Category Archives: events worth blogging

Event: “The Resilience of Unsustainability: Cultural Backlash, Authoritarian Reflex and the Great Regression” #TransitionImpossible

After last night’s keynote, tonight it was the turn of Professor Ingolfur Blühdorn, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, WU Vienna to deliver a talk. His title was “The Resilience of Unsustainability: Cultural Backlash, Authoritarian Reflex and the Great Regression,” which is academic-speak for “Dudes, lemme say, we’re, like, totes fubarred”

This blog post gives an account of what he said, what the panel, made up of

said, and then a precis of the questions and answers that followed. There’s even a bonus snarky summation from me. I aim to make the whole blog post somewhat shorter than last one (#oldpeople #decreasingstamina), but again, [my snark is in square brackets and red…]

Speech, speech!

Bluhdorn was introduced by the chair Margaret Haderer, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, WU Vienna, who pointed to his prolific output (the word ‘frantic’ was in there…)

If you really want the low-down, defo watch this totally amazing, professionally made video – post-ecological thinking

[So, I’m going to bullet point lots of the speech]

The talk is part of an international research workshop – key question is whether societal transition – at which a declatory level is accepted – might be impossible to achieve, and if so why? What kinds of transformations are going on instead?

Three issues for tonight

  1. Change in social value preferences, shift in political culture we are witnessing in contemporary consumer societies
  2.  Rise of right wing movements and parties, which are conducting a head on attack on eco-agendas
  3. Thirdly, talk about Robert Inglehart, the founding father of academic study of values. His 1977 book The Silent Revolution says our societies should be becoming evermore eco and socially progressive. Has a new book saying this (Cultural Evolution).

So, the speech is a response to Backstrand’s speech which was on the supply-side, of what (Swedish) state can provide, while this is looking at demand side- what citizens want..

Argument

  • modernisation/emancipation-induced change in social value preferences helps to explain the resilience of unsustainability
  • Rise of right-wing populism is NOT a “reversal” of the emancipatory agency, but its dialectically transformed and politically outsourced continuation.
  • The change in political culture in the wake of the populist revolution is part of modern consumer societies’ adaptation to sustained unsustainability.

Resilience has become popular in parts of the eco-political literature. Normally has positive connotations. Not often used alongside unsustainability… Donna Nelson et al 2007 –‘the amount of change a system can undergo and still retain the same function and structure while maintaining options to develop.’

still retain the same function and structure’ is an interesting phrase, which shows a shift in perspective. Modern socieities adamantly defending their unsustainability [Bush Snr declaring at Rio that the American way of life was non-negotiable]

Social Values and Political |Culture

Shift in values and culture in liberal consumer democracies are centrally important to this resilience. (Of course, there are drawbacks to this way of looking at things). But, useful. Prevailing norm specification and legitimation are crucially importance for the resilience, inertia…. [Did I mention my PhD thesis is called Enacted Inertia?]

Robert Inglehart work is well known and much debated, The Silent Revolution introduced “material to post-material values, and  “security to self-expression”. In most recent work, though, the “post-material values”  argument does not play major role, but democratic values and self-expression are still there (see pages 114 and 124)

  • Self expression values emerge when a large share of the population grows up taking survival for granted (124)
  • Since democratic institutions provide greater free choice than authoritarian institutions, people with self-expression values generally want democracy (121)
  • Cognitive self-mobilisation makes [middle class people]more skilled at organising in order to get them (119)

Inglehart reassures us democracy has not reached its high-water mark, there is  no long-term retreat, ad no need to panic. A curious story. Post-materialist/eco-values no longer prominent We might be tempted to dismiss Inglehart’s argument wholesale and call it academic path dependency. But that would be throwing out baby with bathwater…. There are strengths in Inglehart’s analysis

  • significant parts of society are rebelling against the iron cage of consumerism
  • emphasis on the individual, its subjectivity, its identity and its value preferences
  • particular focus on well-educated middle class as pioneer of change (the cultural creators).
  • Theory of modernisation—induced value and culture change and rise of self-determination and self-expression values are being articulated ever more vociferously
  • ever increasing demand for choice IS a driver of societal change.

And also ‘end of democracy thesis’ is indeed mistaken: Inglehart can give us good guidance there. However, there are also weaknesses.

  • Firstly, he does not explore what kind of self, and how prevalent understandings of this Self may change. These are changing/have changed
  • Secondly no attempt to spell out what the notions of freedom and autonomy may imply and how prevalent notions of freedom and autonomy may change, or may have changed.
  • Thirdly, no differentiation between different forms of democracy. Occasionally very simplistic.

If we iron out the weaknesses in his views, we will get closer to understanding/explaining resilience of unsustainability.

As regards the understanding of ‘the self’ there is a rich body of literature. In the well-educated middle classes where Inglehart identifies the Silent Revolution) they are ever less predetermined, and ever more a project the individual can/must pursue. This self, this identity is ever less unitary, homogeneous. In reality, it’s more dynamic, fractured…

[See also Gergen, 1991 The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life . And for that matter Erich fricking Fromm]

Ever more this self-actualisation project is done via the consumer market.

If all this is the case, the rise of expression values can be seen as the rise of ‘the unsustainable self’ [need to consume at a frantic rate]  With ever-increasing pressure to mobilise all resources for realisation of the Self Project, and choices in the consumer market ever more important, and the expansion of lifeworlds, lifestyles, arenas of self-experience, ever more planned obsolescence in self-experience, unsustainabilty is no longer an unintended and potentially amendable side effect, but a constitutive principle of modern identity, lifestyles and society. [as the young people used to say, ‘it’s not a bug, it’s a feature]
The subjective is and patterns of self-realisation of the most innovative and progressive parts of society, in particular are unsustainable by intention and design.

[Michel Houellebecq nails this.]

The analysis of this value and culture shift goes along way in explaining the resilience of unsustainbility.

Second major Inglehart deficit – failure to spell out what exactly ideals of freedom and autonomy are supposed to look like.

Inglehart is right to say in era of neoliberalism, freedom and autonomy seen as about ‘free choice’, but this ISN’T how we used to think, and isn’t compatible with eco-politics sense of 1970s. There was an different understanding of autonomy then.
Wasn’t about free choice, but accepted limitations and boundaries that had to be kept.  [see also the concept of eudaimonia?]

In line with Kantian tradition, post-Marxist,these saw freedom and autonomy primarily as inner, moral and intellectual freedom. Around dignity and integrity, rather than fulfillment in/through the market. Freedom and autonomy implied the ability and duty to recognize, follow and appreciate the guidance and imperatives of reason versus animalistic impulses).

Freedom and autonomy understood in collective sens, limited by the principles of inclusion, equality and reciprocity. They were conceptualised as ecologically inclusive. (dignity for other species etc). Within these boundaries, precisely, freedom and self-determination were the normative base of eco—democratic, eco-political project. Only within these boundaries are rise of individualism conducive (to human flourishing).

But the logic of emancipation is not known for respecting boundaries. Quite the contrary, transgression of boundaries is its thing. [Erich Fromm knew this.]

The dynamics hollowed out the norms of the eco-democratic project and also incrementally depleted normative resources of the project Emancipatory movements metamorphosed from agents of project into its grave-digger.  [“From emancipation to emaciation”?]

The dialectic of emancipation explains how and why the most emancipated and progressive parts of contemporary consumer societies are a key parameter for the explaining the resilience of unsustainability.

These parts of society have embraced and are defending patterns of self-realisation which have moved beyond Kantian boundaries and emancipated themselves from restrictions from which Inglehart thought would mean eco-improvement.

The most of us in the room belong to this well-educated section of society, with the uncompromising defense of their lifestyles

[Prof Kevin Anderson- if you want to see a high emitter, look in the mirror]

This may well be why in Inglehart’s new work post-materialism no longer prevalent.

So, it is mistaken to see what is happening as reverse, backlash or regression. Rather, it’s the playing out of the internal logic

Such conceptualisations (if Inglehart et al)  are the socially and politically sedative performance, the simulative maintenance of norms and values which have factually long been abandoned because they are incompatible with contemporary understandings of freedom, self—realisation and a good life. Current developments are not a deviation from the trajectory of modernisation and emancipation but its continuation.
Any return to a supposedly normal course or status quo ante is not to be expected.

The attempt to portray the projected socio-ecological transformation in terms of than emancipatory promise and gain has lost its sociological foundation.

[Lyrics: “Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn”… Gil Scott Heron, song ‘South Carolina’ 1980.

Whatever happened to the revolution (Skyhooks, 1974).]

Middle class not ANTI democratic, ANTI environmental, but reconfigures what these terms mean.

Third major Inglehart deficit is his failure to explore different styles of democracy.
Authoritarian reflex/populist reflex.  e.g. the following quotes

Decades of declining real income and rising inequality, together with unprecedented massive immigration, have produced a long-term period effect supporting the populist vote (186)

still, income factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist authoritarian vote. (181)

He concedes however that age-linked cultural voters are STILL the best predictors for who votes right/against social change

[Karl Mannheim and cohort effect!]

Older people freaked out by large scale immigration. But these effects are temporary (old people die).

So Inglehart thinks Right-wing populism therefore a passing tide, says democratic values will recover… Thus ‘no need to panic’.

Bluhdorn – Whole range of respects you’d want to take issue. Academically and politically irresponsible. But, on focus on the resilience of unsustainabilty… see it as a continuation rather than reversal of middle-class emancipatory project.
With simplistic notion of modernisation and equally simplistic “democracy versus authoritarians”, Inglehart fails to see at the possibility is a reconfiguration of democracy.

He’s right it hasn’t reached its end, but fails to recognise possibility of transformation, but he fails to see the following

  • There’s a multiple dysfunction of democracy, a legitimation crisis.
  • Economic growth is actually unlikely to recover, and the most progressive parts of society are seeing de-limited views of freedom are seen as non-negotiable.
  • The emancipatory agenda pushes the necessity to reconfigure democracy to accommodate contemporary understandings of self-realisation and self-expression.
  • Rather than being a short term antidemocratic tide, the populist revolution lastingly reconfigures democracy so as to enable it to manage ever higher levels of social inequality, indeed ot politically organise and legitimate a politics of ever-increasing exclusion.
  • By remodeling democracy into a tool for a majoritiarian politics of exclusion, the populist revolution substantially increases modern societies’ resilience to social and ecological unsustainbility.

Bluhdon says he is NOT doing this analysis with any kind of moralising intentions, but from the perspective of a reflexive, critical sociology. Aware of the problems – one methodological problem is that BOTH sides are at pains to express their incompatibility with each other. Everyone claims that ‘they are the people, drain the swamp etc.
Meanwhile, civilised civil society is saying we’re not the mob, we’re reasonable.

From a sociological perspective, looking beyond the self-description of the actors, it is possible, even constructive, to bridge the abyss to think about symbiosis (not conscious!) between the non—negotiable freedoms whose self-descriptions do not allow them to self-organise this exclusion, and those to whom they outsource this class.

This has always been the case. Comparable to outsourcing of sourcing of consumer goods, and outsourcing waste disposal of problematic stuff to the Global South.

Panel Discussion

Karin Bäckstrand: Three critiques

  1. Too deterministic about this value shift
  2. Too speculative, no empirical foundation around a) rise of populism and b) resilience of unsustainability
  3. Underestimate resilience of political institutions to the changes

re 1. YES, we’re in a dark place right now, but if longer perspective, and look at same-sex marriage, gender equality, there IS change.. RW populist parties won’t be able to reverse this. 82 percent of Swedes do NOT support Swedish Democrats.

2. I know this paper doesn’t have empirics, but as political scientist, there is a lot of research, we need numbers. Could draw on public opinion work. e.g. Dennis Everberg this morning, (who looked at “Resisting Transition: An Empirical Investigation into the Social Forces of Business as usual”)  in Germany. We need more than anecdota, look across levels, countries…

Also, if unsustainabiility is constitutive, why have these conferences?!

3. Political institutions actually stick. E.g. in US, Trump is not able to dismantle the lot. Some standing up for the rule of law etc.

Arias-Ladonaldo

Stimulating lecture. The right questions, but have disagreements about your seductive almost apocalyptic arguments.. You approve of Inglehart emphasis on autonomy. Are all these subjectivities alike? Aren’t populists appealing to notion of community that has been eroded by the market etc.

  • Are we not talking about two kinds of unsustainable selves?
  • Children of the 60s looking for shelter in identity politics.
  • Compelling aspect of lecture in ‘unsustainable self.
  • Was the bounded self an illusion? Mostly embraced by a very few. Mostly captured by capitalists
  • Maybe the 60s moment was always just going to be a moment? And 60s were rebellion against boring conformist 50s etc.
  • Eco-democratic project was individualistic
  • Fourth – rise of unsustainable self thesis – but ecomodernism is a narrative on offer. Can it seduce the unsustainable selves?
  • Fifth- interpretation of populist wave. Not the whole story. Populism is also protest against globalisation and psychological impact of GFC.

Christoph Gorg

Not easy to comment on paper/speech.

Share some of the pessimism, but not the conceptual foundations. Also missed the empirics.

  • Good to emphasise current industrial societies are unsustainable.
  • Not possible to use Inglehart ot explain all this.
  • Read Silent Revolution when it came out and then decided to read better books….
  • Preferences are not fixed, they develop!
  • Second, the term resilience. Even in ecology it’s highly contested. Resilience Alliance did a power grab on this!
  • Last point – yes, need to act as scientists not activists. But can we do that from ‘neutral’ perspective?! If you speak of unsustainablity, this includes a normative judgement.
  • Need to think ‘how to change it’?

Bluhdorn Answers brief because I don’t disagree with much of the panellists

  • We as interpreters of ongoing or not-ongoing changes, are caught up in narratives, conceptualisations which we have re-iterated for decades. My agenda not to be optimistic or pessimistic, but how can we – if at all – break out of these self-description narratives.
  • How can we get out of the repeat cycle?!
  • Inglehart’s book is indeed terrible. Am not defending it. Am trying to tease out whether anything useful in his approach that can take us somewhere.
  • Not defending the term resilience – just saying is there any mileage in it, around reading against the grain.
  • And yes, need to check if Dennis’s data can be read through my perspective…
  • Not trying to offer theory of populism. Looking at phenomenon and seeing how it might be connected to the resilience of unsustainability.
  • Yes eco-democratic project was an illusion! But a significant enough illusion that Inglehart wrote a book.

Thanks to everyone! Clarifications will go into paper

Questions from floor

Meadowcroft – certainly stirred things. Could you explain what IS the curious resilience of unsustainability. I don’t see why there is anything to explain. Why SHOULD society evolve towards sustainability. All sorts of forces that reproduce current set ups?!

Bluhdorn – one could say ‘nothing’ if don’t expect societal transformation and assumes a certain trajectory. We need an explanation for universal commitment but no action, and also why you’re now allowed to say ‘I don’t care’ (Drill Baby Drill)

Luigi- Following Gorg point – concept of resilience. Foucault said ‘look, often/always in history we are stuck into problematisations. Frameworks of thinking that can be totally opposite but share conceptual foundations and be in hidden agreement.

Dorothea – DO we need new questions? Are we asking wrong questions? Might it simply be that other social forces stronger than our analysis?

Eric – remark on middle-class. To what point in Europe does this work? In USA ‘crisis of middle-class’. In US self-identification of working class has gone up…

Ingolfur – same old stories. Post-growth folks – nothing new. I read these stories 30 years ago….

Andrea – evolving self of middle-class and rise of right-wing populism. Two remarks. 1. outsourcing – its not the progressives outsourced, they lost it, if they ever had it in the first place

2 sectors of middleclass not progressive!

James – your feeling that nothing is changing. I sympathise, especially over some of the debates (e.g. post-growth etc). While doing my PhD  on the topic of British State conceptualisations battles in the 1880s, I saw same debates, decided same underlying structures

Margarete – once pushed it, got to go normative or empirical, you have to go somewhere/can’t stay where you are.. Risk of sweeping generalisations

My take

Ingolfur’s work is always invigorating. I remember reading his take on non-violent direct action subcultures as a Theme Park and punching the air – “finally, an academic looks at social movements and refused to suspend his critical faculties in exchange for access to these people”  And I totally buy post-ecological thinking (see amazing video above).  And I never liked Inglehart, so this is catnip to me.  It’s good to call bullshit on the soft-green middle classes who think that they’re doing their bit by buying organic yoghurt while cranking out the airmiles.  And it’s good to see what is happening now as part of  an unfolding logic.

I think the word resilience was a hostage to fortune. We’d possibly have had a different, more fruitful discussion if the terms persistence or tenacity had been used.

And, as with the entire conference, the ‘what is to be done’ question has gone largely unasked, and even more largely unanswered.  Truly, we are living it large….

 

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Excellent Event: Ambiguous Transformations: Governance, Democracy, #Climate Transitions

Here’s the gist of a very long blog post. A senior academic  (Professor Karin Bäckstrand) gave a very clear summation of the relative importance of the Paris Agreement, the distinctions between ecological democracy and environmental democracy and the (possible) path of transformation that Swedish society is undergoing. She did this in the context of an academic workshop in Vienna called ‘Transition Impossible.” What follows is a blow-by-blow account of her talk, the panel discussion afterwards and the questions from the floor (which were, on the whole, skeptical about the likelihood of a “deep” transformation. My comments – with minimum snark – are in [square brackets and coloured highlighting.] Then my editorialising is at the end of this very long blog post. A disclaimer – In no way am I doing this blog post at top speed to demonstrate my ability to absorb, synthesise and assess information while seeking out additional sources to show that I would be an excellent post-doctoral candidate. Cough. Cough. Especially given that my PhD has been about the under-studied politics of socio-technical transitions, a lack noticed during the talk and the Q and a.. Cough. Cough.

Professor Bäckstrand began her talk, titled “Ambiguous Transformations: Governance, Democracy, Climate Transitions” with a thanks to the organisers for “a very timely conference”. The workshop, entitled “Transition Impossible? Ambiguous Transformations and the Resilience of Unsustainability” was, she said, “at the heart of what I and many colleagues are researching.”

Bäckstrand admitted that – based on what she’d seen of the conference so far (it’s the end of the first day) – admitted that she was more optimistic than the average participant about the possibilities for transition, but admitted that being from Sweden may have shaped that.  [The author of this blog is ever-so-slightly more pessimistic. Being from Australia/UK, he is shaped by that]

Bäckstrand said that ecological democracy etc is the key question – (how) we can bring radical societal transformation towards decarbonisation and make them compatible with principles of green ecological democracy.

Admitting to being a ‘COP junkie’ she began with a Paris Agreement (PA) recap. While admitting that PA will by no means transform the world, she said that it nonetheless sets out a framework… 179 countries, each with “Nationally Determined Contributions” and climate plans [Very very few industrialised countries are on track, and Paris would lead to 3.4 degrees of warming in any case. As for Australia, do not talk to me about Australia. As for Paris, see my cod-psychology explanation of the hype/hope]

She also mentioned having been at the recent Global Climate Action Summit, 13-14 September in San Francisco. Planning for it started with Governor Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg back in November 2016 after Trump won the election (with 3 million less votes than Clinton. Some would say a lot of greenwashing, but also a reaction whereby cities and regions take on commitments, new alliances shaped, which is critical for transformation.

Bäckstrand then turned to Sweden, which aims to become one of the world’s first nations to go 100% fossil fuel free  [See a blog post by me and my brilliant colleague Joe Blakey on the ‘meaning of zero carbon’]

This, Bäckstrand said, will be done in a deliberative and democratic way, and is a far reaching societal transformation and decarbonisation in line with Paris towards a carbon neutral society compatible with principles of ecological or environmental democracy (of which more later).

The key questions are – how can democracy or values of democracy (participation, inclusion, transparency) be secured in governance towards low carbon society? Is democracy fit for the task to secure sustainability in the large scale transformation and decarbonisation of society and economy?

Bäckstrand then supplied a bullet pointed list of what she would cover..

  • Politics, power, democracy are missing in the narratives on transformative shifts, which are dominated by techno-centric and market-oriented strategies of transformation
  • Multiple, multi-directional and contested transformations
  • Decarbonisastion reinforces dilemma of strong environmental outcome versus democratic procedure
  • Democratic values of transparency, fairness, inclusion, representation and accountability are needed in large-scale transformative action called for to implement the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 [but then, who remembers Local Agenda 21?]
  • Tensions between democracy and sustainability, and the ideal of ecological democracy and practice of environmental democracy
  • What transitions: from ST transition towards a politics of green transformation: Four strategies of transformation
  • Resolving the tension between democracy and decarbonisation.
  • Arguments of green authoritarianism (Lovelock etc) are returning. Planetary emergency calling for extraordinary measures…
  • Sweden combines ambitious transformative action with participatory and democratic process [Ah, the books that Per Wahloo would write now!]
  • Public trust is at low point, populist on rise, Swedish Democrats got 17 per cent. Previously said wanted to pull out of Paris. Called for a “Swexit”…
  • Withdraw from multilateralism – enormous challenge…

The Background

  • challenge of democracy in post-democratic era
  • Paris paved way aspirational goal settings for states to be carbon free by 2050
  • Unleashed low carbon roadmaps by 2020, 2030 and 2050.
  • Disjuncture between a radical goal of green transformation and our existing political institutions
  • Polycentrism and networked governance emphasizes, decentralisation, local embedding, self-governance experimentation networking, giving up ‘big politics’ by states and governments. (Voss and Schroth, 2018)

Ecological democracy versus eco-authoritarianism

  • Liberal democracies well positioned to address climate change as they are open for public and popular demands for public good provisions
  • Positive relationship between green values and green democracy
  • Deliberative democracy model for connecting democracy with green or sustainable outcomes. Dryzek, Smith 2003, Bäckstrand et al 2010

BUT

  • Liberal democracies with free choice generates individualism, profit seeking and over-consumption colliding with sustainability values (Heilbroner, 1977))
  • Democracy too slow, cumbersome, captured by interest groups
  • Central authority needed to steer society toward large-scale transformation within planetary boundaries.
  • Veto actors, incumbents can slow decision making

Implication that we need technocracy or global panel of experts. [Or, in the words of one rising academic star, we need avivocracy]

For Bäckstrand, the rise of eco-authoritarianism is very problematic.  Together with Jonathan Pickering she has acted as co-editor in Journal of Environmental Public Planning (special issue)  Here below, stolen from her slides, is a table comparing ecological and environmental democracy…

Ecological Democracy Environmental Democracy
Value orientation ecocentric anthropocentric
Ideological orientation critical of liberalism Compatible with liberalism
Discursive orientation green transformation/radicalism critical of states and multilateral system sustainable development and ecological modernisation
Role of state critical of states and multilateral system versus working within state and multilateral system
Role of capitalism/markets critical of capitalism reconciled with capitalism
Role of civil society civil society as resistance/opposition/critique civil society as active partner.

In summary – Environmental democracy advocates say modifying existing institutions of liberal democracy and capitalism is the best way forward. Ecological democracy proponents have instead a “fundamental transformation required” message.

Backstrand then showed a graph, from climateactiontracker.org showing the emissions gap between what we have and what we need to hit 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees

cat emissions gap

Clearly needs transformation of economy and society.

NB Paris in and of itself cannot be transformative,  In a way Paris domesticizes (down to national level) the international system.

Issues of accountability, transparency, inclusion are therefore very important.

Civil society, citizens, other states can review how on track or not nations are [see the recent Australia versus Pacific islands moment as an example of how (in)effective the moral complaints of small actors are, and have been over the last 30 years…]

For Bäckstrand, it is crucially important for states to be held accountable for action/lack of action.

In transition management field (Kemp and Rotmans 2009) need to focus on conflicting interests, asymmetrical power relationships, incumbent power, veto players.  Transitions literature overly focuses on governance of transitions, transformative pathways and planetary management, rather than the POLITICS of transformation [btw, did I mention I have just written an entire thesis on this?]

Multiple and contested transformations are occurring/would need to occur at local, national, multilateral and transnational sites, i.e, not one linear transformative path.

Drawing on the seminal book edited by Scoones, Leach, Newell 2015, (and also citing Clapp and Daveurgne 2011) Bäckstrand identified four strategies for green transformation

  • Technoscientific transformation = clean and green techs, renewables, CCS etc
  • Marketised transformation = green growth, green economy, carbon markets,CDM, payment for ecosystem services
  • Government-led transformation = top down, green state is the facilitator of transformation to sustainability or carbon neutrality (Duit 2014, Meadowcroft 2011, Eckersley 2004, Bäckstrand and Kronsel 2015, UNEP, global green deal.
  • Citizen-led transformation = bottom-up, degrowth, citizen science, lifestyle politics, climate justice, just transitions

[Track record of first three lousy. Fourth is just Naomi Klein’s so-called “blockadia”, no?]

Techno scientific and marketised strategies are very dominant (#understatement)

At all the summits enormous mobilisation and protest (e.g de Moor article on the ‘efficacy dilemma of transnational climate activism’).  However, as Dryzek has written, these radical climate justice movement types are very separated from the decision making powers.

Having laid out this conceptual landscape, Professor Bäckstrand then turned to her empirical case – Sweden

  • It is the most advanced green state, alongside the Nordics (see Ecksrley 2004; Bäckstrand and Kronsell 2015)
  • It has the goal to be first fossil free welfare state in the world, by 2045
  • Fossil free Sweden” government led stakeholder mechanism with 300 municipalities, companies, civil society actors (now 400 actors)
  • Led by chair of Swedish Conservation Society (was ‘co-optation’ critique)
  • Since January 1 2018, Sweden has a Climate Law, the Climate Policy Council – should every year scrutinise governments every year

So, can Sweden escape the carbon lock-in [Unruh] while keeping its democratic values?  Former deputy PM (Green) said at Paris that Sweden should be first fossil- free by 2045. Cynics would say just rhetoric, but it’s being backed up:  Every four years an extended review. Independent council with scientific experts.

This is a State-led transformation – collective visions of climate just world building on ideas of Green People’s Home

It is primarily Techno-centric transformation as evident in goals to produce fossil-free steel production, bio-CCS and, yes, nuclear energy,  Alongside this, it is also a Market-oriented transformation: Sweden was a first state with carbon tax and green tax shift with bipartisan support (was idea of Green Party, in practice lib and conservative alliance that did this – shift from income tax to green taxes)

There was consensus among 7 parliamentary parties (after 2 years parliamentary commission) along left-liberal-green conservative continuum (except for the Swedish Democrats) for the Climate Law, Climate Policy Council and the goals of 2030 and 2045. There have been new coalitions between different actors – municipalities, trade unions, companies, investors, as illustrated by government led Fossil Fee Sweden civil society led Climate Sweden and business—led Haga Initiative.  So we can see the following –

  •  State as an orchestrator or facilitator for climate action – government led Fossil Fuel  Sweden gathering
  • Framing climate change narratives towards justice: Just Transition by trade unions
  • Climate change co-benefits; energy security, (not to be dependent on Russian gas!) health, biodiversity, clean air, sustainable cities

This is environmental democracy rather than ecological democracy ideals, i.e. a [putative] transformation within capitalism. So far, Sweden has decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent since 1990 [as was later clarified, this – importantly – was on production-based metrics] and the economy has grown.

The largest challenge is Sweden’s transport sector. It is currently reducing by 2 to 3 per cent per year. However, to hit the targets, it would need to increase that to 4, 5 or even 7 per cent per annum: This would need (costly) high speed trains, electrification…

Conclusions

Sociotechnical transition literature does not pay enough attention to politics, power and contestation of transformative shifts  [Ah, Chapter 2 of my PhD thesis! In case you hadn’t heard me say that before…]

  • Democracy has been downplayed in the scholarship and practice of decarbonization and transition studies
  • We need to open up for public dialogue, reframing and deliberation as part of the process of knowledge production for transformation
  • Polcyentrism emphaizes decentraliztion (Backstrand admits to being increasingly skeptical on the usefulness of this)
  • Paris Agreement has precipitated national target setting and time-tables, but this is very uneven
  • Low-carbon transformations are currently dominated by techno-scientific and market-orientated strategies
  • Swedish case underlines importance of state-led transformations
  • Accountability, deliberation and representation along environmental democracy ideals need to be secured for meaningful green transformation and decarbonisation
  • Sweden on track to be green decarbonised state

But there are of course many challenges,  Broad pubic civil society and parliamentary support for transformation to a fossil-free state.

The Panel discussion

At this point, the chair Fred Luks of the Competence Centre for Sustainability, thanked her for “an optimistic, even patriotic, speech” and introduced the panel. This was made up of economist Professor Sigrid Stagl, political scientist etc Professor James Meadowcroft, and Michael Deflorian of the Institute for Social Change and Sustainability.

Luks began to Professor Bäckstrand;  “What is the ambiguity in your title?”

Bäckstrand – daily politics. The difficult moment after the recent Swedish election… Largest nationalist anti-immigrant party that has wanting to leave EU, climate denialism. We have our Trump moment. If they gain more strength and power we will definitely have an ambiguous transformation. Of course we have enormous challenges, above all with transformation… especially transport. And more than climate change, also Sweden is far from reaching its biodiversity goals. Very contested around forest policy – (many argue that commercial interests too powerful).

James Meadowcroft then made two observations. One, overall a positive picture of intentions and reductions over last few decades. So that’s a political accomplishment, but the political significance is enormous to move beyond fossil fuels “This energy source is dated,” is a message transmitted to all actors… Over the past two years a number of other countries have said similar things, albeit not economy-wide. E.g. UK’s “get rid of ICE by 2040 “. Within a few months of these announcements, the head of GM went to China and she had one objective – to stop China announcing end of ICE, given that GM strategy had been for hybrids for 20 yrs before a switch to electrics… Incumbents are aware the change is coming, trying to put it off 15 or 20 years, can make billions in the meantime. It’s not the infrastructure, its the patents etc…. Now seeing fightback in many countries around the world. Trump cancelling subsidies. Ontario – first thing new populist leader did was to scrap the cap and trade trading scheme, and also to end subsidy for buying of electric vehicles: ‘no subsidies for Tesla’… (Meadowcroft continued that this was of course thrown out by the courts because it was obviously discriminatory. But they hate Tesla!),  Sweden has best possible situation (but no fossil fuels). So , reality check from… Canada. – oil and gas crucial, alongside auto-parts. Canada a long way from making any pledge. Everyone knows tar sands not compatible even with two degrees of warming, can’t say it publicly, so worm around it. But no coincidence that leaders like Sweden and California not exporters of fossil fuels.

Luks then asked Stagl – is this too optimistic?

Stagl: There is more potential than in Austria, which had its environmental leadership moment decades ago. We have lost our way in terms of active climate policy… To Bäckstrand she observed “You were talking about ecological and environmental democracy. You referred mostly to environmental democracy though. You had ecocentric – there was a debate in ecological economics, which even that is anthropocentric. (Stagl said she was a fan of the Arne Naess deep ecology view).

Stagl then asked the crucial question (imho)- was the vaunted 26% reduction a production-based or consumption-based? Came the answer that it was is a production based one.

Stagke asked another corker – Is there a public debate in Sweden to go beyond growth?   Also, what  role of trade unions – are they reshaping the discourse? (In Austria for very long time TUs were obstructors)

Michael Deflorian began his comments by admitting that he had lived in Sweden for two years doing his masters, and had thought ‘Sweden is red-green utopia, so let’s go there,’ But of course, not as utopian as a lot of Germans and Austrians might think… [At this point the song Sweden by The Divine Comedy comes to mind…] Deflorian asked if Sweden is also planning to become extraction free, given that there is minerals mining in the North (Samis). He pointed to the notion of “cultural laboratories” with Sweden having strong potential for this.

Ex-climate activists going into this sort of ‘laboratory/prefigurative’ work, but the question remains whether people are trying to go beyond all parts of their life or just one arena, and this doesn’t happen in political vacuum. [In the radical environmental journal ‘Do or Die’, in the 1990s, there was discussion of this – permaculture as a retirement home project for burnt out anti-roads protestors]

Meanwhile, of course rightwing populists say ‘the boat is full’ and when RW Populitsts get in power their decisions have immediate effect [see Trump and EPA etc – though there is a limit to the wrecking he has been able to do].

At this point the chair (Fred Luks) pointed out that for all its plans, the Swedish state had recently issued a pamphlet to all citizens ‘if crisis or war comes’

Karin Bäckstrand thanked the panel for its questions and gave answers-

  • Extractive industries are indeed expanding. Contestation – court cases etc Also wind power siting (with Sami). And then there is the history of colonialism.
  • Is there a counter-movement?  Two trends. Hyper-individualist  (most single-occupancy housing in world; 300k Swedes fly to Thailand every year to get some sun) but also highest percentage of members in nature conservation organisations, This is very ‘double’ Meanwhile Swedish church are increasingly involved –
  • On trade unions – also double – the Central have taken forward ambitious plans, go to COPs etc, on the other hand, exodus of voters from trade unions to Swedish Democrats: More from unions went to Swedish Democrats than from conservatives
  • Is economic growth etc being debated/discussed? Green Party (close to losing their seats, having been in coalition government for 4 years). They used to have zero economic growth in manifesto. Then ‘realos’ took over (very contested) and deleted that part of the programme. It had been debated among the public… green inclusive growth is the dominant discourse.
  • Ecological democracy vs environmental democracy –well the idea of future generations, non-human animals etc is not a big thing in Sweden (compared to constitutional change in other countries – Costa Rica etc)
  • The panel came back with some further comments.

James Meadowcroft – why would we think everything has to change at once and everything has to go in one direction? In history we see bumps, reverses, movements splitting and reforming, huge opposition. Many movements go right down to the wire, to the last minute. Then the change comes and they can’t quite remember ten years later that it was in any way different [See Kathleen Blee’s excellent book on this Democracy in the Making]. Social change is like this – ‘where is it possible to make progress’ and focus attention on that. As the dialectic is, as the progress works, it will throw up side-effects etc.

e.g. if production emissions are coming down, great – but inevitably the debate will come onto consumption-based metrics. By the time that happens the countries that Sweden imports stuff from will have begun to dematerialise their production too…. We must get away from thinking can solve all problems at once.

Fred Luks then sought to move beyond Sweden – “We’re not talking about “reform” we’re talk about trasnformation (E.g. Polayni 1944 and coming of market society , after which nothing was the same). Is Sweden anywhere on the road to a great transformation? And where is the resistance?” He then cited Ulrich Brand and  Martin Wissen “The Limits of Capitalist Nature: Theorizing and Hierarchies of Belonging in Overcoming the Context The Imperial Way of Living” When you try to do anything, there is resistance. There are privileges…

Michael Deflorian  : We can see the resistance- rightwing populism.  E,g, Vice Chancellor in Austria openly denying climate change.  Also We have resistance within ourselves too. The EPA on formative mileux. The post-materialist ones have second highest carbon footprints… [See also Professor Kevin Anderson here – we see the high polluters when we shave in the morning…!] We could say, with Ingolfur Bluhdorn, that all this transformation talk is simulation…

James Meadowcroft :  The question makes me want to be contrarian. Which aspects exactly are you unhappy with?  Flying? Meat eating? Having kids? I’m not convinced that’s the way we’re going to solve the problem. If stop burning fossil fuels, solve energy problem, can use as much as we like. We need to remember different scales matter – local environmental problems often life-threatening. Great Transformation may take another century or two. Tackling local problems may give us breathing space… We’re going to have to grope our way forward over many decades…

[This reminds me of Michael Thompson’s talk of ‘clumsy institutions’. See also wicked problems. Of course, super-wicked problems are a different problem…]

Sigrid Stagl : On the biggest resistance (having spoken to investors this afternoon). Well, divestment rhetoric that works is powerful. For the rest, it’s still the game ‘why me? I’m busy writing reports, trying to be more efficient. We are x and y certified, we are doing a lot…. [compare Wright and Nyberg and corporate (in)activity and self-delusion].

Karin Bäckstrand on the subject of resistance –

  • Swedish Democrats. They wanted Lower tax to cut EPA funding and withdraw from EU (all under anti-immigration umbrella). This withdrawal from the EU stance cost them votes – the EU is becoming steadily more popular with Swedish votters…
  • Aviation tax  as a potential point of conflict– Sweden had a uniilateral one. Many businesses have to fly – “we need domestic aviation”….
  • And the car industry – Volvo and Saab (previously) as potential intransigent actors…

Questions from the floor

The chair did something I’ve seen also done in Australia – and I think should be the norm – they kept hold of the microphone, and this – as in Australia – tended to reduce the speechifying element of the questions…

First question was from Ingoflur Bluhdorn  I like all this optimism, I like all this hope. Gives me injection of energy in both directions… Sweden as pioneer is one narrative, there are others. Sweden in a number of respects is a very exceptional set up, almost in an aquarium. In terms of “Lifeworld environmentalism” (as per Daniel Hausknost’s paper in the opening session of the conference) Sweden is a particularly good example. Sweden may follow the Germany and Austria trajectory (of previous environmental ‘leadership’ that runs into the sand. THAT is more likely – (Backstrand challenged to defend…)

Bäckstrand : Swedish Democrats hoped they’d be second largest party, they became third. Their mistake was to talk about Swexit, which scared Swedish public. Support for EU has increased every year… We see actually – via Gothenberg public opinion surveys- environment has risen on public salience. It was 8th, now 2nd. Yes, right now we have one of largest right-wing parties in Europe. And yes, Swedish is a deviant case. (carbon free electricity based on hydro, nuclear and renewables). Yes, an outlier.
James Meadowcroft :  It would indeed be a transformation if went in that direction, but not a great transformation. What would 30 years of right wing populism do? They are reactionary movements, which ultimately will be ground over, by innovation and change at many levels. Renewables, battery technologies will make many lower carbon options viable, just on convenience/cost grounds alone,

Question – Daniel Hausknost : It’s important that there are front runners like Sweden – those who can lead should lead- there is scope for change underneath glass ceiling. But it’s not, James, a stepladder of production decarbonisation and then consumption. Previous decarbonisations were based on moving production to elsewhere! Embodied emissions go up, [At this point, an hour and a half of typing in, the author began to think about games of ‘Step ladder or snakes and ladders’ and if someone will give him funding to develop that] And as per Karin, Sweden has lots of land, forests, low population. Energy density and area matters (as in the past). You need to lower consumption of meat etc, you can’t just substitute other energy sources for fossil fuels

James Meadowcroft:  I agree with Daniel – need to transform agro-food sector. But HOW? I want to deal with production and consumption together…. About half the emissions reductions in Europe were due to independent factors (Germany unifying and shutting down hopelessly inefficient East German industry, the UK and dash for gas) BUT the other half was due to deployment of renewables, more efficient homes etc.

Ingolfur Bluhdorn :  do you have carbon footprint on consumption side in Sweden?

Karin Bäckstrand : (after voicing agreement with Daniel and Ingoflur) Yes, Climate Council beginning to look at consumption based Sweden doesn’t come out very well “figures aren’t very good”, And bio-economy and biofuels were hyper optimistic (new generation of fuels for aviation). But even with lots of land, not feasible/realistic… In electoral campaign, this was debated. Greens always say ‘reduce air travel/need quotas on transatlantic travel’. Even conservatives saying ‘need to reduce (air) travel’, in context of those who want massive role out of biofuels.

Question to James – we’re used to critiising movements for big vision creation, but they’re crucial for mobilising… (example from 1900 given!) Isn’t ‘incremental steps’ harmful?

James Meadowcroft:  pie in the sky narratives, when they fail, mean activists drift away… I’m NOT saying ‘only little changes’… The problem with major social change is it grinds up people, it’s great for their great grandchildren, but individualss lose jobs, never work again etc… e,g Women in science -lots of sacrifice, only granddaughters benefit…

Question (from author of blog) : When will we know if Sweden is on the right path? HOW? Is it in two years, five years? What if the consumption-based metrics say you can’t have 300 thousand Swedes getting a Thai tan?

Karin Bäckstrand ; We will keep track every year – development of emissions reductions plans, what kind of policies they have implemented, (e.g., high speed trains). This will then scrutinised. Also a lengthy review every four years. Without that solid review, it will be very hard to predict, and it will be very much rhetoric. With emission reduction rate is not enough, it needs to be doubled at least….

Sigrid Stagl : –ongoing green growth orientation versus consumption based is problematic, I think. … Pathways Pick and Yasser 50 percent every ten years, frontloading the effort is a long way away.

Michael Deflorian : we get there if we do x y and z. What is the role of researchers/academics with this kind of council? We as researchers are supposed to tell publics and policymakers how we get there. But we also need diagnosis of why we haven’t reached those previous goals over last two decades. It’s not enough to only have present focus. We should also consider the role that we as researchers have.

Question from Margaret Haderer – women trying to enter science It did make a difference, took time. But at the moment, looking at this plan, it seems there’s little sacrifice for Swedes, just ‘’do as you have, only more efficient’… Is what we’re proposing morally/ethically the right thing? Are we the good guys/ It’s just the same ecological modernisation story (gets applause!)

James Meadowcroft – so ‘if they’re not suffering, they’re not contributing’? Not sure why you think that… – rich prosperous people not suffering? Swedes aren’t sacrificing enough?  [I have not captured the nuance of either the question or the reply on this one – I will admit that I was flagging]

After a question/comment about the availability of battery storage technologies, the last question came from an interesting freelance journo: We need trustworthy information for democracy. What does transition require from the mass media, implementing for example the Aarhus Declaration?

Michael Deflorian ;  What is happening in cyberspace (echo-chambers and filter bubbles) – are we not in one ourselves, about how good transformation will be… Digital democratic space is falling apart, and no way other than nationalising Facebook and Google to deal with this.

James Meadowcroft :– (in response to the battery question – technological change vs behavioural/social change is something I take very seriously. I do NOT say a tech gizmo will solve all our sustainability problems. But I do believe that can provide all energy services in rich world can come from sources that don’t pollute. That’s because 2/3rds of fossil energy goes up as heat! Present techs in battery does have problems, but LOTS of research and development (more in last 10 than in previous 50). Won’t always be stuck with polluting storage technologies. We won’t have to go back to living in caves, and it’s not true and it’s been propagated in part by fossil fuel lobby.

Sigrid Stagl – I agree with both scepticism about reenewables and also enthusiasm. Solar panels now a tenth of what they cost seven years ago. In response government of lower Austria has cut subsidies. Now householders would have to pay less (because of the price drop), but there is less uptake because of the lower subsidies!

Karin Bäckstrand – technology and behaviour are integrated.  Utmost importance of public access to information. Sweden has a far-reaching act on this. Civil society must be watchdogs for what governments are on track or not. There are now a lot of civil society review mechanisms Equity reviews too.- to what level including distributional justice etc. And yes, social media climate is extremely bifurcated in Europe. Climate denial viral there…

My summation.
A very good evening. Well chaired, very clear presentation (overly optimistic for my taste, but tbh anything short of ‘we’re all going to die horrible deaths in the grim meathook future much sooner than you think’ would get the same criticism from me!). Panellists did very well, as did the expert chair, who kept it flowing and brought it in on time.

The whole Sweden thing sounds great. I hope it works and I especially hope I get a post-doc to watch how it unfolds (popcorn and the apocalypse- yum!).

I would say that we tried ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ in Australia in the late 80s and early 90s and it died a death. As Frank Turner sings

But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left
And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest
Yeah by idiot fucking hippies in 50 different factions
Who are locked inside some kind of 60’s battle re-enactment
And I hung-up my banner in disgust and I head for the door

For me, then, as a quasi/proto/whatever academic, the research agenda/research questions are these:

Firstly, how do we have sustained social movement agitation that is constantly chivvying the state and business, forcing them to make promises and also watchdogging them relentlessly into keeping the promises? How are those social movements able to sustain themselves, without being co-opted and/or repressed? How can social movements avoid the smugosphere, the emotathons and the theme park of radical action?

Secondly, how can we expect the enemies of social movements (and as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us) to monkey wrench those social movements and their activities?

On the importance of ignorance and empathy – #TBCtraining and swanning around

One of the ways we fail (and there are many) is when we don’t understand/contain our emotions around failure.  Yesterday at the training session for ‘Brilliant Club’ (a very cool charity which aims to get students who wouldn’t otherwise go to ‘top’ universities, the trainer said at one point ‘get a piece of A4 paper, make an origami swan. You have two minutes.’

Because Origami Swans are the deal-breaker for admissions tutors at Oxbridge and we’ll spend weeks at schools teaching this crucial skill?

Not quite.

It was, of course, a way of forcing us to think about how what is blindingly obvious and easy to someone who knows how to do summat, is basically impossible for a ‘newbie’.

And there was a mix of responses. Some diligently tried (there were some very odd swans/failures) while others pushed back, since the task was clearly impossible, and ‘stupid’  (explaining why we were being asked to do this “impossible” task – to then reflect on the emotions and behaviours it provoked – would have defeated its purpose of course).

Anyway, I have since found a youtube video that is about 90 seconds long. Origami swans are easy as, ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING.

It put me in mind of other training I’ve had where (to a whole room) trainers have tried to get us to empathise with other people.

As a physiotherapy undergraduate we had an OT come in and do a session on what it’s like to be old.  She turned up the music (I think) faced away from us and quietly told us to do something, and most of us didn’t even hear her.

Then there was a CORKER when I was doing stewards training one time.  A group of us was all given a card, which with a part of a bigger picture. We could describe what was on the card, but not show anyone. The task was to figure out what the picture was.  I completely stuffed it up, because I didn’t listen to the right people (the trainer had deliberately given crucial cards to people who were not assertive, and I was even more full of myself then than I am now (shudders at thought of 35 year old self, would punch if had time machine).

There was even an episode of Happy Days where the Fonz is forced to confront his ageism. True story.

The point being: if you want to help people (and be helped by them, obvs), you need to see the world through their eyes.  Things that are ‘obvious’ are only obvious in hindsight.  You can say that all you like, but failure to make an origami swan in two minutes (where you only actually need about thirty seconds if you know what you’re doing), is a very very good way of bringing that point home…

 

Technology to the rescue? #HybridWorldAdl

In 1759 the English essayist Samuel Johnson had some wise words about techno-hype.  He said

“When the philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of useful arts; the time was supposed to be near, when engines should turn by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine…..”  

Johnson, like many sceptics of technology, struggled to keep his schadenfreude under control-

“… improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The gout and stone were still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest, and neither oranges nor grapes would grow upon the hawthorn.” (see video here)

Johnson would have in equal parts bamboozled and enthralled by a two-day conference Hybrid World Adelaide where new promises of technological solution for economic, environmental and social problems were propounded, alongside quite but powerful words of caution.

Hype-ridden or hybrid world?
Adelaide has (outside of “Mad March”) a sleepy image – “the streets are so wide, everybody’s inside, sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year” – which the state and city government are understandably keen to challenge.  They provided significant support, arguing that it is an“opportunity to extend South Australia’s reputation as a key tech destination for international visitors and businesses alike.”  This argument – that cities are competing to attract footloose global capital, is known in academia as ‘the spatial fix’  (first propounded by Marxist geographer David Harvey.  But broadband, stable tax regimes and an educated workforce is not on its own enough. In the words of one presenter, Anton van den Hengel   “ a lot of places [smart people] are asked to work by their companies suck. Adelaide doesn’t suck.”

There was an impressive range (and gender balance) among the speakers. The conference proper began with an overview of ‘five technologies that will shape your future’ from the conference’s creative director, Robert Tercek  (author of ‘Vaporised’ ). Over the course of the two days the various presenters spoke to each other’s work, raising questions elided by others, and occasionally fruitfully disagreeing.  Topics included empathic computing, machine learning (not to be conflated with artificial intelligence), space archaeology and, inevitably, smart cities.

There were a series of intriguing factoids thrown out.

  • In four years the number of Australian space start-ups has gone from one to…  eighty.
  • The price of monitoring a cow (handy for proving provenance) has tumbled from a thousand dollars to a few cents
  • Be careful with v-signs on social media – photo resolution is getting so high that your fingerprints could be scanned and used to open your devices
  • The medical advances around software and diagnostics mean photos of your retina taken with an adapted mobile phone will be able to spot heart disease and diabetes, while Chest CT scans can give a good indication if you’ll be alive in five years

The two most compelling presentations (and there was stiff competition) came on the first day.  An anthropologist- Professor Genevieve Bell had even hardened mining engineers sitting up and take notice.  Having pointed out that many of the new technologies relied upon enormous electricity consumption, and that therefore there might be times when AI was not the sustainable option even if it promised’ efficiency savings’, she argued that underlying the enthusiasm for information technologies were differing sets of assumptions and cultural goals. In the west, companies like Google and Facebook are hoovering up information ultimately to sell you things, while in China the focus is more on the creation or maintenance of ‘social harmony’.  Having interrogated the origins of the term Artificial Intelligence, Bell ended with a riff on Arthur C Clarke’s line that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic.  Instead, Bell said, our technologies should be about making magic.

Soon after, her suggestion was met.  When Marita Cheng , a young tech entrepreneur, founder of Robogals /and much else, demonstrated a mobile phone app   that announced what it was ‘seeing’ at eight objects a second, you could hear jaws hitting the floor.  Cheng followed this up with demonstrations of ‘telepresence’ robots,  which, among other things, would enable sick children to still ‘attend’ school.

The conference itself, bigger and better than last year’s effort  was itself a kind of hybrid – not ‘critical’ enough to be academic and  too broad-ranging to be a trade show (you don’t often get anthropologists and archaeologists on the stage).  But it’s this sense of daring, and of ‘ecosystem building’ – of creating the conditions for lateral thinking and serendipity, that the organisers constantly invoked.

As such, it wasn’t a space for interrogating the darkside of tech.  The dominant way of thinking about this was that ‘bias’ (a deviation from the ‘reasonable’ Gene Rodenberry-esque future) might happen, but active malice was ignored,  This was also a feature of the recent Adelaide Festival of Ideas: these events recruit their speakers from universities and start-ups, and  both tend to be relatively uncritical about technology. There are honourable exceptions.

Venture capitalists don’t give money to people who think tech will make the world worse (or poorer) Ask questions that are too awkward too awkwardly and you won’t be invited… A speaker warning of the panspectron,  of the power of autonomous weapons, might have darkened the mood a bit too much…

The gigabit economy?

Adelaide’s mass manufacturing base (never strong) is in poor shape.  Will the unfolding effort  to wire up the city centre for superfast connectivity provide an alternative economic base? Who gets left behind in this economy?  How do people retrain for a very different future? Might the ‘lucky country’ end up – as someone once warned – a banana republic?

There’s a lot to play for.  It will be interesting to see if the Liberal State government – represented at the conference by the newly-minted minister David Ridgway – can get past the fact that this sort of ‘attract the techies’ work was associated with the Weatherill government, and reach not just for current Liberal prime minister’s enthusiasm for ‘innovation and agility’,  but hark back to the state-building vision of a legendary (Liberal) premier- Thomas Playford.

Time will tell. Samuel Johnson might yet be proved right.

Books I absolutely did not buy #94. Absolutely not… (forgive me, Dr Wifey)

I didn’t go to the secondhand book fair on Fullarton Road today.  I didn’t buy the following books.  And I give my reasons why I didn’t buy each on

 

earth sound coverI didn’t buy this 1975 disaster novel for a buck, written as it is by the guy who a couple of years later did the first real climate change novel (cli-fi as it’s now called) ‘Heat’.  Definitely didn’t buy this because of the whole ‘earthquake’ thing like Icequake and that British one.i I can’t remember the title of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

earth sound back cover.jpg

ruins of earth cover.JPGI didn’t buy this collection of short stories about ecological devastation, published in 1973, which in no way connects to my fascination with that late 60s/early 70s sense of ‘oh fuck’.  Nope, didn’t buy this, even though it was only a buck.

 

 

 

 

 

aus sci fi back cover2.JPG

It’s really good that I didn’t buy those two, because then I’d have had momentum towards buying this volume on Australian Science Fiction, published in 1982.

aus sci fi cover.JPGaus sci fi back cover.JPG

and amidst all of that, if I had bought those three, I’d have felt compelled (despite its lurid cover) to buy a novel, published in 1970, by Marge Piercy (author of the brilliant Vida, Body of Glass and Gone to Soldiers) about doomed radicals.  I mean, it was only a buck, but I resisted, oh yes.

dance the eagle to sleep cover

dance the eagle to sleep back cover.JPG

And having resisted all those purchases, it took every ounce of willpower not to buy a famous Australian proletarian novel – one which I am only aware of because of very smart commenters on the Conversation, also for a buck….

unknown industrial prisoner cover.JPG

and having not bought those, it was relatively easy to not buy two Parker novels for two bucks each.  So I won’t get to read more adventures of a fantastically amoral killer, books.  So, dodged some bullets, eh?

man with getaway face cover.JPG

the jugger cover.JPG

Waste is women’s work? #Adelaide #auspol

The question was designed to be difficult, and the answers were in equal parts cautious and revealing.  Rather than about recycling – the topic of a tightly run panel discussion put on at the King’s Head by Adelaide Sustainability Connect and the SA Young Professionals Group of Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) – the question was about the audience.  Noting that this – and another recycling meeting last week (link) – had an audience gender ratio of 3 or 4 to 1, the questioner asked the panellists if such a ratio was normal, if it mattered and if so, what could be done – or is it just that men don’t care about recycling?

The panel, made up of Linley Golat, Sustainability Educator at Cleanaway, Lynda Wedding, Waste & Recycling Education Officer at the City of Onkaparinga, and Tim Johnston, Logistics Officer from Veolia had been dealing with less sociologically-focussed issues. The emcee, Matt Allen, had drawn each of them out on their work, its challenges and not just the ‘easy’ items to recycle, but also paint, electronic waste and medical waste.

Ms Wedding said that the audience gender mix was about standard, but that this was not necessarily a problem, since the research showed that it was women (wives and mothers) who manage the household  (the sentence ‘keeping the men in line’ was uttered tongue-in-cheek), and that events such as the one tonight, standing room only, with about 60 people present, were important for getting the word out.

Ms Golat was able to sidestep the first question, by saying that this was her first ‘public’ event – most of her work takes her to kindergartens, schools and businesses. She did not that when, as part of her job, she goes door-to-door, invariably and regardless of gender, the person who answers the door always points the finger of blame at other occupants of the property for any environmental shortcomings.

Mr Johnstone argued that things were slowly improving in terms of awareness of waste issues and the need to recycle, and pointed to his own household, where he does the heavy-lifting on these issues.

Other questions also brought interesting responses. Mark Parnell, MLC, asked whether the panel supported legislation given that education was a very slow process and exhortation had its limits. The panel was again cautious, but Ms Golat celebrated the outlawing of e-waste into landfill, and Adelaide City Council’s impending ban on plastic straws at events and plastic at public events.

Responding to a question on where soft plastics (e.g. food wrapping) can be recycled, Ms Wedding pointed to the ‘redcycle’ programme initiated by Coles, which has now been taken up by Woolworths in the aftermath of a scandal in which ABC’s War on Waste had installed geotracking on two bins of plastic recycling waste which found one had gone to landfill and the other overseas.  Wedding pointed to 11.2 tonnes of soft plastic being recycled in South Australia every months, and the company Replay turning that into a range of products.

Ms Wedding pointed to demand outstripping supply for organic waste to turn into compost, and all panellists urged for a greater community and business effort to divert organic waste from landfill.

A question on whether the ratio of recycling to ‘normal’ waste collection could be altered (to further incentivise householders to think where they put what) came up against the statutory obligations on councils, which nonetheless are keen – if only for budget reasons – to optimise their collections.

Adelaide Sustainability Connect organises these monthly meetings – details can be found on their facebook page

https://www.facebook.com/AdelaideSustainabilityConnect/

Q and A next week is devoted to waste and recycling, and ABC’s influential War on Waste returns next week.

#climate justice or just us? Of learning, time machines and the “what should have been done”#AFoI2018

May as well put cards on the table. I think we’re fubarred. I think that we’ve now left it “too late” and a grim meathook future is all we have to look forward too.  There is probably still time to learn a bunch of new skills, use our technology specifically to soften the coming climate blows.  But we (and by we I mean entirely culpable middle-class people like me with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of information) seem more interested in diverting ourselves, and in believing the soothing bullshit about the Paris Agreement and shiny new technologies.

Right, that said, I went to a bunch of mostly excellent sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas today. (Saturday 14th)  One of them was on environmental justice (forms of justice – energy, climate, transitions, are a big topic with academics, btw).   With my “even though we’re fubarred we have to act as if we’re not blah blah Gramscian optimism blah blah” hat on, I asked the panellists my curly “if you had a time machine and could warn your younger self” question.  The answers were interesting, but imo incomplete.  So this blog post will take you through

  • the outline of who said what during the panel
  • my question and the gist of the panellists’ answers
  • the answer I would have given

oh, there’s also

  • how the panel could have been done differently
  • an appeal from GetUp! about the Federal Government trying to bully them into silence

The panel was chaired by Andrew P. Street, and the panellists were Peter Owen, (who heads up the South Australian Wilderness Society), Mark Diesendorf (who has been working on renewable energy – as a scientist, activist and policy wonk – for four decades), Professor Fiona Haines (a criminologist, has written The Paradox of Regulation) and Miriam Lyons (who has worked for various outfits, is now with GetUp! Of which more later).  The format was simple – questions from the chair to each of the speakers, and then the floor would be open for questions from the audience (which was very white, and very old – where are the young people?  Does a Festival of Ideas not appeal? Are they all working second and third jobs to pay for their smashed avocado toast?)

Street started with a very good question – “what got you involved in environmental action/activism?”

For Diesendorf  it was the realisation that his PhD thesis – on the physics of the centre of the sun – was being used by hydrogen bomb makers at Lawrence Livermore. That led him into activism with groups like Scientists for Social Responsibility.

Fiona Haines had started out looking at white colour crime – her PhD had looked at how companies responded to the deaths of workers, and she then looked at the impact on trade practices from mass She made the (entirely valid and frankly terrifying) point that we are at a tipping point, with the oceans emptying of fish while filling with plastic, heatwaves getting hotter… (see blog post about Wednesday’s event at the Adelaide Sustainability Centre).

Peter Owen told of playing on the (closed) mouth of the River Murray in 1981, and later realising birds and dolphins were disappearing.  His father getting sued over Hindmarsh Island bridge protesting led to an interest in law.   (This is the clearest case of the four of  how “significant life experiences affect environmental action”, i.e.  unstructured and unsupervised play in  ‘nature’ before the age of 11 may well lead to a life long passion for “the environment”).  He and the Wilderness Society are now trying to stop oil companies taking a great big and very unhealthy bite out of the Great Australian Bight

Miriam Lyons said that she was an environmental activist – taking examples of “pollushun” to school show and tell before she could spell, and sending a protest letter to Indonesian dictator Suharto about rainforest destruction when she was 6 or 7.  Contact with legendary public servant John Menadue and mutual frustration about the left being good at saying what it was against but not what it was for led to the creation of the Centre for Policy Development.  Frustration with the ALP’s ability to adopt progressive rhetoric without the policy follow through has led her to other work, including Get Up! She gave a shout out to its work on a policy blueprint to make the energy transition fairer. (Not sure if she was referring to the 2016 Homegrown Energy Plan, done with Solar Citizens, or something newer).

Street then mentioned that lots of things don’t work when trying to get change, and asked the panellists to talk things that DO work.

Lyons gave the example of what Get Up! did after the 2016 election when the Turnbull government tried to abolish the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (history lesson – it had been set up under the Gillard government as part of the Clean Energy Future package – both ALP and Greens claim credit for the idea. Crucially, the Greens insisted it not be under the control of the then-Energy minister Martin Ferguson, who now chairs the advisory board of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association).  GetUp! took a decision to make ARENA’s work tangible, putting up billboards in the marginal electorates where ARENA had funded projects, getting supporters to do emails, phone calls and the physical delivery of reports to the MP’s office.  She said “whenever you’re being told that you’re being counter-productive/you’d catch more flies with honey” it’s not true and you’re very close to winning if you go a bit harder.”

Owen mentioned that TV media matters for ‘maximum impct, with actions that are bright, colourful and positive.  Commercial TV coverage is worth far more than ABC. He pointed to the Wilderness Society commissioning its own oil spill impacts study when BP refused to release the work it had done, which was expensive but worth doing.  He argued that both the Coalition and the ALP have been captured by the fossil fuel industry.  He referenced a UN SDG report in the last week that shows Australia as the worst country in the world when it comes to climate action.

Fiona Haines said there were two things that make a difference. Firstly, understanding the importance of political risk. Government responses to disasters (not just environmental – could be a factory fire/collapse etc) is framed by political risk i.e. dealing with the political and economic fallout from the disaster. This they do in two ways (1) by reassuring people that they are safe and secure (or that they are the only party that can do so) and (2) by protecting their revenue and the conditions for capital investment. Dealing with the physical, technical and engineering elements is secondary to this and gets pushed aside.  We can’t expect governments not to do deal with political risk (it is part of a capitalist democracy’s DNA) .– but the challenge is making sure they see that they do so in a way that also deals with the physical aspects of the disaster. Understanding this can help direct public campaigns and outrage a little better. Secondly, Secondly she spoke on CSG protests and AGL’s divestment, saying that it’s a complex story, including the fact that AGL only had limited exposure in any case, and that investors guides to the market had made a difference. (See Haines et al. 2016.  Taming business? A critical analysis of AGL’s decision to divest from coal seam gas). For Haines, it’s not about individual pressures/tactics but how the pieces fit together (exactly.  It’s synergies and consistent/persistent pressure(s) not singular moments).

Mark Diesendorf related the story of Franklin Roosevelt telling a civil society pressure group “you’ve convinced me, now get out there and make me do it.”  He said that lobbying is useless without further pressure, with positive results coming from community groups (Solar Citizens, 100% renewables, ACF, Greenpeace, Get Up!)

So, that all took rather a long time.  There was only time for one question and I got lucky (i.e. I am a huge white middle-class male who put up his hand early and made eye contact with the chair).  What I said was something very similar to this:

Thanks to the panel.  In 1988 there was a Greenhouse 88 conference that many people in this room probably remember. We’ve known about this problem for thirty years, but it’s getting worse.  So, if the panellists had a time machine and could go back then, what advice would they give?  Do we need to do more of the same – more marches, more people dressed in penguin costumes, or do we need to do something ELSE, something different?

Here’s my best approximation of what the panellists said. It’s followed by my critique/attempt at an answer to that question.

Lyons: Be unafraid about how risky our situation is Don’t worry about frightening people into inaction if you have a proportionate action to suggest/help with.  “The world is burning – change your light bulbs” is no good, but “the world is burning we need to get the right promises from politicians and then hold them to account” is better. Honesty about the scale of the problems and the scale of the solutions is needed.  If we go through the lens of politicians and CEOs about ‘achievability’ we get nowhere. We need to drag the political opportunity structures over to the physical activity level.

Owen:  Incrementalism has been wrong. We’ve got to go flat out.  There’s no future in 20-30 years if not dealt with immediately.  We’ve been in a ‘transitions’ phase for three generations.  When war approaches, we down tools and act, collectively.

Haines: I was at a community event in NSW, where the town was split on the subject of fossil fuels excavation nearby and someone said “why is it wrong to care about the Great Barrier Reef?” The context was that they were getting grief from other people in town who thought caring about the environment meant not caring about human well-being. So, we have to have justice as part of  what we talk about.

Mark Diesendorf was cautious on the war mobilisation analogy (see his work on this, with a former PhD student, Laurence Delina– “Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?“), and pointed out that social change is slow and hard, that social movement activity is hard.

So, good answers in as far as the y go, but mostly addressed to ‘messaging’ and ‘mobilising’.  Here’s what I’d have (tried to) say.  Underneath are some hyperlinks to other things I’ve written.

Over the last thirty years we’ve made a series of what can be termed mistakes, but seemed like good ideas at the time.  We’ve spent time, credibility and energy within ‘consultative’ policy development processes which ended in minimal and tokenistic action or NO action, leaving us demoralised and discredited.

We’ve tried to build common cause with some unions – see the Green Jobs Unit, the Green Goldrush campaign – but have been naïve about the power of a few unions who see coal jobs as basically sacrosanct.

Above all else, we’ve confused mobilising with movement-building. It’s easier to get people out for a march or a protest.  These can invigorate, give hope. But they can also lead to people thinking ‘I’ve done my bit’, and they suck up enormous amounts of time and bandwidth. They can lead to a cycle of emotathons

It’s even more important to grow social movement organisation groups, so they can hold meetings that are welcoming, appealing to new people, that can absorb the energy and skills of people who can’t come to endless meetings and don’t necessarily want to be part of activist subcultures.  This panel is an example of this – a set of experts at the front of the room, telling the assembled rows of ‘ego-fodder’ the truth. We should have been more interested in creating links among you, and finding out what skills, knowledge and connections you have, and what skills, knowledge and  connections you need to become powerful active citizens. We’ve got to stop meeting like this.

We need to go to people – especially old people, poor people, minorities etc and listen, and work with not at or on.  And we are doing that – “powerful conversations” – but we needed to be doing it 30 years ago.

What could have been done differently?

 

Marc Hudson is finishing his PhD.  No, honestly. His writing on (on climate policy, renewables etc) has appeared in The Conversationreneweconomy.com.au and in various Australian newspapers He is researching an article on the “Greenhouse 88” conference (especially the Adelaide element). If you were at it, he would love to hear from you. Also, please pass this on to anyone who was at the event.
Email: marcmywords@gmail.com
Phone: 04979 32031

That GetUp! Email.

We haven’t seen anything like this before.

The Turnbull Government recently passed new police state laws that threaten our movement’s ability to campaign for a fair, flourishing and just Australia.1,2

Actions that merely harm the government’s reputation on political or economic matters can now be prosecuted as serious national security offences. So peaceful blockades of Adani coal operations, or exposing the truth about child abuse on Nauru to the UN, could carry prison sentences of up to 25 years.3

Don’t think they’ll do it? Well, in what independent MP Andrew Wilkie has called “an act of bastardry”, the Turnbull Government just authorised the prosecution of ‘Witness K’ and their lawyer for exposing potentially illegal actions by the Howard Government.4,5

It’s all having a huge chilling effect on GetUp’s campaign plans. That’s why today all of us, as GetUp’s lead campaigners, are taking the unusual step of contacting you, together. 

We urgently need to build up our people-powered Civil Defence Fund to get the best, ongoing legal advice on how these new anti-democratic laws apply to our campaigns. But it doesn’t stop there, because if we can gather enough ongoing support we’re going to prepare for a potential constitutional challenge – that could see these laws struck down in the High Court. 

But in order to take on the power of a government hell bent on suppressing truth and dissent we need a fresh new tide of members to join our GetUp Crew, who make a weekly contribution to support our work.

Can you help fund this legal fight by joining the GetUp Crew with a regular, weekly donation to our Civil Defence Fund?

Last night we held frantic teleconferences with whistleblowers and activists who want to shine a light on the abuse of children in Australia’s detention camps on Nauru. The question we asked each other was: could we face a 25 year prison sentence for doing so?

And if Stop Adani activists blockade roads to coal ports or mines, Attorney-General Christian Porter may decide to prosecute this peaceful act of protest as “sabotage” – punishable by up to 7 years behind bars. He could do the same for protests against the secretive TPP trade deal, breaches of international law or even people protesting against Australia going to war.6

This is the same Christian Porter who authorised the prosecution of Witness K, and their lawyer, for exposing the Howard Government’s dodgy spying operation against East Timor, to swindle the impoverished nation out of billions in natural resources.

That’s why we need to build up a people-powered fund to give us access to the best legal firepower available, to ensure these laws don’t erode our ability to campaign, or indeed our democracy.

Can you join the GetUp Crew by making a weekly contribution to our Civil Defence Fund?

We urgently need to know how these new anti-democratic laws could impact our campaigns. And we have a legal brief ready to put into the hands of a high-powered law firm with a track record of beating back abuse of government power.

We’re also in this fight for the long haul. We’re ready to talk to some of the best barristers in the nation about a possible constitutional challenge. Can you imagine being part of a landmark High Court case to defend the freedom of political speech?

But we’re up against the full might of a Federal Government that’s on a mission to bully, silence and raze its political opponents to the ground. We can’t do any of this without a brave new tide of supporters joining our GetUp Crew.

Can you make a regular weekly contribution to defend everything we do together?