Civilising hypocrisies and fundamental questions: on “Emancipating Transformations

Manchester Tyndall Centre today hosted a provocative and highly interesting seminar. Professor Andy Stirling, who spent the 80s in the trenches for Greenpeace, had schlepped up to deliver a seminar on “Emancipating Transformations.” What they? Read on for an (almost) blow by blow account. [My multiple two centses are in square brackets like these.]

emancipating-transf-23-juneStirling began by point out the severe acuteness of the problems we face (not just climate change, but all sorts of other bubbling under) . He pointed out that 2015 saw not just the Paris climate conference  but also the final agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals, with the the rhetoric of sustainability as “care” and UN slogans such as “leave no one behind.”  These are some of the “civilising hypocrisies” of the title of this blog post.

The politics of sustainability and knowledge
He moved on to point out that sustainability concerns actually pre-date climate change [see the 1971 Founex conference, held because what we now call ‘developing countries’ suspected that the then-new concerns about environment would be used by the rich countries to keep the poor ones poor]. After pointing out that 40% of world innovation is on war and ‘security’, Stirling wanted us to understand that sustainability was (and is) a political, not a technical issue. He pointed out that the knowledge we gained about ecology – for example – often came from actions of “horizontal” action, that knowledge making at the time around these subjects was from the more egalitarian impulses. NGOs and other groups had to struggle for decades to get issues(the dangers of pesticides, asbestos, carcinogens) onto the agenda [and there’s some very interesting stuff in the excellent 2014 book  “Behind the Curve: science and the politics of global warming” by Joshua Howe on how US groups that knew about climate change in the early 80s did NOT campaign on it because there was no feasible way to do so.].

Stirling pointed out that the “Establishment” (corporations, august societies of Respectable Scientists) ridiculed what we now regard as common sense. Stirling said that “knowledge is much more malleable and political that is conceded” [but he was not endorsing post-modernist relativistic ‘anything goes’-ness in that]

And here is the kicker – those bodies are now mouthing all the pieties (“Responsible Innovation” etc) and saying all the right things. Meanwhile, the warnings of the United Nations Brundtland report called “Our Common Future” that sustainability was not just about ‘end points’ but “effective citizen participation” and “greater democracy” were quietly forgotten.( 1)

“Progress” as a weapon
Stirling said that incumbents were able to resist so the challenges so effectively because of the discourse of “progress” and the notion of science leads to technology leads to ‘progress’ [Indeed – if ever you challenge a technology’s social, economic or ecological implications, you will be smeared by its backers as a ‘Luddite’. The American political scientist EE Schattschneider observed that “the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.” ]

Stirling pointed out that this is a totalitarian discourse, a way of shutting down debate. He then pointed out that politicians are forever asserting linear models of ‘progress’, while claiming they are not. This was a particularly fun bit for the geek in me – Stirling showed examples of how the language and metaphors of both political and academic work on innovation are riddled with what he called “hard-wired linear notions” (leap-frogging, catching up etc). All these beg the question of how much, how fast, at what risk, who is ‘ahead’ and what does ahead even mean.
He challenged the audience – had anyone ever seen a “roadmap” document that had more than one road? And if there was only one road, well, you don’t need a map, do you? This got the biggest laugh of the afternoon. Karl Weick would have shared his snowy anecdote no doubt.

He pointed out that the “the” in “the sustainability transition” implies that there is only one way (even when multiple technologies exist) and that rarely if ever are the opportunity cost (what else could you spend the same money on) discussed. This has been an ongoing critique in Australia – money spent on propping up the coal industry is money NOT spent on research/support for renewable energy.

He touched briefly on the inevitability (even without shadowy incumbent conspirators propping up their own industries) of forms of lock-in (e.g. the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing this on) before returning to the earlier point that the political function of discourses (around “the” transition) is to maintain incumbent power.

Expedient fallacies
Stirling then laid out five “expedient fallacies” of current “sustainability thinking”
1. It maintains rather than transforms social orders
2. Any changes are envisaged as singular,deterministic, top down (rather than unruly, open-ended, bottom up)
3. The crucial “science base” is hierarchical, technical, expert leadership
4. Salient values are about fear and control,rather than hope or care
5. Democracy, equality and collective action are ‘threats’ that need to be domesticated

There was then a rather interesting set of slides that showed the connections between durability, stability, resilience and robustness, and the corresponding properties of transition, transduction, transilience and transformation [I feel another of my coloured paper/cardboard/paper-clip 3D models coming on! And at this point I should have shouted out about “Transruptive”

but I didn’t…]

Stirling then pointed to how the powerful close down opportunities for experimentation through invocation of ‘evidence based design’, insurance contracts, liability protection, stochastic reduction’ etc [he could also have mentioned policy-based evidence making!]

[I thought about Michael Thompson and his plea for ‘clumsy organisations’ for dealing with wicked problems and “post normal science.

Flocking hell!
Stirling returned to the notion of flocking swarming behaviours and the messiness of democracy. [Sadly though, the Pentagon has got there first (it so often does). Also, I’m reminded of passenger pigeons, that went through boom and bust cycles of population growth and collapse. Caught at a low ebb, they were wiped out. I fear the same for the social movements, that sort of gave up the ghost and fell in, according to Ingolfur Bluhdorn, with post-ecological thinking.]

The Q and A
The Q and A was dominated by men (including me). This was noted by Andy, to be fair. What is to be done? Well there are some suggestions here  about how you can simply and non-tokenistically make it more likely that ‘quiet voices’ (male, female, whatever) find it easier to ask questions. I also personally think that a two minute rule (or even, gasp, a four sentence rule) might sometimes be helpful…

I asked about impact science ‘versus’ production science, and Stirling’s response was very very interesting, showing how the former is itself shot through with assumptions about ‘safety’ that are highly contestable, highly political.

There were some interesting snippets and discussions of course, especially around how useful the “there is no time [to consult/be democratic]” argument is to elites (something that Manchester’s own Erik Swyngedouw has rightly been saying for years.

Prof Kevin Anderson (see MCFly passim ad nauseam!) made the good point though, that elites are NOT saying that about climate change. They’re actually saying Business As Usual is fine, and some fantasy technology like BECCS can be deployed later. [Prof Anderson was also hilariously rude about Integrated Assessment Models,  comparing them to “analysing astrology”]

The fundamental question – or at least the one I took away is this – who are our bosses? We are academics. We are paid to sit around and concept-monger. By the tax-payer, ultimately. So should we be aiming to impress elite policy-makers and follow what Stirling called “policy etiquettes”, in the hope they will twist this policy knob (and there are many many knobs), or pull that policy lever, to magic the right kind of innovation into existence? Or should we be trying to work with and for the (mostly mythical) social movements? Of course, this is a crude binary. But there are choices to be made, priorities to choose from.
I think I know where Andy Stirling’s preferences lie, and I definitely know where mine are.



  1. Released in 1987, the report had a climate change chapter, but it wasn’t a key issue. A UN conference was then scheduled for 1992. The following year, climate change exploded onto the public policy agenda, thanks in part to the June 23rd (!) testimony of James Hansen – the policy entrepreneurs then ‘hijacked/retrofitted the 1992 conference to become the deadline for climate change negotiations. You take your opportunities were you find them…]
  2. Other stuff that I didn’t put in that might be worth your time include three excellent books
    Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism
    A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming
    Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control
  3. From a more unquestioningly technophiliac perspective, Professor Thomas Schelling in Mancheter in 2010.

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