Interview with an academic – on “Two Degrees”, Paris, #climate and so on

The Two Degrees Dangerous Limit for Climate Change: Public understanding and decision making” is a (very) new book by academic Chris Shaw. Here he responds to a series of questions about the two degree limit, the recent Paris conference, and ‘what next’. [The book itself is a good ‘un – if anyone in Manchester wants to borrow my copy, contact me through the usual channels.]

Your book was ‘inspired’ by the 2003 heatwave that killed thousands in Europe. And you did your interviews in 2009, before Copenhagen. It’s 2015- what took you so long? Did “Real Life” get in the way? When did you send it to the printers?

The book started as a PhD thesis. It was 2003 that made me doubt the ‘climate change not dangerous until 2c’ narrative. So I had to go away and do the research. It was 2005 when I went back to university to do a masters and then a PhD whilst also being primary carer to two young children. So that was all slow going. Then that was followed by a period of self-doubt, where the idea’s any good etc. Once I realised it was worth publishing then, as you note, the data felt perhaps a little old. So I thought, OK, I will write a whole new book. But by then I was working full time, alongside home and family commitments and I found writing the book a real struggle. But I didn’t want to just re hash what I had done previously. Even though my thesis was passed without correction and described as very literate I still felt I could do better, that my thinking had progressed. But when it came to it, I really struggled to find the time and whilst I could have continued with new research etc I was also keen to get it published by COP 21, with 2C back in the headlines. So in the end it is a mix of new ideas and the interview data from pre – 2009 which is actually timeless, as it is describing how the idea of a dangerous limit to climate change took hold. It went to the printers in the summer.

Who do you hope reads it (and don’t say ‘everyone’!)

Mostly climate change communicators. The debate, such as it is, is characterised by political naivety, that somehow corporate and human agendas can be aligned and that we have a pluralist democracy. I want to challenge that bourgeois complacency. I have seen a shift in the discourse since 2009, it is now sometimes described as a political target or an internationally agreed target rather than something scientists say is dangerous. We need more of that, an acceptance that we don’t know what we are doing, that science hasn’t identified a magic line below which everything is fine. We need to develop a discourse which allows us to make sense of what is happening around us (today in the Telegraph Boris Johnson was writing that the exceptionally warm weather is nothing to do with climate change)

For those who aren’t up on their Kuhn/Lakatos/Popper etc – What do you mean by by 2 degrees being a ‘constructed number’ -if a bunch of scientists agree it, isn’t in then Scientific?

But they don’t agree. It is very clear, science can offer probabilistic projections of future climate impacts but it is not the role of scientists at what point those impacts become unacceptable.

You say that the construction of the two degrees target silenced other voices. At times you imply that was a deliberate silencing. Could you elaborate on that, and on whose voice(s) were silenced

It is a globalised perspective. An abstract statistical construction. Most people in the west have never heard of it, have no idea what it means or the risks it implies. The concept is a complete irrelevance to the vast majority of the world’s population – what does it mean to a subsistence farmer in Asia? The trade-offs involved, the costs of the costs-benefit analysis underlying the 2c claim, will be born by those who have no awareness of the idea. To measure the emissions of the global economy, match those against projections of warming and associated impacts requires laboratories, higher education, a scientistic culture. It has given birth to a way of being populated by salaried professionals. If you aren’t playing that game you have no voice in the ‘debate’. But 2c is also a very broad tent, it can accommodate a range of political perspectives from left and right. As a result any one pissing into the tent from outside can be dismissed as irrational and irrelevant. The only goal any reasonable progressive could aspire to is 2c of warming.

Given how busy we will be just surviving soon, it’s probably a good idea to get a head-start on the ‘post-mortems’ – What went wrong in our species’ response to climate change?

I have always been motivated by a belief in humanity. But the vast majority of humanity have a very different attitude to risk from elites. You know the drill, elites in politics, corporations, sport etc get schooled in the wonders of taking risks, not being timid, going for it etc etc. This elite culture is the one that got to define what sort of problem climate change is and hence what sort of responses are appropriate. Go for 2c, it’s high risk but human ingenuity will find a way to transition to a carbon free neo-liberalism. haven’t we always muddled through? For most people, what they stand to lose in a warming world is not compensated for by the meagre crumbs falling from the rich man’s table. That is why the issue has to be constructed as one beyond political debate – the people would come back with the wrong answer.

On the recent Paris Conference – were you surprised by the inclusion of the 1.5 degrees reference(s)? Why were they in there, in your opinion?

I was surprised, given there is no plan in place for 2c. I assume the intention was to placate marginal voices to help promote Paris as a ‘success’. We don’t want any flies in the ointment. But in the end it doesn’t matter what the number is 1c, 1.5c or 2c, unless the response is rooted in a democratic political contestation of values then all anyone is doing is rubber stamping the corporate agenda.

What is the significance of the developing countries having signed away their “loss and damage” claims?

It is a blow for the climate justice agenda but it seems they had little choice, the rich nations weren’t going to sign up for it. But the relationship between North and South has always been an exploitative one so I can’t see what has happened in global politics to change that relationship. The poor countries were never going to get the money. That’s not how the world works.

Anything else you’d add on Paris?

Well the success is rooted in a final death knell for the idea that responding to climate change will require a fundamental shift in politics, society and economics to a more equal future and a rejection of neo-liberalism. Instead the dominant narrative is that humanity and the planet will be saved by a transformation of the energy system. Neo-liberalism without the emissions.

Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you see for ‘us’ and ‘others’ as the world powers towards (and beyond) two degrees of warming, where ‘us’ means

a) climate-oriented academics – I do not see how the ‘system’ can survive 2c plus of warming and sustain a thriving and open academic culture. Even if economic and agricultural systems remained intact I think our days (people like you and me) are numbered. Shut up, play the game and help usher in the energy transformation. There will not be a living to be made from challenging the status quo.

b) privileged white citizens of (currently) prosperous countries – as above really. I don’t think we have a handle on just how severe the impacts of 2c warming will be. Mark Lynas wrote that under 2c of warming every summer in Europe will be like 2003. I don’t think Europe could take many consecutive summers like that.

c) and where ‘others’ means the poor in the Majority World. Well, the Inuit culture is almost finished now as a result of melting ice. I would hate to proclaim what will happen to the Majority World, but I fancy their chances better than ours – we couldn’t even survive 24 hours without youtube.

Anything else – other than ‘buy my book’ – that you want to add?

Maybe don’t buy the book as it is priced for the closed market of academia. I have a website in development, Maybe visit there in 6 months when I have found the time to update the content, to see what is happening in the sorry world of global climate governance.

Paris changed everything. Erm #climate calamities continue

We’ll get to the climate calamity in a second, promise. First, some remedial Greek mythology:

Paris was “nice but dim”, and chosen to settle an acrimonious dispute between some powerful actors.  He fell head over heels with a rather beautiful creature,full of promise(s). For a little while everything seemed fine, but sadly, relationships broke down, there were accusations (proven) of cheating, and it was followed by prolonged and increasingly brutal acts of violence. War in fact.

You see where I am going with this, yes?

So, lots of fine words at and about Paris. One telling thing was that there was no atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases target in the document. Oh well.

In the week since then, while the ink dries? The planet fries- There is a heatwave in some place called Adelaide, and November was the hottest such month ever “by a huge margin”.

Of course. You knew this.

What you may not have spotted are the actions of three of the countries most responsible for climate change.

In Australia


In the United States

The Republicans overturned an export ban on oil – production is expected to soar.

In the UK

The greenest government ever just cut support for renewables and is allowing fracking under national parks.

That is all. Folks.

2 beautiful (horrible) metaphors of what is coming #climate

The stories that we tell each other (and ourselves) matter.  They frame what we (can) see, and what pictures we make.  I remember the moment of ‘oh, wow’, when, thanks to Noam Chomsky’s World Orders, Old and New I figured out that all the individual acts of overthrowing democratically-elected governments (Guatemala 1954, Iran 1953, Chile 1973) were not, as we now say ‘bugs in the system, they’re features.’

So, in spite of the hype over Paris, I’m thinking about what the future will look like.  Two smart friends have supplied – a decade apart – excellent ideas.  One is about tunnels, the other about glaciers. Both are about path dependency…

From a googlechat in February 2007

[My friend:] I’m working on an ‘golden opportunity’ argument to try to persuade people. ‘Once in an epoch’ sort of thing. The dinosaurs couldn’t choose not to be struck by a giant meteorite. But the opportunity that is busily passing us by right now will still be visible in a few years time – visible, but out of reach. I’m thinking of evoking the idea that we are just about to plunge humanity into a dark tunnel from which there is no return; we’re still in the sunshine now, with amazing views all round, and a whole lot of different paths to choose from. the trouble is powerful momentum is speeding us along a track that leads into the mouth of that dark tunnel. Other pathways zip past on both sides as we gather speed. Once in the tunnel, we will be looking over our shoulders at the light of that opportunity as it swiftly recedes into the distance behind us. then we will have only the darkness, and a single narrow path which we must travel to our final destination.

3:58 PM  me: OK, you cheerful bastard, you win today’s disasturbation contest but I warn you, I’ll be back. It’s a really powerful image you have there. Another (inferior?) version is of us circling the plughole, able to see it, but also able to swim to safety if we choose a point out of the whirlpool and swim really really hard. There’s an Edgar Allen Poe short story (called The Maelstrom, I think) about an individual in this circumstance.

And today I wrote to someone else
“I am brewing an article on 2015 – the weather, the terror attacks in Paris, the plight of the refugees – as the new normal. We think they are aberrations, but they aren’t, they are merely squalls before the superstorm hits…”
and he replied with

What we’re seeing now are the trickles running down the hill, as the glacier melts. I can’t help thinking they’re scoring tracks in the dusty ground that will determine the path of the later, much greater, flow. For example, of we let the right wing populist set the agenda for this refugee wave, then we’ll be in a worse position to deal with far more people fleeing north Africa.

Why the hype over Paris and #COP21? Politics, psychology and money

An essay on hype, history, denialism and the fossil fuel lobby.

I hope I am wrong, and that Paris is indeed the “turning point” it is being hyped as. It won’t take us long to find out – two or three years, I reckon. Personally, I think it will run into the sand in much the same way that the Kyoto Protocol did after 1997.* Let’s remember, the deal doesn’t include aviation and shipping, and people like James Hansen think it’s a ‘fraud‘…

Instead in this brief post I want to put out a provisional answer as to why the grossly inadequate deal received such overwhelmingly positive press with a couple of exceptions, e.g from Paris Climate Justice and Monbiot,  make some predictions about the “denialists”, the fossil-fuel lobby and, finally, the problems of movement-building/mobilising.

Why the hype, from people who ought to know better?

I think there are three reasons, that may well intersect and interact, but for now can be treated separately. They are psychological, financial and political.

Firstly, climate change is bloody depressing, and if you’ve chosen – or are paid – to think about it, it exacts a toll. You get grumpy, demoralised, angry, whatever. And mostly you get the hope kicked out of you year after year after year. The UNFCCC process has been one of repeated let-downs, since the first COP in Berlin in early 1995. You have to go all the way back to the Rio Conference to get any stirring words about large-scale ambition and equity. (e.g. article 2)

So, even though people were carefully managing their expectations downwards, they were STILL pleasantly surprised that the deal was better than many (including myself) thought it would be. There were more fine words in there than most would have predicted, even if
a) the 1.5 thing is a joke – there’s no way on Gaia’s no-longer-very-green Earth that we will stay within that, unless we repeal some laws (of physics). It was inserted as a sop to the Small Island States.
b) the words “fossil fuels” are, as Naomi Klein tweeted, distinctly absent from the agreement. Best trick the devil ever played and all that.


Within that bubble, if everyone around you is cheering and crying and hugging (literally or metaphorically) it’s pretty hard not to get pulled along in the slip-stream.

Secondly, financial – lots of the non-governmental organisations that are usually more critical of this have pretty delicate finances of late, and if you’re reliant on guilty middle-class people sending in direct debits, you have to frame your critiques ‘just so’. To quote (myself)

NGOs are in the business of monetising hope. They need to keep middle-class people signing the direct debits. Thus “world leaders just need to be held to account, and combined with some New Technology, everything will be okay” is an acceptable message to send out in the aftermath of COP21, whereas “this agreement is too little, too late – middle class lifestyles like yours have caused the problem and have to go for us to have any chance whatsoever of avoiding total apocalypse” is … not.  People on the receiving end of the second message are less likely to renew their direct debit donations.

Finally, there’s two kinds of political reasons.
One, people don’t want the process to lose momentum. They on some level know that there will be a counter-attack from the denialists and the fossil-lobby, so they want to talk the Paris agreement up, building its credibility. You saw a sliver of this when Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute chided climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Larkin Bows.
Two – faced with the near-certainty of a horrible future, we’re regressing into all kinds of wishful thinking disconnected from the political and ecological realities. As a very smart friend who I do not see nearly enough just observed

“Interesting to see even Swedish groups who are prepared to digger dive still welcoming Paris. I think we’re now sharply seeing the effect of how the green movement, in the west, is based on morality, feelings like “hope”; aesthetics of struggle. There’s no real concrete link that gives activists penalties or rewards based on what they win or fail to win, unlike a union negotiator who themselves goes home to face a pay cut after agreeing not to strike.”

Finally, on Paris, I thought this comment was pretty good

You also need to know the wording of the Paris Agreement.
I will summarize it for you. It is written with much use of the following words : –Urging, encouraging, striving, engaging, aiming, welcoming and should (take action eg).
It looks to me like the common goals 1.5 or 2 degrees are merely wishful thinking. There is no mechanism described or prescribed that I can see to achieve either of them.
It is supposedly legally binding but it seems to impose almost nothing on anyone except for a working committee or two.

What will the denialists do?
I doubt they will go away. In fact, I think their numbers will grow. Here’s why. There is a core of rusted on denialists (old white men for the most part). They aren’t going anywhere soon (well, some of the older ones are, clearly), and they’ve not got a way of climbing down without losing face. I suspect they will be joined by other people for whom the consequences of climate change interfere with their view of a ‘just world‘ (bad things can’t happen to good people like them, and good people like them would never have been silent during decades of an unfolding catastrophe, ergo climate change is a hoax).

There will be ‘new’ strands – rather than outright denial, we will see arguments on the costs of action, the ‘unfairness’ that other nations aren’t doing more.  Many of these arguments have been honed and refined over the last two decades. Climate denial is best thought of as the protean T-1000 Terminator, able to shift shape at will, rather than as the industrial T-800…

One very simple strategy might be to ramp up advocacy of things that they know the climate activists either hate or are divided on (nuclear, geo-engineering etc) and then say “well, if you’re unwilling to countenance these solutions, the problem isn’t as bad as you say.”

Of course, the newspapers and television MAY stop giving them oxygen, ‘balance’ may no longer be bias. Given the ownership of the papers and the fear among the state-owned media outlets I doubt it.. We will see. And anyway, the blogosphere etc has a claim to shaping the public mind these days, and there are, famously, fewer controls there.

The Fossil Fuel Lobby.
If we have learnt anything over the last almost-three decades, it’s surely that the fossil fuel lobby is very smart, very determined, and very cashed-up. It’s played a blinder in terms of delaying legislation, then watering it down, and even getting it repealed. It’s not going to go away. Even before Paris I am sure they were hiring smart people to make worst-case-scenario plans,  devise the behind-the-scenes political strategies to slow everything down, drain momentum, energy and attention, and to build fear, uncertainty and doubt.  And expect to see a massive effort now by oil and gas to throw coal under the bus (that already started in Paris – not at the COP, but back in June.

Socio-culturally, expect new memes soon.

Of course, they are not all-powerful now just because they were in the past. But just because they’re on the ropes doesn’t mean they are on the canvas. And to mix the metaphor, a cornered beast is the most dangerous.

Harder to mobilise
Finally, on social movements; in mid-2009, in the lead-up to another much-hyped conference (the Copenhagen one), an Aussie called Antony Kelly wrote a brilliant and ignored article warning that there could be a post-Copenhagen demobilisation effect if the talks were declared a success. He was right, but for the wrong reason.
Most people don’t pay much more than cursory attention to climate change (why would you?!). And what they’ll have picked up from the press and television coverage is that ‘everything’s sorted, leaders are on the case’.
So we will see it possible to mobilise around, say, fracking, but on the bigger and always-more-awkward issues like UK Energy Policy, no.
Meanwhile, there are always other competing issues, and if climate change has been “solved” in the eyes of many, they will take their energy elsewhere -the next war(s), austerity, etc.

What is to be done?
Let’s not lie to ourselves, eh? And let’s carpe the bloody diems.



* The Americans walked away, having bogged it all down in technical details. The Australian’s then walked away. By the time the Russians ratified in 2005, much treasure had been wasted on what was already grossly inadequate.

“After sustainability” – good questions…

So, if there were a functioning climate movement in Manchester, it would, imho, be answering some of the questions in bold (scroll down if you want to see them). But there isn’t. Ho-hum, #gladtobe45andchildfree.


Global Discourse special issue: ‘After sustainability – what?’
Call for Papers

Guest editor:
John Foster (

It is no longer completely out of court among thinkers and scholars concerned with environmental issues to argue that the ‘sustainability’ discourse and policy paradigm have failed, and that we are moving into a new era of much bleaker prospects. A recent Policy Review paper in the journal Society and Natural Resources (Benson and Craig, 2014) is bluntly entitled ‘The End of Sustainability’. Authors as diverse as Clive Hamilton (2010), Tim Mulgan (2011), Dale Jamieson (2014) and John Foster (2015) write with the working assumption that climate change, on a scale lying unpredictably between the seriously disruptive and the catastrophic, is no longer something we must find ways of avoiding, but something we are going to have to live with. Parallel to this recognition is the rise to prominence of the ‘anthropocene’ trope (e.g. Hamilton et al, 2015) with its defining acceptance that human beings have decisively altered the atmosphere and set in motion a mass extinction as drastic and now inevitable as any produced by Earth-system changes over geological time.

Retrospectively, indeed, we can begin to see how impotent the sustainability model was always going to prove. Constraining immediate needs (or desires) to serve future needs, the anticipation, interpretation and measurement of which were all to be carried out under pressure of the immediate needs and desires supposedly to be constrained, could never have offered anything but a toolkit of lead spanners, capable only of bending helplessly when any serious force was applied. No wonder we continue to find the nuts and bolts of unsustainable living so stubbornly unshiftable.

What is then all the more striking is the complete lack of acknowledgement of this paradigm failure in mainstream political discourse. In the world of the United Nations and other international and national policy fora, less and less promising prospects are met only by a more and more firmly fixed grin of willed optimism. The latest Monitoring Report for the EU’s Sustainable Development Strategy, for instance (Eurostat Press Office, 2015), claims that in respect of sustainable consumption and production, demographic changes and greenhouse gas emissions, changes in headline indicators mark changes that are ‘clearly favourable’, although only willed optimism could celebrate the last of these without a glance in the direction of China or India. Meanwhile the upcoming (November-December 2015) UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (the twenty-first of these jamborees since the UN started interesting itself in such matters) is touted, as all its predecessors since Copenhagen 2009 have been touted, as the really last last-chance saloon.

The nearest the official policy world comes to recognition that we actually won’t prevent (above all) unsustainable climate change, is in the increasing volume of talk about ‘mitigation’ rather than prevention. But even here, denial is plainly at work. How do you ‘mitigate’ the unavoidably tragic and disastrous? There is evidently some very serious cognitive disjuncture operating here.

This special issue of Global Discourse will seek to grapple with both the diagnosis and the prognosis of that disjuncture. We call for papers to explore a range of related questions, including:

*Where does widespread denial come from? How will it be overcome?

*What options for political and personal action will remain open in a radically degraded world? What are the conditions of habitability of such a world?

*How will economic and community life, political and social leadership and education be different in such a world?

*What will the geopolitics be? (What might what we now call a refugee ‘crisis’ look like when sub-Saharan Africa becomes uninhabitable? How could we deal with that? What is the role of defence and armaments – including nuclear armaments – in such a world?)

*Are there any grounds for hope that don’t rest on denial?

Benson, M. and Craig, R. (2014) ‘The End of Sustainability’, Society and Natural Resources 27; 777-782 Eurostat Press Office (2015) ‘Is the European Union moving towards sustainable development?’ (News Release 148/2015, 1st September 2015) Foster, J. (2015) After Sustainability (Abingdon: Earthscan from Routledge) Hamilton, C. (2010) Requiem for a Species (London: Earthscan) Hamilton, C. et al. (eds.) (2015) The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis (Abingdon: Routledge) Jamieson, D. (2014) Reason in a Dark Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Mulgan, T. (2011) Ethics for a Broken World (Durham: Acumen)

Submission instructions and deadlines
Abstracts of 400 words: 31st December 2015 Articles (solicited on the basis of review of abstracts): 1st May 2016
Publication: Early 2017

Instructions for authors
Please submit all abstracts and articles to the Guest Editor Further details:

Editor contact details: John Foster

Journal Aims and Scope
Global Discourse is an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented journal of applied contemporary thought operating at the intersection of politics, international relations, sociology and social policy. The journal’s scope is broad, encouraging interrogation of current affairs with regard to core questions of distributive justice, wellbeing, cultural diversity, autonomy, sovereignty, security and recognition. Rejecting the notion that publication is the final stage in the research process, Global Discourse seeks to foster discussion and debate between often artificially isolated disciplines and paradigms, with responses to articles encouraged and conversations continued across issues. The journal features a mix of full-length articles, each accompanied by one or more replies, shorter essays, rapid replies, discussion pieces and book review symposia, typically consisting of three reviews and a reply by the author/s. With an international advisory editorial board consisting of experienced, highly-cited academics, Global Discourse welcomes submissions from and on any region. Authors are encouraged to explore the international dimensions and implications of their work. With a mix of themed and general issues, symposia are periodically deployed to examine topics as they emerge.

Fetish night at Bruntwood: sustainability gets VERY interesting. #Manchester #climate

Cross posted from here.

Not that kind of fetish (sorry for the clickbaiting). I mean the original, anthropological meaning of “fetish” – a god that we create, then forget that we created as we come to worship it. That kind of fetish was being discussed tonight at the latest and best-I’ve-been-to meeting of the excellent “North West Sustainable Business Quarterly” meeting, held on the 24th story of Bruntwood’s City Tower (#greatviews).

The events are organised by Anthesis, hosted by Bruntwood, with scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food, locally-sourced where possible, by Good Mood Food an offshoot of the charity Manchester Mind. These evenings are free to attend and have lasted where others fell by the wayside simply because they always deliver reasonable-to-brilliant speakers and reasonable-to-brilliant discussion and networking opportunities. Now, back to the fetishes….

A chap called Mark Shayler got us thinking about where the ‘stuff’ in our offices comes from (and what our offices ARE these days, and the shrinking time from waking-to-screen (1), but I’ve digressed enough). He decided to hone in on one thing, that we all have – mobile devices, be they laptops, tablets or mobile phones. And what has made the miniaturization possible? Capacitors (think Random Access Memory, but for electricity). And what do you need to make capacitors? Columbite Tantalite (“Coltan”). And where does the coltan mostly come from? “The Democratic Republic of Congo” (“Zaire” to us fossils). And does the coltan come from nice regulated mines with a unionised workforce and health and safety inspectors? Not so much, no. Think dead gorillas and street kids who are lucky if they are big enough to wield an AK-47, because the other job prospects are even worse. So much I knew. But Shayler then went on to explain that far more than the official 14% of the world’s coltan comes from Congo – neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, for example, export the stuff, without having any mines of their own. Anyway, from there it goes to Japan, for processing, along with coltan from North America and Australia. Then it turns into those capacitors (remember) in Taiwan, and from there goes to China to be put into the circuit boards of all the little devices we now have. And that’s when the transparency of it, such as it is, disappears, along with huge amounts of water that are needed to wash these products. (2) And then it finds its way onto the shelves of the great god “Consumers”, to be used for a year or three, or until it is unfashionable. And then, it sits forgotten in a drawer, or is ‘recycled’, earning the recycler moral absolution, at least in their own minds.

This is standard Global Value Chain/Network analysis (see this blog I did on tuna), but Shayler did it very well.

He talked within this about the perverse incentives within the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (doing it by weight is not so smart – the Japanese and Chinese do it better, it seems).

He then went on to talk about the huge growth of the Chinese middle-class (hundreds of millions) and the fact that the two things Britain does – design and money (i.e. financial engineering) are both eminently exportable. He made a plea (and yes, you can call it Corbynite social democratic fantasy-land if you like) for a Britain that makes stuff – he reeled of the names and achievements of relatives “now dead, along with the skills they had.”

In his talk he also gave a shout out to a chap who set up a charity called “Falling Whistles”. I defy you to read about that without getting a lump in your thoat.

Shayler closed out his talk with a frank admission that what we’ve been doing in terms of both production and consumption, and attempts to improve it, have been grossly inadequate, and that there are going to have to be some pretty fundamental changes, but that he- like anyone who’s honest- doesn’t have any road maps to get us to the sunny uplands.

Following him was a very very tall order. Somehow Tracey Rawling Church managed it, even when talking about something as ‘mundane’ as the ‘printer zoo’ (of companies with lots of different devices). She is the CSR lead for a business-to-business printer company called Kyocera, which was founded by a Japanese chap who is now a Buddhist monk. They’re moving away from selling the hardware to facilitating the exchange of information, and that’s where most of their revenue comes from these days (a fairly rapid 80/20 reversal in five years). Normally I’d fall asleep with my eyes open (and then snore) if someone used the phrase “servitised document environment”, but I find stories of companies that are big enough to survive, but nimble enough to adapt, quite fascinating (Alcoa under Paul O’Neill, for example). But she also didn’t pretend that a little efficiency nip and tuck here and there is an adequate response to the challenges we face… Then it was over to (a slightly truncated) Q and A before discussions on tables and then networking/schmoozing.

Concepts readers of this blog might like to look into

Compulsory consumption

So, I got soaked cycling home. And the cat was angry with me for deserting it (I’m forgiven now of course). Was it worth it? I went for the food, thinking the talks would be mostly warmed-over ecological modernisation. I got a pleasant surprise tonight. Did both the speakers overrun? Yes. Normally that pisses me off, but the chair wisely let them run, even though it ate into the Q and A. Was it worth the soaking and the feline strop? Bloody hell yes.


  1. Today I was extolling the wonders of “Shut Up and Write” days to my two supervisors. They were both incredulous – ‘Isn’t every day shut up and write day?’ #oldskool #goodpoint

  2. On the subject of water – Saudi Arabia has finally stopped using its fossil aquifers for growing wheat. They might have clocked that’s not the smartest thing to have done, given what’s coming…

On deliberately lousy cons and the (selection) logic behind them

We’ve all had emails from the sons or daughters of Nigerian dictators asking your help to get a load of cash out of the country, with a nice little reward for you yourself.    And then there are the ‘you’ve won the lottery’ ones.  There are variations, all collectively known as advance-fee scams.

If you’re like me (you poor sod), you’ve wondered why they are just SO badly written, so implausible.  Can the crooks behind them be that incompetent? Surely they’d starve.

A good friend whom I visited last week had heard an intriguing hypothesis – that they’re deliberately bad to weed out anyone who isn’t gullible, greedy, desperate or demented (literally) enough.  If your initial con is too plausible, you’ll have thousands of potential marks to wade through.  That costs you time and effort. And time is money.  So, by doing something that only a ggdd person would respond to, you’re setting up a selection pressure, and making your own job easier.

That came to mind when I saw this;



Now that is EPIC in its badness.  I wonder who they catch, if anyone?


On getting conned:  I got done in Amsterdam in 1988, and in Harare in 1992.  Have (as far as I know!) been less conned since. Of course, have been cheated and lied to, but I think I developed better bullshit radar. Of course, that’s what ALL marcs think.  As the saying goes – ‘if you sit down to play poker and you can’t figure out who the sucker around the table is, get up and leave, because it’s you.’

See also the excellent 1952 paper by Erving Goffman “On Cooling the Mark Out” about the sociology of the con.

And google threw up Menand, L. 2015. Crooked psychics and cooling the mark out. The New Yorker,18 June.

On the selling of the Eiffel Tower –  (Victor Lustig)

And wikipedia says –

A set of instructions known as the “Ten Commandments for Con Men”[8] has been attributed to Lustig:

  • Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
  • Never look bored.
  • Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
  • Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
  • Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
  • Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
  • Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
  • Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
  • Never be untidy.
  • Never get drunk.



Climate change and World War 2 analogy

Someone who went on the climate march didn’t see the organisers taking the coffins away from protesters and calling for police support.

He did however comment “that there were more young faces in the crowd than usual“.

Memories are funny things.  I remembered at that moment my grandfather and one of the recollections he shared with me of his time in the war.  He’d joined the British Army as a ‘boy soldier’ in 1925, then found himself in China in 1929, and Palestine in the mid-late 30s.  He went to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1939.  Then in 1940, as everyone fled to Dunkirk, he missed the boat, literally.  The next two weeks involved getting to ports just after the Germans.  He finally managed, by this time having gathered other soldiers with him, to commandeer a French fishing boat and sail to the UK.  Otherwise he’d have spent five years as a Prisoner of War.

Anyway, the particular thing he told me was that during that two weeks, at one point they encountered a whole bunch of troops sent over from Britain, bright-eyed and eager to engage the enemy.  By this time he’d been a soldier for almost 15 years, and he knew which way was up.  He was dismayed, sad for them and angry with the politicians who could send troops on a pointless exercise that could at very best end with their capture, simply as a gesture to a defeated ally.

And this is the icky bit. I’m not comparing us climate change veterans to soldiers who’ve been shot at (and done some shooting too, of course).  But the dynamic – of the young ones who know no better being keen, while everyone else is weary, seems to apply.

The immovable object and the State

On Monday night Manchester was the scene of a crime. It was a crime committed, as the tabloids would always tell you most are, by a young(ish) Black Man, the son of one of those immigrants allowed to come to England decades ago. It was a serious crime, a crime against the state….

If, that is, by “state” we mean the blood-thirsty, looting empire-in-tatters that is the British State, (and pretty much every other state is or would be, given the opportunity.) It was a crime against compliance, a crime against complacency.

It wasn’t a crime against music and thought, it was a crime for them. It was committed by Akala, who gave a blistering set at Gorilla.

So much would be so unexpected to anyone who (unlike me) has followed the man’s career over the last ten years (all of the grime I’ve ever encountered has been before I left the house). Akala knows what he can do with words and a microphone, and he did them. Passion, mimicry, rhythm – all deployed with far more precision than the fucking bombs the British state is itching to drop on a bunch of people like you, me, your friends and acquaintances in Syria. But I digress.

So much so easy. But now for the stunt blogging part of the programme. Who did Akala remind me of? He reminded me of… wait for it…. wait for it…. Pink.

  • There’s the acute self-awareness, willingness to name and own their own hypocrisies and insecurities. (e.g. Leave me alone/I’m Lonely and Find Your Enemy).
  • There’s the understanding that the music industry wants you in a small and clearly labelled box, (as everyone knows), and the willingness, luck and  ability to, if not play the game by their own rules, then to bend them outashape.
  • There’s the general level of live performance (I’ve not seen her, more’s the pity) – Akala has her self-assurance; (according to his wikipedia entry he had a promising football career cut short by injury. Toe marbles’ loss is music and politics’ gain, I’d say.)
  • There’s the ability to name some of the enemies (Akala seems more willing to be just blunt about it, though Pink’s “Dear Mr President” probably got her removed from the Bush family’s Christmas card list).
  • There’s the real name/stage name thing (this is common of course). Pink is Alecia Moore, with the teenage nickname sticking. Akala, which is a Buddhist term for “immovable”.
  • There’s the obsession with the causes and consequences of violence (I was struck recently by just how many of Pink’s videos involve her in physical conflict with people, including herself.) See here.

There are differences of course – although both are cashed up in the “erotic capital” department (as in, smoking hot), Pink’s videos are, necessarily, a lot slicker (I shudder to think their budgets).

Also, I’m going to be able to have Pink as my music-to-do-grunt-PhD-work by. Akala, not so much. I defy anyone to cut and paste word documents while vaguely humming along to “Murder runs the globe”…

On existentialism, guilt, Godard and … Shell’s corporate framing strategy

Shell has a new advert – another clever and slick one extolling the virtues of burning gas, which, by pure coincidence, they happen to sell. Why now with this? Well, a mere three decades after the scientists started saying “we’re gonna fry ourselves if we don’t get off the fossil fuel habit” we rich white people are finally thinking about talking about at some point in the middle future perhaps getting rid of one of the three fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). And Shell sold its coal assets a while back, so would, along with the gas industry more generally, like to throw coal under the bus. It all came out in the open in June at a gas conference in Paris, the city of lights.

Fwiw, I’ve written here (“Simians, Cyborgs and Shell: Corporate Propaganda and Fall-back positions”) about Shell and its adverts. Slick stuff. This advert is a homage/pastiche/rip-off (take your pick) of Jean-Luc Godard’s stunning 1960 film “A Bout de Souffle” (or “Breathless”).

Shot in black and white (but curiously flat and expertly amateurish – probably another bid to seem quirky and authentic), it shows a pretty young woman and her French Bogart-y/Belmondo-y boyfriend in conversation, ostensibly about love, but actually about energy policy. She wants constancy, not intermittency, and he offers that he’ll always be around . It’s a parable, don’t you see – renewables can’t provide base-load electricity generation (says Shell), only natural gas can. It’s all done with subtitled dialogue and sub-Godardian camera angles.

This is presumably part one of a cunning two-part dog-whistling strategy. First they get you used to the idea that sophisticated people, who ‘get’ the (mis)appropriation of French cinema history, are willing to keep tipping enormous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere to maintain their tres debonair lives, (some other schmucks, without the distinction and cultural capital to have heard of Nouvelle Vague, pay; but they tend to be people in far off countries about which we know little. Like the Ogoni, to pick an example at random.)

The second part involves some meat-puppet politician telling you that natural gas is a transition fuel, and you nod along sagely, not even dimly aware that you’ve been primed.

Shell is in a spot of bother. On the question of carbon capture and storage (the only technology that might have given the fossil fuel industry a breathing space)  its boss had this to say

Van Beurden insisted that he had his hands tied from investing more heavily in CCS because they would not produce the high financial returns that investors had been used to from oil and gas. “I would lose my job over it if I just threw a few billions away [on CCS] … CCS is essential for society and … is ultimately important for our company, but listen, I have great difficulty to have shareholders focus on the quarter after next.”

More recently it got its Arctic arse handed to it by Greenpeace.

So at times of trouble, you fall back on what you are good at. And Shell is very very good indeed at distinguishing its indistinguishable-from-its-competitors’ product by appeals to identity, authenticity and naturalness. As the Australian cultural commentator Ross Gibson wrote two decades ago, back when climate change was possibly still manageable;

In 1953, John Heyer produced, co-wrote and directed a documentary film, The Back of Beyond, for the Shell Film Unit of Australia. For forty years in Europe, Shell had been engaged in advertising campaigns designed to “naturalize” their products in economies around the industrial world. The general strategy entailed representing Shell as innate to the good life available to the citizens of the twentieth century. “You can be sure of Shell” – the famous slogan is serene and solid like a landmass. Emphasising that Shell was part of Britain’s second nature, the company’s public relations exercises often functioned with the assurance and cunning of a myth of origin.
(Gibson, 1993; 135)

For my money (and as a PhD student, I don’t have a lot), Shell is trying to create another halo effect here. Rather than nature, female-ness and creativity, as per the ‘hybrid world’ advert, this time it’s about implying existentialism, passion and meaning. Which is a bit of a contrast to the lives of desperation, relentless banality and triviality that most of us are forced to live most of the time, but there you have it.  We’ll keep burning the fuels, so pretty soon our lives will still be full of desperation and banality. The mindless consumerism of trinkets may tail off a bit though.

Finally, there’s a couple of implications here that they presumably hope viewers are vague enough to miss. Casting itself as the Gallic gangster has the implication that it, like Belmondo’s character in Breathless, natural gas is a nihilistic narcissist/sociopath who uses up beautiful things and throws them to one side when they’re used up.

Also, I seem to recall it not ending well for the lad. One can only hope that there is a cop (or perhaps a “COP”?) to do the decent thing sometime rather soon.

So, Shell, I have two things to say – Go ahead, steal a great film, use it up, spit it out. That’s fine, that’s just what you do, who you are.

Oh, and Shell? Je dis que vous êtes vraiment “une dégueulasse”.


Gibson, R. 1993. “Yarning,”  pp 135-157 in South of the West: Post-colonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.