Category Archives: activism

Climate change and World War 2 analogy

Someone who went on the climate march didn’t see the organisers taking the coffins away from protesters and calling for police support.

He did however comment “that there were more young faces in the crowd than usual“.

Memories are funny things.  I remembered at that moment my grandfather and one of the recollections he shared with me of his time in the war.  He’d joined the British Army as a ‘boy soldier’ in 1925, then found himself in China in 1929, and Palestine in the mid-late 30s.  He went to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1939.  Then in 1940, as everyone fled to Dunkirk, he missed the boat, literally.  The next two weeks involved getting to ports just after the Germans.  He finally managed, by this time having gathered other soldiers with him, to commandeer a French fishing boat and sail to the UK.  Otherwise he’d have spent five years as a Prisoner of War.

Anyway, the particular thing he told me was that during that two weeks, at one point they encountered a whole bunch of troops sent over from Britain, bright-eyed and eager to engage the enemy.  By this time he’d been a soldier for almost 15 years, and he knew which way was up.  He was dismayed, sad for them and angry with the politicians who could send troops on a pointless exercise that could at very best end with their capture, simply as a gesture to a defeated ally.

And this is the icky bit. I’m not comparing us climate change veterans to soldiers who’ve been shot at (and done some shooting too, of course).  But the dynamic – of the young ones who know no better being keen, while everyone else is weary, seems to apply.


On existentialism, guilt, Godard and … Shell’s corporate framing strategy

Shell has a new advert – another clever and slick one extolling the virtues of burning gas, which, by pure coincidence, they happen to sell. Why now with this? Well, a mere three decades after the scientists started saying “we’re gonna fry ourselves if we don’t get off the fossil fuel habit” we rich white people are finally thinking about talking about at some point in the middle future perhaps getting rid of one of the three fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). And Shell sold its coal assets a while back, so would, along with the gas industry more generally, like to throw coal under the bus. It all came out in the open in June at a gas conference in Paris, the city of lights.

Fwiw, I’ve written here (“Simians, Cyborgs and Shell: Corporate Propaganda and Fall-back positions”) about Shell and its adverts. Slick stuff. This advert is a homage/pastiche/rip-off (take your pick) of Jean-Luc Godard’s stunning 1960 film “A Bout de Souffle” (or “Breathless”).

Shot in black and white (but curiously flat and expertly amateurish – probably another bid to seem quirky and authentic), it shows a pretty young woman and her French Bogart-y/Belmondo-y boyfriend in conversation, ostensibly about love, but actually about energy policy. She wants constancy, not intermittency, and he offers that he’ll always be around . It’s a parable, don’t you see – renewables can’t provide base-load electricity generation (says Shell), only natural gas can. It’s all done with subtitled dialogue and sub-Godardian camera angles.

This is presumably part one of a cunning two-part dog-whistling strategy. First they get you used to the idea that sophisticated people, who ‘get’ the (mis)appropriation of French cinema history, are willing to keep tipping enormous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere to maintain their tres debonair lives, (some other schmucks, without the distinction and cultural capital to have heard of Nouvelle Vague, pay; but they tend to be people in far off countries about which we know little. Like the Ogoni, to pick an example at random.)

The second part involves some meat-puppet politician telling you that natural gas is a transition fuel, and you nod along sagely, not even dimly aware that you’ve been primed.

Shell is in a spot of bother. On the question of carbon capture and storage (the only technology that might have given the fossil fuel industry a breathing space)  its boss had this to say

Van Beurden insisted that he had his hands tied from investing more heavily in CCS because they would not produce the high financial returns that investors had been used to from oil and gas. “I would lose my job over it if I just threw a few billions away [on CCS] … CCS is essential for society and … is ultimately important for our company, but listen, I have great difficulty to have shareholders focus on the quarter after next.”

More recently it got its Arctic arse handed to it by Greenpeace.

So at times of trouble, you fall back on what you are good at. And Shell is very very good indeed at distinguishing its indistinguishable-from-its-competitors’ product by appeals to identity, authenticity and naturalness. As the Australian cultural commentator Ross Gibson wrote two decades ago, back when climate change was possibly still manageable;

In 1953, John Heyer produced, co-wrote and directed a documentary film, The Back of Beyond, for the Shell Film Unit of Australia. For forty years in Europe, Shell had been engaged in advertising campaigns designed to “naturalize” their products in economies around the industrial world. The general strategy entailed representing Shell as innate to the good life available to the citizens of the twentieth century. “You can be sure of Shell” – the famous slogan is serene and solid like a landmass. Emphasising that Shell was part of Britain’s second nature, the company’s public relations exercises often functioned with the assurance and cunning of a myth of origin.
(Gibson, 1993; 135)

For my money (and as a PhD student, I don’t have a lot), Shell is trying to create another halo effect here. Rather than nature, female-ness and creativity, as per the ‘hybrid world’ advert, this time it’s about implying existentialism, passion and meaning. Which is a bit of a contrast to the lives of desperation, relentless banality and triviality that most of us are forced to live most of the time, but there you have it.  We’ll keep burning the fuels, so pretty soon our lives will still be full of desperation and banality. The mindless consumerism of trinkets may tail off a bit though.

Finally, there’s a couple of implications here that they presumably hope viewers are vague enough to miss. Casting itself as the Gallic gangster has the implication that it, like Belmondo’s character in Breathless, natural gas is a nihilistic narcissist/sociopath who uses up beautiful things and throws them to one side when they’re used up.

Also, I seem to recall it not ending well for the lad. One can only hope that there is a cop (or perhaps a “COP”?) to do the decent thing sometime rather soon.

So, Shell, I have two things to say – Go ahead, steal a great film, use it up, spit it out. That’s fine, that’s just what you do, who you are.

Oh, and Shell? Je dis que vous êtes vraiment “une dégueulasse”.


Gibson, R. 1993. “Yarning,”  pp 135-157 in South of the West: Post-colonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Professor Kevin Anderson on #Paris #Climate #hope and much more

This post originally appeared on Manchester Climate Monthly.

Climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson spoke to Manchester Climate Monthly on Monday 23rd November. In the two separate videos that follow, you can see him outlining what is at stake in the upcoming Paris climate conference – the nature of the individual nations’ pledges (INDCs) and how they actually add up to 3 or 4 degrees of warming, not the 2.7 that’s being widely quoted. He believes there is still a (very) slender chance that we can keep warming below two degrees, but it will require a much larger effort than anything currently on the table, and within months the option will be gone.

He looks at the heroic assumptions involved in “Bio-energy Carbon Capture and Storage” before turning to the history of the “two degrees” claim and what it means, the question of ‘what is to be done’, of hope, responsibility and much else.

As ever, Kevin’s answers are comprehensive, carefully modulated around what is fact and what is interpretation, and compelling.

First video

0 minutes What are INDCs? And why should the claim that the INDCs add up to roughly 2.7 degrees of warming very questionable?

INDCs are the “voluntary contributions” (pledges), only go out to 2030, hard to quantify because being submitted in different forms. LOTS of assumptions in this. UNEP Emissions gap report released recently suggests 3 to 4 degrees.
And all the assessments assume that we will develop techniques to suck carbon out of the atmosphere – “BECSS” – Bio-energy Carbon Capture and Storage, and roll them out. Lots of very heroic assumptions in all this

7 minutes and 30 seconds – “It’s the responsibility of intellectuals to expose lies and tell the truth”

Must be careful ascribing intentionality to deceive – it’s an “emerging conspiracy”, of iterative failure, making it harder and harder to do anything.

10 mins. You live in hope?

“We are incredibly unlikely to succeed on two degrees. We are unlikely to hold to three.” Paris is probably the end-game for two degrees C. We’ve lost all the our carbon budgets for that…”

13 mins Explain what two degrees means and why it matters?

Second video

O mins – what did we agree at Copenhagen?

We agreed at Copenhagen to take action to stay below two degrees, consistent with science and on the basis of equity. And didn’t do it- the INDCS are not two degrees, not consistent with science, and massively inequitable.

1 mins 40 Why are you going to Paris?

2 mins 30 What should we as citizens be doing in 2016?

5 mins 40 Who do we push then?

7 mins 30 There seem to be no levers that people of good faith can pull on to even slow down the acceleration of the juggernaut.

“We’ve come to a consensus of apathy” … we have all been co-opted…

9 mins 50 “But then you become a voice in the wilderness”?

10 mins 50 What changes do we expect – food prices, wetter winters?

If only it were that. And who for? People living near the sea level in Bangladesh, or rich people in the Northern Hemisphere? We think we can get by, build big enough walls to cope with 2 or 3 degrees warmer.

“We need imagination, clarity and courage.”

14 mins 10 Is there a country or a region that is doing things in the right direction, even if not at the right speed or scale?

16 mins 35 Anything else you’d like to say?

On optimism, pessimism, personal carbon allowances

Coping with Copenhagen, Parrying Paris etc

So, the climate activists are a bit stuck, now that the French state has said ‘non’ to their planned “manifestations” at the next climate talks.

“We respect the decision of the state, but we are trying to find ways to keep on mobilizing and taking the streets in one way or another during the COP in Paris, in order to make sure that we have an impact on the negotiations and contributing to our movement,” Nicolas Haeringer, campaigner for in France, told ThinkProgress.

While it’s currently unclear what form those activities might take — Haeringer suggested something as simple as banging pots at a particular time each day during the talks — organizers expect to release concrete details within the day. (emphasis added) source

I am not making this up.

Is it really only six years since the Copenhagen debacle?  It feels simultaneously like the day before yesterday and a thousand years ago. Have we learnt so little? Or do we just have so few tools in our tool box?

We COULD have “mobilised” for Copenhagen differently.  We could have organised rolling actions at a national level on key themes (adaptation, agriculture, aviation) with creative non-violent direct actions and less-arrestable stuff for others, throughout the two weeks of that horror-show.  But instead all the NGOs spent all year trying to get people to go on the most epically stupid march of all time. And the so-called radicals, who had been heard as recently as three years before that abjuring the hopping of summits? They went summit hopping, biensur.

And in the intervening six years, we’ve learnt nothing, it seems.  Looking for something else on my hard drive, I stumbled across something I wrote a couple of months before Copenhagen, after I’d spent months being told that it was wrong to treat adults like adults (telling them that Copenhagen would be inadequate/a failure) because this would discourage them from going on the march, and the march was The Most Important Thing Ever.  This came from people who think they should be listened to on the subject of strategy and movement-building.  But who are STILL encouraging people to go on this march in November, and had NOTHING to say in their 10 minute nonsense recently about the failures of the movement and what could be learned.  FFS.

Here it is.

Copen-bloody-hagen and the Rorschach test

Climate Change is the easiest and hardest thing in the world to campaign about.

On the easy side; what greater motivation than the ‘end of the world’ and the destruction of the current wealth and future prospects of every man woman and child on the planet?

At first glance, there’s all you need for a successful campaign;

  • global fairness poverty/development/injustice, check
  • animals and rainforests threatened, check
  • human rights threatened, check
  • jobs threatened, check
  • prospect of increasing militarisation and war, check

But if it were that simple, there’d be marches of 500,000 every single month, not an annual march that will be considered a massive success if it gets 50,000 this year.

Climate change is the hardest damn thing to campaign on because (and this list is not complete);

  • it is happening slowly (picking up speed nicely, but still distant),

  • it’s happening in far-off countries of which we know little,

  • it’s all a bit too scientifical

  • it’s hard to square the ‘save the planet’ and ‘keep growing the pie, only distribute it more fairly’ rhetoric of most of capitalism’s opponents.

  • Potential campaigners feel guilty over the impacts of their lifestyles, and reluctant to give up some of the things they have come to enjoy (meat every day, flying, the treadmill of consumption that gives them part of their identity)

So it gets thrown – by both individuals and campaigning groups – into the “too big” basket, and people hide behind (mostly manufactured) uncertainty or other forms of denial.1

This year, 21 years after the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (, climaxes with the spectacle of a huge international conference in Copenhagen, running from December 7 to December 18. The idea is that the world leaders who attend will sign a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally-binding international Climate Change agreement.

In order to pressure the UK Government and to Show We Care, a march has been called for Saturday December 5th in London, with another march taking place in Copenhagen on December 12th.

This article tries to sketch some recent history, look at the motivations of the participants and the likely outcomes, and suggest other ways forward and beyond. It’ll probably fail in most people’s eyes to do these things adequately, but as the liberals always say, ‘if it Sparks a Debate, then that’s a Good Thing.’

History lessens

Cast your minds all the way back to the distant days of 2006. North Korea exploded its first nuke, Google bought Youtube and Leona Lewis had a Christmas number one with “A Moment like this.”

August saw was the very first Climate Camp, at Drax power station.(

The end of the year saw march of ten thousand or so from the US Embassy (back when you could use the US Prez as a pantomime hate figure) to meet a similar number of people rallying in Trafalgar Square, under the joint auspices of Campaign against Climate Change (, hereafter “CaCC” and the “Stop Climate Chaos” coalition. (

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, as did the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. The following February the IPCC’s fourth assessment report announced what anyone with a brain knew already- we were in deep shit. (And that report, was, within a year, widely acknowledged as an underestimate of the precise depth of the shit2).

Suddenly, you could barely move but for climate change stories in the paper and on the idiot box, conferences and gatherings and everyone was green. Salvation was surely at hand.

Then what?
CaCC seems to have thought you could grow a movement by having the usual petitions, marches and an annual conference in London.

SCC basically disappeared off the national radar for two years

Climate Camp just kept on doing what it wanted- an annual camp at Heathrow and then Kingsnorth, never (it seems) pausing to think if it was achieving its stated goals, or merely providing opportunities for people to sit in a field surrounded by cops, take drugs, fuck strangers and proclaim that this was the eco-revolution.

And here we are in 2009.

Campaign against Climate Change, despite saying this was the Big Year for climate change (the author’s capitals, but CaCC’s sentiments) did not hold its annual conference this year, and is devoting more/most of its energy to its trades union activity.

Climate Camp, wrong-footed by the government over clean coal/carbon capture and storage, has not done its promised rolling campaign against new power stations. Instead it is having its fourth annual Climate Camp, this time in London. Given the Campers’ tactical nous, and the fact that the Metropolitan police are severely on the back foot after their thuggery was exposed at the G20 protests, it would be a foolish punter who bet against them pulling off something audacious. (What’s the rent on some marquees in Pall Mall; ‘Pass go, collect 200 campers and go nowhere near jail’?) Climate Camp is also talking about going off to Copenhagen to protest/demonstrate/shut down/meet new fuck-buddies.

Stop Climate Chaos, now a much wider (but no deeper?) coalition than it was in 2006, is organising a London march on Saturday December 5th, where everyone is to wear blue and therefore be part of “The Wave.” (

I doubt, if you talked to “key individuals” in each of these groups, that any of them is very happy with the slow slow progress – or actual regress- there has been since 2006. [Then again, I also doubt there has been soul-searching and effective post-morteming of why things haven’t gone according to hopes, but that’s another story.]

So much spilled ink!

The Copenhagen conference looms before everyone and is a useful “Rorschach test,” (those ink-blot tests that psychiatrists use, in which everyone allegedly sees what their underlying ‘personality’ wants/needs them to see.

For the liberals (most of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition)

The march will be a measure of success, a useful focus of “lowest common denominator” action to get the coalition moving again. Some members of the coalition, believe it or not, are uncomfortable even with something as dangerous and activist-y as a march. So, for SCC, this is a brand relaunch after a couple of years in the doldrums.

The revolutionary socialists (primarily Campaign against Climate Change, now a tattered front for the SWP, with various lip-biting socialists from other sects)

They love marches. For some reason the author has never fathomed, marches give them goose-bumps. Perhaps they squint really hard and see it as a prelude to them storming the Winter Palace. And of course, it’s in their comfort zone, they can spend energy and time booking coaches, selling tickets. Once folks are on the bus and at the march, it’s a chance to sell papers, and for their leaders to make rousing speeches. Job’s a good ‘un…

There will also be, presumably, some (well-hidden?) residual resentment that the liberals are coming in and hijacking ‘their’ march, and so they’ll throw themselves into it in order to keep/claim the moral high-ground afterwards

The NVDA /non-hierarchical crowd

Some will go on the march, but for those who also go to Copenhagen, they get to relive (or live for the first time) the glory days of June 1999 to August 2001, when each summit hop was bigger than the last, when we thought we were everywhere, and we could even plausibly claim that we were winning.

And for the author of this piece? Well, obviously he gets to indulge his intellectual arrogance and patented exasperation, before rolling over a few times in fragrant pool of doom and gloom.


How “it” will probably play out


It’s not clear if the standard guesstimate technique of numbers will be accurate (find out the police estimate and double it, find out the organisers estimate and halve it- there’s your likely range), because the police have recently started giving high estimates, presumably to justify their overtime claims. But frankly, who cares? I don’t give a monkey’s if it is 10 thousand or 60,000 (the outlying numbers in both directions, I’d say) because marches – the organising of and participating in- are horrendous ways of building a mass movement. If they worked, we wouldn’t be in this horrible mess. There is a basic confusion – among liberals, socialists and the nvda crowd – over the difference between mobilising and movement building.)

This march will have big numbers only if Londoners come out to support it. If it rains on the day, then all the free/cheap coaches from the provinces will not make a difference. Those coming from Brizzle, Sheffield, Manchester will largely come regardless- they’ve “invested” already. It’s the Londoners looking out their window in Walthamstow on the Saturday, who only have to swipe an Oyster Card (or not), who’ll give the numbers or not.

The marches and protests


They’ll be spinning the numbers upwards, and blaming the weather if the turn out is lower than hoped for. They’ll make sure to get their best and most telegenic speakers giving upbeat soundbites to the Beeb and Channel 4, and they’ll be twittering and facebooking and flickring about what a great and inspiring thing it was for days afterwards.


They’ll release an estimate of the numbers on the march even higher than the SCC estimate, and claim the credit for getting so many people out on the streets. Then they will, um… Denounce somebody for being the main blocker of a stronger deal. Probably the Americans (and probably rightly).

Climate Camp- some will make the trip to Copenhagen, on one or another form of zero clue caravan. They’ll meet up with old friends from various G8 and IMF/WB summits, and there’ll be a pitched battle or two with the EU’s finest. These will involve colour-coding, clever tactics and zero strategy. There will be ritual denunciations by the NGOs about the violence, and counter-denunciations about reformist sellouts.

There’ll be “lovely pictures” and war-stories, and websites will spring up, extolling the virtues of the Climate Resistance of Autonomous People. The author thinks its unlikely to be a replay of Prague or Genoa-

Firstly because the UK “movement” doesn’t seem as strong as it was all those years ago. The trees of Newbury etc are now a very distant memory, (and indeed a folk memory for many). In addition, the “are we actually wanting to shut this thing down?”question hasn’t been successfully grappled with, an answer merely fudged.

Secondly because the Danish police will have been role-playing a whole lot of scenarios, including Prague and Genoa. That said, given the experience, courage and tactical nous of the NVDA crowd, it would be a foolish punter who bet against them pulling off something audacious without getting good odds from the bookie.

The actual conference

There are, philosophically speaking, three possible outcomes;

A scientifically adequate deal to meet the challenges, an inadequate deal (on a sliding scale of shittiness) or no deal/delayed deal.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there’ll be a collective waking up, and the science will drive the conference, and we will get the 40% cuts by 2020 that are needed, peaking in the next 2 years or so, and the huge amounts of money needed for adaptation and resilience for both the minority and majority world will start flowing, and the developing countries will change their tune and come on board for imminent emissions reductions of their own. But that’s looking kinda unlikely. And the deal- whatever it is- is going to rely on huge amounts of carbon trading and dodgy accountancy about where emissions are consumed and produced (e.g. While the UK’s produced emissions have declined a bit, its consumed emissions have soared.3)

So what we will see instead is some variety of inadequate deal, ranging from fairly inadequate through to mind-numbingly, wrist-slashingly inadequate. (We’ll come to the “no deal at all” option later)

The inevitable spin cycle

But it won’t be in the interests of either those who sign it or those who urged them to sign it, to get too honest about the actual scale of inadequacy.

The governments are hardly going to turn around and slag the deal off, because their oppositions will just say “well why did you bloody sign it then? Why are we making sacrifices that aren’t worth it, eh? Why didn’t you hold out for the rich/poor/white/brown/yellow (delete as appropriate) so-and-sos to commit to more?”

The NGOs (I think here FOE, Oxfam etc) will not be too hard on the deal, beyond expressing understanding disappointment/ resigned realism because;

a) they don’t want to piss off the governments too much- there are long term relationships at stake here, after all.

b) they have to be able to sell Copenhagen – and their lobbying – to their constituents as a success. Never forget, these NGOs need direct debits and donations in order to survive, and keep doing the (largely good) work that they are doing. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact of life.

And of course, both governments and NGOs will be looking at the struggle for ratification through national parliaments. It took Kyoto, far less ambitious, 8 years to get signed off by enough countries….

The revolutionary socialists and the NVDA crowd are in the “happy” position of not really needing to paint the Copenhagen conference as a success. Their constituencies are already predisposed (and the author agrees with them) to see this as a giant stitch-up where the rich will screw the poor, the present will say “to hell with the future” and the ecosystems of the world will continue to get exploited in imaginative and suicidal ways. “Success” around Copenhagen for these groups, the author contends, is going to be more to do with maintaining their own oppositional ncihes and their view of themselves as the people not fooled, the pure outsiders who the world has ignored. And a chance to sell papers or screw strangers, naturally.
Taking the bis?

There is a chance, I can’t really say how big, of the whole thing NOT coming to a deal, and a Bali Action Plan with bells and whistles on it being announced, with a follow-up meeting (known as a “bis” meeting) happening 6 months down the line. Which would be curiously deflating…

The dangers

A vast proportion of energy will go into getting 10 to 60,000 people tramping through London

At which point everyone thinks, hmm, that’s about a 50th of the number that marched on February 15th 2003 and THAT didn’t work. Is this all the people who give a damn…Christ, I feel more alone than I did before… And at the same time, some/many participants will think “I’ve done my bit, I’ve shown I care, now it’s up to my elected representatives to do their bit.”

Then, when Copenhagen is not an unalloyed success, this sort of thing will be going through people’s heads;

Hmm, Copenhagen wasn’t a success. My organisation strongly implied that it could be. Either

a) they were unduly optimistic, in which case, I don’t trust their judgement as much as I used to or

b) they knew the likelihood of a good outcome was low, but chose to keep that information from me, so I would go on their march. That isn’t very honourable. In fact, it is bloody patronising, and I am not sure I trust them anymore…”


In fluid dynamics, an eddy is the swirling of a fluid and the reverse current created when the fluid flows past an obstacle. The moving fluid creates a space devoid of downstream-flowing fluid on the downstream side of the object. Fluid behind the obstacle flows into the void creating a swirl of fluid on each edge of the obstacle, followed by a short reverse flow of fluid behind the obstacle flowing upstream, toward the back of the obstacle. This phenomenon is most visible behind large emergent rocks in swift-flowing rivers.

Another possible type of turbulence is the vortex. This notion is now applied to gases, which have the same properties as liquids. Here, no void is created, but only an area of lower pressure, but again, a backflow causes the gas to rotate.

If the liberals don’t prepare people for the reality- that the likelihood is a weak deal or no deal – then they will have to spin whatever emerges as a “success” to justify their own stated optimism, so as not to demoralise their supporters. This spinning will take time and energy, and always comes at the cost of credibility.

The obvious questions, that (maybe) only an outsider without responsibilities and a wage reliant on one of the organisations can ask, are

  • Why not be radical and tell potential participants the truth?

  • Do we think people can’t handle the truth?

  • Won’t telling the truth leave us in a more credible position for dealing with the realities of 2010 and 2011?

    Why not say “this is too important to be left to politicians, whether they are local or national or global. There are things we can do, here and now, to prepare for climate change and help developing countries. These things are fun to do. They are happening before Copenhagen, and they’ll be happening after Copenhagen.”

What could (still) be done

To hell with the wave- we need a hundred thousand eddies. Rather than crashing against the wall-like indifference of the British public in one spasm of splashy showing blueness, we need constant, smaller eddies that disturb the regular flow, and turn things around and around and around. People making waves in their workplaces, places of worship, on their streets, in the chambers of commerce and the chambers of their local council. Eddies that are turbulent, mix things, creating connections and interactions that wouldn’t otherwise be happening.

If the planning for the Wave explicitly, persistently and imaginatively creates the conditions for these eddies to come into existence locally before December 5th, and works out how to celebrate and support them afterwards, then it won’t have been completely wasted time and energy.

Further reading

“Beyond Copenhagen” piece, June 2008

On the limits of NGOs, and Umbrella Groups

Alex Evans and David Steven

Climate Activists in Denial

Financial Times Monday 27 July

Gideon Rachman

1On denial, check out George Marshall’s blog and also the excellent World Bank-sponsored study Cognitive and Behavioural Challenges in Responding to Climate Change by Kari Marie Norgaard

2Especially on ice-sheets and sea-level rise. For links, consult

3Dieter Helm’s Tanner lecture 2009 is worth a read.…/TANNER%20LECTURE%20Feb09.pdf See the Guardian’s report here-



Digital porn debate – neither heat nor light

I don’t quite know what I think about porn. I don’t think about it much, don’t watch it (What never? No, hardly ever). So what? What I do and don’t do, what I like and don’t like has no moral weighting when we are talking about societal harm.

This is a basic point that I wish the six speakers at tonight’s “debate” on the prevalence of digital porn had absorbed. (‘THIS HOUSE BELIEVES THAT WE SHOULD ACCEPT DIGITAL PORNOGRAPHY AS AN INEVITABLE PART OF OUR CONTEMPORARY EXPERIENCE’) Anecdotes and confessionality might win titters or applause from the audience, but they doesn’t advance the debate, it doesn’t expose people to (m)any ideas and perspectives that they’d not heard before.

A debate might shed more light than heat, or more heat than light. Or, occasionally, as in tonight’s curiously bloodless affair, not much of either.  I walked at the half-way stage, before people started pitching in from the audience, and had a drink with a good and v. smart friend.

I am not sure what I’d have done to sharpen it. I get the impression that the participants had not been in or to many actual debates, with cut and thrust, argument and counter-argument. They barely acknowledged each other’s points (such as they were), and mostly talked past each other.

Nobody laid out, at least that I heard (my attention drifted intermittently via the 6 five minute spiels) about the teleological (greatest benefit for the greatest number sort of thing) versus deontological (thou shalt/not) ways of slicing philosophical and ethical questions.

Nobody (and this is a point my good friend made in the pub afterwards) asked “why is sex any different to whatever else we sell – our time, our creativity, our physical labour”. And if you don’t tackle that one, if you dance around it, you end up with a debate invisibly shaped by Victorian values.

I don’t mind that it was mostly by and about young people (I just about vaguely remember being one of those) and the Effects On Teenagers. But what was quite odd was just how INCREDIBLY heteronormative it was. Not one person talked about porn that didn’t involve both men and women. Very odd.

BTW, am interested in any books that anyone  can recommend about “sex and the internet and ethics”, especially from an intelligent ‘sex-positive’ feminist position (i.e. and one that takes the strongest of the radical abolitionist arguments and deals with them fairly, without ad femininem or straw-womaning).

Update:  Here’s one that goes on the post-Thesis reading list

Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect and Queer Sociality

Reflections on feminism and women’s liberation

Sue Crockford is a London-based feminist.  Here’s a brief interview with her in which she reflects on how she got involved in the Women’s Liberation movement (via involvement in anti-Vietnam War activity),  what her memories of that time she cherishes, and what feminism means to her. Below, another feminist, Sarah Irving, writes about her reactions to the interview and what we can learn.

Sarah Irving: There are lots of reasons why I think that younger feminists ought to listen to women like Sue Crockford, with her decades of involvement in the movement. Some of them a serious reasons, like tactics and strategies and not reinventing the wheel. At forty (or very close to), I’ve realised in recent years that I’m already old enough to have seen several cycles of activism go round – similar issues and dynamics recurring, people getting enthused and burnt out in depressingly similar and repetitive ways.

Of course, we all need to learn from our own mistakes, and that’s as true of younger activists in their political lives as of anything else. But do we need to keep making the same mistakes, over and over? There’s a difference, I think, that can be drawn between the kinds of personal, emotional screw-ups that everyone probably needs to go through to understand how to function sustainably as an activist in the world, and the movement-level mistakes that can be learnt about, if only we can put aside our pride, and our prejudices against older people, for long enough to do so.

As well as all that serious, important movement-building stuff, I also think that this interview with Sue should be watched by younger activists far and wide because it’s a great reminder that being involved in politics doesn’t all have to be deadly serious. As well as being a long-term, committed feminist and struggler for social justice in other forms, Sue is also a beautiful, flirtatious, sexy, fun, funny person, and that very much comes through in this video. She’s a glorious reminder of the fact that activism is part of life, and that while a lot of life might seem pretty grey and depressing, it should also be shot through with colours and glitter. If we don’t allow for that in our activism, we risk both our own health and sustainability, and being so bloody miserable-looking to other people that we put them off getting involved too.

Watching this video, I get the overwhelming sense that although Sue Crockford might have been hard-working, high-expectations kind of comrade in the 70s and 80s, she’d also have been a hell of a lot of fun to work with. And that’s a great set of lessons to learn, for all activists.

Simians Cyborgs and Shell: on corporate propaganda and fallback positions

 The oil major Shell has a blisteringly slick and seductive new advert that extols the virtues of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ (which it isn’t).  As a piece of propaganda, it would make Donna Haraway guffaw with delight.

It’s 80 seconds of ‘Jenna and Cory’ who live together extolling the virtues of hybridity.  They are ‘alternative’ (dyed hair, tattoes, piercings, vegan), living in a twee rural setting, and techno-geeky (there’s drone porn) who are trying to make a “hybrid house” – one of them is “super-nerdy, she takes everything apart”.

They think “in a few decades they might be able to rely solely on solar and wind energy, but we can’t do that right now” (we’ll come back to this). Instead they advocate natural (love that word) gas, because it’s the most “sustainable way to fuel your life”.  The words “climate change” do not, of course, appear.

This is a straightforward reverse-McCarthy, an “innocence by association” gambit, aiming for a halo effect from all the nice crunchy granola things it’s putting on the screen. Readers with long memories might recall the applauding dolphins and sea lions from 1991, when they heard that another oil major, Conoco, was going to use double-hulled oil tankers.

In 80 seconds it ticks a huge number of boxes – woman-as-nature, ecological modernisation and corporate citizenship.  It really renews the  “whole earth catalogue” (Stewart) brand  for the 21st century and appropriating the (false ) notion of “hybrid vigour”.  The ad agency most definitely deserves its fee.

These adverts, in which nature is redeemer and advocate are not new –  Esso had a ‘Tiger in the Tank’ and SSE has a soleful looking orang-utan shilling for it. The use of feminism/female empowerment to sell products goes back (at least) as far as the notorious “march” of actorvists called “Torches of Freedom”  in 1929, organised by Edward Bernays for “Lucky Strike” cigarettes, tying smoking to women’s liberation. We should be taught how to deconstruct advertising in school, of course.  But Berger (1972), Williamson (1978), Goldman and Papson (1996) are not, to our shame and loss, on the primary school curriculum…

Meanwhile, back in 2015, Shell are so confident of the righteousness of their message and  the value of dialogue that….comments on the video are disabled. Perhaps they are learning from the ‘bashtag’ experiences that other corporations have weathered of late. Still, it’s had more thumbs down than thumbs up…


Shell and other companies’ history

Shell is justifiably proud of its advertising prowess, which dates back to the 1920s and especially the 1930s. As its own website says –

“But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, [emphasis added] reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics.” [And some are even National Trust-worthy]

Sadly at the same time Shell supremo Henri Deterling was palling around with Adolph Hitler – the latter speaking at his funeral in 1939.After the war, Shell’s mojo (briefly) deserted it- there’s an hilarious advert of a salad covered in oil.

If crimes against aesthetics were all that it was up to, you’d be forgiven for laughing. But as Andy Rowell writes

“In the post-war years, Shell manufactured pesticides and herbicides on a site previously used by the US military to make nerve gas at Rocky Mountain near Denver. By 1960 a game warden from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game had documented abnormal behaviour in the local wildlife, and took his concerns to Shell, who replied: “That’s just the cost of doing business if we are killing a few birds out there. As far as we are concerned, this situation is all right.”

But the truth was different. “By 1956 Shell knew it had a major problem on its hands,” recalled Adam Raphael in the Observer in 1993. “It was the company’s policy to collect all duck and animal carcasses in order to hide them before scheduled visits by inspectors from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game.” “

The 1990s were a particularly bleak time for Shell’s PR folks. They lost the Brent Spar battle, and the execution of 9 Nigerian activists, including author Ken Saro-wiwa presented them with real PR problems  They started talking about sustainable development (Livesey, 2002) and also re-jigged their advertising, and were happy with the results (Victor, 2005).

Renewable outrage

However, Shell’s recent attempt to drill in the Arctic been catastrophic, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Greenpeace has them bricking it – Lego have ended a tie-in deal, and the combination of American kayakers, a giant polar bear stalking their HQ and Emma Thompson are giving them new headaches.

It’s in this context that this advert, advocating natural gas as a transition fuel, must be read. It’s a classic ‘you may not like us, but you need us’ statement.  Further, the claim that renewables might be viable in a few decades is particularly interesting (and audacious).  Costs of renewables are plummeting, and ‘grid parity’ (dangerous term) is approaching.

Shell, and other oil majors, might be wise to be nervous.  And according to the excellent journalist Arthur Neslen, Shell  has been lobbying the EU to undermine its next renewables target. As Goldman and  Papson (1996: 200) observe –

“…in a sense, the advertising provides covering fire so the lobbyists can quietly do their work. The battles are often won in the lobbying trenches, but they cannot be won if public opinion, or more importantly, public opinion amplified by the television media, keeps attention focused on images of environmental degradation.”


Thanks to Guy Diercks for bringing this advert to my attention.  While I retain any kudos for this analysis, all libel writs and threatening letters should be directed to him.

Further Reading
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Robert Goldman and  Stephen Papson (1996) Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising New York ; London : Guilford Press

Greenberg, J., Kngiht, G. and Westersund, E. (2011) Spinning climate change: Corporate and NGO public relations strategies in Canada and the United States. International Communication Gazette 73, (1-2), pp. 65-82.

Levy, D. Reinecke, J. and Manning, S. (2015) The Political Dynamics of Sustainable Coffee: Contested Value Regimes and the Transformation of Sustainability Journal of Management Studies

Livesey, S. ( 2002) The Discourse of the Middle Ground: Citizen Shell Commits to Sustainable Development Management Communication Quarterly vol. 15 no. 3 313-349.

In this study, Foucauldian theory is used to interpret a corporate social report published by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group to reveal the contours of an emerging corporate discourse of sustainability and the knowledge-power dynamics entailed by social reporting. The report could be read simply as a corporate attempt to re-establish discursive regularity and hegemonic control in the wake of challenges by environmentalists and human rights activists. However, the author interprets it in the context of the larger socio-political discursive struggle over environment and social justice and finds that Shell’s “embrace” of the concept of sustainable development has transforming effects on the company and on the notion of sustainability itself. This contradictory and ambiguous result is characteristic of discursive struggle, which is where, according to Foucault, power is played out and social change occurs.

Pulver, S. (2007)  Making Sense of Corporate Environmentalism: An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry Organization and Environment 20 (1) pp. 44-83.

Verity, J. (2005) Shell: an advertising success story. Strategic Direction Vol 21 (9), pp. 15-17.

Judith Williamson (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.