Spiders, trouble, students, decentering…

I am the TA (teaching assistant) on a rather excellent course called ‘Wildlife in the Age of Humans’.  It’s a delight to be a) engaging with cool ideas b) helping smart students engage with cool ideas.

The latest seminar was on ‘conviviality’.  The lecture had dealt with scorpions coming up through shower grates and what to do about it, troublesome baboon troops in Cape Town and penguins in Sydney.  The students were asked to do some reading (most had) and then we gathered. This powerpoint tells a bit about the conversation that ensued (but obvs, no names).

Started out with this meme

spider four memes

I gave everyone one vote, and the bottom right one was a clear winner (it’s also my favourite).

I then asked their attitude to spiders-in-da-house, giving the options
Who is ‘contract out the squashing’?
Who is ‘do the squashing myself’?
Who is ‘catch and release’?
Who is ‘meh, welcome’?

Most everyone was a ‘catch and release’ person.

The task that had been set was

Read the articles and focus on how borders figure in these accounts and the type of politics they give rise to in relation to conviviality and co-habitation.
What type of practices is this “conviviality-paradigm” suggesting? Will conviviality be a borderless world?
How can we understand “affective ecologies” as something that moves beyond human-centric forms of nature conservation and conviviality?
You should all be able to present 2-3 observations from one or all three of the articles

I asked for volunteers to read out each of the three. I made sure we were all on the same page about the word ‘conviviality’ (it’s a less common word than you’d think. I forgot to give Illich a shout out. Doh!)

A couple could give a definition of affective (to do with emotions) and I had someone read out this quote I’d found –

“Affective Ecology is a new branch of ecology concerned with emotional relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world. The basic instinct that guides the evolution and maturation of a well-tuned relationship with the living world seems to be biophilia, our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally (The Biophilia Hypothesis). ”

http://www.biourbanism.org/biophilia-and-gaia-two-hypotheses-for-an-affective-ecology/

I then showed, without sound, the first minute of this

And pointed back to the earliest lecture, on Romantic notions of nature. I threw in some comments about neoteny and anime, because I was showing off could.

I asked for any French speakers – there were none, so pointed out that monstre means ‘to show’ and its where we get both the words demonstration and monster – the latter being something that shows us something (about ourselves) that we’d rather not see, not acknowledge.  I have a reputation for throwing in the pop culture references, so went this time for “The Tempest”,  Some people had seen it, but not recently to recall the plot, so  gave a super quick recap and explained that you can do a convincing coloniality-reading of it.  Prospero’s  “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” got a quotecheck.

Then, finally, (it was now quarter past the hour), on to … working in pairs for a few minutes, generating thoughts on baboons, scorpions and penguins.  Someone had to leave at half past the hour, so  let her choose.  We went with scorpions.  Good discussion about where in a house they appear, senses of vulnerability and violation etc.

Showed this from a very reliable news source.

spider sitting on shower wall

 

Then useful discussions about penguins (charismatic, harmless, how to balance their needs and the tourism dollar – some robust opinions!).  This, on Australia, led to some discussion of the acclimatisation societies and the introduction of species to Australia because Shakespeare (him again!) had name-checked them, and how this had stopped because of the economic damage.   One student noted (perceptively!) how much of the contacts between Old World and New were shaped by powerful white men going off what they’d read in the Bible or whatever.  I threw in a brief (and probably inaccurate) bit on Aristotle and the Great Chain of Being,

We had a bit on baboons and their moral agency (debatable) and what they would do if they lived near such troops.

Time was moving on, and I wanted to throw some Haraway in (as always). First  I asked them about McDonalds and the touchscreen thing – turns out, bacteria get everywhere, eh? Some new about it, all were grossed out.

So, the Haraway. I had someone read out the quote. Which quote? This quote (and I pointed out beforehand that some unkind souls, referring to the repetition in the latest book, feel it should have been called ‘Staying with the Tedium’.)

‘Staying with the Trouble’ insists on working, playing and thinking in multispecies cosmopolitics in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’

Nobody could guess at unpacking it (it’s not as bad as Butler though), so I gave a push on what ‘play’ is about – finding your capacities, how you affect the world, are effected by it etc- then what cosmopoliticss are (and yes, Godwin’s Law blah blah, I talked about the Nazis and their hatred for rootless cosmopolitans).  There were really good comments then on the killing of entire ways of being (victories, defeats, negotiations) and the meaning of the word cunningly.  [See an account from a tutorial last academic year].

Time almost up, so then suggested that further decentering of humans could be seen in two concepts

Symbiont /ˈsɪmbɪɒnt,ˈsɪmbʌɪɒnt/

Noun an organism living in symbiosis with another.
Holobionts are assemblages of different species that form ecological unitsLynn Margulis proposed that any physical association between individuals of different species for significant portions of their life history is a symbiosis. All participants in the symbiosis are bionts, and therefore the resulting assemblage was first coined a holobiont by Lynn Margulis in 1991 in the book Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation.[1] Holo is derived from the Ancient Greek word ὅλος (hólos) for “whole”. The entire assemblage of genomes in the holobiont is termed a hologenome.

And recommended, if they wanted their worlds turned upside down –

  • Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World
  • Tsing, et al. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene

Anthroposcenic  Anthropological gits and shiggles. #moraledrain #oldfartclimateadvice

IMO, we need a new word:  The Anthroposcene.

Defined as: the space (scene) where everyone who uses the word  Anthropocene unself-consciously (without finger-wavy ‘air quotes’) gathers to exchange book recommendations, memes, attention, credibility etc.

And where everyone who has just woken up – thanks perhaps to the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees report – to the fierce urgency of …. 30 years ago, when climate change first got some public attention.

The Anthroposcene is, of course, full of scenesters, all of them believing that they’re the cool kids, and everyone else is a pale copy, hipsters, wannabes, drones and followers.  Each has their own take on how we get here, on what has to happen next, what will happen next  While busily chasing grants, clicks, bums on seats, and whatever else passes for metrics in these imperial days.

“What’s my scene?” indeed

Sigh.

Right, enough tossing off word salad.  On with the show.: Anthropological gits and shiggles.

In the temporary absence of she who knows better, she who must be obeyed, I seem to have recidivized into a filthy and tawdry habit, which after momentary ‘pleasure’ leaves me feeling hollow and sordid.  I refer, of course, to … attending meetings.

This week I went to three, count ’em THREE, when old me, better me, wiser  would have steered well clear. I even paid good scarce money to attend one of them. Still, I’m not completely beyond redemption, at least I had the good sense to walk (not flounce) out of all three, before the end.

Two of these meetings purported to be about network building.  Er, no, not really.  One I had higher hopes for, but these were dashed fairly quickly.

Did I learn anything? Yeah, very little bits and pieces, but nothing that was worth the time drain, and, to be brutally honest, the MORALE drain.  I lay in bed this morning, next to/under cats, rather than walking around the park with a backpack full of books, which makes me feels good, and is slowly getting rid of lard.  Why? Because the week’s worth of accumulated despair that even our so-called progressive/radical/democratic/radical/artsy people  can’t break free from stale repertoires which we KNOW, from endless bitter experience, DON’T WORK.  The full force of the state will come down on us all soon, especially if the Extinction Rebellion crew get their wish and a climate-state of emergency is declared.  The window for doing things differently is already small enough, and yet we seem unwilling, or – scarier still – unable to see how to do things differently.

Specifics, I suppose, are demanded of me.  So I will do it as mostly a series of ‘don’t’s.  Yeah, yeah, I know you’re supposed to frame your suggestions positively, but life is too short etc etc.  These are from the three meetings.

  • DON’T imagine that giving people name badges and asking them to say where they are from is in any meaningful way discharging your responsibilities, as organisers, to facilitate the formation of loose connections. Seriously.
  • Round tables are such a cliché.  I realise I wrote about this years ago [footnote 1], but don’t assume that round tables make discussions easier.  And just because there are round tables, doesn’t mean that you’re not actually sat in rows, being ego-fodder. The host/organisers of your event will want to blather on about themselves. That first 20/25 minutes that they do that will set the (wrong) tone for the day.  Seriously.
  • Maybe learn from the plea of People of Colour activists who ask white activists not to centre themselves and their emotional needs.  And take that into our own meetings?
  • You want a network, you believe in democracy, activism, networks.  Great. Don’t tell me (for 25 minutes). Show me.  Get us DOING it.  There will be time enough for your  organisational ego-needs to be met later. And if there isn’t, well so what?
  • Don’t have us on the tables answering the questions that YOU set.  Find ways of finding out what the people in the room want to discuss. It’s not rocket science. It’s open space.
  • Don’t put the “how do we build a movement”  stuff at the end of the day, when everyone is tired,  bored, having to leave. If it’s the most important thing of the day, then is should be threaded through the day, and should be headlining, no?

Oh, there’s more, but I already wasted enough time and energy GOING to these wretched things, and more again writing this blog post. And none of us is going to live forever.  A decade might even be a push, if it all unravels as quickly as it might.

So, in the very very unlikely event that I ever drag my sorry fat arse to another “network creation” event, here are 10 predictions which I will turn into a checklist and then blog against.

  1. They will give us name badges and ask us to point on a map where we came from today. This won’t be used in any meaningful way (i.e. facilitating connections between hyper-local people), but will give the all-important appearance of giving a damn.
  2. There will be round tables that we are sat at, as if this is somehow inherently democratic.
  3. The day will start with an overlong explanation of why we’re here (we know) and an advert for the host organisation and/or the venue owners. This will suck (up) at least 30 of the first, crucial, 30 minutes
  4. There will be a q and a after that, but no opportunity to discuss among ourselves our questions/thoughts, so the q and a will be dominated by usual suspects.
  5. We will be asked to respond as tables to questions set by the organisers.
  6. There will be a video-vox pop booth, a honeypot for narcissists, and an opportunity for the organisers to show how cool and democratic they are.
  7. There will be minimal (zero) attempt to effectively connect attendees on the basis of their stated needs and current abilities (no skill/knowledge swap shop, for instance).
  8. The ‘how do we build a network?’ question will be raised, but only given any time at the very end, when some have left (physically or mentally) and everyone is tired/looking at their watches. It will not, therefore, be anywhere near as effective as it could have been, but some flipcharts will be filled with different coloured scrawls, which looks good in a blog post about the event, so that’s alright then
  9. Integrating people who can’t physically be there will not be done in any meaningful sense (or any sense whatsoever), despite there being, you know, information technologies that would make this possible.
  10. If you raise concerns/complaints about this, you’ll be disregarded as pathologically negative and negatively pathological, or something. Who cares, frankly.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. From here:

In the Bad Old Days of Industrial Capitalism, where nature was not respected, venerated and Valued, then we would have been sat in rows, listening to the various big cheeses at the front telling us that while there were some problems, everything would be alright as long as the current system was refined and tweaked.

badolddaysIn the New Collaborative Days of post-Industrial Capitalism, where nature is most definitely being Valued, we sit… at round tables, with some of us having therefore to twist around on our seats to listen to the various big cheeses at the front telling us that while there are some problems, everything will be alright as long as the current system is refined and tweaked.

We have swapped a system that was at least honest about who talked and who listened for one which is uncomfortable for some, who have to pretzel themselves in order to fit, but with the same underlying result.

Will #ExtinctionRebellion end up as #chugging for Friends of the Earth?

So, sitting with two very clever friends this morning, spit-balling ideas of where the whole Extinction Rebelliion thing might go, this came up:

It’s possible that Extinction Rebellion, if it keeps the same set of repertoires (blocking roads, disrupting meetings etc), may end up not moving beyond the students and retired who seem (I have not been at the London stuff) to be making up a fairly heft wodge of its demographic.  The biographical availability here is ability to get arrested without huge immediate financial/career risks.

So, in this scenario, where ER’s repertoires and prospective participants stay the same, the following could possibly happen: ER puts the issue of climate breakdown squarely on the political agenda (where it should have been since, oooh, 1988).  A lot of busy/unavailable guilty liberals who let their direct debits to Friends of the Earth and/or Greenpeace lapse during the Global Financial Crisis say to themselves “Gee, yeah, end of human civ. Kinda puts the whole school fees for Tarquin and Cressida into context. But I can’t afford – in any sense – to get a criminal record. And who has the time for interminable activist-y meetings? So, um, I’ll give some money.”

And who would they give money to? Probably FoE/Greenpeace and the rest of the reformist gang that ER has so far only gently chided.  Thus, ER’s efforts may end up reinforcing the mainstream groups, being particularly spikey chuggers (for non-UK people: chugger is a contraction of ‘charity mugger’ – street solicitation for direct debits)

UNLESS (and it’s a big unless), ER morphs or creates offshoots to harness the other (non-financial) energies and potentialities of those middle-class types, this seems to me a likely outcome (but icbw).  There are some straws in the wind that suggest this morphing might be attempted.  Whether it is possible or not, well, that remains to be seen.

Minor rant: Know your audience, tailor accordingly… #climate #activism

Okay, no names, but for god’s sake, people who are giving talks on important subjects, often from a position of knowing a lot and/or having moral high ground:  THINK WHO YOU ARE TALKING TO.  Do NOT give your bog-standard intro-to-issue-x to a self-selected audience that has come out on a cold wet night/travelled to the ends of the earth and clearly knows all the basics already.

[breath]

Several times recently (and many more times a few years ago, when I went to more meetings, before I realised what a time/energy/emotional-reserves suck they were) I’ve had the hair-tearing experience of being ego-fodder in a speech where the person giving it has clearly just not thought about who they are trying to engage with.  There’s the basic speech ‘what is x [where x is climate change, climate justice, fracking, whatever] that you would have to give if you were invited to come and speak to a not-active-on-this-issue of, say, the Women’s Institute, the Rotary Club, whatever.  But if you’re speaking to an audience that has made a time and an effort to come from various places (e.g. you’re holding the meeting in mid-Wales and people have come from London), then you can safely assume that they know all that, and that what they’re expecting is your A-game: that you can skip all the intro stuff and get to your most advanced stuff.

I know, presenters are afraid of leaving anyone behind, or perhaps just too busy to do the extra work that making a second presentation would involve, but seriously, this is a waste of people’s time, energy and (in some cases – at least mine) morale.

Also, can we please have as standard at the beginning of talks by people who believe in the necessity of building a climate movement, a network of loosely and also tightly connected individuals and groups, a “please turn to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself” thing as STANDARD.  Also perhaps do it before the Q and A, to reduce the institutional sexism of meetings.

Here endeth today’s rant.

Dear ‘new’ #climate activist. Unsolicited advice, #oldfartclimateadvice

Dear ‘new’ climate activist,

unsolicited adviceThanks for your efforts so far and “welcome” (or of course “welcome back”).  You find the “climate movement” in the UK in a pretty dismal state, to be honest.  There’s a fierce battle going on about fracking, but elsewhere the Tory government has been able to get away with stripping support from renewables and spending a fortune (no, seriously, a mind-bogglingly large fortune) on a new nuclear power station. You can read about that in this excellent academic article (more about academics later).

So, you are, as you know, extremely needed.  And especially needed is your ability to stick around for the long-haul.  Previous upsurges in activism (on climate and other environmental issues) have tended to last between 3 and 4 years, before losing energy and impact  (there are reasons for this, but that would be another letter altogether).

This letter to you, littered with things you know,  starts with the movement “in general”, outlining some of the intra-group dynamics you might encounter, and then the inter-group dynamics. It then looks at some of the external actors will probably encounter – media, the police, policy-makers, political parties, trade unions, academics and “family and friends”. There are other groups that matter too, of course, but few enough people are going to read this to the end at its current length, let alone the full-Tolstoy.  It closes with some comments on three new challenges facing us. I have no satisfactory answers to those challenges, of course.

Oh, yes: who the hell am I to be giving unsolicited advice?  Good question. Well, I was involved in the first year and a bit of Climate Camp (2006-2007). For the last 10 plus years, among other things I’ve co-run/run Manchester Climate Fortnightly and then Manchester Climate Monthly.  Fwiw, I’ve just submitted a PhD thesis which involved, in part, reading up on the early moves by the coal-lobby in opposing even mild climate action, back in 1988-1995.

I have numbered the bits of advice (many of which are banal, but worth repeating, imo), not because they are in particular order of importance, but to make easier to have any conversations about this document.  Finally, I’m aware of the dangers of advice-giving but reckon other old farts like me might have something useful to add.  We might be able to help individuals and groups avoid some of the more obvious problems, and so extend their longevity and/or improve their effectiveness.  Hashtag could be #oldfartclimateadvice perhaps?

 

The movement “in general”

The first thing is kind of obvious, but worth repeating.  If the UK climate movement were that great shape – that functional, that effective – then your efforts on Saturday November 17 (and before) would not have been needed.  Here’s not the place to go into the details of that, or particularly the reasons why, but it’s been thirty years of marches, meetings, lobbying, camps and so forth. And in the meantime, humanity’s emissions have gone up sharply.  In the UK, you’ll be told, that emissions have gone down. That’s basically an accounting trick, and to do with the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power stations. Anytime anyone repeats those lies, ask them if they understand the difference between production-based metrics and consumption-based metrics. But you know all this, or you wouldn’t have been on the bridges.

Some things that you may not have known, and which will be semi-fiercely denied.

1. The movement has its fair share of racism, classism, homophobia and so on. Just because we all agree there is a climate emergency, doesn’t mean the other stuff can wait. Particularly on the racism-  see here and here That can be pretty confronting for white people to process, but public displays of guilt that centre the white person are worse than useless.  White people have to really have those conversations with other white people, and not expect people of colour to do yet more intellectual or emotional labour to help them deal with their problems.

2. Some people in activism circles do not have your best interests at heart.  Alongside the ethical, the concerned, the kind, there are control freaks, martyrs, manipulators, all sorts. Sometimes in the very same person.   Why? Because activists are human.

Watch out for ‘facipulation’, where people are using manipulative facilitation techniques to ‘guide’ (force) a consensus around their own preferred outcome.  Also, if you allow it, you will be used as ‘ego-fodder’  to make up numbers at meetings, on interminable marches etc.  Your existing skills and knowledge will not be put to good use, unless you make it so.  Your desire to learn new skills and knowledge will be largely ignored as an inconvenience, something self-indulgent, to be addressed only after we have “won” (i.e. never).  It doesn’t HAVE to be that way,  but doing it differently requires both a different set of perspectives and skills than are common among movement ‘leaders’ at present.

3. The climate movement tribe will not thank you for pointing out its shortcomings.  At all. You will be told, politely or not, to shut up, often by people who ought to know better but are determinedly sucking on the Hopium pipe.

4, There is an ironic lack of innovation in a lot of climate movement practices.  Social movement academics would mutter about ‘limited repertoires.’ For people who are demanding massive change from governments and corporations, there is – ironically – very little appetite for changing activist practice. The format of meetings, for example, is rarely if ever tweaked, though new buzzwords (unconference, open space etc) occasionally get borrowed to give tedious business-as-usual a sexy tinge

For example,  Climate Camp started out,  because a bunch of dedicated and smart people realised in 2005 that “summit hopping” (turning up at world leaders events) was not helping to build movements. And in 2009 the Climate Campers were… back to summit hopping, as pretty much their last gasp. Off they went to Copenhagen, and after that, well, within a little over a year it was all over.

But see point 3. above –  proposals to innovate in processes are actually (seen as) a reproach to those who have been in charge while something not as good as the new thing was being done.  They won’t like being seen as having maintained a less-than-perfect set of practices. Expect resistance.

Intra Group Dynamics

Right now, your group will be either very new or massively revivified and re-energised  by an influx of new people. It’s the honeymoon period. Honeymoons don’t last forever. Here’s a few things to know (or remember, if you’re an old activist coming back into the fray. Or already know from your job or somewhere else.)

  1. Just because people are in a circle, there is no chair and everybody says “we’re all comrades together” doesn’t mean there isn’t power in a room.  Who speaks the most? Whose ideas get taken up? Who does the drudge work?

The age-old feminist critique of power relations is, sadly still true,  Jo Freeman’s 50 year old  The Tyranny of Structurelessness, is still fresh as the day it was written (which tells you something right there, no?) See also

  1. Your repertoires (the kinds of action your group is familiar with, finds exciting, and ‘useful’) has a shelf-life.  Your opponents find ways of dealing with them, either directly or indirectly. Adrenaline, in other words, is both your friend and your enemy.
  1.  Groups do not, on the whole, have the capacity to organise the learning of new skills and the overcoming of bottlenecks. (Though efforts will be made through usually-badly-designed and facilitated ‘skillshares’).  Your existing skills and knowledge may not be valorised or even acknowledged. Also, it will almost certainly be up to you to learn new skills, Doing this will make you more useful and keep your morale up. And if you have skills, please try to teach them to others, especially if you’re the only person in the group with those skills.
  1.  Look after yourself. If that means not going to bad meetings, then don’t go to bad meetings. Or walking out of them before the bitter end (google “Law of Two Feet”). But please don’t “lunch stuff out”  (i.e. fail to keep commitments that you made) If your presence is needed/expected, you have to let people know beforehand that you won’t be attending. Oh, and by the way, meetings don’t have to be institutionally sexist.

Not all groups are going to last forever, or even very long at all. Sometimes, after you’ve tried to fix it, you have to walk away, or else you’ll go down with the ship, and be lost to activism – along with your skills, knowledge and energy. If that happens, it not only demoralises other ‘activists’ but also sends a warning message to people who were thinking of getting involved.

Inter-group Dynamics

  1. Expect framewars.

For what it is worth, you can roughly subdivide the ‘activist’ groups into three broad categories (there is of course overlap and drift), based on how they ‘frame’ the issues. First you have the reformists – the ‘change the system from within’ types, exemplified here by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (locked in a decades old battle for moral supremacy).  For them, it’s a problem of education, perhaps market signals. Power and corruption are words they don’t throw around comfortably. Second you’ve got the state “revolutionary” socialist types who believe that what is needed is a glorious revolution that closely follows their manifesto. “Buy a paper, comrade?”  To them reformists are dupes of the system and the third group idealistic dreamers who get in the way of ensnaring the fresh-meat/future papersellers.. That third group is the avowedly ‘non-hierarchical (but see point 5 above!) outfits who believe that only grassroots bottom-up action can met the scale of the problem(s).

The point is this:  It is both logical and necessary to co-ordinate with other groups who share your frame or who do not in, say, the staging of public meetings, demonstrations etc.  No one set of groups can do this alone. But that does not mean there will not be fights about what the focus of the action is, whose person speaks first, for how long, etc etc.  Fortunately one of the most vampiric groups, the Socialist Workers Party, is but a shadow of its former “glory”. That does not mean there are not other groups willing and able of sucking the energy out of a movement while believing that they are creating a vanguard and educated a cadre. Oh, and if you identify what they are doing, or god forbid push back, expect to be labelled ‘sectarian’.  But the vampires, no, they are never sectarian.

Personally, fwiw, I think that the “climate movement” does not have the ability to turn the mess around, and that it will all end in tears – see ‘2019: How we blew it again’,  written in 2017.  But I could be wrong.

Right, having offered obvious/sententious advice about the movement and some of the dynamics you’ll find, some comments about the other actors you will probably encounter. I’ve put this in “Branches of government”, Political parties, The Police, The Media, Academics, Trades Unions, Family and Friends.  Overall, this: just because someone is clearly doing very bad things to the planet/stopping you from trying to save civilisation, doesn’t mean they are stupid. Do not underestimate them.

 

Branches of government

When you encounter policymakers and politician you will come up against slick (I mean, PPE at Oxford has to be worth something, right?) sorts who can speak glibly and confidently in TLAs (three letter acronyms) about all the things the government/public service is doing.  Inside, these people are often either empty, or stupid, or terrified (or all three). Peter Oborne is worth reading on the ‘political class’.

  1.  It’s difficult, because education – and it seems particularly British education – is largely about learning to pay the right amount of deference to people who want to be your lords and masters- but this:  Just because someone is being driven around in a limousine and has a title doesn’t mean they have a clue what is actually happening to this doomed planet, or what to do about it. But you knew this, or else you wouldn’t have been on the bridges.
  2. Local government has largely had a free pass, as far as I can see.  Here in Manchester the governing Labour Party has been able to blame everything on the Tories, while claiming credit for national-level emissions reductions (the partial decarbonisation of the grid, for example).  Every two or three years they produce new meaningless glossy booklets to replace the previous non-implemented policies, and the local Friends of the Earth group (which is basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Council) goes squee with delight when told to. It’s frankly embarrassing.  But I digress. Local government needs serious attention (it gets none from the media, or climate movement), but the skillset is not public order situations and placards, but rather Freedom of Information Act requests, blogging, letters to the editor etc. And more, because those things on their own simply mean you’re recording the lies and the bullshit, not forcing them to a standstill.

Political parties

  1. .  As the journalist Nick Tomalin observed, “They lie, they lie, they lie.”  And they are constantly on the hunt for issues and plausible individuals who can front those issues to the voters.  Expect talented activists to be poached into parties. Meanwhile, the parties will make promises that they have no intention of keeping. But you knew this… bridge.

The police

  1. Spycops. Read it and weep.  
  • Expect agent provocateurs, expect infiltration, both by state and corporate actors.
  • Read up on the techniques and what to do about them.
  • Role play arrest. Role play questioning. Role play being charged. Role play it until it loses its mystique.

Academics

This is awkward, because I am a wannabe academic.  But before I came into it, I thought they were, for the purposes of social movements, either mostly useless or worse than useless.  I haven’t changed my mind (perhaps I’m just doing sour-grapes and self-loathing?). Some of them can indeed write in plain language, do have something to say.  Getting past the paywalls isn’t impossible – you probably know some sympathetic academics who will get you stuff, or you can ask the authors directly. Don’t be surprised though, if after all the effort, that what you get out isn’t worth the effort.

  1. Specifically, be very careful about having academics speak at events. They’re often lousy public speakers, and in answering questions will never use 50 words if 500 will do. Keep your expectations low, in other words.
  1.  Be very cautious about agreeing to participate in any academicresearch.  I know it can be flattering that Doctor Who or Professor X is interested, but always ask : what is in it for ME/US?  How does the movement benefit from this? and also Where might sensitive information actually end up?

Reading: This short story, The Defiant Ones, about an academic and activist handcuffed to each other, fleeing a public order situation.

The Media

Yeah. The Daily Mail.  In the same way they police the bodies of female celebrities  (if she puts on three pounds and it’s time for “look, she’s letting herself go”, if she loses three pounds the Mail runs “friends worried for gaunt xxxx”) there is a bizarre ever-shifting and extremely narrow band of behaviour for environmental activists.  If you ever take a flight, drive a car or eat meat, you’re a disgusting hypocrite. If you don’t, then you’re an out-of-touch weirdo zealot. You know this/bridge.

More broadly, yes, there are lazy and venal journalists, but you’re better off seeing systems at play, structures which prevent decent/honest reporting than focussing on the intellectual and moral failings of specific individuals. Imo, fwiw.

  1. Role play both friendly and hostile interviews.  Have more than one competent interview-giver in your group
  2. Do NOT measure “success” in terms of coverage or nice things said about you by sympathetic journalists.  You simply become an attention-hungry performing seal.
  1. It’s worth reading up on why they are like that.  Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, the Glasgow Media Group, Nick Davies, Flat Earth News.  It’s worth doing analysis on who owns your local media, what the constraints on journalists are etc.

Trades Unions

The dirty secret is that the workers united are often defeated. And that unions need jobs to keep themselves afloat (members who can’t pay the mortgage/rent probably can’t pay their dues), and so unions often mouth the right piety about just transition this, climate policy that while also applying the thumbscrews to members of Parliament to ensure – to pick an example entirely at random – that the third runway at Heathrow gets approval.  And there are deeply conflicted environmentalists in those unions trying to change the(ir) system from within. Also, unions tend to hold mind-boggling boring and top-down meetings, where there is an inverse relationship between length and quality of speeches.

Family and friends

You will probably be patronised by at least some family and friends for giving a shit about climate change.  It’s not cool to give a shit, apparently. And most of us have a UKIP-voting climate denying uncle whose presence makes Christmas/weddings etc a tedious exercise in “let’s not talk about, okay?” Family tensions will probably flare up particularly when the media smears kick into high gear, and/or when some climate activists do something that is perceived to be ‘too much’  (blocking a runway, and then it turns out a flight full of dying panda bears can’t get life saving surgery)

I have no advice to offer, I think, other than don’t neglect your wider network of friends – they offer you perspective, and if it all goes wrong and you have to do serious rest and recuperation, well, they’ll “be there for you.”

Some random bits of advice that, I don’t think fit in any category above.

  1. Measuring “success” is really hard. If it’s a meeting is it bums on seats? The number of tweets? The number of new recruits who turn out?  (Meanwhile, bosses will never admit that you fought them to a standstill. It’s not in their interests). But if you don’t have any metrics of success, then you end up, I think, in the smugosphere, which is not a good place.
  2.  While we have been in similar situations before, the history is only a partial guide.  What is unprecedented now is that humanity’s continued existence is up for grabs. Sure, during the Cold War a nuclear war could have done for us all quickly, but that required a change from the status quo.  Right now, to ensure our demise, all we have to do is keep on the same trajectory. That’s at least as terrifying as the nuclear Mexican standoff…
  3. Relatedly, fear eats the soul.

 

New challenges

Finally, there seem to be (at least) three new challenges in our situation worth noting. I got nothing about them though, at least nothing that seems adequate.

  1. Sudden explosion of people interested in taking direct action.   This is great, as long as people don’t think get “imprinted” – the first thing they saw when they cracked out of the egg was a bridge occupation, therefore…  BUT, how to get/keep these people engaged in the long-slog of activism? Dunno.
  2. Lots of kids getting involved – see, for example, the proposed School Strike for Friday 30th November.  Well, these kids obviously have to be in charge of their own organisations (duh). What could #oldfarts do to help them learn hard lessons the easy/easier way?
  3. Finally, there/’s not, over the coming months and years, going to be a lot of hope, at least not in the people who know what a Keeling Curve is. To quote myself: “In their own defence, the movement organisations pointed out that this wave of concern about global apocalypse had been different from the previous ones, from 1970 to 1973, 1988 to 1992, and 2006 to 2009. In each of those cases, scientists could be found who would say: ‘If we act now, things will be okay’. By 2019, that had morphed into: ‘If we act now, and we are really lucky, then we may avoid the very nastiest of the impacts.’ Hope was in short supply.”

 

Best wishes

Old Fart

Book Proposal – “Anthropocenism, or the Ecological Logic of it’s-later-than-you-think Capitalism”

Went to a reading group. The article under discussion was Jason “Capitalism in the Web of Life” Moore’s 2014 article on the End of Cheap Nature..

It got a bit of a kicking from a couple of people (me, I thought it was okay).

The convenor of the group introduced the paper and pointed out that the LRB reviewer of Moore’s book had mentioned that Anthropocene had replaced “post-modernism” as the (my words) object of longing/trendy term to spray onto pre-existing research proposals for self-styled intellectuals (aka academics).

[The actual quote is – “What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”]

And it occurred to me that somebody (not me) should put together a spoof/pastiche with the title of this blog post. Substitute a big COP for the Bonaventure Hotel and the lost-ness it evokes and provokes. Substitute pictures of “nature” and Disneyfied nature for the Van Gogh/Warhol shoes,  and bish bosh, you’re there. Academic careers have probably been built on thinner mash-ups.

And as an added bonus you can justifiably cite that line about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

Is Capitalism unsustainable? The jury’s out-ish. Is ego-fodderfication unsustainable? Sadly not/hell yes.

I don’t know how much rethinking economics is actually going on (I have my suspicions, but no hard data). I do have a good idea of how much rethinking politics/academia/civilsocietying is going on, and it’s not much at all/zero. The latest piece of hard data came tonight, at the University of Manchester. The debate/discussion was on the hot topic of “is capitalism unsustainable?” (see here for a 1950s Edward Teller/Dr Strangelove throwback: physics Has All The Answers and Salvation We Need).

Around 110-120 (I counted) mostly white, mostly middle-aged/old people turned out on a Sunday night to…. well, I don’t know why they came: to hear from the great and the good, I suppose. Me, I mostly went for the anthropological lulz, and I got them.

Here are the predictions I made, and the scores I got. After that, I’ll do super brief capsule (bullet-points) of what I scribbled down (It wasn’t, as far as I can tell, filmed or audio recorded).

Prediction

How’d I do?

1

There will be no “turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself” at the outset

CORRECT

2

There will be no “turn to the person next to you to share thoughts” between speeches

CORRECT

3

There will be no time for “clarification” question after each speech

CORRECT

4

No one will actually try to define capitalism

CORRECT (they may have had a go in the last 20 minutes)

5

There will be no mention of “false needs” and the advertising industry

WRONG. Molly Scott-Cato had a portion of her speech on this (though she then drew I think too firm a line between Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays)

6

Gramsci won’t get a mention

CORRECT

7

No distinction will be made between capitalism and industrialism

CORRECT

8

No one on panel will make distinction between capitalism and democracy

CORRECT

9

It will be at least an hour before anyone from the audience is able to ask a question

CORRECT (closer to 75 minutes, I think).

Kevin Anderson went first, with the latest update of his “Paris vs Growth? Two degrees, maths and equity” powerpoint.

  • If the top ten percent of global emitters reduced their level to the average European, that would lop 30% of human emissions
  • Human emissions 65ish% percent higher than they were in 1990 (went up 1.5% last year, will go up again this year).
  • The “Climate Glitterati” stick in his craw, and he named names – Mark Carney, Adair Tuner, John Gummer, Nick Stern, Christina Figueres, Mike Bloomberg, Al Gore, Leonard Di Caprio. He also served it out to grey-haired academics who he said were running cover for them.

Robert Pollin, who has a recent article “De-growth vs a Green New Deal” in the NLR went next.

Sound quality was quite a problem, and there was no accompanying powerpoint (a visual prompt might have helped us decipher some of the random syllables?)

  • Mostly advocating a Green New Deal (because the 2008 one gained such traction?)
  • There’s a proposal on the Washington State ballot, which got there in the teeth of some trade union opposition.
  • Vested interests need to be fought and defeated (nowt in speech about the mechanics of how you do that, but I suspect this article and this article might have more on that).
  • Degrowth is a Bad Idea, won’t deliver the emissions reductions we need.

Giorgos Kallis (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Institute of Environmental Science & Technology)

Same sound/no powerpoint issues as before

  • At least tried to answer the question by asking two sub-questions is economic growth unsustainable? Does capitalism need growth? (if answer to both questions is yes, then, well, yes).
  • Took issue with Pollin’s tight focus on energy systems.
  • Thought that even if we could contract the economy it “would be a stupid idea”

Molly Scott Cato (Green MEP)

Talked about sustainable finance initiative

  • kind of (as you’d expect) talked around the question, quite “well, what do you mean by capitalism?
  • Actually talked about advertising and the creation of false needs, and vested interests in, for example the “Pheobus” (sic) cartel. (light bulb manufacturers who kept bulbs life short to keep punters having to buy them).
  • Talked about interest (but not ‘fractional reserve banking”) and the discount rate.
  • Also bigged up Extinction Rebellion – hmmmmm

Then the chair (Maeve Cohen of Rethinking Economics) had a whole set of questions and panellists responding to each other (something, surely, that the audience was present and equipped to do??) Fun only for the sniping.

Finally three questions from the aduience got asked – what about a truce in the green growth/degrowth wars and agreement on caps? – why haven’t we got through to the climate deniers and those who vote for them? And ‘how bad will the next recession be’.

Those (good) questions got relatively brief answers and then the panellists basically started talking to each other again. And I left. Life really is too short, what with pretty damn imminent societal breakdown. I’d rather be under one or both of the bloody cats….

Highlights

  • Professors Kevin Anderson and Professor Robert Pollin lobbing increasingly flashy and bangy skype-grenades at one another.
  • A couple of Polyp cartoons

Lowlights

  • The total lack of clarity in terms of defining what the hell “we” (i.e. they) are talking about.
  • Surely someone of them thinks that capitalism isn’t just a set of organisations but, you know, a social relation?
  • The lack of a sense that we have been having this debate, on ecological terms, for just on 50 years.
  • The chair abusing (in my opinion, maybe not others’) the chair’s position to ask multiple questions, which then bounced back and fourth among the panellists
  • The egofodderfication of it all

What the hell do I mean by egofodderfication? Read on if you wanna know.

Egofodder is what I call the audience at any public event (big or small) which has not been structured by the organisers to provoke the highest possible amount of participation, engagement and mingling.

Here’s an old video.

Is egofodderfication unsustainable? “Sadly No”

The social norm is that you turn up to a meeting and are talked at for at least 45 minutes (if you’re lucky). Then the sharp-elbowed might get to ask a question. Then you file out.

And people keep coming back for that. There’s a hardcore of the same old faces (I used to be one of them) who would go to the opening of an envelope, to keep the gnawing sense of despair and powerlessness at bay. And there is, flowing over these stones, a river of people seen once or twice, who never can see a way ‘in’ for themselves, their concerns, and realise that they’d be better off reading a book/watching at TED talk, for all of the actual human interaction they would get at one of these wretched events, where they are talked at by experts.  But there are always enough ‘new people’ scared shitless by the news and the obvious total incompetence of our “leaders” (not just international and national, I’m looking at YOU, GMCA and MCC) in even having the tiniest idea what to do.  So in that sense, organisers of activist meetings, public events, academic seminars etc will never lack for warm bodies to be their ego fodder, coming from the usual suspects and the not-yet-churned through.

Is egofodderfication unsustainable? Hell yes

We (most of us) think that a civil society upsurge, an unprecedented social movement of diverse groups is required. And yet we tolerate the same old broken tools, thinking they will work this time, because we are too scared to piss off “busy” event organisers.  But what it does is wastes the time and potential connection of usual suspects and ALSO offers a granite wall of alienation for ‘newbies’ to scale. Some do, mostly they don’t. Mostly they go away, and are ‘lost’ to ‘activism’ (of whatever stripe).

Since someone on the panel launched a thought experiment, I thought I’d have one here too.

  • What if there was a social norm that every meeting (whether it was activist, local authority, academic, whatevs) started with a call for people to introduce themselves, very briefly, to someone they don’t know (but always have a system where people can hold up their hand or whatever to opt out!)
  • What if there was a social norm that wherever it was possible (i.e. multiple speakers) there would be a chance for people to compare notes between speakers, and ask questions of CLARIFICATION.
  • What if there was a social norm that before the Q and A (which was never more than 45 minutes from the beginning of the event) people had a chance to turn to a friend/stranger and get help making a long question into a short one, or a half question into a whole one, and then the chair could choose from more hands than the stale male hands that inevitably go up.
  • What if speakers were expected to spend a quarter of their time explaining concrete things that could be done, and how people in the room could take concrete steps towards that?
  • What if speakers were expected also to address the question “what have ‘we’ (academics/activists/politicians) been doing wrong/badly in the past?” and explain how they were doing better in the future (i.e. from right fricking now.).
  • What if speakers via skye were asked to record their initial talks, and have a powerpoint alongside, sent to the organisers in advance; and then come in “live” purely for the Q and A (though obvs have been “lurking” to hear the other speakers’ comments).
  • What if there was a social norm that events would be filmed and blogged so people who couldn’t make it could still feel a part of it, rather than apart from it?

Maybe then, the networks of people who care (and if you came out on a dark Sunday night, you care) would grow thicker, people would randomly encounter people and we’d all be better connected, less atomised, less isolated. Who knows, you might even be able to grow some movements with the help of those networks. I know, I know, crazy talk.