Category Archives: academia

Canute in reverse: Macron’s climate summit

Today thousands of the great and the good will gather in Paris for the latest in a long line of climate summits. Initiated in July by French President Emmanuel Macron, it falls on the two year anniversary of the Paris Agreement.  With three goals –  “Take tangible and collective action, innovate, support one another”  – it is part of his efforts to maintain France’s status as the pace-setter on climate change, in ever-growing contrast to the Trump administration’s enthusiastic environmental vandalism.  Trump was explicitly not invited, in fact.

The event is the latest in a much longer line of climate summits which try to focus attention and generate momentum. However, while most previous summits have been involved mitigation policies, motherhood statements and unmemorable memos about more meetings, this one may be different..

Summits going on

While ‘summits to solve problems’ are time-honoured, and can lead to new organisations (the 1975 Rambouillet talks to discuss economic problems led to the formation of the G7) political gatherings on climate change date back to the early 1980s.

Climate scientists and switched on politicians (including a young Al Gore) attempted to sustain momentum that had been building under Carter and was fading under the new Reagan administration.

Eight years later, George HW Bush promised on the 1988 Presidential campaign trail to use the White house effect against the greenhouse effect’ and to hold an international conference within a year of taking office. However’ once in office he dragged his feet.” When the event finally happened in April 1990 it emerged that the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change, Bert Bolin, had not been invited.

The climate summits have come thicker and faster since then, either through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , alongside it (eg. The UK effort at the UN security council,) or in a spoiler role – the efforts of George Bush Jnr and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, both who refused to enact the Kyoto Protocol to create an ‘Asia Pacific Forum on Clean Development and Climate.

The motives of the summit-callers vary. It might be to highlight intent and bask in a contrast (as Macron is doing here). It might be to regain lost ground – in 2007 Kevin Rudd, who would soon become Australian Prime Minister after ‘the first climate change election’, called a National Climate Summit to wrest back the climate agenda, after John Howard u-turned on his climate policy intransigence and asked a senior public servant, Peter Shergold, to investigate an emissions trading scheme.

(Malcolm Turnbull, now Prime Minister and then the new environment minister, dismissed it; “I’m afraid to say that the people who are going, however well intentioned, are being used by Kevin Rudd as props to promote himself.”)

Turning the tide

canuteSo far so normal. The climate debate has always been about managing the politics; political summits have always been about the signalling of virtue and/or holding back the tide as best as possible. This one though, has Macron as Canute commanding the tide to come in.

There are two interrelated reasons why this is one to watch. Firstly, the unity of the fossil fuel industry is splintering. The coal industry fear after the Paris conference that hey would “be hated like slave traders” is coming true, despite Trump’s ‘coal is back’ efforts. The Bonn climate conference saw the announce of a ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Michael Bloomberg is funding a global ‘beyond coal’ effort. Coal is being thrown under the bus.

Secondly, and perhaps not unrelated, is the technological and economic developments which see “clean energy approaching a tipping point.”  The price of solar panels collapsing, new interest in concentrated solar thermal and great enthusiasm (the upswing of the hype cycle ) around energy storage. Investors are shifting to renewables, and doubtless there will be more announcements of new renewables being made. The summit will be not so much virtue signalling as venture (capital) signalling.

There will be trouble ahead

The danger then is not that Macron’s summit will extend a policy stalemate, but that it will entrench the notion – pushed aggressively and slickly by Shell – of gas as a ‘transition’ fuel (it is not) and reinforce the comforting belief that the techno-cavalry with arrive to save us.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s commitment of keeping global warming to less than two degrees (let alone the probably impossible 1.5), we are going to have to accelerate not just the growth of renewables, but also understand that incumbents will fight in clever determined and diverse ways to defend their interests. For those geeks who have pay-wall privileges, here is new academic work on overcoming policy resistance,

For those who continue to need to believe that we can get out of this mess, the real danger is no longer intransigence, but that summits like this will be used to reinforce a business as usual with a green lick of paint.


Dodgy Academic Concepts #94: “Digital Haussmanisation” and the 21st century city

When I’m not Finishing My Damn Thesis (FMDT), I either watch Roger Federer doing his ballet/ice-skating combo, or else have interesting conversations with supervisors and friends.  Via a post-supervision chat I found myself uttering the phrase “digital Haussmanisation.”

Haussman would “like” the opportunities the Panspectron presents…

Let me “unpack” that, with complete sentence structure and so on.

For hundreds of years (longer?) elites have been trying to control and absorb ‘the commons‘, notably via various ‘Inclosure Acts‘,  This is to create dependency among ‘the masses’ who might be able to run away/live off the land and to accumulate capital (by dispossession).  So far, so obvious.

However, ‘enclosing’ the city is a different challenge, since there are high concentrations of people who might fight back instead of being dispersed/deported, and the city is where the elites often live too.  Not helpful to have the streets full of blood necessarily.


Elites have almost always feared the city and its uncontrollability (see Marshall Berman on the work of city engineer Robert Moses in his book ‘All that is Solid’, and see also Stephen Graham in the equally wonderful ‘Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism’).

The French learnt lessons about colonial control with small numbers of troops (who were not always reliable) and so reshaped the physical nature of Algiers (from memory, Graham talks about this. I could be wrong.)

The French naturally brought those techniques back from the colonies to reshape the metropole, Paris.  It was changed from warrens of tenements and twisty windy timey-wimey  to what we see now –  wide straight boulevards, which have the advantage of being harder to barricade [see the very etymology of that word], easier to send troops in to suppress rebellion without those being vulnerable to ambush/capture.

This large scale urban engineering effort was, famously, conducted under Baron von Haussman.

So far, so (uncle) history.  And, “so what?”  Well, imho what we are seeing now, with digital face-recognition and  real-time tracking by police forces (in China, UK etc)  is the possibility of digital haussmanisation (concept TM, patent pending).  The movement of individuals and groups will be monitored, controlled, stopped etc, the commons enclosed by being able to tag everyone all the time, in real-time, and say whether they are allowed to move from a to b or not, how and when.

Again, this stuff has already been well under way in the “colonies”,and is now, once mature, being exported to the metropole.  Plus ca change… (There might be something useful on this here – Hollow Land  by Eyal Weisman, as a laboratory for the 21st century…)

It isn’t so much the Panopticon, where one central surveillance point attempts to See All, and the walls are permanent, the institution clearly carceral, but the Panspectron, where the points of surveillance are pervasive, (hyper)linked and distributed (see this old blog post for more).  And of course,  the points of surveillance are ‘co-created’ by their subjects; as many have said, the extraordinary thing is that we now routinely give up vast quantities of personal data freely to corporations while bemoaning the evils of the state.

So, digital Haussmanisation.  I said it first. Cite me or else.


Maps, territories, landscapes and moonscapes: three brilliant guides to the transformations

It’s easy to get lost, to feel lost, especially when you’re diving into new literature(s). Your supervisors can do just so much (mostly tell your thesis is not up to scratch (yet), or point you in the direction of some really good literature (institutional work, much?)

But for the bigger/biggest picture? Well, who has the time to keep abreast of all the stuff that’s out there. By luck, twitter and (cough) “good judgement” I’ve recently come across three superlative explanatory papers that tackle the “how are we supposed (to believe that we might still be able to) to get out of this mess” question.

They are, in order that I read them (drumroll please)

Lorbach et al. 2017. Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 42, pp.599-626.

de Gooyert et al. 2016. Sustainability transition dynamics: Towards overcoming policy resistance. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, Vol. 111, October, pp.135-45.

Patterson, et al. 2016. Exploring the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions Vol 24 Sept 2017, p.1-16

Loorbach et al do a great job explaining the intellectual origins of transitions (see my recent blog based on a Florian Kern seminar), and then walk the reader through socio-technical, socio-institutional, and socio-ecological transitions, which have in common notions of path dependencies, niches, experiments and governance. They point to three ways of dealing with agency (fancy academic speak for “who can do what to what effect”) – analytical, evaluative and experimental. They close out by trying to connect to Real World impacts, and “sustainability transitions research and its challenges.” Oh, and there are 172 references. Should help anyone needing something to procrastinate with from drafting their discussion chapter. Cough. Cough.

De Gooyert et al want to help with the problem of Power, something that transitions has a bit of a problem with.

“Despite these efforts, many implemented transition policies have not been able to meet expectations. This tendency of systems to defeat the policies that have been designed to improve them is known as ‘policy resistance’. This paper addresses the question how we can explain the persistence of policy resistance in the context of sustainability transitions, and aims to bring us a step further in the direction of identifying policies that support overcoming policy resistance.”

So, they’re making use of system dynamics and doing something rather clever – getting “experts”
in a room and asking them the Del Amitri question why “nothing ever happens”.

The methodology is novel, and limited – they know they will also have to ask the (un)civil society types. Whatever papers emerge from that will also be worth a very close read.

Btw, another paper on this that is worth a very close read is
Smink, M., Hekkert, M. and Negro, S. 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 24, pp.86-101.

Patterson et al do a similar thing as de Gooyert et al, but on a bigger, hairier and more audacious scale. They take a theory/framework/whatevs and smash it up against transitions studies. But rather than systems dynamics, they plump for Earth Systems Governance.

What’s that. Well, they explain  -“The Earth System Governance (ESG) framework (Biermann et al., 2009) is highly relevant to the challenge of understanding and analysing the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability. It comprises a matrix of key governance problems, and cross-cutting themes that are inherent to dealing with global sustainability problems.”

esg from patterson et al
Source:  Patterson et al

They smack ESG up against socio-technical transitions, social-ecological systems, sustainability pathways, and transformative adaptation.  And lots of interesting things “fall” out of that collision, (i.e. are the result of serious thinking and intellectual firepower)

They close out with some mildly important questions. Here’s a selection

• What are the short-term and long-term dynamics of transformations, and how can we observe when (or when not) transformations are occurring?
• How can transformative change and its feasibility be understood and analysed in an ex-ante sense?
•What are the sources of agency and roles for both state and non-state actors in enabling and supporting transformations?
• What drives transformations towards sustainability over long timeframes, and how do these drivers arise?
• What types of institutions and governance arrangements are needed to enable and shape transformations towards sustainability across multiple scales?
• What kinds of innovation in institutions and governance arrangements are needed in different problem domains, and how might this innovation arise and diffuse?
• How might ‘battles of institutional change’ (Chhotray and Stoker, 2009) play out, particularly when change is disruptive and met with strong resistance?
• How can policy and decision-making that is anticipatory and long-term be encouraged over short-termism?
•How might new norms, ethics and values needed to underpin transformations towards sustainability arise?
• How can accountability mechanisms be developed to ensure that actors who ‘should’ be responsible, actually are, both in the short term and longer-term?
• By which mechanisms can power inequalities be productively addressed to allow actors who are poorly represented to meaningfully participate in shaping transformation processes?
• How can powerful opposing interests and forces linked to existing path-dependencies be addressed?
•More broadly, “how do global and regional political economies influence transformations to sustainability in different domains?” (Future Earth, 2014b).

Fortunately, my thesis and my activism provide the final word on every. single. one. of these.  Oh yes…

I can’t possibly do these brilliant papers justice, or offer any incisive critique of them (yet- that’s way above my current paygrade, maybe always will be). At the moment my only – and mildly unfair- criticism would be is why they didn’t all exist three years ago when I was starting this bloody PhD. All I can do is urge other transitions/transformations scholars, at whatever stage, to give all three careful consideration.


Some observations about their commonalities

  • they are all group efforts, which tells you that being able to synthesise all this is beyond the effort of any individual, or set of individuals within a disciplinary silo (#banal)
  • they all take a ‘metatheoretical’ level, and don’t fall in love with a single theory as The Answer. Nor do they play defensive hierarchical games about whose Theory should be Top Dog. They’re not necessarily saying that we must resign ourselves forever to kludges, palimpsests and interdisciplinarity congalines, but just that right now, the fertile thing to do is to try to hold multiple objects up to multiple lenses at the same time (and that this is bloody difficult) (#alsobanal)
  • any theory that doesn’t account for the messinesses of power is a waste of everyone’s scarce time
  • at the moment, each seems to exist in the Ivory Tower and its near surrounds; if someone wants to pay me and my cartoonist mate Marc to rectify that, please do get in touch…

There’s some question over that “any map is good enough” anecdote, (and an answer).. Fortunately you don’t need “any” map –  these three will do…

Oh, and grok this on the question of power and transitions!!

Lobbying, lies, prostitution, disruption #climate – extraordinary truth-telling

The problem with studying the rich (well, one of many) is that access is hard.  So you end up relying on leaks and whisteblowers. Both can be deeply problematic.  But every so often the curtain DOES get pulled back.  With Australia and climate change two great examples are

a) the leaking of the minutes of the 2004 meeting where then Prime Minister begged big fossil fuel companies to help him kill off the pesky renewable energy target which was working too well

b) the PhD of Guy Pearse, who had talked to fellow lobbyists. They explained how they had captured and ‘reverse engineered’ Australian energy policy.


Now there is another, short and sharp example.  In an article called “Can we be honest about the damage we are all doing?” a chap called Andrew Craig-Bennett dishes it out to the shipping industry’s various trade associations, which have tried to shoot down a recent expose of their activities.

“if you are not influencing the [International Maritime Organisation] and others, there is no point in paying you,and we can all save a few bucks. What we want you to do is to influence the IMO is a less brain dead way.” 

(Later he writes “we can feel nothing but contempt and disgust at the prostitutes employed by our racket to try to put one over on the general public.”)

Craig-Bennet then says he recalls  an incident from more than three decades ago

“I saw a carefully drafted, science-based, regulation, which would have improved safety and been simple to enforce, turned into a pile of scientifically unsound but ‘commercially helpful’ garbage by, in that case, the Australian mining industry, who were pretending to be the Australian government.”

He goes on to extol the virtues of disruptive technologies (“the available means of ship propulsion without emissions are nuclear, solar and wind.”)

It is a fascinating article, that concludes (so, you know, spoiler alert, obvs)

“We all know this change is coming. We can lead it, get rich and be on the side of the angels or we can share the fate of the other rust belt industries. Simple.”




Sociotechnical transitions for beginners; of speed, stability and mixing it up

What’s a sociotechnical transition? Why should you care?  What does history teach us? Why might it be a false teacher? All good questions and they received good (though sometimes, by necessity provisional) answers yesterday as Dr Florian Kern of University of Sussex spoke on ‘Governing Low Carbon Transitions’ (see foot of this post for the abstract).

Kern, who is a senior Lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit and Co-Director of the  Sussex Energy Group at University Sussex, started with a brief overview of energy – there are lots of different ways we (7 and a half billion of us) get energy – nuclear, coal, solar, burning wood etc) and each has consequences/sideeffects/costs (Fukushima, tar sands etc).  He touched on the Sustainable Development Goals (see here for a philosophical critique of them).  Energy dominates human well-being, and – crucially –  energy systems tent to be complex, long-lived and capital intensive. This means they involve ‘carbon lock-in’ . Businesses will be fonder of doing incremental ‘within the system’ changes on a business as usual trajectory.  You’ve got assets, you want to sweat them.  You’ve got core competencies, you don’t want to trash them…

So this leads us onto transitions of whole systems (rather than focussing unduly on shiny gadgets being invented and distributed).   How exacly do we think about these systems?  Technological infrastructure, user preferences? A mix.

Kern touched on the standard definition of a transition – scrutucal change in the way that societal needs are fulfilled (the thorny question of created needs – via advertising or destroying alternative provision – throwing people off the commons/accumulation by dispossession) was outside his remit.

The standard view (see below) is that they usually take 30-50 years, if not longer, that they involve both technical and non-technical change, that they are multi-level and co-evolutionary affairs that are non-linear and involve multiple actors.

At which point he threw up that Turner painting of a steam tug taking a sailing ship on its final journey…


So, transitions have various possible pathways, with questions around how they’re developed and supported.

There was then a rather snazzy and useful diagram of Jochen Markard listing some of the various intellectual (well, academic) disciplines which contribute to transitions studies – management, sociology, political science, natural science, , innovation studies, economic geography, economics (an incomplete list)

There are soooo many emerging topics within (sustainability) sociotechnical transitions, more than you could shake a thesis at.  (Deep breath): politics, power, agency, contestation; cities/urban sustainability’ beyond initial experiments (how to scale up/extend/mainstream); the role of social innovation.  [Fortunately my thesis (due by 2020, 2022 at the latest), will resolve ALL of these.]

Kern today was specifically focusing on three particular topics – the speed of transitions, whether/how sociotechnical systems can be destabilised and the appropriate ‘policy mix’ for transitions.

  1. Speed

“Speed” is not just a classic Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock action film.  It also matters given that we’re supposed to be decarbonising not just electricity grids but everything under, well, the sun.  Keeling Curve, Two Degrees, etc etc (#wearetoast)

The conventional view is this takes decades or centuries, but in late 2016 Benjam Sovacool (also SPRU) threw a very lively cat among the pigeons by arguing ‘How long will it take?’

It all might be quicker, he argues (and I am paraphrasing a paraphrase, not having re-read that paper!)  because … three things

  • there are lots of actors pushing,
  • lots of interesting international dynamics (from the global – IRENA, UNFCCC all the way through to local communities [Carbon Coop will save the world!!! I hope.]
  • Paris  (don’t talk to me about Paris).

Kern was interesting on the international dynamics thing, arguing (as have others) that German Solar PV policies got the Chinese interested in upping their manufacturing capacity, leading to oversupply, a price plummet and all sorts of gamechangery stuff. He cited also Peter Newell and Lucy Baker on emerging economies and possibly leapfrogging.  Suzlon instead of Vestas etc

Meanwhile, since (but not necessarily because of) Paris, renewable investment is outstripping fossil fuel investment.
2.  Destabilisation

We need to move beyond nurturing niches (What was that Vonnegut said about half the world’s problems being down to the fact at everyone wants to build, nobody wants to do maintenance).

So, what of incumbents?  Is Goliath motivated to innovate before David bullseyes him like a Womp rat? Can dinosaurs tapdance or do they just engage in state capture and buying/swallowing/crushing/controlling/retarding competence-destroying innovations?  It depends.

There are of course technological, economic, political and normative dimensions to all this.  And the incumbents toil at all of them, as do moral entrepreneurs like the divestors.

3. Policy Mixes

So (how) do various policies affect what innovation does happen?  Kern referenced Weber and Rohracher 2012 and Schot and Steinmuller 2016 here. What of both active and passive ‘protective spaces‘? There are no silver bullets (either policy or technological) and the direction of innovation matters too…

Can we honestly expect serious destabilisation through policy instruments? (I would argue nope, but I am one of life’s pessimists).  Kern pointed to the German Energy ministers attempted carbon levy and the pushback from mining companies and miners leading to companies being paid NOT to produce.  Great.  Then again, Norway and banning the internal combustion engine.  We. Shall. See. Quite soon.  (I’m writing of the Apocalypse here, y’all).

The empirical bit of the seminar came from a comparison of Finnish and UK policies for the Cinderella of energy policy, efficiency.  Kivimaa and Kern 2016 did some number crunching (with self-admitted concerns about the final validity of the methodology) and came to the conclusion that niche-creating activities were far more numerous than incumbent-attacking ones.  Then again, in the q and a it was pointed out that the latter, while fewer in number, might be more consequential.

This was followed by a vigorous Q and A session (but no chest-beatery nonsense) in which the relative lack of focus on individual firms was questioned (“in regimes they’re called incumbents, that’s it, but since Wikileaks we know Shell was ALL OVER Dutch energy policy”).

Kern agreed and lamented the lack of comparative political economy on the relative importance of policies and the nature of different states (esp fossil exporters)

The whole question of policy mixes got a further airing too (the lack of optimal mixes, the methodological trickiness of measurement, the fact that it’s always a snapshot in time and investors (aim to) take a long view.

Verdict: A great way to spend 90 minutes. Beats cutting cutting cutting my bloody empirical chapters.  And yes, Katrina, I have been doing that….


That abstract

“For a variety of reasons, current fossil fuel based energy systems are under pressure to change. Historical energy transitions have been slow processes, but in this seminar I will argue that there are reasons to believe that ongoing low carbon transitions can occur more quickly. The argument is that historic energy transitions were not consciously governed, while today a wide variety of actors is actively engaged in attempts to govern the transition towards low carbon energy, international innovation dynamics can work in favour of speeding up the global low-carbon transition and the 2015 Paris agreement demonstrates a global commitment to move towards a low carbon economy for the first time. I argue that supporting innovation as well as destabilising existing high carbon energy systems is required for a quick transition and that policy makers need to develop suitable policy mixes to successfully accelerate low carbon transitions.”

Gender Slash Infrastructure, or “sewage thick as toothpaste”

What a great event. What an unexpected delight. At the sharp end of a PhD you find yourself going to very few ‘recreational’ seminars. And so often they’re the standard mix of chest-beating, data dumps from those too close to their “facts”, or conceptual hair-splitting from those too far from them. And those are the best ones.

So, yesterday I stole away from cutting 14,000 words down to 12,000, (with only another 6,000 words of cutting to go. Call me Marc Scissorhands). And, thank goodness, I ended up at “Gender and Infrastructure”, a seminar by visiting Australian scholar Dr Zoe Sofoulis.

We will come back to the toothpaste thing.

Sofoulis, who had started out looking gender in science fiction and was supervised by Donna Haraway [we are not worthy, we are not worthy] did a couple of things that should be entirely unremarkable, but aren’t. She asked attendees to call out their disciplines (a good non-threatening way of getting people involved and signalling to everyone who is in the room [and who isn’t.] She also thanked by name people who’d asked ‘hairy questions’ at a recent outing of the presentation.

She then – more conventionally for anyone who has encountered Haraway’s work – decided to muddy the terms of the title – “Gender and Infrastructure”. Some bullet points. Lots of the digressions are mine, and this is heavily paraphrased too.

When and where does gender come up in infrastructure discussions? When and where does it FAIL to come up? Around water, gender often only seen as a ‘third world poverty’ issue. Not so.
Book: Fluid Bonds.
1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development.
Of course, positivist science (not to be conflated with “masculine”) is riddled with masculinised norms, and is a ‘master discourse’ which endlessly challenges qualitative research as mere anecdote. Sofoulis mused on whether the triumph of liberal feminism (and the emphasis on formal ‘equality’ had rendered other awkward questions invisible (which is not to say irrelevant).

Like technologies and interfaces, infrastructures are caught up in politics, in (re)enforcements of the social order.
Sarah Bell
Splintering urbanism of Graham and Marvin
[See also Susan George on the politics of chickens]

Imbricated with entrenching modern divisions of paid/unpaid, private/public and so on.
There is SOME relief from drudgery (days washing clothes, fetching water) but as work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Elizabeth Shove and others reveals, as drudgery decreased, housekeeping standards skyrocketed, with moralising discourses around hygiene etc creating a red queen shituation (running to keep still)

Turton Schreiner and Leestemaker 2000 on defeminisation of water, isolation of women’s voices from decision making.

Sofoulis had some fun with her younger self’s predilections for slashes and other attempts to show how terms can be mutually constitutive or antagonistic (gender of infrastructure, infrastructure of gender etc), but decided to park it and not alienate her audience. In words to warm the cockles of the hearts of the Australians present (both of them) a slash was ‘a bit wanky’

Things then all got a bit messy, thanks to double-sided printing, and a willingness (compulsion?!) to move about a bit) in tracing intellectual trajectories and inventories.
So this is going to be a bit bullet-pointy. Don’t blame me if you end up down rabbit holes and fail to submit your thesis/book/marriage proposal/suicide note on time.

Davidson and Stratford 2006 Gender-neutral technology in Economic Globalization, Sustainability, Gender and Water in ‘Fluid Bonds’ …
So anyway, within water studies because of how it is metered/measured, the “household” ends up being taken as the smallest unit of analysis (there was a good quote by Kuntara Lahiri-Dutt at this point.)

But we should take Latour seriously on the whole question of non-human actants and how ‘non-human’ stuff – plants, animals, technologies, shape wider practices and cosmologies. [though you still don’t ever interview doorknobs].

So “laundry” means and does different things when it is days of (communal) washing and beating of clothes by the river versus a button pushed as you head out to salaried work.
[Am reminded of a Vietnamese peasant who married an American construction contractor and then got laughed at by her new in-laws for not knowing the finer details of what could go in a kitchen trash compactor. Also, that thing about the Chinese washing machine manufacturer that learnt its customers were using their product to wash potatoes, and adapted accordingly.]
Sofoulis then digressed on cigars and Freud – sometimes a cigar is indeed just a cigar. Not everything longer than it is wide is a phallic symbol…

Then she talked about her 2000 paper on ‘Container Technologies’which is a Must Read for After The Thesis.

A mention of Gregory Bateson (aka Mr Margaret Mead) on the unit of survival being the organism plus its environment, and Withicott (sp?) on matter as facilitating movement [compare machine fetishism of Alf Hornborg?] Sofoulis also gave historian of technology Lewis Mumford a shout out, around his critique of history of tech being too much about thrusting/smashing machines and not about storage – – vats, kilns etc.

Mention of ‘Donai (?) and “background technologies”, and naturally old Martin ‘I was never a Nazi’ Heidegger and his concept of standing reserves’.
Shove and inconspicuous consumption.
Haraway and ‘situated knowledge’.
Back to positivism and its (great phrase!) ‘epistemocidal tendencies’. Undercuts interdisciplinarity as a kind of ‘apex predator’!!
Sofoulis then admitted to having not fully recovered from her “narcissistic intellectual wound” of having lived in a HisCon bubble only to realise the lack of influence it had on practitioners in the Real World. She urged the attendees to think of the ‘shit and string beans’ issue, as captured in a quote from Marilyn French’s ‘The Women’s Room’.

“When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”

What knowledges matter? Which roles? How do they circulate? What resources are used?
For example, in Australia the technical/technological work (mostly by men) around water gets published in journals, while the social research is ‘commercial in confidence’ and appears in the grey literature. She was scathing on engineers who think everyone is a data nerd and technology sorts who add a survey at the end of a report and call themselves social scientists, but who wouldn’t actually know social science if they fell over it.
So, some oracular statements/suggestions

  • Don’t assume liberal feminism is an unalloyed Force For Good
  • Diversity in groups
  • New problems will affect different groups differently
  • Specificity – work ends up generalised too easily
  • There are differences both within and between households that need looking at.
  • Sue Jackson on different knowledges, also Deborah Bird Rose.


There were different question from the audience. Sofoulis listened intently and was clearly having a good time with them, and occasionally ‘just’ ‘riffed’ (it’s harder than it looks).

Some observations (and yes, finally, toothpaste and sewage).

The Millennium Drought in Australia, that led to expensive desalination plants being built and then mothballed DID create some discursive openings for social scientists. Sofoulis explained how economic rationalism (Australian for “neoliberalism”) had assumed that ‘homo economicus’ would respond only minimally to the (minor) price signals in water charging changes. In actual fact people’s willingness to conserve water far far exceeded expectations (not just ‘in public’ but also behind closed doors. People were sending in all sorts of ideas that had to be acknowledged before they could be ignored [shades of Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room]. Sewage became so thick (because people weren’t flushing?!!) that pipes were corroding and an odour control sector boomed?!
Similarly, people bought water tanks (tapping into the whole rural imaginary of “The Bush”) when it made little or no ‘economic sense’ to do so…

So, government ended up (and still is) WAY behind people in sustainability aspirations, and defer and stymie it. [Indeed, just today it turns out the Turnbull government is ‘NEGging’…]

Trying to speak to indigenous knowledges without having done the field work would be a Very Bad idea…

Extra stuff
– the DAD model of policy making – Decide Announce Defend, versus PEP participate, educate ??
Naturvation – nature based innovation, mexico city (biomimicry? Industrial ecology?)

Timothy Moss Infrastuctural legacies 

Things to think with:

Verdict : Fascinating event, instructive, fertile, suggestive. Could not be a greater contrast to the ‘people willing to have smoke blown up their asses as the planet burns’ thing I also went to…

Oil (and) slick: Of corporate citizens and the great energy transition.

Whose ego needs are being met? That, imho, is the key question, in almost any gathering, whether it dresses itself up as academic (aka ‘intellectual’), activist, capitalist, whatever. If you ask that question (at least to yourself – it’s a CLM to say what you think, after all), then a whole lot probably becomes clearer. Whatever the organisers tell you the meeting is about (energy transitions, flower arranging, something equally will-pass-the-time-until-the-apocalypse), it is always about (at least) both that and ego needs. Hidden curriculum, hidden agenda, yadder yadder yadder… Oh, and organisations have ‘egos’ too (Dr Freud, meet Professor Schumpeter; Joe, Siggy…).

Tonight,  Manchester Business School, – so sorry, Alliance Manchester Business School – deployed some extra security because it was hosting Dr Brian Gilvary, the chief financial officer of BP no less (the company formerly, albeit briefly, known as Beyond Petroleum). And the topic? That great mystical and mythical beast, the “energy transition”. Or rather, the energy transition that is indeed unfolding (especially over the last 18 months) but seemingly cannot/will not be accelerated to get us within spitting or dying distance of “two degrees” above pre-industrial global average temperatures (yeah, because two degrees is sooo safe.). You know, that energy transition. The one over which ink is spilled and careers builded here, in this green and pleasant land. The new Jerusalem. That one.

So, back to the beginning: whose needs? The attendees, with a need to feel informed/send ‘I came to your lecture it was fab please gizzajob’ emails. Or to be a Known Quantity. Or to virtue (or cynicism) signal. And of course to do the whole money/legitimacy fungibility thing. Whatevs.

Just about now you’re thinking how much more of this is there? So here is the tl:dr Dr Gilvary was very very clear – and admirably keen to be clear. Despite the long list of technologies on which it is keeping a watching brief (see below), for the benefit of any pension-holders who may be worried, for the next 5 years (at least) 90% of what BP does will be oil and gas. What that says about the so-called two degree target? That’s ‘not for us to do.’ Habitable planet? Even thought they’re number one oil trader in the world, ditto… But of course, the dinosaurs will tap dance, if we show them there’s a buck in it. Of course they will.

Right, feel free to give up (on the blogpost, not the living – mortal sins/imagine Sisyphus happy blah blah) at any point. Onwards with it, mostly just a chronological drive [Easiest framing, if not the best]. Apols for any innacuracies, please check against transcript, video etc. [Digressions and editorialising will be in square brackets like this].

The audience- very diverse (not sarky) crowd from all corners of t’planet. Gender mix about 45% women. Some old farts (author’s age and older) but lots of young ‘uns (doing MBAs and so on).

Opening remarks from the head of MBS. Sorry, AMBS; strategic partnership, 100 million (pounds or dollars?) in collaborative project with five partners, range of global energy industries, benefit to industry and supply chains [shades of Matt Canavan and his self-perceived job?]

Gilvary, who did a maths PhD at Manchester, has been with BP since 1986 (41 years), started by observing how exciting the times are for energy transitions folks (practitioners and scholars) and argued that the next 10 years will see historical changes. The last 18 months along have had a huge impact. However, there is a heck of a lot of installed infrastructure, so how we will be transitioning using that is anyone’s guess re: the years 2050-2100. ([Ed: this is why the word palimpsest should be taught in kindergartens].

The speech was structured around a) Energy globally, 2) BP in that (since Lord Browne’s 1997 speech at Stanford) (31 years ago) , 3) BP’s strategy and 4) what you need to do [we didn’t actually get to that]

That presentation, bullet pointed

Energy as driver of economic growth [Hmm – chickens, eggs and practice theory and creating demand to make centralised plant profitable blah blah. Grok ‘Fossil Capital’ and the that ‘Energy, Work and Finance’ piece by the Cornerhouse folks. Whatevs. Nowt on the Great Acceleration (named, it turns out, for the Great Transformation. Who knew?]

Heading towards 9 billion people. Most energy growth will come from non-OECD countries, because we’re getting ‘efficient’ (Yom Kippur war, 55mph speed limit, unless you’re cannon-balling). But China, India, and especially Africa.
Some leapfrogging of dirty tech (i.e. renewables) will be done. Oil and coal will decline, gas will increase. It is, says Gilvary, a ‘transition fuel. [Oh for a Tyndaller to heckle…] Cleaner than wood, he says.
BP invested heavily in solar 40 years ago, got out out of it five years ago (a mistake). Invested 3.5bn and wrote it off. Solar will be a great source. Hydro will ‘tick along’. Meanwhile Germany is closing down nuclear post-Fukushima and importing US coal to plug the gap (oops). [Energiewende is not done…]
Gilray thinks “we’re going to see some pretty strange things”.
US India and China continuing to use coal (hmmm, we will indeed see).
Renewables solve OTHER problems – e.g. air quality in cities [a real problem if you’re a Chinese technocrat who can’t send the army in like they did in ’89 when the little emperors start dropping like asthmatic flies].
The renewables boom not driven by Paris Agreement [indeed, pre-dates it. Overcapacity in production of PV etc.]

Gilvary recounted that when he joined BP in 86 Peak Oil was being put at 1990, then pushed back and back. He reckons there is no shortage of mostly accessible oil [would be interesting to know what his EROI numbers are]and points out that the crucial factor will be ‘societal demand’ and that therefore policy matters.

BP Energy Outllok assumptions, ‘relatively conservative’ – decline in oil demand to 2035, (I think he meant/said per capita?) offset by population growth in China, India, the Middle East, where gas previously exported is being reserved for aircon).
Oil will come from usual places, not so much from Canada (I think he was saying). US is now an exporter of course, thanks to shale/fracking.

So, to BP – has modelled scenarios around what they think will happen, fast transition, even faster transition. Why? So they have a business model that can cope with whatever seems likely. Oh, and 1 in 7 quid in pensions is connected to BP [I think?]
[Hmm. Scenarios bless them and Shell. Meanwhile, Kodak moments do happen…]

Anyway, to be verbatim “it will be policies that will make a difference”. E.g. Britain and its 2040 “ban” on internal combustion engines.

Then again “technology will get us through the transition” [Not a contradiction, but possibly a tension though not one that anyone explored in the Q and A . Me?  I was too busy virtue signalling]

So, BP; Turning to gas, because, there is a ‘fun fact’ that if you replaced all coal with gas you’d apparently come in under two degrees. [I wonder if that includes all the leakage that so often doesn’t get counted….]

Renewables are a competitor for this, and there are interesting moves re: storage..
Impact of the tech will be transformational.
And here is a list of some of the 400 technological advances that will be ‘disruptors’ in a positive or negative way.
Advanced materials, biofuels, solar, unconventional oil and gas, quantum computing, fuel cells, autonomous vehicles, bioproducts, battery systems, enhanced oil recovery, hydrogen as vector, 3D printing, perpetual motion machines, electrofuels, transport efficiency, advanced nuclear, block chain, advance wind, non mechanical ?) drilling, artificial intelligence. [NB one of them is made up. Can you tell what it is yet?]

Accelerated by (global) government policy decisions. Investors will follow -e..g lead in paint and lead in petrol not going on anymore. Therefore, he says, we need carbon pricing.

Five areas BP particularly looking at. – renewables (but not solar), advanced mobility, bio and low carbon products, carbon management, digital transformation, , power and storage.

Then followed a rather unclear ‘energy quiz’, which probably needed some piloting.

And no time for the ‘what are we to do’?

Those Q and As, bullet pointed

So, how much are you investing in renewables compared to renewables?
Lots more in oil and gas….

Has BP modelled the 350ppm atmospheric concentration that James Hansen says is needed to keep below 2 degrees? If not why not?
How would you respond to the claim that fossil fuel incumbents are calling for a global carbon tax because they know it can’t be delivered?
What can we expect to see incumbents – not the nice and cuddly BP – do to protect their stranded assets as policymakers try to policymake us to the sunny uplands of technotopia?
These three were welcomed as “loaded” [because apparently when you ask if this ‘bridge to the future’ is actually a bridge to hell, that’s loaded. Go figure.]. Like those well-known radicals Friends of the Earth do at AGMs.
And the answers were [and these are paraphrases, NOT direct quotes] “not for BP to do. Not BP’s responsibility.” [Hmm. So, happy to appear a ‘responsible corporate citizen’, but as soon as it gets a bit hot, then retreating into ‘nothing to do with us old chum’. If only there were a TV show where the phrase ‘the Game’s the Game’ was standard. Not so much the new Jerusalem as the new Hamsterdam. So it goes.]
“Global tax? Well, there are twelve US states were there is a carbon tax.”
“Not a question for us.” [See question one. What incumbents will do to delay, defer, block the transition is THE question, no? But silence is an answer all of its own…]

What premium does BP place on customers who want green instead of standard projects?
Since 2000 carbon neutral offset thing, but don’t like to shout about it because would rather underpromise and overdeliver

What products are you producing that are attractive for energy transitions?
BP  bought an outfit called “Beyond Limits” which does AI stuff, like on that Mars probe [think Wall-E]
And BP got a data mining company to come in and do in 30 seconds what would have taken them three or four months to do with only in-house expertise, so it has 2000 wells now controlled from one spot.

How is BP going to grow in the transitional space?
Proprietary efforts and tech, but also ‘things that are good for the sector’.

So, now, we know BP as an oil and gas company. What will we know it as in 2040, and you’re not allowed to say “energy”.
Gilvary did well here, since his most obvious answer was verboten, and eventually, after touching on Deepwater Horizon, came out with some stuff about adaptability and relationships. Because, yes, if you want to be any good at this transitions thing, and getting people on board, and keeping them on board, you have to be good at relationships. If you aren’t, well, sooner or later, you will in fact be found out. So it goes.
Oh, and BP is the world’s number one oil-trader.

And then everyone left, presumably most or all of their ego needs met.  And we all lived happily ever after. Until we didn’t.


Other reading.  Oh, email me.  Meanwhile

Big Oil’s Grip on California.


So, in other news, went to a truly fantastic, far smaller messier and less slickly presented presentation just before this one. Incredibly fruitful, so much to chew on. Massive props to the presenter, the chair and everyone else.  Watch this space for a review imminently.