decentralised, reliant on local initiatives (and storage technology and enormous – centralised- battery factories.)

Incumbents will always highlight the current benefits of the status quo, and paint the darkest picture they think they can sell of the costs and risks of change.  That doesn’t mean they’re always wrong, of course, just that they shouldn’t be taken at face value…  Meanwhile, while we debate the finer points, species die, the oceans warm and the rough beasts slouch…

Letter in #Manchester Evening News about broken #climate promises

The Manchester Evening News has a letter today that slams Kate Chappell, the Executive Member for the Environment for a broken promise (she said she would set up a blog, never did so). The letter (written by some Moss Side malcontent) also points out that the so-called and needs-to-be-killed-off “Stakeholder Steering Group” won’t even allow elected members of the Council to view its meetings.
Here’s the letter.

And here is the text of what I sent, which they’ve not altered;

Thank you for your report on the draft Transport for Greater Manchester report, with its vision of “nightmare scenario” of floods and heat-related deaths by 2040.
Since 2008 various public bodies, including the council, have been producing principles documents, ‘mini-Sterns’, ‘Calls to Action’, Climate Change Action plans, delivery plans, refreshes and pink and polka dot plans. All say action must – and will – be taken to avoid future disaster. If documents full of bureaucratic bluster could save the world, then the upcoming Paris climate meeting would have been cancelled thanks to Manchester’s council.
Two examples of the escalating failure will suffice. In February 2014 the Executive Member for the Environment, Kate Chappell, wrote a letter, on council letterhead, that promised to set up a blog detailing what she was doing, by March. She never did that, or explained why not.
At the last Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee meeting Councillor Dan Gillard (chair of the committee) asked if he would be able, as an elected representative of the people of Manchester to attend meetings of the “Stakeholder Steering Group on Climate Change”, which was set up in 2010 to galvanise action. He wasn’t even given the courtesy of a straight answer, yes or no. That’s stakeholder democracy for you! If it weren’t so serious and tragic, it would be funny.

The Martian – From Whitey on the Moon to Whatney on the Mars….

In July 1969 Richard Nixon didn’t give a speech. It would have gone, in part, like this:

safire-moonFate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

The precaution of writing the speech for the president to give was sensible; Neil Armstrong himself thought that there was only a fifty per cent chance of landing safely on the Moon.  Still there’d have been a consolation for him and Buzz – “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

Ridley Scott has made a movie, based on a novel of the same name, that poses the question ‘what if’.  But instead of it being whitey on the moon ,as Gil Scott Heron would have it, this is (Astronaut Mark) Whatney on the Mars, as played by Matt Damon, previously rescued at great expense in Saving Private Ryan and…oh see this

“The Martian”  is a palpable middle-brow hit, and it’s been quite a while since you can say that about a Scott film, after the disappointments of Prometheus, Exodus:Gods  and Kings etc and other ones we’ve all wilfully forgotten.  You have to go back to Gladiator for a proper crowd-pleaser, and Thelma and Louise for something to think about.  As with those films, it has exquisite photography, pacing, performances, score and dialogue; a treat for the eyes and ears.

There is a (white) optimism here – a sense that humans are still in charge of their (galactic) destiny, and that London and New York, the Atlantic dumbbell, are still the places from which you can show crowds of people watching big screens and have it pass as a synecdoche for global attention (there are some Chinese folks thrown in for ‘balance’.)

The gleaming Hermes that the astronauts travel to and from Mars (aka Wadi Rum) in, with its well-equipped gym and living quarters, is not the grungy not-out-of-place-in-Middlesbrough spaceship the ‘Nostromo’ , from Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. The corporate control comes later in Scott’s universe, though of course, The Martian must be set later than the tech-noir decay of Blade Runner, explicitly dated as 2019.  It’s a big universe.

The state we are in

That means that states still matter. It means that there is no competitive bidding process to send Whatney some new potatoes a la Space X. (There’s at least an undergraduate thesis to be written on potatoes in fiction –   originally brought from the ‘new World’ by Raleigh, and now to the new New World by Whatney.)  And, touchingly, it means that when things fuck up (and they do) then there is a clear line of blame (though the head of Nasa, Teddy Sanders played by Jeff Daniels is at turns both a buccaneer and career bureaucrat, a responsible innovator who needs an occasional nudge.  And, touchingly, when he gambles and loses, he seems not to suffer carer-wise).  We are a long way from the grubby and fatal reality of 1986 NASA , when they chose under perceived congressional pressure they chose to launch Challenger even as engineers working for Morton –Thiokol were begging them not to.  Somewhere along the way, somehow, lessons have been learnt. Or so we like to tell ourselves.

While the larger real-politik is gone, we are left with helpful Chinese and references to money and need for congressional approval, to keep the space programme going (the need to spread Federal largesse was what meant the booster rockets for the Space Shuttle needed to be built in different US states, and then be held together by fateful O-rings. Such are our articfacts. This was not new, even then; crtiiques of NASA’s funding date back to the 1965 book “Moondoggle”.

As Tom Lehrer put it

“What is it that put America in the forefront of the nuclear nations? And what is it that will make it possible to spend twenty billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon? Well, it was good old American know how, that’s what, as provided by good old Americans like Dr. Wernher von Braun!”

Basically there was a tacit agreement between scientists and the money-men about JFK’s Man on the Moon bid – “we will take your money, knowing that manned missions are scientifically barren, but politically essential.  So we will shut up about that, and the money will keep flowing.”

But I really have digressed, haven’t I!? This is essentially a  ‘no man left behind’ tale of (uncommon) valour and redemption, a tale where, to hell  with the cost, Americans are not left to die in foreign hell-holes, (see also Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’) combined with the good old American know-how and toughness of Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet

The advantage of this is it allows us all, producers and consumers alike, to sidestep all the awkward questions about the military motives of space exploration – dominance of the high frontier, rods from god, networks of panspectropic surveillance.

The ‘ethics’ of space exploration get a glancing reference with the notion that planting crops somewhere makes that land yours (really?). They missed a trick by not naming one of the characters Bradbury, for the author of the brilliant “the Martian Chronicles.” One chapter of that “Way in the Middle of the Air“, which deals with the racism of the South, “was eliminated from the 2006 William Morrow/Harper Collins, and the 2001 DoubleDay Science Fiction reprinting of The Martian Chronicles.” [source]

The new saviours

maroonedIn the forgotten 1969 Marooned  (a guilty pleasure) and the forgettable 1998 Armageddon the necessary help-meets to American supremacy are the Russians.  But the times they are a changing, and on this occasion it’s the Chinese who come through with the goods and, it is implied, are rewarded with a seat at the table on the next Mars mission.  It’s a new world.

There are various ‘cheeky’ references to both fact and fiction within what is a witty script.  Teddy gets all meta/self-referential when exhorting his engineers to cut time horizons a la ‘the difficult we can do straight away, the impossible takes a little longer’. There’s the requisite science geek who saves the day with his cray-zee idea that Just Might Work (somehow didn’t get arrested by the cliche police). There is an impossible reference to Apollo 9   (no-one who worked on that would still be around, would they?) in the film, but nothing to the entirely predictable fire that killed three Astronauts in Apollo 1, the Challenger or the death-by-powerpoint of the Columbia in 2003.   Personally I was waiting for the whole thing to have been filmed on an Arizona sound-stage by Stanley Kubrick, a la Capricorn One, but that would have been a level of meta too far perhaps.

Verdict: See this film, it’s (red) bubble-gum for the mind. Probably no more  intellectually fertile than un-shat-upon Martian soil, but so what.  Climate change is coming (even if it isn’t in the film).  And we need to dance and drink and see dumb movies….

Still to (re)see, read etc
Dark Star (1974)
Moon (2009)
Gravity (2013)
The Mars Trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson

Excellent “Academic Reading & Writing Workshop” at University of #Manchester

So, you’re doing a Masters, or even a PhD (wow, you must be soooooooooooooooo smart. Not).  You’d think you’d know how to read and right, write?

Not so fast.  You’ve probably picked up some bad habits, and even if you haven’t, there are other habits and tricks (“hacks” or “apps” or “patches” as the young folk call them) that could save you time and energy. (You can be done four months early, and catch up on the latest box sets.)

University of Manchester offers a  broad range of ‘how to’ sessions (and a shout out to their very efficient IT support folks here – el pueblo unido…).  I’ve been to some.  Some have been okay to good, but the one  on “Academic Reading & Writing” on Monday 5th October was…. wait for it… bloody excellent.

There’s only so much you can cover in a two hour session, but the guy leading it (Ben Walker, for the record) knew what he was doing and put in enough group/interactive work to keep you engaged and interested, without it ever being tokenistic.  And I clearly need to read Tony Judt’s Post-war, which Walker used as an exemplar of how it should be done..

There were lots of nuggets of advice, some of which I do (choosing when and where I read and write), some of which I do a bit (grokking the credibility of sources, skim-reading to judge about further investment of bandwidth) and some I have rarely done but will do all the time from now– reading a review of a book (well hello JSTOR) to have the main arguments and gaps summarised in advance.

Here’s Walker’s tips on the difference between working the hardest versus working the smartest.

  1. Find the ‘authority’ on the subject
  2. Only take a couple of books at a time
  3. Read a review on JSTO- easy critical analysis of ideas and short explanation of the whole thing
  4. Use the index as a key word finder, or if a PDF, use ‘Ctrl + F’
  5. The opening and closing paragraphs always have the most useful stuff
  6. If all these things suggest this text is a must read – then off you go
  7. Notes are only useful if accurately recorded (e.g. page numbers.)

Spend time getting full citations and getting them right. Two he recommends –

He bigged up Wordle   and also mentioned that when it comes to the crime of appalling writing, the butler did it.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.