Category Archives: academia

Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.

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Collegiality v bureaucracy v palm trees and Stamford Raffles. And Instagram.

It’s been a while since I posted, because I have been
a) thesising
b) writing a book chapter (intimately related to a) above))

Still, this and a book I just read (see next post) deserve recording for posterity (or at least until the electricity systems collapse).

My friend Mark Carrigan (top bloke, btw) has just written a v. good post “the social struggle between collegiality and bureaucracy”.  It’s not long, and it’s a corker.

It put me in mind of The Peter Principle (people are promoted to their level of incompetence and stay there) and the way people who couldn’t do a job at the coalface got eased (or eased themselves) sideways into ‘management’ and then gradually rose/climbed their way up.  While often harbouring resentment/envy (consciously or unconsciously) of those who could Do The Job.  And then punished those people for being competent, collegiate etc.  Herman Melville wrote a whole novella about this, Billy Budd.

It also put me in mind of something I read (in a Granta?) of a factory in Wales where there had been a lovely view of the hills… till someone calculated they could extract more work if people didn’t sometimes stop and look at those hills, and had the windows bricked up.

An older example of this and a newer, really scary one.
Older one – Stamford Raffles.

When Sir Stamford Raffles went to Singapore, he went by way of Indonesia and saw how self-reliant people were with the palms that provided them with everything they needed. He said ‘These people are ungovernable’. There was nothing the government could give them that they wanted or needed. So what had to be done was clear. Cut the fucking palms down, so they became dependent, and hence governable. You can’t govern independent people. They have no need of anything you can bring them.”

Bill Mollison (founder of ‘permaculture’) in Jeremy Seabrook’s book ‘Pioneers of Change’

And more recently (like, now) from this terrifying article
The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we’re so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation. Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding “likes” from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.
Instagram denies this – MRDA.

Tom Uren and the class war

So, to my shame I don’t know enough about people like Tom Uren.  That shall be rectified #afterthethesis.  For now, this, from a speech he gave in 2007, which touches on his time as a POW working on the Burma railway.  Talk about natural experiments…

“There are many people and experiences that have nurtured my life. But my experience serving under Weary Dunlop has had a lifelong and lasting experience on me. We were at a place called Hintock Road Camp or, as Weary called it, Hintock “Mountain” Camp. “Weary” is a name of respect. He would tax our officers and medical orderlies and the men who went out to work would be paid a small wage.

“We would contribute most of it into a central fund. Weary would then send some of our people out into the jungle to trade with the Thai and Chinese traders for food and drugs for our sick and needy. In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivised a great proportion of our income.

“Just as the wet season set in a group of about 400 British camped near us for shelter. They had tents. The officers took the best tents, the NCOs the next best and the ordinary soldiers got the dregs. Within six weeks only about 50 of them marched out—the rest died of dysentery or cholera. In the mornings when we would walk out to work, their corpses would be lying in the mud as we passed them. Only a creek separated our two camps. On the one side the survival of the fittest – the law of the jungle – prevailed, and on the other side the collective spirit under Weary Dunlop. That spirit has always remained with me.”

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.”

ihaussm001p1
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.”