Which Deus? From which machina? Or ‘Can “the state” save us? From what? Under what circumstances?’ #climate #transitions #sustainability

Marc Hudson reflects on two academic events, and wonders if the right questions are being asked, or if “we” are pootling along happily in our comfort zones, slouching towards tenure (well, he’s not) and apocalypse (well, all of us are).

Over the last 24 hours I’ve “been” to three online seminars. The one in the middle, by Ro Randall, I’ve already blogged about. It was a brilliant example of how online norms can be stretched and space made for more interaction, more connection. The first event was a keynote, for the Sussex Energy Group. The third was a seminar for new (I wouldn’t say “young”, because, you know, I was there) scholars of what gets called sustainability transitions (or, as we should perhaps dub it, “unicorn studies”.)

I live-tweeted both the keynote and the seminar, because a) I can b) I want to get better at this, so I can teach some tricks to other people and we can all hold Manchester City Council’s feet to the fire every time they hold a meeting c) it’s a useful resource for yerself and other people – “bookmarking by tweet” and d) signalling to old friends and new ones that despite being unemployed, I still exist (“will think/snark for food”).

The comments below are not a recap of the events (both of which will be online soon). They are more about me trying to nut some stuff out, expand on misgivings I had that don’t fit into 260 characters, or the time constraints of live-tweeting. There was nothing WRONG with either event, and a hell of a lot right: They both involved seriously smart people talking about serious research that is rigorous, interesting, helpful and yet, and yet…

First the keynote.

Laura Diaz Anadon, who is Professor of Climate Change Policy & Director @CEENRG, University of Cambridge, whipped through lots of interesting research (much of what she presented was literature reviews – and crunching the numbers on individual case studies) about the impacts (economic, environmental) of so-called “Green Industrial Policy.” A good take-away, that can’t be said enough was – well, here’s my tweet.

At the outset she pointed to the fact that for all our fine words, we are on trajectory for 3 degrees of warming or more (something Derk Loorbach also said today – as in “Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.” She made the point that action is needed across governments, finance, civil society and individuals but that her focus, in the talk, would be on government action.

Inevitably we have to “silo” our thinking, and we have to come up with labels that give a concreteness to organisations/bodies. But this can give them a misplaced concreteness and permanence. And I think this is especially a danger when we use words like “government” or even “state”. And we should always have a little asterisk there, that says these are sets of social relations (and economic,cultural etc) with histories, trajectories, and that when you open up the black box you find cats in a sack, fighting, hissing and clawing (the metaphor kinda got away from me there, but I hope you get the point). State power is conditional, relative, contingent (says the man whose never yet been on the receiving end of tear gas). And when we speak of states, we have to remember that they are battlegrounds between incumbent actors, new elites etc. So my imprecation is for thinking in terms of “imbrication,” I guess. [Note to self – I probably need to go read some more Poulantzas, Jessop, Miliband, that crowd. Also Pateman, Mills. Who else? Help me out here….]

My question got asked, which is always good for the ego –

and the reply was good

The final question, about de-growth, was the one where many will say that Prof Anadon (who, to be fair, had been talking by this stage, and engaging flat out with thorny questions, for 90 minutes ,and had three children hovering in the background) fumbled the ball a bit.

So, it seems to me that Green Industrial Policy might – if everything worked better than it ever has before (and why would it?) – buy us some time. But for what? And which “us” anyway? I can think of a few (billion) people and species who might be underwhelmed at an intensification of extractivism to keep the show on the road with lithium batteries. [He types, on a laptop….]

The webinar was with Derk Loorbach was part of this well-organised series


Prof Loorbach has been “doing” the transition stuff for a looong time, and well knows the dangers of state/incumbent capture of what is supposed to be a transformative process (transforming what for who, eh?)

This was a “beginner’s guide/introduction” but rich in insights and intriguing sidebars, rabbit holes worth going down.

In terms of usefulness for social movements (see below), this was the pick of the bunch for me

The trick – or part of it – is being able to combine this sort of neo-institutional take (I’m thinking Scott and his pillars) with the psychotherapeutic insights or Randall, at the level of functioning groups…. That’s my homework/lifework I guess.

Loorbach also answered loads of questions – on this occasion mine didn’t make the cut. He kindly answered them in an email exchange afterwards, and gave me permission to reprint here –

Under what circumstances do these niche networks get co-opted into propping up “the regime”, and under which are they able to continue to act as disruptors and what I call “transruptors”?

 My phd Antonia Proka will present her phd ‘Organising for power change’ on this in a few weeks. Her take: it is about how transformative innovation interacts with the regime. This can happen in different dimensions (technology, discourse, rules, …) and in each there is a spectrum from conflict to consensus. There is no general advice, but mostly in early stages conflict based interaction can work to destabilize and later on consensus based interaction can help transform. But the core is being true to the radical core and having the basic principles (for your own sustainability transition) very clear and anchored. So in early stages: challenging the regime, counter narratives and empowering new discourse. In later stages: inviting in and helping transformative regime actors to join, learn and support. the work of Adrian Smith and Bonno Pel is also interesting in this regard talking on trojan horse strategies. I like the transruptors, but haven’t seen much evidence of social innovation transrutors. And even with technological disruption it often seems that it was coming for a long time and in the end it only becomes bit through alliances with transformative regime (like tesla btw)

Do we have any good examples of bottom up niche driven change that hasn’t led to “greener” forms of extractivism and anti-sustainability?

Cycling movement, regenerative farming, positive health, working at home, plant based diets, energy coops, local currencies, second hand shops, local sharing platforms, cooperative mobility schemes, … Obviously also with their challenges but also with huge potential. Problem often being that others fill up the space these initiatives create. And they are about non consumption, which is hard to measure… which is then why we emphasize phase out and transforming the system over focus on innovation and this point.

Of all the screengrabs I took of his slides and tweeted, this one is getting the most uptake (small dataset). Perhaps speaks to people’s frustration with the Ivory Tower, if you get my drift.


Is it all academic?

Of course there are lots of ‘right’ questions that should be asked, that “we” urgently need answers to. My intro to this blog post was using a strawman as a teaser. Different people are interested in different questions. And there is a path dependency here as well, of course- you start looking at the world through one set of lenses, start sharing observations with other people who use the same lenses, develop a language and before you know it, not only can you not talk to other people using other lenses, but you can’t even see what they’re seeing (blah blah social constructivism blah blah cognitive self-capture blah blah traps of our own devising).

But there are of course further questions, about methods we use and audiences we are writing for – who we are expecting will use the concepts we generate/refine. I overuse it, sure, but I keep coming back to a quote by Susan George, which I no longer fully agree with.

Study the rich and powerful, not the poor and powerless. Any good work done on peasants’ organisations, small farmer resistance to oppression, or workers in agribusiness can invariably be used against them. One of France’s best anthropologists found his work on Indochina being avidly read by the Green Berets. The situation becomes morally and politically even worse when researchers have the confidence of their subjects. The latter then tell them things the outside world should not learn, but eventually does. Don’t aid and abet this kind of research. Meanwhile, not nearly enough work is being done on those who hold the power and pull the strings. As their tactics become more subtle and their public pronouncements more guarded, the need for better spade-work becomes crucial. If you live in an advanced country, you undoubtedly have the social and cultural equipment to meet these people on their own terms and to get information out of them. Let the poor study themselves. They already know what is wrong with their lives and if you truly want to help them, the best you can do is to give them a clearer idea of how their oppressors are working now and can be expected to work in the future.

Susan George (1976) How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger, p. 289

To me, for now, the key questions (or the ones I am excited by – there is a distinction) are

  • Under what circumstances do groups of citizens form social movement/civil society organisations which are doing more than offering them emotional solace/busy work/career trajectories?
  • Under what circumstances/with what tools/characteristics do citizens reflect, learn and then routinise/institutionalise their learning?
  • What do incumbents (states, businesses, big NGOs, media, reactionary/anti-reflexivity, bad faith actors) do to try to capture/co-opt/crush these organisations? What are their active measures? What counter-measures do citizen organizations have at their disposal?
  • What skills, knowledge, resources, relationships matter? When? How to get them? Share them?

Of course, none of this adds up to The Answer. You could answer all those in an hour and I’d still write a snippy blog post.

Finally, this: without a radical democratisation of the state (1), then the things “we” agree that “we” need for the unicorn we call the “sustainability transition” – namely an accelerated phaseout/destabilisation/delegitimation/disappearing of the fossil-intensive industries, and a concomitant surge in low/zero carbon institutions (in the broadest sense of the word) – well, “we” can’t get “there”, as far as I can see?

A good time not to breed, I guess. Pity about all those other species and future generations, but what can you do? I mean, what can you do?


(1) Imbricate! – and I can also see thousands of dead anarchists shaking their heads dolefully at my crushing naivete/liberalism)

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