Article 8 of 20 – “Policy mixes for incumbency: the destructive recreation of renewable energy, shale gas ‘fracking,’ and nuclear power in the United Kingdom”

So, I read this one when it came out, loved it, [and did an interview with the lead author] and know I will get more from it second time around…

Johnstone, Philip, Stirling, Andrew and Sovacool, Benjamin (2017) Policy mixes for incumbency: the destructive recreation of renewable energy, shale gas ‘fracking,’ and nuclear power in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science, 33. pp. 147-162. ISSN 2214-6296

For me, the most useful bit, second time round, was this – about types of incumbency strategy-

And, this quote which goes with the illustration –

Although it may be unique to the UK case, it is possible to identify some consistent patterns in the kinds of strategies utilised by incumbency in order to promote prior commitments shale gas fracking and nuclear power. Interestingly, while the net result is the same—an apparatus that constrains renewables but seeks to expand shale gas and nuclear power—there are meaningful variations within the incumbent policy mixes. We use the notions of ‘securitization’, ‘masking’, ‘reinvention’, and ‘capture’ to describe these strategies—the underlying dynamics or mechanisms that help cement incumbency (Fig. 2).

(Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Generally, this was hugely exciting and insightful (and inciteful) but I do worry that the methodological challenges of studying what Cobbett would have called “The Thing” are, well, humungous…. Yes to holistic thinking, but also yes to clarity and answerable questions. This ain’t gonna be easy…

Excerpts

Described by the Government as the “resetting” of UK energy policy (Rudd quoted in [20]), this critical juncture was ushered in by a cluster of decisions taken at the end of 2015, reorienting five years of important policy developments related in these areas into a “new direction for UK energy policy” [21]. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

20- R. Mason, UK to Close All Coal Power Plants in Switch to Gas and Nuclear, The Guardian Online, 2015 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/18/energy-policy-shift-climate-change-amber-ruddbackburner.

[21] DECC, New Direction for UK Energy Policy, Department for Energy and Climate Change webpages, 2016 Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ new-direction-for-uk-energy-policy (accessed 16 March 2016).

Yet, the often-elusive figure of the ‘policymaker’ is implicitly portrayed in policy mixes literatures as if a neutral decision maker with a privileged lofty vantage point over a range of possible policies, whose position is disinterested and whose choice among contending policy actions (including destabilisation strategies) depends only on the qualities of evidence in each respect. It typically remains the case that whether a policymaker considers a certain instrument or technology to be legitimate, is in part also conditioned by institutional logics, vested interests, power relations and broader politics around the policy maker themselves. The degree to which pursuit of sustainability transitions is characterised by creative or destructive policies (and the composition of associated policy mixes), are therefore subject to politics and power dynamics acting around the policy maker in terms of lobbying activities, as well as ‘below’ them in terms of broader societal pressures. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Building on Unruh’s illumination of processes of ‘carbon lock in’ [49] acknowledgements became more common that “powerful incumbent actors may try and supress innovations through market control or lobbying” ([50]: 911). Yet analysis has tended not to proceed further in examining such processes in detail − retaining a focus firmly at the niche level in approaches like strategic niche management [51] and transition management [52]. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Large incumbent firms typically lobby to resist sustainability transitions [57,58,14]. For instance, particular attention has been given to lobbying activities by established German utilities (including RWE and E.ON) to slow the pace of the Energiewende [59,37]. There has been an emphasis on ‘non market’ strategies on the part of incumbents in response to influence political decision making against the renewables ‘challenge’ [60]. The potential for incumbents to change their business narratives to incorporate societal ‘niche’ narratives around ‘sufficiency’ as a survival strategy has been researched [61], as well as detailed analysis of strategies of incumbent car manufacturers to resist sustainability transitions both in political actions and efforts to prevent radical innovations [28].

Here, incumbency can be defined in general (eg: unscaled) terms as “a ‘multiplexity’ of dynamics through which a particular trajectory in interacting social, economic, cultural, political, discursive, cognitive, technological and wider material phenomena, is reproduced by − and reinforcing of − associated power gradients” [85] In this light, it is an assumption in many versions of − and perspectives on − sociotechnical regime theory, that the configuring of these trajectories in the outside world will conveniently map on to the categories that are most favoured in a particular research agenda − for instance to effect a specific kind of ‘sustainability transition’ [49,50,86–92,41]. Such assumptions are expedient for purposes of building disciplines or appropriating ‘impact stories’ in the ‘real world’ of policy [84], but they may not be such good descriptions of the ‘real real world’ of technology politics itself (truth to power). (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

One further practical consequence of these indeterminacies is that salient research categories cannot be neatly segmented and conveniently scaled into discrete levels, each stratified contiguously side by side. Instead, they may cross-connect, interpenetrate and form recursive “cycles of subsumption” [96] of kinds that defy any easy representation [97,98]. After all, multiplicities of complex entanglements in elite cultures and patronage networks can span and link all these notional horizontal and vertical divisions in ‘rhizomic’ ways [99,97,100], that may render ostensibly neatly-separable scales, levels and sectors little more than stories [262,274,263] (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

London Mayor, Boris Johnson, wrote an important article in 2012, where after describing wind farms as “satanic mills”, went on to claim that “by offering the hope of cheap electricity, fracking would make Britain once again competitive in sectors of industry” [136]. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

B. Johnson, Ignore the Doom Merchants, Britain Should Get Fracking, The Daily Telegraph, 2012 Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/borisjohnson/9733518/Ignore-the-doom-merchants-Britain-should-get-fracking.html.

Also worthy of note during this period are various ‘non-executive’ appointments and advisory positions of individuals that seemed to have ties to the fracking industry. This included the chairman of Caudrilla Resources, Lord Browne becoming a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office − a brief which allowed him to influence senior appointments in the Treasury, DECC, and Defra [148]. An ex-partner in the venture capital firm Riverstone, (which gave significant financial backing to the UK’s lead fracking firm Caudrilla), Ben Moxham became David Cameron’s energy advisor from 2012 to 2013 [148]. After Moxham stepped down, this position was filled by Tara Singh, a former lobbyist for fracking investor, Centrica [149]. Likewise the prominent fracking advocate John Loughhead [150], was appointed as Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC [151] (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

As governmental prioritisation around nuclear skills intensified and enthusiasm for SMRs emerged, an important FOI request highlighted that two employees of Rolls Royce worked in DECC on secondment during this crucial time. First, employed between February 2013 and April 2014 was a Rolls Royce employee with a specific focus on “nuclear supply chain and skills” ([182]: 4), and between May 2014 and May 2015 another Rolls Royce employee was seconded to DECC in with the brief of “nuclear development” (p.6). This involvement of Rolls Royce at the centre of decision making on nuclear that coincides with a sudden enthusiasm for Small Modular Reactor design from Government is at least worthy of further attention. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Taken together, the three distinct policy mixes described above—for renewables and energy efficiency, shale gas fracking, and nuclear power—result in a policy apparatus for incumbency. By apparatus, we mean a collection or integration of disparate policy mixes into an overall environment that restricts what incumbent interests hold to be undesirable change. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Although it may be unique to the UK case, it is possible to identify some consistent patterns in the kinds of strategies utilised by incumbency in order to promote prior commitments shale gas fracking and nuclear power. Interestingly, while the net result is the same—an apparatus that constrains renewables but seeks to expand shale gas and nuclear power—there are meaningful variations within the incumbent policy mixes. We use the notions of ‘securitization’, ‘masking’, ‘reinvention’, and ‘capture’ to describe these strategies—the underlying dynamics or mechanisms that help cement incumbency (Fig. 2). (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

This combined with the high level rhetoric and media promotion pursued by leading members of the government, allude to notions that distinctions between government representing the public interest and private companies externally attempting to influence this public body are blurred – an increasing phenomenon that has been written about elsewhere [246]. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

[246] D. Beetham, Moving beyond a narrow definition of corruption, in: D. Whyte (Ed.), How Corrupt Is Britain? University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015, pp. 41–46.

The main point is that incumbency may be expected to be a bigger phenomenon than can be addressed in terms of ‘policy’ alone. If research is not itself to become (if unintentionally or unwittingly) an expedient instrument of justification and legitimation, then incumbency must be addressed as being not just about ‘policy’, but irreducibly also about politics in the broadest and deepest of senses [277,288,289].

As we noted, governance research tends to be preoccupied with apparently neat partitionings of ostensibly self-evident categories of ‘regime’, ‘level’, ‘niche’, ‘system’ or ‘function’ − of kinds that are arguably better recognised as expansive mutually-entangled configurations of relations and processes extending across an entire polity. Nowhere is this general point more acute than when the focus of attention is on incumbency itself. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

At root, then, incumbency of all kinds may be seen (in the general sense defined in the present paper), to be about concentration of power. And if power is understood relationally and processually (and in all its multifarious dimensions and contexts) as ‘asymmetrically structuring agency’ [84], then it can readily be observed that these concentrations take place not just around set-piece categories like ‘the regime’ and ‘the niche’, but in fractal rhizomic patterns at every scale of political analysis or social action [97]. To order analysis with ostensibly neat ‘levels’ or ‘phases’ may allow felicitous academic stories and provide instrumental political resources. But this risks subordinating the messy realities of power to the simpler expediencies of justification. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Comprehending the different ways through which patterns of incumbency around particular technologies are reproduced, helps reveal some of the less considered actors, locations, and motivations of particular networks of incumbency which appear to transcend various categorisations of particular sectors or policy domains as well as the conventional dividing lines between “industry” and ‘policymakers’. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

In this light, it seems that the countering of regime resistance may require interventions that go far beyond the domesticated policy repertoires of sustainability transitions studies or policy mix theory – to implicate the main political institutions, cultures and arenas of contemporary polities. Rhizomically penetrating in unscaled ways through the matrix of governance processes as a whole, the daunting political loads entailed in disembedding of entrenched sociotechnical incumbencies evidently require equally profoundly grounded cultural pivots and institutional levers. At a time when this is arguably under its greatest threat for many decades, what seems to be indispensable (but sadly neglected in much theorising) is the full engagement of democracy itself. (Johnstone et al. 2017:xx)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: