IAM what IAM – on models, muddles and human failure.

Six weeks or so I went to a talk by a man I respect immensely. I knew exactly what I would be getting – he’s delivered basically the same talk every time I’ve seen him, going back over a decade. He explains what we need to do, starting now (we should have started decades ago, but we don’t have a time machine). He explains how the longer we wait, the harder it gets (like dieting to fit into a wedding dress/suit). He always finishes with the same Roberto Unger quote. He’s sincere, incredibly well-informed (it’s his day job, after all) and fearlessly honest.

He’s added a new element to the talk over the last few times. He has explained just how disgusting/bogus/insane (take your pick – they’re my adjectives, but I am sure he’d agree) our reliance on “Bio Energy Carbon Capture and Storage” is. This is the proposal by which – now, you’ll think I am making this up, and I kind of wish I were – we would plant gazillions of acres of crops which we would then transport to power stations, burn, then capture the carbon dioxide and then pump it into aquifers left empty because the oil has been sucked out. And we would do this on a global scale, for decades, in order to get ‘negative emissions’ to keep the world from overshooting the so-called “safe” limit of two degrees of global warming. It’s a scheme so hubristic as to make Dr Strangelove blush.

And Professor Kevin Anderson – for it is he – explains just how crazy it is.

And yet, and yet….

I’ve known Kevin for over a decade. Kevin kindly spoke at the first ever Manchester Climate Forum event, in February 2007, just after the release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Kevin wrote a lovely intro to the “Call to Real Action” document that a bunch of us put together in early 2009, in an effort (ultimately futile) to get Manchester City Council to take, well, Real Action, on climate change. Kevin and I have shared beers, jokes etc. I’ve interviewed him a bunch of times.

But there is a thing that is bugging me. And it is the IAM question.

In his talk six weeks ago Kevin explained that there are these things called “Integrated Assessment Models” which bring together economists, technology wonks and some social scientists to develop models of ‘how we get to two degrees’. And the only way they can make the numbers work, is with BECCS.

Now, I know about the idiocy of IAMs from other sources. So I was probably laughing earlier and harder than some others when Kevin explained them that day six weeks ago.

And here is my big but.

It is fun, but WAY TOO EASY  to point at ‘smart’ people in love with their computer models, too scared to tell their political paymasters that social change is needed at an unprecedented scale, and that we are not going to geek our way out of this mess.

It’s shooting fish in an acidified barrel.

Because when you point one finger at someone else, I recently learned, you point three others back at yourself.

There are two other “IAMs” that we need to challenge with sincerity, knowledge and honest. Those two models are (drum roll please)

The Intellectual Advice Model and the Inane Activism Model.

I’ll describe each, explain what I think each leaves out, and then explain why, in my opinion, it persists.

Then I will riff on class.

If you want my SOLUTIONS, well they’re scattered all around, like confetti at a mass wedding. Pay me in beer and I’ll consolidate them.

Intellectual Advice Model

The model that Kevin, and I and countless antecedents since “pollution”, “conservation” and “the environment” became big ticket items in the late 1960s have have been engaging in is the Intellectual Advice Model. Smart and diligent people would Do Science and then present their findings.  This would convince our lords and masters of the errors of their ways, and things would – as if by magic, change for the better, albeit slowly.

It’s a myth of Enlightenment thinking that we dare not puncture. For then we would see that our hierarchies are less overtly vicious than the Stalinist ones, but not significantly more amenable to education. There is a plan (five year, ten year, the plan of ‘let the “market” (sic) rip’) and they’re gonna stick to it. Take the Peter Principle, throw in some Wilhelm Reich and it all makes sense. We are led by scared and scarred people who need power not just to feather their beds, but to resolve psychic wounds. So it goes.

What it leaves out

All the best environmental thinking in the West (I’m shamefully ignorant of Majority World thinking) comes from Australians. Oh yes. And here is a satirical piece from an Australian who was combatting rapacious forestry chainsaw-happy bureaucrats, who knew what they were up to.

Sift available information carefully, water down scientific recommendations, add large cup of public money, a hint of public consultation, mix in essence of buzz-word, season with the merest pinch of artificial green colouring. Boil together until all logic has evaporated, heat until light and fluffy and garnish with the promise of jobs.

And he wrote that … in 1991 I have other examples from the 1960s and 70s available upon request.


And academics to be involved in these, desperate for ‘policy relevance’ tokens that they can use at their next promotion/retention panel.

Why it persists

The model conveniently leaves out POWER (political, economic, and in large parts of the world military power). It means that those proffering the advice get to see themselves as somehow disinterested, neutral, above the fray. And it means they can persist in believing that they live in something approaching a democracy, when ultimately they live in plutocracy, semi-benign at best.

Inane Activism Model

[Update 4 March – here I am talking about activism in the Minority World (aka ‘teh developed world’, ‘the West’.  The picture is vastly different in places where they blatantly shoot you for dissenting.]

I will confess for a long time I used to think technocrats Baaad. Academics okay. “Grass roots” struggles authentic and better.


My experience (these days limited by the need to write a thesis and the inability to stomach any more bullshit) of ‘grass roots’ activism is that it made up of people fighting a cause who are unable and/or unwilling to insist upon reliability in their colleagues, some of whom are clearly fighting parental battles through their ‘politics’ (and yes, I am perfectly aware of just how Daily Mail I sound right now. Even broken and fascist clocks are right twice a day).

And the activism – especially the middle class stuff – is based on the information deficit model, whereby Informed Activists will offer Intellectual Advice to our lords and masters, who will then see the error of their ways. Srsly.

And it goes on about a three or four years cycle, by which time people are exhausted, burnt out (never to return in many cases) cynical and confused. But the hard core persist, waiting for the next recruiting opportunity.

And the activists are – for reasons of time, emotional resources etc – unable to see the broader cyclical patterns, and to intervene to improve their own cultures.

I wrote something in Peace News last year about this – about the NGOs (and other groups) inability to even understand the need for absorptive capacity, let alone the capacity to build that capacity. While you’re at it, I wrote for the same excellent journal on the nature of academics and/vs activists.

I’ve also written about the Smugosphere, emotathons, ego-fodder, and much else.

What it leaves out

The Inane Activism model, with its inflatable elephants, its petitions, its importuning of our lords and masters, and its willingness to conflate access for influence, leaves out the same things that the Intellectual Advice Model does: Power.

Why it persists

The inane activism persists because it meets the psychological needs of those doing it (to be Right, to be Righteous, etc. Some forms of Inane Activism offer valuable martyrdom tokens too). It meets social needs (there is one group in Manchester which is basically a friendship group that might admit new members if they stik around for a year or two, which they tend not to do). It meets their financial needs in some cases. So it goes.

At this moment, if you’ve read this far, you’ll be thinking “he is some sort of Trotskyist.” For your benefit, and that of SDS or whatever they now call themselves, I. Am. Not. A. Trot. I am a bit like Frank Turner, but without the guitar. I am some kind of classical liberal, or a disappointed romantic or whatever. I don’t know, don’t care, and I don’t see how it is relevant to my observations about the failures of the IAMs above. So if you’re asking who I am, then maybe it’s because you don’t actually want to address my criticisms of the models, but instead engage in some ad homineming and some tu quoqueing…

That elephant. #Stayclassy…

The elephant in the room, with all three of these models, is of course, class. I am achingly middle-class, but even I have enough common sense and empathy to see that.)

  • The IAM modellers are, to a man and a computer, middle-class (or even part of a technocratic elite of sorts).
  • Those who engage in the giving of intellectual advice are middle-class, though some are falling through the cracks into the precariat, shoved by the USS and their pension-shredding, against a broader back drop of the marketisation of the university etc.
  • And the activists who campaign “purely” on climate change in the UK are usually middle class (I will now have a thousand people point to poor people involved in fracking. But that is a local poisoning the land for fun and profit issue as much as it is a broader climate issue). The climate movement is riddled with it. One of the many many reasons for its collapse in 2009/10 (that and some idiotic ‘strategising’ (if you could call it that) by the big NGOs. They do love a good summit…)

We (middle-class) people would rather cling to our class privilege (akin to white skin privilege) than actually change the way we do things, and take working class concerns seriously. They’re a ‘distraction’, they’re ‘messy’, they’re ‘social problems’ etc etc.

So, the next time someone invites me to laugh at an Integrated Assessment Model, I will ask them to join me in laughing at Intellectual Advice Models and Inane Activism models. That at least will add the hilarity levels on a planet being stripped of its biological wealth by some crazed infantile hairless apes with opposable thumbs and more neurons than is good for them or anything else.


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