With the planet on fire, it seems odd to be having to write about the decline of the climate “movement” – but given what is going on in the UK and Australia, the countries I know best – it seems reasonable to do so.
The point has been made to me well, that the existing academic work on a balance is told in retrospect and talks about the dangers of bonding capital of small groups having high cohesiveness and high similarity and being therefore able to survive a marked downturn in what they do. (1) Now, of course, the rhetoric/ideology/things-we-like- to-tell-ourselves about environmental social movements is that we are somehow more open, more diverse, more welcoming. That tends not to be true. But it can perhaps get in the way of us thinking seriously about the tools that we will need for dealing with abeyance.
The other factor to consider of course, is that we’re on a burning platform here. And while patriarchy has been with us for thousands of years, and gets better or worse, (usually has stayed the same shitty thing until relatively recently). environmental problems have been escalating steadily. First, locally, and only affecting people who don’t care about who don’t speak English and aren’t middle class. But over the last 50 years, it’s become increasingly apparent that those problems are real for everyone. And in the last decade or so the chickens have been coming home to roost. Unfortunately, the fox is in charge of the henhouse here: what are you going to do?
So, the challenge in thinking about and writing about abeyance is that the existing academic/intellectual tools may not actually be the ones that work. And it may be that we need to either modify those tools, or invent some of our own. I’m sorry, you’re not allowed to say invent anymore, are you it’s all got to be about “co-creation”. Okay, “co-create” tools of our own, and to have these discussions with people who, quite understandably, may have decided just to give up and dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do. The point of abeyance was surely that your time would come again, that although one moment had passed, if you were patient, intelligent, then you could be ready to make a real impact.
At the next moment, the next time, there would be a window of opportunity… Given the trajectories given the fires in Australia and in California, all the other awful things that have happened the heat waves in India, the droughts, the horror show of it all, I think that mythos comforting idea that there’s time enough, is quite hard to sustain.
And I think, with no way of proving this, that it may be the case that unlike the peace movement, or the feminist movement, it may be that the people who are lost as a wave crashes down simply don’t come back because they imbibed that “last chance to save” ideology, and then someplace deep in themselves, they took it to heart.
But I’m beginning to ramble….
(1) My friend and boss Brian Doherty wrote – “You are raising a different question to the one usually raised in academic studies by saying – can we plan for abeyance? And indeed that we need to. But knowing that the streets will empty – doesn’t mean knowing what will come next. So – is the logic that we should know that even if there is a defeat that the aim should be to hunker down for the long haul. Will that terrify the novices? is that one reason why movements offer a culture/social network – even if with variable levels of success and self-awareness. The problem, though, as you know and have said, is that activist culture becomes exclusive and is ill-prepared then for new people and generational turnover. I think we need to create a formula that explains this and then one that solves it.”
I guess I have a millionth of an inkling of what it must be like to be a person of colour anywhere, but especially in the US, UK or Australia. Given that I am as whitebread as it comes, that needs an explanation.
One thing that comes through in reading people of colour, listening to them, is just how goddam exhausting it is to see your existence, your rights, your needs endlessly ignored, minimised. To see the work you did to improve the lot of your people hurled down memory holes while rich white people pretend to give a shit, and start each new response to a new scandal as if it was one of a kind, not part of an endlessly (?) repeated pattern of slow violence against other human beings and other species.
Put like that, it does kind of suck. And it is just so exhausting…
Where does this come from? Well, last night I turned on the news and my body froze. It was the same old talk that we have had from the Liberals about technological “responses” to climate change. Other people (hello Adam Morton, Ketan Joshi, Michael Marzengarb) will go to town on it.
And there are a couple of people (especially Lenore Taylor, Laura Tingle, Clive Hamilton) who could say what needs saying –
“Look, we are stuck in an endless cycle here. The Liberal Party policy was exactly the same in 2004-2006. Rising pressure for international action> Check. Huge support for fossil fuels? Check. Active naked hostility to renewables? Check. Culture war, lies about targets and baselines, and intimidation of opponents? Check.”
So, the braying sheep on my TV screen Make this boy shout, make this boy scream!
And I suppose it ties into a book – “Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World” by Glenn Albrecht- that I am reading (and then reviewing). I will admit to being merely whelmed by this one (though other people may find it more useful?) It’s full of neologisms, some of which may survive, others which are as doomed to die as our civilization. The one that makes sense here is this –
“Terrafurie is the extreme anger unleashed within those who can clearly see the self-destructive tendencies in the current forms of industrial-technological society but feel unable to change the direction of such tierracide and ecocide. The anger is also directed at challenging the status quo in both intellectual and socio-political terms. Terrafurie is anger targeted at those who command the forces of Earth destruction.”
(Albrecht, 2019: 86)
I think it is time to move beyond the silliness of “accelerating transitions” and talk about failed transitions, where the contestation by incumbents was so effective for so long that the window of opportunity has closed, and it is all over bar the shouting. And the dying. Thus #failedtransitions
But while I will say that, I will of course, persist in trying to salvage something from the wreckage. What else ya gonna do?
Things are looking very very bleak, and a lot of pain and confusion is sloshing around in the collective brain of the “climate movement.”
Time for a song, therefore, or a whole bunch of them. Hopefully not adding to the pain, but shedding light rather than heat (the last thing we need is heat), and getting us all to think about “now what?”
The usual disclaimers (1) apply.
Theses 1 to 4 – We’ve known for a long time, and we’ve known what happens
Thesis one: We have known that we’ve had a problem for a very long time
The climate issue did not begin in 2018. There was a tendency to discount not just anything that happened in 2008 (“yeah, grandad, that’s irrelevant, you lost, step aside and let the cool kids show you how it’s done”). Or 1998, or 1988.
But we’ve known, in the immortal words of Tiny Tim , (1967)
“The ice caps are melting.”
On a slightly smoother groove, a few years later, during the Malthusian moment, Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Going On?” with his song “Mercy Mercy Me, the Ecology Song.”
Just because other people lost, didn’t mean they had no useful intel for the battles ahead.
Thesis two: Despite what we want to believe, we aren’t always the best judges of what is going on
In “Changes” David Bowie sings
“And these children that you spit on
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
Yes and no, Davey, yes and no. Yes to the heard immunity. No to the “quite aware.”
A little cognitive humility was in order, and still is
Thesis three: (We have known that) things can come unstuck (or “songs for abeyance”)
We’ve had these waves of concern break against the rocks of real life.
In 19xx Gil-Scott Heron asked
“Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn? Was it just about not dying in the jungles of Vietnam?”
There are laws of gravity that you ignore at your peril. What goes up will probably come down…
Thesis 4: We know that we can double down instead of innovating
We know that there is a danger in repeating past battles, in trying to live your Glory Days over and over.
As Mr Frank Turner has it
“Well it was bad enough the feeling, on the first time it hit, When you realised that your parents had let the world all go to shit, And that the values and ideals for which many had fought and died Had been killed off in the committees and left to die by the wayside. But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left, And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest – By idiot fucking hippies in fifty different factions Who are locked inside some kind of Sixties battle re-enactment. So I hung up my banner in disgust and I head for the door.”
Theses 5 to 7 – What to expect
Thesis 5: We know what is coming
We know what is coming. There is, as by Creedence Clearwater Revival, had it, a Bad Moon Rising.
Thesis 6: Messengers get shot and smeared
We know that we will be written down in history, with bitter twisted lies, as Ben Harper sings, putting Maya Angelou’s poem to music.
We know that while you should never harm the messenger, sometimes folks do. Expect to be blamed for having been right and unable to get real change.
Thesis 7: Species be deathwishing
We know that four degrees is, er, probably “baked in”. And we want to see those lemurs burn.
It seems like the species really does have a deathwish.
(NB the Marxists will go “typical bourgeois deviationist, implying that everything isn’t the fault of the capitalists. Mystic mambo jumbo half-baked anthropology and psychotherapy spreads around the blame when it all actually pertains to Standard Oil, Carnegie and Andrew Undershaft.” To which I say, “yeah, eat me.”)
Theses – 8 to 11 So what is to be done?
Thesis 9 : Realise where you are (spoiler – you are After the Gold rush)
There was a gold rush, a sudden flurry leaving behind a sinister slurry. Amid the toxic tailings and the toxic tales of the reasons for our failings will come little insight. The cops and the COPs will cop the blame, as will the media, everyone we can do little/nothing about.
“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s”
Thesis 10: It matters though to stay keen, to try to stay in the game
Everybody’s changing, sure.
We should work on the assumption that Glasgow will come too late (in every sense), but particularly around the soi-disant non-hierarchical climate movement – if there is a set of protests and events, those will be run by the usual suspect NGOs, with the usual suspect repertoires.
We (you) should try to make a move just to stay in the game,
So little time Try to understand that I’m Trying to make a move just to stay in the game I try to stay awake and remember my name But everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same
hope that you can keep infrastructures of dissent intact so they have further usefulness if/when shit starts to a) hit fan b) get real.
While it doesn’t mean you have to listen people who force you to enunciate mea culpas as humilation and abnegation, it also means they are not obliged to take you seriously until you make a decent stab at saying the reasons behind the failure, till they hear the words “I was wrong and you were right” and think you might actually mean them.
In practice, some of the key skills that were lacking, still are as best I can tell are
Abeyance sucks, but it can also be a time to reflect and emerge stronger. The saving the world thing – well, the pressure is off, tbh – it was already irredeemably fucked before you tried to redeem it.
Last song not to make gender quota (though, um, sausagefestmuch?) but because it speaks so well to machismo and batshit-harmful notions of behaviours that use up and spit out other people, not caring for their needs (and to be clear, I have been in this ballpark, within spitting (at) distance of this kind of asshole. I claim no high moral ground)
There is so much to do, so little time. It is an emergency. We have to keep our heads. We have to share the loads. We have to stay in the game. We have to be as ready as we can be for whatever the future has in store, to make the moves, to play the cards that get dealt in this desperate not-a-game game.
I am writing in a personal capacity, not as a representative of any particular organisation that I might be a core group member of.
I have tried to bite down on the schadenfreude and the language of “up like a rocket, down like a stick” (look, I made it white!) . Probably failed. So it goes. If you’re a snowflake who can’t take the underlying tone of exasperation, you’re probably not really one of life’s rebels, now are you?
It’s interesting about lunching out, isn’t it? Because if the reason that you’re lunching out, is that you’re having a mental health crisis – anxiety, depression, etc – all of which are entirely rational response to the shitstorm that we’re in, then you’re probably not able to stomach having to admit to someone else that you’re not going to be able to deliver on something.
Because the syllogism goes
We are in the shit.
I have made a commitment to a group of people that is trying to get us all out of the shit.
However, it now turns out that that commitment – if I try to achieve it – will put me personally in the shit even more.
If I don’t do it, it leaves the group in the shit. And it reveals that I am somehow a weak or bad person (no it doesn’t actually).
And so whatever you do, there’s no path out. All the options are shitty… And in that situation, people tend to perseverate.
Because it’s not about what other people will think of you when you say that you’re not going to do something. Ultimately, a large chunk of it is what what you think about yourself, what you have to say to yourself about yourself.
So not lunching stuff out – if it’s being lunched out, because you’re freaking out rather than you just rather watch more Game of Thrones or you’re lazy – is actually a hell of a challenge
So, as per my recent Conversation article, the climate scientists have been attacked for (more than) thirty years. The UNFCCC is a hopeless case (see slightly-less recent Conversation article). It is easy to talk about how everything is fubarred, and what am I against. This below expands on the theme of attacks on climate scientists, talks a bit about what am I for, then critiques it, then critique that critique. It concludes with “so what does this MEAN, here, TODAY?”
This expansion below is in no way a criticism or rebuke of the editor or the editing process. I’ve added in bits to the Conversation article and put them in red. At the end of the article, I’ve added a whole bunch of new stuff, marking clearly where that starts.
Thirty years ago, in a small Swedish city called Sundsvall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first major report.
Even then, the major dilemmas facing those who sought rapid action were clear. An account by Jeremy Leggett, who had thrown in a well-paid job as a geologist for Shell to become Greenpeace’s climate campaigner, reported the events of that first summit, including an encounter with coal industry lobbyist Don Pearlman.
They had their heads down, copies of the draft negotiating text for the IPCC final report open in front of them. Pearlman was pointing at the text, and talking in a forceful growl… As I walked past, I saw him pointing to a particular paragraph and I heard him say, quite distinctly, ‘if we can cut a deal here…’
Although it seems so naïve now, I was shocked.
Days later, a delegate from the Pacific island of Kiribati pleaded with the conference for a breakthrough in the negotiations.
Concerted international action is needed to drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels. The time to start is now. In the low-lying nations, the threat… of global warming and sea level rise is frightening.“
He paused before concluding.
I hope this meeting will not fail us. Thank you.
Shortly afterwards the US delegation “tabled a catalogue of attempted emasculations” of the text. Along with the Saudi and Soviet delegations, representatives of the richest and most powerful country in the world “chipped away at the draft, watering down the sense of alarm in the wording, beefing up the aura of uncertainty”.
It would be a painful three decades for people anxious to see action on climate change. For the scientists investigating the problem, it would often be a personal battle against powerful interests.
The path to the summit
The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, had been worrying scientists since the 1970s. The discovery of the “ozone hole” above Antarctica had given atmospheric scientists enormous credibility and clout among the public, and an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals causing the problem, was swiftly signed.
“the US had a huge stake in the climate problem. It was the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Also, any measures at abatement of future emissions could significantly threaten its economic interests. Powerful fossil fuel lobbies with active support from a Republican White House were strongly opposed to any kind of action on climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 609)
“Due to lack of agreement, and for reasons that suited their own ideologies and agendas (see Section 3.3), a compromise was reached amongst participating agencies with the US recommending that an ‘intergovernmental mechanism’ be set-up to conduct scientific assessment of climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 611)
The Reagan White House worried that a treaty on CO₂ might happen as quickly, and set about ensuring the official scientific advice guiding leaders at the negotiations was under at least partial control.
“The US position was communicated to the WMO Secretariat and it helped shape resolution 9 of the Tenth WMO Congress which met in May 1987. This resolution recognized the need for an inter-disciplinary and multi-agency approach and asked the Executive Council of WMO ‘to arrange for appropriate mechanisms to undertake further development of scientific and other aspects of greenhouse gases’. The US also strongly influenced the WMO Executive Council resolution a week later, which in response to the call from the Congress, requested the Secretary General of WMO, ‘in coordination with the Executive Director of UNEP to establish an intergovernmental mechanism to carry out internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, impact and potential timing of climate change’. Shortly thereafter, UNEP’s Governing Body welcomed the WMO initiative and asked its Executive Director to work with WMO on establishing such an intergovernmental assessment body. This constitutes the famous ‘I’ of what was to later become the IPCC and is the single most critical element in its design. It is the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC that gives its assessments a special niche, distinct from the myriad other assessments and vendors. According to Jean Ripert, founder chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) who chaired the negotiations for a climate convention, the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC was in large part responsible for educating many government bureaucrats about the problem which made them more willing to come to the negotiating table. This, according to Ripert, was key to the signing of FCCC in 1992 (Ripert, 1997). However, having an intergovernmental status has imposed significant costs also: IPCC assessment summaries are widely regarded as being politically negotiated, which has, at times, undermined their credibility” (Agrawala, 1998: .611)
Meanwhile, another participant, Michael Oppenheimer, suggests
US support was probably critical to IPCC’s establishment. And why did the US government support it? Assistant Undersecretary of State Bill Nitze wrote to me a few years later saying that our group’s activities played a significant role. Among other motivations, the US government saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the policy agenda.
I suspect that the Reagan Administration believed that, in contrast to our group, most scientists were not activists, and would take years to reach any conclusion on the magnitude of the threat. Even if they did, they probably would fail to express it in plain English. The US government must have been quite surprised when IPCC issued its first assessment at the end of 1990, stating clearly that human activity was likely to produce an unprecedented warming.
So emerged the intergovernmental – rather than international – panel on climate change, in 1988.
Already before Sundsvall, in 1989, figures in the automotive and fossil fuel industries of the US had set up the Global Climate Coalition to argue against rapid action and to cast doubt on the evidence. Alongside thinktanks, such as the George Marshall Institute, and trade bodies, such as the Western Fuels Association, it kept up a steady stream of publishing in the media – including a movie – to discredit the science.
In a February 1991 letter to the vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, physicist Robert Jastrow crowed , “It is generally considered in the scientific community that the Marshall report was responsible for the Administration’s opposition to carbon taxes and restrictions on fossil fuel consumption. Quoting New Scientist magazine, he reported that the Marshall Institute “is still the controlling influence in the White House.” (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:190)
But their efforts to discourage political commitment were only partially successful. The scientists held firm, and a climate treaty was agreed in 1992. And so attention turned to the scientists themselves.
The Serengeti strategy
In 1996, there were sustained attacks on climate scientist Ben Santer, who had been responsible for synthesising text in the IPCC’s second assessment report. He was accused of having “tampered with” wording and somehow “twisting” the intent of IPCC authors by Fred Seitz of the Global Climate Coalition.
In the late 1990s, Michael Mann, whose famous “hockey stick” diagram of global temperatures was a key part of the third assessment report, came under fire from right-wing thinktanks and even the Attorney General of Virginia. Mann called this attempt to pick on scientists perceived to be vulnerable to pressure “the Serengeti strategy”.
By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defence difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd.
As the evidence became ever more compelling, the attacks on scientists escalated.
In 2001,Exxon was reported to be pressuring the new Bush administration to get rid of Bob Watson, the British climate scientists who was then chair of the IPCC. Exxon appears to have been successful because Watson didn’t get a second term. (see here)
The Bush Administration tried to silence Hansen in 2006 – there is an entire book – Censoring Science – about this.
In late 2009, just before the Copenhagen climate summit, emails among climate scientists were hacked and released. They were carefully selected to make it seem as if scientists were guilty of scaremongering. The so-called “climategate” scandal was not to blame for Copenhagen’s failure, but it kept climate deniers energised and helped muddy the waters enough to make it seem as if legitimate doubt persisted over the scientific consensus.
And at “just before 2 a.m. on February 19, 2011 the war on climate science showed its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives as it voted to eliminate U.S. funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Republican majority, on a mostly party-line vote of 244-179, went on record as essentially saying that it no longer wishes to have the IPCC prepare its comprehensive international climate science assessments. ” [sourcesourcesource] (It was a throwing-red-meat-to-the-base thing. It never got through the Senate).
Thanks to COVID-19, the next IPCC assessment report probably won’t be delivered before the delayed conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021. There probably won’t be anything in it that tells us more than what we already know – CO₂ levels are rising, the consequences are piling up, and campaigns for delaying meaningful action have been spectacularly successful for the last 30 years.
Some scientists, including Columbia University professor James Hansen, argue that the agonising efforts of scientists to avoid provoking accusations of alarmism have led to an innate optimism bias. The official science reported by the IPCC may in some cases be a cautious underestimate. It’s likely worse – much worse – than we think.
If the last three decades have taught the international community anything, it’s that “the science” is not a single, settled entity which, presented properly, will spur everyone to action. There are no shortcuts to the technological, economic, political and cultural changes needed to tackle climate change. That was true 30 years ago in Sundsvall. The only thing that has changed is the time in which we have left to do anything.
END OF THE CONVERSATION ARTICLE. Everything that follows has not had the benefit of their editing. They cannot be held responsible for owt!
And I will admit that the answer I’m about to give you does not satisfy me.,because there are consequences for not having achieved the emissions reductions that were required. We’re no longer talking about avoiding dangerous climate change – that is baked in. What we have to talk about then is how the pain is shared equitably, which may not mean equally.
Now, right there, three kinds of people will be up in arms. The first group I don’t care about – the ones who deny that climate change is a thing. The second group – and there is overlap or a sliding scale – are the techno-utopians, the Bjorn Lomborg school of people who think that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with more technology. Maybe they ought to read a little bit about anti-reflexivity, and see themselves in the mirror. And the third group are those who say, “Oh, you must never talk about pain or danger, because this will somehow scare people off.” Well, that’s to keep therefore telling fairy stories about how everything might be okay. That’s indistinguishable in my opinion, from the techno optimist bollocks. And I would rather treat people like adults and hope that they’re capable of understanding that the world isn’t how they would like it to be, and it won’t be like how they would like it to be.
So having said that, let me give you my unconvincing answers.
What climate change calls us to do, what we are required to do, as citizens, especially those of us with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, and the training to punch through lies, and the time to do it, and to communicate it… is to punch through the lies and to communicate and to movement build rather than mobilise.
And my one key distinction that I would like everyone to make is between the mobilizations such as the 2014 Climate March in New York, and the actual movement-building. There can be overlap, but these are distinct, and occasionally the mobilising gets in the way of movement-building, because it allows people to tick the box. “I’ve been on that March. I’ve sent my activists credibility tokens. And therefore, it’s now up to our lords and masters to take action.”
And this is tacitly said, even by people who know that their lords and masters have no interest in and no capacity to fix the problems that they themselves have been causing. This is what Camus would probably have called bad faith.
So responding to climate change is going to require the wisdom as opposed to the ignorance of crowds. It’s going to require daily local, regional national, international action as opposed to words. It is gonna require that we break out of the boxes, the mind forged manacles, that we resist the blandishments of not just the big corporations and the big NGOs, but also the voluntaristic millenarian “Everything must and can change now,” rhetorics of some of these newest social movement organisations and yes I am looking at you, Extinction Rebellion.
This is both an emergency and a long drawn-out process and we need to learn this preparedness for the very difficult changes to come will require sustained – and therefore sustainable – radical (that does not mean violent, that does not mean stupid) action, at every level.
So what kind of superheroes can do this? There are no superheroes. We are the ones we have been waiting for for a very long time.
Specifically, better organisations that are able to welcome new people, make use of the skills and talents they have, and help those individuals learn new ones. New understandings of how incumbents have resisted change not just through outright denial but also scams, like carbon trading and carbon offsetting, and, quote, green capitalism, unquote.
Also a recognition that the methods of the 19th and 20th century brought us the horrors of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Great Leap Forward, etc. We’re going to need new tools, we can’t go back and try the old ones again and again, which is what we’ve been doing.
Critique of the above
So the critique of this is fairly obvious, or the critiques plural. One is so already too late. Even if this reinvigorated or invigorated, intelligent civil society sprang into action, there are certain laws of physics and the consequences of 30 years of inaction are that it is already, quote too late, unquote, that we’re going to hit four degrees, that agriculture becomes impossible that there’s mass starvation, one or two nuclear wars and the collapse of human civilization, which we’ve seen in Hollywood films and we’ve seen in books. This is a, you know, a favourite science fiction trope. I strongly suspect the reality will be slower, grimmer and messier. The real tragedy has someone once said – I forget who – is that the world ends with a series of whimpers not a bang.
Another critique would be that if we are going to reduce emissions, it’s only going to happen with lots of the big bad technology that people like me are generally deeply suspicious of: Hello, nuclear power Hello. By energy, carbon capture and storage, Hello Space mirrors. Hello sulphur cannons and unprecedented international collaboration around some schemes like contraction and convergence.
Critiquing those critiques
So to these people, I would say firstly “you might be right. But even if those things happen, even if all those magical technologies and magic into existence, well number one takes ages for them to replace what we already have. So you need a plan to get rid of the incumbency. Good luck with that.”
And number two is it would address the broader problems related to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially methane, around the collapse of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, population growth and our spiritual crises.
The only way that we have a snowball’s chance in hell, and again, I don’t think we do, of dealing with all those is very diverse, persistent civil society action.
The next critique would be, “that’s fine for you and your little gang. Out of the six of you, all of you have been to an elite University, two of you have PhDs. One of you has a Master’s another is doing her master’s. And you have only one breeder among you. “
And I would say, “That’s absolutely true. But I never said that Climate Emergency Manchester was a model for how other groups should behave in terms of composition. And what we are trying to do with the Active Citizenship Toolkit is make it easier for other individuals and groups to assess the skills that they need, and the relationships that they need, what they have right now, what the gaps are, and how to close those gaps.
“We are not a vanguard, we do not pretend to be a vanguard. We are a small part of a local ecosystem. We can, we hope, be, at best an inspiration. We’re an example. And also one that speaks truth about power, not to power. The powerful know exactly pretty much what they’re doing: we’re speaking truth about power.”
So what does all this mean? Here and now? What do you do?
So, what if you are convinced that I’m right about the way the science has been attacked, I’m right about the way the international process is hopelessly bogged down and that I’m right about the inadequacies of the state responses, the corporate responses and the civil society responses.
What if I’m right about all of that? Well, that doesn’t give me or you permission to give up, to quit, to retreat into various forms of escapism, which is, of course, what our lords and masters would much prefer.
It doesn’t give us that permission. We have responsibility for the climate crisis in proportion, to not only to our individual carbon footprints – many aspects of which are beyond our direct control -but in proportion the level of privilege we have around education, habitus and cultural capital, social capital, time, access to resources and the de jure, if not always de facto. ability to use those rights.
That’s awkward because it means that people like me have a great deal more responsibility than some other people. That doesn’t mean I get to play “White Saviour.” It doesn’t mean I get to centre myself in debates and struggles. It does mean that I have to work persistently, consistently, iteratively intelligently or else my responsibility and my culpability, which is already huge, continues to rise.
So right here, right now, today what do you do in a crisis? Well, anyone who’s received, you know, astronaut training will say, “if you’ve got 10 seconds, you spend six of them making a plan.” So right here, right now today, it’s a question of drawing up a list of
what things you think you and a group of determined, like-minded people could achieve locally in the near future.
And it won’t be much because we live in tangled in systems with enormous embedded inertia. The institutions, as distinct from the organizations are obviously very powerful – they would not still be institutions, by definition, if they were not.
But nonetheless – what can you achieve? Do an audit? What skills knowledge relationships would you need to achieve that goal? What do you have? What are you lacking, where can find it?
Now these goals don’t spring from just the ether, or from inside your head. The important thing is to make a goal, even if it’s a rough and ready one and for it to be developed, refined, changed in conversation without the people, who obviously will only be involved, if to go resonates with them.
All this sounds like a hell of a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sign a petition or to go on a demonstration, or even get arrested to show that you care.
But those things we’ve tried, and we’ve tried for 30 years. Those might help mobilise in the short-term, but what we need are movements: dense as in extremely well connected networks of individuals and groups who understand what is at stake and understand that they are in conflict with other networks, other organisations, institutions, habits, vested interests in society.
And this is quite literally the fight of not just our lives, but that of future generations of human beings, and all the other species that we “share” this planet with.
“The struggle of man (sic) against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Milan Kundera
On 26th August 2006 the first “Camp for Climate Action” began, in the shadow of Drax power station in Yorkshire, then the biggest single point source of carbon dioxide in Europe.
The camp (and the shorter name, “Climate Camp”, missing the word “action”) became what used to be called “a thing” for a few years, before they pulled the plug on themselves in 2010, with a typically self-regarding statement (statement here, Guardian gloss here, PR Week gloat here).
It had come from activists’ frustration with ‘summit-hopping’. At the Gleneagles G8 in mid-2005 a bunch of hardened environmental NVDA types, veterans of Twyford Down, the M11, Newbury, Fairmile, Manchester Airport, GM, J18 etc asked themselves the standard sensible questions-
how come we are always reactive to the agendas of our Lords and Masters?
how come there is so little direct action on climate change?
And thus the idea of a Camp for Climate Action, to kick start (or reinvigorate – let’s not forget the Rising Tide stuff) a movement of people willing to take arrestable NVDA on the climate “issue” (the scare quotes because, well, it’s tied to everything, innit?) was born.
I wasn’t at Gleneagles, but I was at the one day meeting in January 2006 at MERCi (now known as Bridge 5 Mill) in Manchester which started the ball rolling. I knew at the time it would all end in failure, and remember a conversation on the day with someone. I was just kind of surprised at how exactly it played out. Still and all, it was an education…
Now is not the time (or it is, but I don’t have the time or appetite) for a detailed set of reflections, reminisces and attempts at passing on Lessons to The Next Generation. So a few scattered observations.
The Camp ended up being seen as an end in itself by many who had started out coming to drain the swamp but ended up fighting alligators. The tail wagged the dog, just from sheer exhaustion and the constant presence of immediate problems in need of solution. This was rarely articulated.
The Camp only happened because it was in the interests of the police to let it happen (they needed to justify the big big budget they had, quite separate from the undercovers horror that we found out about properly years later). The “taking” of the site, which at the time was a masterpiece of activists outwitting Mr Plod turned out to be a “wave-through”. They knew exactly what was going on, and it suited them to let it happen.
The Camp got loads of publicity because it was ‘silly season’ and ‘middle-class hippies in a field’ was a new story, sort of.
The facipulation of the discussion of the ‘strategically, does it make sense to have another national camp next year, and what else could we do?’ in October 2006 (back at MERCi) was a farce, and a crime, and those who did it should hang their heads in shame.
Within three years the Climate Camp “movement” had churned out its soi-disant radicals and was reduced to … summit hopping, at Copenhagen. There’s probably an irony/lesson in there somewhere.
And finally, this (and I have been mulling this for years, but it’s very live right now because of the job I am doing, which involves trips down memory lanes and into dusty musty (and digital) archives.)
It is very very hard to argue that Climate Camp left meaningful traces, that it saved today’s XR lot from having to learn from their own mistakes. That’s partly the fault of the XR crew- the usual arrogance of ‘youth’ (or newcomers), the “piss-off -grandad” problem, and partly the fault of the oldies for being so bad at keeping the conveyor belt of tradecraft etc going.
And a sidebar – my goodness academics can tell themselves all sorts of self-serving shite about the power of “data”, while running away from the lessons of history. This, like Climate Camp, is of course old news…
People of Colour are gonna be shocked – SHOCKED – to learn that rich white people are sock-puppeting them in an effort to stay rich.
Because, you know, it’s so unusual for powerful interests to totally disregard the actual long-term health of everyone else, and to claim to be benevolent while continuing to despoil and plunder. Yeah, so unusual.
Just in the space of today (so, not going near the David Starkey thing), we’ve got this
To stop a small city’s climate policy, fossil fuel interests sent in a front group, threatened COVID infections, and may have even manufactured a racism controversy.
my favourite bit is this –
Vines, of the SLO NAACP, was particularly incensed by the last-minute pile-on by business-focused minority groups from outside the community—but not because he thinks they were necessarily wrong about racism. In fact, he agrees that the economic impacts of the Clean Energy Choice policy—good or bad—will be discriminatory against Black and brown people.
“When you live in a racist economy, all policy that affects the economy is racist,” he said. “So they can make that accusation about anything.”
and this about the Global Warming Policy Foundation (not a charity, always read the label) from the folks over at DeSmogBlog.
It argues that groups that give international aid and financing, like the World Bank, are stymying energy development on the continent by imposing rules that prevent continued investment in fossil fuels. The report, which leans heavily on experts from the University of Witwatersrand’s clean coal centre, argues that clean coal is the solution to African electrification.
Amos Wemanya, a campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said the GWPF’s history of spreading misinformation on climate change means the group is not well-placed to advise on the continent’s energy policy.
“Africa does not need advice from the so-called experts, like Lawson, on how to make its people access energy,” he said.
Oh, and seriously, Heart of Darkness”? Seriously? Plugging into myths of the savage much? Dog-whistling to your rich old white chums much? Maybe take a read of what Michael Eric Dyson has to say.
Finally, as a white dude, it is probably quite fucking exhausting to be a person of colour, and to see the very language you are using to try to wrest power away from the goons with their knees on your neck mobilised against you. That shit – along with the actual deeds beyond the words – needs to be challenged. We gotta find a different way.
This is a direct follow on from an initial rant about “social innovation”. At the end of that I went on a rant about how social change is a marathon not a sprint and that the ‘load’ has to be shared.
There’s an article, very astute, by a Development Aid specialist that I read as I yomped around Alexandra Park with my backpack full of bricks and weights. I should try to track it down… meanwhile, this –
But what IS the load?
There’s the technical work – be it writing press releases, responding to consultations, gathering evidence for a judicial review, fundraising, prisoner support.
Sharing the load would be making sure that the knowledge and skills were easily shareable – written down, turned into videos, workshops, trainings etc, that it was possible for folks to be apprentices in meaningful ways
There’s the credit – if people are going to do grunt work, then they should also be able to get – if they want it – credit, exposure etc.
Power to decide – what are the decision-making processes? Who has final say? How can they be challenged etc? At what point do those who have been doing grunt work get an invitation to be part of the decision making (which they may of course choose to decline).
All this brings me to the buzzword of many a year – “Capacity building”
As meaningless and frustrating as “innovation” (yes, vaccines were an innovation. So were machine guns, mustard gas and concentration camps. For god’s sake stop using innovation as a synonym for ANY form of progress).
And always ask the following
Capacity-building To DO what?
To do endless pilots which allow policymakers to defer and defer and defer? To do the leg-work for big beasts to swoop in and create new markets and marketisations? To be the thin-end of the neoliberal wedge?
For WHO to do what? White middle-class professionals sitting in offices, being suitedly and suitably parasitic on those taking the risks?
For how long is this capacity going to be maintained?
Are you just creating the next generations of micro-bosses, or are you trying to spread the capacity to capacity build and create the vibrant civil society you say you want? Are you teaching the pigs on animal farm, or also the cows, hens and the sheep?
And when you’ve answered these questions
How is this CBW done?
Peer-to-peer or Top down info deficit bullshit?
(Horizontal, peer-to-peer, social innovation – all the right buzzwords. Old wine in new bottles, we’ve been on this rodeo before.)
The whole point of the Active Citizenship Toolkit, as I see it, is to make it easier for individuals and groups to see what is at stake – what skills, knowledge and relationships are needed for sustained social innovation around the climate crisis, the racial and sexual injustice crises… If we are serious about transition/transformation and the acceleration of them, then it becomes a question of WHO IS GOING TO KEEP BELLING THE CAT?
The cat WILL take the first bell off, and eat the brave and clever mice who put it on. So those brave and clever mice better have prepared the next generation of cat-bellers. And also devised ways of helping them cope with watching a vicious cat eating their buddies. And figured out how to learn from all the failed attempts (one is reminded of the bomb disposal experts who would describe each step of the way over a telephone, so that when they made a mistake, someone else could learn. Not inspiring, but hey ho…)
Okay, I have completely lost control of my metaphors. Happens when you’re rusty at blogging. So it goes. Publish in beta and be damned…
ALSO, and this is Good News – I have been shortlisted for an academic job. It’s about social innovation. So, over the coming few days expect a bunch of posts about that subject, and “acceleration” and so on. This is to help me figure out what I think and what I should say (and of course NOT say on the day itself…) Here’s a link to a list of ‘adjectival innovations’ and innovation terminology I made a while back. Doubtless will have to expand it…
So, below, a few preliminary comments about my prejudices, and then I will follow up with another, more “ACT” related post about the thorny question of “capacity building”…
First banality: The word “innovation” is sprinkled around like magic pixie dust. Like its cousins reform and progress it sidesteps/silences profound questions about morality and end-states. Most of the time it is used there is a (knowing?) naivete around questions of incumbent power and resistance.
Second banality: Most work on “innovation” and “efficiency” also largely ignore rebound effects – what will be done with the money/time/energy ‘saved’? So, you insulate someone’s house so they aren’t being bled white on fuel bills. This is a good thing. But from a “carbon saved” perspective, what if they then use the money they saved to fly to Barcelona or Prague for the weekend.
Third banality: Most innovations fail, or take a hell of a lot longer to mature than folks think they will (people and hype-cycles, eh?)
Look, we’re in the shit. We have had over 30 years to take action on climate change, and in all that time we have just dug our holes deeper. More people on the planet, yes, but crucially, far more fossil fuel infrastructure, far higher expectations of an always on world etc etc etc (and yes, this is not individual consumers’ “fault” blah blah systemic blah blah regimes).
And because we are in the shit, we are busy bright-siding ourselves. You saw it after the Paris Agreement, when people who really ought to have known better (and probably, in private, DID know better) spouted all sorts of guff about turning points [here’s a blog I wrote about that in December 2015]. And now here we all are in coronaworld, spouting guff about Green Recoveries, with no sense of the coalitions-work needed to make that happen.
So we latch onto the idea of social innovation “(versus” technological innovation? I don’t know, I haven’t read the literature. Hopefully nobody is that ill-informed?)
And we Need To Believe that it will get us to where we need to get to. Social Tipping Innovations etc. Yes, we all apparently need to contract an STI…
It reminds me of that clip from “The Newsroom” where they get a climate scientist on and he says “x/yz/ would all have been great 20 or even 10 years ago…”
So, sophomoric ill-informed doomster rant over. I am going to dive into various academic articles about social innovation, energy transitions, urban governance. . Going to blog about each (usually in a batch).
Criteria for articles on a kind of Likert scale on Should you read this ?
Hell yes Yes Depends Probably not Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)
And also “What else by authors is any good?”
Social innovations like technological innovations, are all well and good, and fun to study at the Research and Development stage. But deployment and dissemination/diffusion whatever, that is usually a far trickier thing.
Individuals who are part of innovation get tired, burnout, demoralised, or sell out (literally)
Meanwhile, organisations are fantastically bad at sustaining morale. On the whole they either flame out or become self-sustaining rigid bureaucracies, trading on past glories.
That doesn’t, it seem to me on a rough first glance, get captured in academic work about social innovation, because who goes back after five years, or ten years, or fifteen years and sees “where are they now?” It is just endless polaroids, some explicit, some not, all always fading.
1. “Transgression” is your first novel – can you say a bit about how it came about, what you hope readers will take away?
The genesis of the novel was strange. The plot and characters appeared, pretty much fully formed, in my mind when I came round from a major operation three years ago. It was as if the anaesthetic or perhaps the morphine had released something from the unconscious. More generally however, the novel deals with political events and experiences that had a big impact on me personally. Although these events – the political agitation in the run-up to Copenhagen and the devastating failure of the negotiations – are only ten years ago I’ve been struck by how much of that period has been forgotten in the grim grind of austerity. Most of the people I meet in XR for example are completely unaware of their predecessors, of the size of the climate movement of that time and of its successes (the near-closure of the UK coal industry, the rejection of a third runway at Heathrow for example) as well as the failures. The (in my view misguided) idea of some in XR that everything that went before was useless probably has something to do with this. But many of those involved at that time were angry, clever, inventive and innovative and many of the techniques used by XR were honed and developed by those who were involved in the earlier period. It was also a time when the whole movement was much broader and more connected I think, with more overlap between people engaged in different aspects or approaches. My aim in writing the novel was primarily to tell a story however and I hope that what readers will take away is the satisfaction that comes when you read a novel that speaks to you in some way.
2. It’s obvious where you got the knowledge for the psychoanalysis scenes, but the activist scenes read pretty well too – for instance you’re particularly strong on the emotions around big actions and meetings, both “positive” and negative” – how did you do the research for them?
Over the years I’ve talked a lot with my son and his partner and some of their friends about their involvement in the kind of climate activism that features in the novel, so that was the primary source, along with my own involvement with more community based action where there was a lot of overlap between people taking part in direct action and people doing more conventional stuff. Something which provided additional background was a piece of research I did which explored the quite different emotional experiences of climate activists and climate scientists. The characters however are the products of my imagination. When you write fiction you become a thief – you steal stuff from everyone you know – an incident that your transform, a personality trait that finds its way into a character for instance – but most of this happens unconsciously. Once a character has formed in your mind, that character writes themselves. The actual incidents – climate camp, the ambush of the train, the occupation of the open-cast mine for example – are a mash-up of events that actually happened but transposed in place and time. If you were there you will probably identify what I’ve drawn on and be either pleased or irritated at what I’ve done with it.
3. There are some characters (no spoilers) who are particularly caught up in their own views of the world, who don’t seem to be able see things from anyone else’s point of view, and thus do quite a lot of damage to those they purport to love and serve. They are also the most prominent (but by no means only!) male characters – was that a conscious (!) decision?
Thomas (the transgressive psychotherapist) is perhaps an amalgam of all the bad men I’ve ever known, all the male arrogance, all the sense of entitlement, all the blindness to reality. I did want him to seem real however and I hope that the reader gets glimpses of another side to him. Similarly with Jake, I wanted the reader to see how powerful self-deception and self-duplicity can be as well as how destructive. I hoped that some of the other male characters – Felix for instance with his wounded sensitivity, or Stefan with his skilled good sense – would provide another side to the portrayal of masculinity.
4. We’re ten years on now from the events in the book – either side of the Copenhagen conference and the revelation that the UK environment movement was riddled with police spies. Any plans to revisit the same characters, or to write another novel in light of the deteriorating situation?
A number of people have asked me what happens to the characters in the novel and how I would write a sequel but at present I don’t have any plans to follow them up. I suspect that their later lives might be much less interesting than the events of ‘Transgression’. Felix and Clara in particular are at a turning point in life, they have all the hope of youth and face all the disappointment of a bitter political reality. I’m not sure I could write the sequel to that at present.
The current deteriorating climate situation is of course so inflected by the Covid-19 crisis that it feels much too early to be able to put anything intelligent into words of any kind, let alone fiction – but who knows. At the moment I’m working on another novel which is set during the cold war and maybe by the time I’ve discovered whether that one will work and whether I can finish it I will find it in myself to write more fiction about the climate crisis.
5. Anything else you’d like to say?
There’s been a lot of fiction written about the kind of future we might face as a result of climate change, most of it understandably dystopian and I’ve often wished that there was more fiction about what this issue feels like now, what it feels like to live it. Although ‘Transgression’ is set a little bit in the past my hope is that it gives imaginative space to what it feels like to be involved politically in this most desperate of issues. So much of what people talk to me about at present is the same as what people felt ten and fifteen years ago – the anger, the distress, the anxiety, the sense of your world being reshaped, the need to throw over your existing life and commit yourself, the fear that we will not succeed in stopping this. There was perhaps a little more hope then but the devastation that came with Copenhagen and the imposition of austerity was immense, greater than anything I’ve seen since. So perhaps my hope is that as well as creating a good story I’ve given space for some of the feelings and experiences of the climate movement to be validated imaginatively.