Category Archives: academia

Beginnings of an “undercovers” fiction list

So, recently I reviewed two books “about” infiltration/undercovers, and asked for suggestions. I got loads of really helpful pointers. Here is the first very rough list of additions (there were some others, mentioned in the blog post.  I’ve kept track of the various people I have to thank for these tips too, but decided not to include that info here.

I need to integrate it/alphabeticise/annotate etc.  Oh, and actually read some more of them and produce the paper for the conference and the activists… should keep me off the streets…


Books “about” undercovers

Book Author(s) Description Suggested by (for thanks)
Q Luther Blissett Q is a novel by Luther Blissett first published in Italian in 1999. The novel is set in Europe during the 16th century, and deals with Protestant reformation movements. Jonathan Atkinson
Orkney Twilight Clare Carson @UndercoverNet


Stealing The Future @MaxHertzberg Alt Future East Germany @UndercoverNet
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare G. K. Chesterton @UndercoverNet
Naming the Dead Ian Rankin G8 Gleneagles shenanigans
The Terrorists Sjöwall and Wahlöö
Javelin Roger Pearce @BristolKRS
Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan Sweet Tooth is a novel by the English writer Ian McEwan, published on 21 August 2012. It deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early 1970s. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5, and becomes involved in a covert program to combat communism by infiltrating the intellectual world. When she becomes romantically involved with her mark, complications ensue. @UndercoverNet
A Legacy of Spies John le Carré @UndercoverNet
Guest SJ Bradley, @BradleyBooks An authentic look at anarcho-greens, anti-globalisation, the squatter movement and punk bands by someone who was clearly there @MaxHertzberg
Cold Island @MaxHertzberg It’s over twenty-five years since Mara arrived in Britain, yet today she no longer feels safe in the country she thought she knew.

Threatened with deportation, Mara goes underground. She meets others who have made their home in the UK but are now leading lives in the half-shadows of society.

Together they embark on a journey across the moors of northern England, hoping to reach relative safety in Scotland—but the officers of Immigration Enforcement are never far behind.

Demo Richard Allen OH GOD AVOID THIS BOOK.
The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad Excellent, gripping, thought-provoking
Under Western Eyes Joseph Conrad Sadly, no
Vida Marge Piercy READ THIS BOOK
My Revolutions Hari Kunzru


Really good 70s/90s stuff. Very well written, thought provoking
The Invisible Circus Jenny Egan Also good on the consequences of violence, but not actually so much about undercovers as memory, activism etc
Invisible Armies Jon Evans Highly competent thriller, with a corporate spying on activists thread throughout.
The Weatherman Guy Jon Burmeister Dunno yet, but looks lurid af.



Films (documentaries and live action)

Documentary- “In the inner circle”


The documentary “Im inneren Kreis” (English: “In the inner circle“) by Hannes Obens and Claudia Morar, which will be distributed from now on UCM.ONE (NONFY Documentaries), describes the already almost unbelievable twists of the undercover employments of Iris P. in Hamburg and Simon B. in Heidelberg. Both assignments combine fundamental ethical and political topics and questions in themselves Sarah Arens
Film – Police, Adjective  2009 Romanian drama film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. The movie focuses on policeman Cristi, who is investigating a teenage boy who has been smoking hashish. Over time, Cristi begins to question the ethical ramifications of his task. Sarah Arens
Film – Ummah – among friends
After killing two skinheads in a failed operation against neo-Nazis, young undercover intelligence agent Daniel finds a hiding place and new friends in Berlin’s Turkish Arab community. In a realistic and witty way, the German director of Turkish origin shows the rapprochement of two worlds which seem violently opposed. Sarah Arens

TV Shows

TV Shows- Between the Lines season 3 interesting stuff about the intersection of private sector & state actors as both attempt to undermine civil society (animal rights, anti-Pinochet, anti-fascism) through infiltrators, agents & touts.
TV Show
Ghost Squad
“Whilst superficially the focus is on CIB2/CIB3-style police-investigating-police storylines (similar to start of BTL), ‘The Ghost Squad’ (2005) is largely interested on the cumulative effect of UC work on an officer’s sense of self “


Ghost Squad is an unofficial top secret Internal Affairs unit that recruits former police officers who’ve proved their honesty during their service and sends them undercover to investigate and root out corruption within the police.

TV Show Spooks Season 1 ‘Spooks’ S1 has the ‘Traitor’s Gate’ episode, with veteran MI5 field officer Peter Salter infiltrating dastardly anarchist/anti-capitalist terrorists, but falling in love, etc etc
TV Show Undercover – BBC drama




Any Means Necessary Kefi Chadwick




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.