Category Archives: academia

Event report: PIECES of advice about (energy) policy engagement #EnergyPIECES

On Monday 10th December about 60 PhD students and ECRs (early career researchers) gathered in Cambridge for an interesting event, with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title “Engaging with energy policy: a masterclass for Social Sciences & Humanities PhD and early-career researchers.

Hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy (Cambridge University) and the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, this was an event of two halves.  In the first we heard sat in a tiered lecture theatre hearing from various people with perspectives and advice that could/would be useful to a career in energy policy engagement (aka green confucianism). In the second we got to pick each others’ brains, primarily for the benefit of some people who will be doing secondments with outfits such as the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Energy Saving Trust and Practical Action.

Chris Foulds of the GSI and Robert Doubleday of CSaP opened with a defence of the importance of the Social Sciences and Humanities in offering broader perspectives on energy policy and the rationale of the “PIECES” project (I do sometimes wonder if there could be an annual prize for the best retronym). This was followed by Neil Simcock of Liverpool John Moores talking about the Energy Geographies Research Group and, well, energy geographies and Kate Jones, speaking on Vitae, which has developed several handy tools for personal and career development.

In the Q and A the good point was made that focus on an individual (female researcher’s) ‘resilience and need to be ‘more assertive’ can simply be compensatory for bad systems (nobody, though, dropped the P b-bomb – Patriarchy).

After a refreshments break, a panel discussion on “what makes the Social Sciences & Humanities unique when engaging with energy policy(makers)?”  There were four panellists

  • Alena Fielding, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
  • Liz Hooper, Practical Action
  • Amber Sharick, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC)
  • Tom Hargreaves, Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group, UEA

Since it was never made clear if the meeting was happening under the Chatham House Rule, I’ll not ascribe any specific advice to any individual.

  • Think of the three Rs –  Rigour – (sine qua non); Relevance – timing, and luck, Opportunities may pass and not come back; Relationships
  • Be aware that there are specific individuals – who will be very busy and have their own mental frames of reference – who you need to convince
  • Engineers do clever things that don’t resonate with policymakers…(question of politics priorities/personalities, resource constraints/time constraints, context/consensus)
  • Be clear, structured, let go of being pure.
  • Don’t take people who support you (more senior, less senior) for granted.
  • There was a reference to work around four key questions; where are we going with energy transition?, who wins loses and how?, is this desirable?,  what should be done?  STEM avoids asking these questions, ESS doesn’t
  • Policy space has existing momentum
  • SSH provides answers/evidence that don’t fit with existing assumptions/patterns etc
  • As an academic you may produce things that policymakers actively don’t want to engage with
  • Engaging with policymakers can be very disruptive of work patterns, and throw a lot of stress into a group, as other people end up picking up slack at short notice while you go off to (interminable and short-notice) meetings.
  • Stand up for the value of SSH
  • Don’t bow to pressure to simplify or reduce complexity to realise short term impact
  • Don’t focus only on policy decisions, but look across and  engage across multiple actors in the energy system
  • Don’t just focus on decision-moments, seek longer-term learning
  • Consider using “Trojan Horses” – approaches which get you into closed cultures and then stimulate reflection
  • Provide constructive alternatives
  • Don’t just sling mud and criticise – provide additive alternatives
  • Be diverse
  • Engage multiple audiences, play multiple roles, experiment with different techniques
  • Don’t just shout louder, but also know when to dig your heels in and kick off
  • Get experience on the ground
  • Work in partnership
  • Enhance your skillset (e.g. excel, GIS): Think about the things you can’t get away with not knowing.

The afternoon was given over to small group work about policy engagement (who, how, when, why etc) and brainstorming for the upcoming internships. I blathered about sustainability socio-technical transitions, the multilevel perspective and a few other things. This was apparently useful.

So, a good day – exposed to some new ideas, met some new people…. Finally,  thanks to the organisers for the travel bursary and the enough-detail-but-not-too-much emails beforehand


Ehre heads. On the (f)utility of theory

Short post but hopefully not a shitpost.

Went to a thing recently.  There was a good ‘sweeping overview’ history of the twentieth century around Keynesianism/neoliberalism (though it undersold the importance of ICT and containerisation for my taste).

Halfway through I scrawled to a colleague “Five quid says he says nothing/has nothing to say about ‘what is to be done?’. ” I later added ‘hundred’ and then ‘thousand’ between the five and the quid.

Safe bets.

Yes, Paris is dead/worthless. Apparently small nations might be able to do something by appealing to local ‘patriotism’  and ‘honour’  (in German, that’s Ehre) around carbon emissions reductions.

(They haven’t, and, um, free-rider, but never mind).

My actual question would be – How can you give a forty five minute lecture about the future – and specifically ‘the breakdown of systems’ – without mentioning environmental degradation and pressures even once?  Why is that a good and productive thing to sit through.

Answers on a postcard to the usual place

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). ”

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

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).


How’d I do?


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



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



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



No one will actually try to define capitalism

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


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)


Gramsci won’t get a mention



No distinction will be made between capitalism and industrialism



No one on panel will make distinction between capitalism and democracy



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….


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


  • 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.

Brilliant students in and out of a goldfish bowl….

Last semester, I had the good fortune to be the Teaching Assistant on fascinating third year/Masters course called Wildlife in the Age of Humans. Taught by Dr Aurora Fredriksen and Prof Noel Castree, it’s a thorough exploration of issues of conservation (of what, by who, for what?), (de)-extinction and so much more. This semester, same fortune. It is slightly easier, since I’m more familiar with the material, and I have bigger seminar groups (that said, small groups can work well, but you have to work harder!).

This blog is an account of what we did this afternoon, in two seminars on the same material. I include no individual student’s names or things-that-would-identify, obvs and the only criticisms I’d make are of my own thinking through (esp of the first seminar).

In the lecture on Tuesday Aurora had laid out the meaning(s) of extinction. The seminar task (which as far as I could tell everyone had done) was to watch a TEDtalk by Stewart ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ Brand on  The dawn of de-extinction: are you ready?and then read a critique article of that TED talk, van Dooren and Rose (2013) “Keeping faith with death: mourning and deextinction

The specific seminar task was to come to seminars ready to debate de-extinction:
– Is it a good idea? Why or why not?- What might this debate tell us about wider debates around the extinction crisis?

So, I started both seminars sharp (trying to instil “turning up on time”) with a cartoon, having made sure that everyone was okay with the f-bomb.  The previous week I’d had them read out – one sentence each – this fantastic quote from an eco-thriller by the late Julian Rathbone.

“Wrong. Nature in the Middle Ages was a hierarchy, a chain of being, a pyramid from the many at the base to the One at the top. A description that mirrored the society that described it. For the first industrialists and the Age of Reason it was a machine, an engine, a thing of many distinct parts held together by checks and balances like the American Constitution, and expected to work like a clock or a factory. For Charles Darwin Junior, for AFI, Nature is a state of war, of endless ruthless competition between the strong, and repression and exploitation of the weak by the strong. But what is she really? An endlessly, incomprehensibly complex web of interactions, of dependencies in which the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, and where no parts are intrinsically more important than any of the others. Is that really what she is? Or is that Nature the way a socialist society might want to see her? Deep thoughts, and, of course, because of them, I lost the way…”

page 290 of Zdt by Julian Rathbone

And the cartoon that says the same, only with swearing, is here(and don’t forget to click on the red button!)

The first group didn’t get to see this TED talk parody, the second group did, cause I accidentally solved the speaker volume problem. On reflection, it probably wasn’t worth four minutes of the latter group’s time #seemedlikeagoodideaabeforehand.

Everyone was then asked to place themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, with ‘5’ not allowed, where 1 was “what are you waiting for? Go for it, I bagsy a pet Dodo” and 10 was “you insane technocratic monsters belong in a cage.” I asked for people to shout out where they were up to.

Then, in the first group, I made my ‘big mistake’. I launched straight into the goldfish bowl’ exercise where I put three chairs inthe iddle of the circle, facing each other, and invited three students to come and start hashing out their viewpoints. There were some volunteers, eventually, and a very high quality discussion ensued, but you could see that there was also a fair amount of nerves in those watching. At one point I had to enter the goldfish bowl as a participant. I then ‘froze’ the bowl, and had people work in pairs, one putting forward their view and the other playing ‘devil’s advocate’ and opposing it. Then we went back to the goldfish bowl, and it worked well enough, but we ended it and then had a general discussion about what people had learned so far on the course, what folks had found interesting, things they’d read that they would recommend or wanted to read (one tip – ‘DDecolonising Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation.’
I threw in a couple – Exterminate all the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, and a quick disquisition on ‘the Great Chain of Being’.

What I learnt from that first seminar – and changed for the second seminar – was to have that pair work at the very outset, to give people a chance to test out some ideas, hear themselves talking etc.

The first seminar had 14 or 15 students, the second seminar 24 or 25. The same gender mix (approx 50:50, and as far as you can tell the same mix of extroverts/introverts etc. So, it may simply be that because the second group was bigger, there was less trouble keeping the three chairs ‘filled, but I like to believe (and will base future goldfish bowls on the assumption) that the pairwise warm-up exercise made it easier for people to sit in the hot seats (though checking out the body language, and hearing people afterwards, those who were watching were doing so very actively, even intently, and said they got a lot out of it.)

Calling a halt to the goldfish bowl, I then asked folks if anyone had shifted their position in light of the debates – there were a couple of people in either direction, who I asked to say what arguments had swayed them.

Given that we’d been talking about de-extinction, and the film ‘Jurassic Park’ had come up on several occasions, it was necessary to finish the both seminars with the riddle – ‘what kind of dinosaur would you play hide and seek with?’ In both seminars the answer was shouted out –

A “do you think he saw us”?





PS I’d also be super-clear on the ‘rules’ of the goldfish bowl – that you can’t speak unless you’re in it, that you CAN re-enter it, and that the other people in it are the ones who matter most.

PPS Seriously smart students.

Event: “The Resilience of Unsustainability: Cultural Backlash, Authoritarian Reflex and the Great Regression” #TransitionImpossible

After last night’s keynote, tonight it was the turn of Professor Ingolfur Blühdorn, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, WU Vienna to deliver a talk. His title was “The Resilience of Unsustainability: Cultural Backlash, Authoritarian Reflex and the Great Regression,” which is academic-speak for “Dudes, lemme say, we’re, like, totes fubarred”

This blog post gives an account of what he said, what the panel, made up of

said, and then a precis of the questions and answers that followed. There’s even a bonus snarky summation from me. I aim to make the whole blog post somewhat shorter than last one (#oldpeople #decreasingstamina), but again, [my snark is in square brackets and red…]

Speech, speech!

Bluhdorn was introduced by the chair Margaret Haderer, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, WU Vienna, who pointed to his prolific output (the word ‘frantic’ was in there…)

If you really want the low-down, defo watch this totally amazing, professionally made video – post-ecological thinking

[So, I’m going to bullet point lots of the speech]

The talk is part of an international research workshop – key question is whether societal transition – at which a declatory level is accepted – might be impossible to achieve, and if so why? What kinds of transformations are going on instead?

Three issues for tonight

  1. Change in social value preferences, shift in political culture we are witnessing in contemporary consumer societies
  2.  Rise of right wing movements and parties, which are conducting a head on attack on eco-agendas
  3. Thirdly, talk about Robert Inglehart, the founding father of academic study of values. His 1977 book The Silent Revolution says our societies should be becoming evermore eco and socially progressive. Has a new book saying this (Cultural Evolution).

So, the speech is a response to Backstrand’s speech which was on the supply-side, of what (Swedish) state can provide, while this is looking at demand side- what citizens want..


  • modernisation/emancipation-induced change in social value preferences helps to explain the resilience of unsustainability
  • Rise of right-wing populism is NOT a “reversal” of the emancipatory agency, but its dialectically transformed and politically outsourced continuation.
  • The change in political culture in the wake of the populist revolution is part of modern consumer societies’ adaptation to sustained unsustainability.

Resilience has become popular in parts of the eco-political literature. Normally has positive connotations. Not often used alongside unsustainability… Donna Nelson et al 2007 –‘the amount of change a system can undergo and still retain the same function and structure while maintaining options to develop.’

still retain the same function and structure’ is an interesting phrase, which shows a shift in perspective. Modern socieities adamantly defending their unsustainability [Bush Snr declaring at Rio that the American way of life was non-negotiable]

Social Values and Political |Culture

Shift in values and culture in liberal consumer democracies are centrally important to this resilience. (Of course, there are drawbacks to this way of looking at things). But, useful. Prevailing norm specification and legitimation are crucially importance for the resilience, inertia…. [Did I mention my PhD thesis is called Enacted Inertia?]

Robert Inglehart work is well known and much debated, The Silent Revolution introduced “material to post-material values, and  “security to self-expression”. In most recent work, though, the “post-material values”  argument does not play major role, but democratic values and self-expression are still there (see pages 114 and 124)

  • Self expression values emerge when a large share of the population grows up taking survival for granted (124)
  • Since democratic institutions provide greater free choice than authoritarian institutions, people with self-expression values generally want democracy (121)
  • Cognitive self-mobilisation makes [middle class people]more skilled at organising in order to get them (119)

Inglehart reassures us democracy has not reached its high-water mark, there is  no long-term retreat, ad no need to panic. A curious story. Post-materialist/eco-values no longer prominent We might be tempted to dismiss Inglehart’s argument wholesale and call it academic path dependency. But that would be throwing out baby with bathwater…. There are strengths in Inglehart’s analysis

  • significant parts of society are rebelling against the iron cage of consumerism
  • emphasis on the individual, its subjectivity, its identity and its value preferences
  • particular focus on well-educated middle class as pioneer of change (the cultural creators).
  • Theory of modernisation—induced value and culture change and rise of self-determination and self-expression values are being articulated ever more vociferously
  • ever increasing demand for choice IS a driver of societal change.

And also ‘end of democracy thesis’ is indeed mistaken: Inglehart can give us good guidance there. However, there are also weaknesses.

  • Firstly, he does not explore what kind of self, and how prevalent understandings of this Self may change. These are changing/have changed
  • Secondly no attempt to spell out what the notions of freedom and autonomy may imply and how prevalent notions of freedom and autonomy may change, or may have changed.
  • Thirdly, no differentiation between different forms of democracy. Occasionally very simplistic.

If we iron out the weaknesses in his views, we will get closer to understanding/explaining resilience of unsustainability.

As regards the understanding of ‘the self’ there is a rich body of literature. In the well-educated middle classes where Inglehart identifies the Silent Revolution) they are ever less predetermined, and ever more a project the individual can/must pursue. This self, this identity is ever less unitary, homogeneous. In reality, it’s more dynamic, fractured…

[See also Gergen, 1991 The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life . And for that matter Erich fricking Fromm]

Ever more this self-actualisation project is done via the consumer market.

If all this is the case, the rise of expression values can be seen as the rise of ‘the unsustainable self’ [need to consume at a frantic rate]  With ever-increasing pressure to mobilise all resources for realisation of the Self Project, and choices in the consumer market ever more important, and the expansion of lifeworlds, lifestyles, arenas of self-experience, ever more planned obsolescence in self-experience, unsustainabilty is no longer an unintended and potentially amendable side effect, but a constitutive principle of modern identity, lifestyles and society. [as the young people used to say, ‘it’s not a bug, it’s a feature]
The subjective is and patterns of self-realisation of the most innovative and progressive parts of society, in particular are unsustainable by intention and design.

[Michel Houellebecq nails this.]

The analysis of this value and culture shift goes along way in explaining the resilience of unsustainbility.

Second major Inglehart deficit – failure to spell out what exactly ideals of freedom and autonomy are supposed to look like.

Inglehart is right to say in era of neoliberalism, freedom and autonomy seen as about ‘free choice’, but this ISN’T how we used to think, and isn’t compatible with eco-politics sense of 1970s. There was an different understanding of autonomy then.
Wasn’t about free choice, but accepted limitations and boundaries that had to be kept.  [see also the concept of eudaimonia?]

In line with Kantian tradition, post-Marxist,these saw freedom and autonomy primarily as inner, moral and intellectual freedom. Around dignity and integrity, rather than fulfillment in/through the market. Freedom and autonomy implied the ability and duty to recognize, follow and appreciate the guidance and imperatives of reason versus animalistic impulses).

Freedom and autonomy understood in collective sens, limited by the principles of inclusion, equality and reciprocity. They were conceptualised as ecologically inclusive. (dignity for other species etc). Within these boundaries, precisely, freedom and self-determination were the normative base of eco—democratic, eco-political project. Only within these boundaries are rise of individualism conducive (to human flourishing).

But the logic of emancipation is not known for respecting boundaries. Quite the contrary, transgression of boundaries is its thing. [Erich Fromm knew this.]

The dynamics hollowed out the norms of the eco-democratic project and also incrementally depleted normative resources of the project Emancipatory movements metamorphosed from agents of project into its grave-digger.  [“From emancipation to emaciation”?]

The dialectic of emancipation explains how and why the most emancipated and progressive parts of contemporary consumer societies are a key parameter for the explaining the resilience of unsustainability.

These parts of society have embraced and are defending patterns of self-realisation which have moved beyond Kantian boundaries and emancipated themselves from restrictions from which Inglehart thought would mean eco-improvement.

The most of us in the room belong to this well-educated section of society, with the uncompromising defense of their lifestyles

[Prof Kevin Anderson- if you want to see a high emitter, look in the mirror]

This may well be why in Inglehart’s new work post-materialism no longer prevalent.

So, it is mistaken to see what is happening as reverse, backlash or regression. Rather, it’s the playing out of the internal logic

Such conceptualisations (if Inglehart et al)  are the socially and politically sedative performance, the simulative maintenance of norms and values which have factually long been abandoned because they are incompatible with contemporary understandings of freedom, self—realisation and a good life. Current developments are not a deviation from the trajectory of modernisation and emancipation but its continuation.
Any return to a supposedly normal course or status quo ante is not to be expected.

The attempt to portray the projected socio-ecological transformation in terms of than emancipatory promise and gain has lost its sociological foundation.

[Lyrics: “Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn”… Gil Scott Heron, song ‘South Carolina’ 1980.

Whatever happened to the revolution (Skyhooks, 1974).]

Middle class not ANTI democratic, ANTI environmental, but reconfigures what these terms mean.

Third major Inglehart deficit is his failure to explore different styles of democracy.
Authoritarian reflex/populist reflex.  e.g. the following quotes

Decades of declining real income and rising inequality, together with unprecedented massive immigration, have produced a long-term period effect supporting the populist vote (186)

still, income factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist authoritarian vote. (181)

He concedes however that age-linked cultural voters are STILL the best predictors for who votes right/against social change

[Karl Mannheim and cohort effect!]

Older people freaked out by large scale immigration. But these effects are temporary (old people die).

So Inglehart thinks Right-wing populism therefore a passing tide, says democratic values will recover… Thus ‘no need to panic’.

Bluhdorn – Whole range of respects you’d want to take issue. Academically and politically irresponsible. But, on focus on the resilience of unsustainabilty… see it as a continuation rather than reversal of middle-class emancipatory project.
With simplistic notion of modernisation and equally simplistic “democracy versus authoritarians”, Inglehart fails to see at the possibility is a reconfiguration of democracy.

He’s right it hasn’t reached its end, but fails to recognise possibility of transformation, but he fails to see the following

  • There’s a multiple dysfunction of democracy, a legitimation crisis.
  • Economic growth is actually unlikely to recover, and the most progressive parts of society are seeing de-limited views of freedom are seen as non-negotiable.
  • The emancipatory agenda pushes the necessity to reconfigure democracy to accommodate contemporary understandings of self-realisation and self-expression.
  • Rather than being a short term antidemocratic tide, the populist revolution lastingly reconfigures democracy so as to enable it to manage ever higher levels of social inequality, indeed ot politically organise and legitimate a politics of ever-increasing exclusion.
  • By remodeling democracy into a tool for a majoritiarian politics of exclusion, the populist revolution substantially increases modern societies’ resilience to social and ecological unsustainbility.

Bluhdon says he is NOT doing this analysis with any kind of moralising intentions, but from the perspective of a reflexive, critical sociology. Aware of the problems – one methodological problem is that BOTH sides are at pains to express their incompatibility with each other. Everyone claims that ‘they are the people, drain the swamp etc.
Meanwhile, civilised civil society is saying we’re not the mob, we’re reasonable.

From a sociological perspective, looking beyond the self-description of the actors, it is possible, even constructive, to bridge the abyss to think about symbiosis (not conscious!) between the non—negotiable freedoms whose self-descriptions do not allow them to self-organise this exclusion, and those to whom they outsource this class.

This has always been the case. Comparable to outsourcing of sourcing of consumer goods, and outsourcing waste disposal of problematic stuff to the Global South.

Panel Discussion

Karin Bäckstrand: Three critiques

  1. Too deterministic about this value shift
  2. Too speculative, no empirical foundation around a) rise of populism and b) resilience of unsustainability
  3. Underestimate resilience of political institutions to the changes

re 1. YES, we’re in a dark place right now, but if longer perspective, and look at same-sex marriage, gender equality, there IS change.. RW populist parties won’t be able to reverse this. 82 percent of Swedes do NOT support Swedish Democrats.

2. I know this paper doesn’t have empirics, but as political scientist, there is a lot of research, we need numbers. Could draw on public opinion work. e.g. Dennis Everberg this morning, (who looked at “Resisting Transition: An Empirical Investigation into the Social Forces of Business as usual”)  in Germany. We need more than anecdota, look across levels, countries…

Also, if unsustainabiility is constitutive, why have these conferences?!

3. Political institutions actually stick. E.g. in US, Trump is not able to dismantle the lot. Some standing up for the rule of law etc.


Stimulating lecture. The right questions, but have disagreements about your seductive almost apocalyptic arguments.. You approve of Inglehart emphasis on autonomy. Are all these subjectivities alike? Aren’t populists appealing to notion of community that has been eroded by the market etc.

  • Are we not talking about two kinds of unsustainable selves?
  • Children of the 60s looking for shelter in identity politics.
  • Compelling aspect of lecture in ‘unsustainable self.
  • Was the bounded self an illusion? Mostly embraced by a very few. Mostly captured by capitalists
  • Maybe the 60s moment was always just going to be a moment? And 60s were rebellion against boring conformist 50s etc.
  • Eco-democratic project was individualistic
  • Fourth – rise of unsustainable self thesis – but ecomodernism is a narrative on offer. Can it seduce the unsustainable selves?
  • Fifth- interpretation of populist wave. Not the whole story. Populism is also protest against globalisation and psychological impact of GFC.

Christoph Gorg

Not easy to comment on paper/speech.

Share some of the pessimism, but not the conceptual foundations. Also missed the empirics.

  • Good to emphasise current industrial societies are unsustainable.
  • Not possible to use Inglehart ot explain all this.
  • Read Silent Revolution when it came out and then decided to read better books….
  • Preferences are not fixed, they develop!
  • Second, the term resilience. Even in ecology it’s highly contested. Resilience Alliance did a power grab on this!
  • Last point – yes, need to act as scientists not activists. But can we do that from ‘neutral’ perspective?! If you speak of unsustainablity, this includes a normative judgement.
  • Need to think ‘how to change it’?

Bluhdorn Answers brief because I don’t disagree with much of the panellists

  • We as interpreters of ongoing or not-ongoing changes, are caught up in narratives, conceptualisations which we have re-iterated for decades. My agenda not to be optimistic or pessimistic, but how can we – if at all – break out of these self-description narratives.
  • How can we get out of the repeat cycle?!
  • Inglehart’s book is indeed terrible. Am not defending it. Am trying to tease out whether anything useful in his approach that can take us somewhere.
  • Not defending the term resilience – just saying is there any mileage in it, around reading against the grain.
  • And yes, need to check if Dennis’s data can be read through my perspective…
  • Not trying to offer theory of populism. Looking at phenomenon and seeing how it might be connected to the resilience of unsustainability.
  • Yes eco-democratic project was an illusion! But a significant enough illusion that Inglehart wrote a book.

Thanks to everyone! Clarifications will go into paper

Questions from floor

Meadowcroft – certainly stirred things. Could you explain what IS the curious resilience of unsustainability. I don’t see why there is anything to explain. Why SHOULD society evolve towards sustainability. All sorts of forces that reproduce current set ups?!

Bluhdorn – one could say ‘nothing’ if don’t expect societal transformation and assumes a certain trajectory. We need an explanation for universal commitment but no action, and also why you’re now allowed to say ‘I don’t care’ (Drill Baby Drill)

Luigi- Following Gorg point – concept of resilience. Foucault said ‘look, often/always in history we are stuck into problematisations. Frameworks of thinking that can be totally opposite but share conceptual foundations and be in hidden agreement.

Dorothea – DO we need new questions? Are we asking wrong questions? Might it simply be that other social forces stronger than our analysis?

Eric – remark on middle-class. To what point in Europe does this work? In USA ‘crisis of middle-class’. In US self-identification of working class has gone up…

Ingolfur – same old stories. Post-growth folks – nothing new. I read these stories 30 years ago….

Andrea – evolving self of middle-class and rise of right-wing populism. Two remarks. 1. outsourcing – its not the progressives outsourced, they lost it, if they ever had it in the first place

2 sectors of middleclass not progressive!

James – your feeling that nothing is changing. I sympathise, especially over some of the debates (e.g. post-growth etc). While doing my PhD  on the topic of British State conceptualisations battles in the 1880s, I saw same debates, decided same underlying structures

Margarete – once pushed it, got to go normative or empirical, you have to go somewhere/can’t stay where you are.. Risk of sweeping generalisations

My take

Ingolfur’s work is always invigorating. I remember reading his take on non-violent direct action subcultures as a Theme Park and punching the air – “finally, an academic looks at social movements and refused to suspend his critical faculties in exchange for access to these people”  And I totally buy post-ecological thinking (see amazing video above).  And I never liked Inglehart, so this is catnip to me.  It’s good to call bullshit on the soft-green middle classes who think that they’re doing their bit by buying organic yoghurt while cranking out the airmiles.  And it’s good to see what is happening now as part of  an unfolding logic.

I think the word resilience was a hostage to fortune. We’d possibly have had a different, more fruitful discussion if the terms persistence or tenacity had been used.

And, as with the entire conference, the ‘what is to be done’ question has gone largely unasked, and even more largely unanswered.  Truly, we are living it large….