Category Archives: Hierarchy

Chairing academic sessions for fun and… diversity #IST2018 #manels #academia

So, the International Sustainability Transitions conference has come and gone. A fine event, with a huge number of scholars delivering papers, speed talks, with plenty of time for schmoozing and boozing.  I wrote already about the problem of manels and ‘What is to be Done’, but that was before I had a) delivered my own talk and b) chaired a session unexpectedly.

So this post is to talk through how those went, what I learned, what I would do differently.  #reflexivity #narcissism

My presentation

  • I almost had a horrible powerpoint melt down.  So  always have the latest version on your email account (which I did) but ALSO have it on two (not one, but two) NEW memory sticks.
  • Having a countdown clock (my tablet) was hugely useful
  • I talked for too long explaining the multiple streams approach, but people seemed to appreciate it.
  • I didn’t talk about my methodology and nobody gave a damn.  In my opinion, if you aren’t trying to make a methodological contribution, then don’t waste limited time in a short session (ten mins) talking about it.
  • I asked the chair of the session for permission, and then I cut my session down by two minutes and used that time (as I’d previously advocated) to have people turn to the person next to them and try to come up with a question.

hm3-q-and-as

(source)

  • I am biased, and one is not a sample, but I think that there was extra energy in the room, and I got more, shorter, sharper questions than the following three speakers, who kept to the traditional format….

 

My chairing

The following morning I went to a session where the scheduled chair was not available.  The (good) advice from the conference organisers was that in such a situation, the speaker scheduled to be last should be the chair, since they are highly motivated to keep everyone to time.  I thought ‘sod it’, I’ll volunteer (I had been volunteering for the past two days, in my purple t-shirt).  So, I took the opportunity (not asking anyone’s permission, as I recall – perhaps I did ask the first speaker) to try out the “turn to the person next to you” innovation.

In my opinion there are four key roles that the chair has to accomplish in any papers-presentation session

In chronological and escalating order of difficulty

First, they have to make sure that everyone is welcomed to the session and at least mildly ‘energised’ (this can be as simple as a warm hello and a comment about lunch/the night before).
Second, they need to ensure that all powerpoints/prezis whatever are loaded onto the computer and ready to go.
Third, they have to keep schedule ticking over.  It is grossly unfair if the final speaker doesn’t get as much as the first simply because of the sequencing.  That means that speakers have to be kept to time, so that there can be some questions to them. Ask the speaker if they want –
A five minute warning as well as the mandatory “two minute warning”
questions one at a time or in batches
Fourth, they have to take all reasonable steps to ensure that everyone in the room has a realistic chance of participating, and that the discussion is not dominated/ controlled/ unduly shaped by a small coterie of the most confident/experienced/highest status actors.

So, less interesting is the fact that I was able to ensure that all four speakers got the same amount of time and we finished bang on time so people could get down for a cup of coffee and a schmooze (the most interesting bits of a conference are often the random encounters).  This was partly by giving the speakers warnings, but also, while they were answering questions, I brought up the next presentation on the computer. I also didn’t waste time introducing the speakers- they just started talking.

More usefully, though was the getting people to actually participate fully.  The first time I  I said “everyone, for two minutes, please speak with someone close to you- if you have question, get help honing it – a short question is a good question. If you have half a question, get help forming it”  there was confusion/mild bewilderment  but the ‘authority’ of the chair carried the day.  By the third speaker I could just say “you know what to do” with a wave of my hand, and they slipped into it.  (I did NOT explain the rationale)

 

So, that’s basically how it worked.  In the third Q and A and the fourth I gave priority to people who’d not asked questions before.
Again, this is one experiment, and I would hesitate to extrapolate or invoke without more efforts.  There were only about 20 people in the room, for example – might be harder with fewer or more.

BUT

  • there was a very good mix of gender with the questions
  • most people asked a question
  • some people came up to me and thanked me for the format, and were enthusiastic about it
  • one of the speakers was also very complimentary about it…

 

So, would I do this again?  Yes.  Would I have a single slide with the instructions on it?  Yes.  Would I ask people for feedback after the session? Yes.

 

The rationale

There are two purposes to this (though neither needs to be explained to the attendees unless you really want to be explicit)

Firstly, it means that people who are less confident, have been socialised into believing their question can’t be any good, are able to get help/reassurance/encouragement from others if they need it.

Secondly, it gives you options when you come to ask for questions, because there is now a sea of hands to pick from,not just the Quickdraw McGraws. This makes your job easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in this together… Corporate (and State) use of “family” rhetoric

It makes my flesh crawl.  That ‘one team’ bollocks, where our lords and masters (be they corporate or state) make out as if ‘we’re all in this together’ – to quote the words of some already forgotten Tory Prime Minister.  Yeah, right.

So, I really want to read ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ (after my thesis.  I read this academic article and it was good-

Fleming P. and Sewell. G. 2002. Looking for the Good Soldier, Svejk: Alternative Modalities of Resistance in the Contemporary Workplace. Sociology, Vol. 36 (4), pp.857-873

This quote kinda nails it

As Kunda (1992), Barker (1993, 1999) and Casey (1995, 1999) have so explicitly reported, if workers do not subjectively buy into the discourse of ‘excellence’ or ‘continuous improvement’ and actively participate in the attendant rituals then they are pathologized by the managerial gaze and transformed into organizational outcasts by fellow team members. Dissent and resistance in these contexts are not explained as something related to the inequality of the capitalist labour process, but rather a matter of, ‘Do you have problems at home?’ ‘Is it your husband?’ ‘Is it your wife?’ ‘Are you stressed?’ ‘Do you have financial problems?’ ‘Do you suffer from anorexia?’ Thus, the question is invariably framed in the same way: ‘What is wrong with you?’
(Fleming and Sewell, 2002:861)

Here are some of the references, fwiw.

Bailey, F. G. 1988. Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Burawoy, M. 1979. Manufacturing Consent.: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Casey, C. 1995. Work, Self and Society: After Industrialism. London: Sage.

Casey, C. 1999. “Come, Join Our Family”: Discipline and Integration in Corporate Organizational Culture. Human Relations, Vol. 52 (2), pp.155-178.

Willmott, H. 1993. Strength is Ignorance; slavery is Freedom: Managing Cultures in Modern Organizations. Journal of Management Studies. Vol 30 (4), pp.515-52.

Suspicious minds and climate policy

Goering is alleged to have said that whenever he heard the word culture he reached for his revolver. For me, whendver I hear the word ‘trap’ I think of my Elvis. Specifically, ‘We’re caught in a trap. I can’t walk out.…’


Meanwhile, this from an article

Nair, S. and Howlett. 2015. From robustness to resilience: avoiding policy traps in the long term. Sustainability Science,

is good

“A lock-in trap is characterized by low capacity for change, high resilience to change, and high connectedness among structural variables which may preclude change or render it rather expensive (Ranger 2013; Allison and Hobbs 2004). Policies typically emerge as ‘bundles’ or ‘mixes’ of policy tools through processes of policy change, with addition and subtraction of elements over time (Howlett and Rayner 2013). Any change in policy response, however, will typically be faced with resistance by stakeholders and beneficiaries of status quo policy arrangements. This makes it difficult to introduce any radical changes in the adaptation policy mix even if new policy objectives are put forth (Kern and Howlett 2009). Innovations for example would need to compete with existing institutions that have already been imbibed into the socio-economic context and attempt to fit through processes of ‘‘learning, coercion and negotiation’’ (Rip and Kemp 1998; Christiansen et al. 2011).”

And of course, the mother of all carbon lock-ins, from all the physical, political, psychological infrastructure. You are are now leaving the Holocene, as the amazing David Pope cartoon goes…

holocene

So it goes. So it went. This too shall pass…

And those citations

Allison HE, Hobbs RJ (2004) Resilience, adaptive capacity, and the ‘‘Lock-in Trap’’ of the Western Australian agricultural region. Ecol Soc 9(1):3. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss1/art3.

Christiansen L, Olhoff A, Trærup S (eds) (2011) Technologies for adaptation: perspectives and practical experiences. UNEP Risø Centre, Roskilde

Kern F, Howlett M (2009) Implementing transition management as policy reforms: a case study of the Dutch energy sector. Policy Sci 42:391–408

Howlett M, Rayner J (2013) Patching vs packaging in policy formulation: assessing policy portfolio design. Politics Gov 1(2):170–182

Ranger N (2013) Topic guide. Adaptation: decision making under uncertainty. Evidence on Demand, UK, p. 86

Rip A, Kemp R (1998) Technological Change. In: Rayner Steve, Malone Liz (eds) Human choice and climate change, Vol 2 resources and technology. Batelle Press, Washington D.C., pp 327–399

The absence of structure is hierarchy

I went to a meeting (won’t say if it was activist or academic or whatever – that’s not the point).

There was explicitly ‘no agenda’.

And we were then, without warning, asked to introduce ourselves (say what we had done, were doing and what we wanted to do around this particular issue/topic). And did they give us a) a couple of minutes to collect our thoughts and b) an upper-time limit.

Nope, instead it was one of the organisers (or rather, people who called the meeting) saying ‘well, I may as well start’. They then spoke for a few minutes, while we were all trying to listen and think about what we would say.

And guess what – the people who spoke the longest (who basically just mentally Ctrl C and Ved their comments) were the highest status ones. And they spoke for a looooong time. The lower status people spoke very little.

And guess what – after we had done those intros, the conversation came to be dominated by those who had spoken longest in the intro.

Who. Would. Of. Thunk. It.

Afterwards I thought about how one of the smartest people present (also perhaps the kindest) had said not a word. This person is perhaps an introvert. They don’t do the whole song and dance thing, so if you don’t create mechanisms (institutions – informal norms and also formal ones) to facilitate their input, you won’t get it. And you will end up with mediocre decisions, arrived at after un-necessary faffage. And so it came to pass.

This: The absence of structure is hierarchy. Just the hierarchy of prior status (mostly class, race, gender, age, confidence, extrovertism).

You can choose not to see that, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it doesn’t mean the power isn’t there. FFS.

Civilising hypocrisies and fundamental questions: on “Emancipating Transformations

Manchester Tyndall Centre today hosted a provocative and highly interesting seminar. Professor Andy Stirling, who spent the 80s in the trenches for Greenpeace, had schlepped up to deliver a seminar on “Emancipating Transformations.” What they? Read on for an (almost) blow by blow account. [My multiple two centses are in square brackets like these.]

emancipating-transf-23-juneStirling began by point out the severe acuteness of the problems we face (not just climate change, but all sorts of other bubbling under) . He pointed out that 2015 saw not just the Paris climate conference  but also the final agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals, with the the rhetoric of sustainability as “care” and UN slogans such as “leave no one behind.”  These are some of the “civilising hypocrisies” of the title of this blog post.

The politics of sustainability and knowledge
He moved on to point out that sustainability concerns actually pre-date climate change [see the 1971 Founex conference, held because what we now call ‘developing countries’ suspected that the then-new concerns about environment would be used by the rich countries to keep the poor ones poor]. After pointing out that 40% of world innovation is on war and ‘security’, Stirling wanted us to understand that sustainability was (and is) a political, not a technical issue. He pointed out that the knowledge we gained about ecology – for example – often came from actions of “horizontal” action, that knowledge making at the time around these subjects was from the more egalitarian impulses. NGOs and other groups had to struggle for decades to get issues(the dangers of pesticides, asbestos, carcinogens) onto the agenda [and there’s some very interesting stuff in the excellent 2014 book  “Behind the Curve: science and the politics of global warming” by Joshua Howe on how US groups that knew about climate change in the early 80s did NOT campaign on it because there was no feasible way to do so.].

Stirling pointed out that the “Establishment” (corporations, august societies of Respectable Scientists) ridiculed what we now regard as common sense. Stirling said that “knowledge is much more malleable and political that is conceded” [but he was not endorsing post-modernist relativistic ‘anything goes’-ness in that]

And here is the kicker – those bodies are now mouthing all the pieties (“Responsible Innovation” etc) and saying all the right things. Meanwhile, the warnings of the United Nations Brundtland report called “Our Common Future” that sustainability was not just about ‘end points’ but “effective citizen participation” and “greater democracy” were quietly forgotten.( 1)

“Progress” as a weapon
Stirling said that incumbents were able to resist so the challenges so effectively because of the discourse of “progress” and the notion of science leads to technology leads to ‘progress’ [Indeed – if ever you challenge a technology’s social, economic or ecological implications, you will be smeared by its backers as a ‘Luddite’. The American political scientist EE Schattschneider observed that “the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.” ]

Stirling pointed out that this is a totalitarian discourse, a way of shutting down debate. He then pointed out that politicians are forever asserting linear models of ‘progress’, while claiming they are not. This was a particularly fun bit for the geek in me – Stirling showed examples of how the language and metaphors of both political and academic work on innovation are riddled with what he called “hard-wired linear notions” (leap-frogging, catching up etc). All these beg the question of how much, how fast, at what risk, who is ‘ahead’ and what does ahead even mean.
He challenged the audience – had anyone ever seen a “roadmap” document that had more than one road? And if there was only one road, well, you don’t need a map, do you? This got the biggest laugh of the afternoon. Karl Weick would have shared his snowy anecdote no doubt.

He pointed out that the “the” in “the sustainability transition” implies that there is only one way (even when multiple technologies exist) and that rarely if ever are the opportunity cost (what else could you spend the same money on) discussed. This has been an ongoing critique in Australia – money spent on propping up the coal industry is money NOT spent on research/support for renewable energy.

He touched briefly on the inevitability (even without shadowy incumbent conspirators propping up their own industries) of forms of lock-in (e.g. the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing this on) before returning to the earlier point that the political function of discourses (around “the” transition) is to maintain incumbent power.

Expedient fallacies
Stirling then laid out five “expedient fallacies” of current “sustainability thinking”
1. It maintains rather than transforms social orders
2. Any changes are envisaged as singular,deterministic, top down (rather than unruly, open-ended, bottom up)
3. The crucial “science base” is hierarchical, technical, expert leadership
4. Salient values are about fear and control,rather than hope or care
5. Democracy, equality and collective action are ‘threats’ that need to be domesticated

There was then a rather interesting set of slides that showed the connections between durability, stability, resilience and robustness, and the corresponding properties of transition, transduction, transilience and transformation [I feel another of my coloured paper/cardboard/paper-clip 3D models coming on! And at this point I should have shouted out about “Transruptive”

but I didn’t…]

Stirling then pointed to how the powerful close down opportunities for experimentation through invocation of ‘evidence based design’, insurance contracts, liability protection, stochastic reduction’ etc [he could also have mentioned policy-based evidence making!]

[I thought about Michael Thompson and his plea for ‘clumsy organisations’ for dealing with wicked problems and “post normal science.

Flocking hell!
Stirling returned to the notion of flocking swarming behaviours and the messiness of democracy. [Sadly though, the Pentagon has got there first (it so often does). Also, I’m reminded of passenger pigeons, that went through boom and bust cycles of population growth and collapse. Caught at a low ebb, they were wiped out. I fear the same for the social movements, that sort of gave up the ghost and fell in, according to Ingolfur Bluhdorn, with post-ecological thinking.]

The Q and A
The Q and A was dominated by men (including me). This was noted by Andy, to be fair. What is to be done? Well there are some suggestions here  about how you can simply and non-tokenistically make it more likely that ‘quiet voices’ (male, female, whatever) find it easier to ask questions. I also personally think that a two minute rule (or even, gasp, a four sentence rule) might sometimes be helpful…

I asked about impact science ‘versus’ production science, and Stirling’s response was very very interesting, showing how the former is itself shot through with assumptions about ‘safety’ that are highly contestable, highly political.

There were some interesting snippets and discussions of course, especially around how useful the “there is no time [to consult/be democratic]” argument is to elites (something that Manchester’s own Erik Swyngedouw has rightly been saying for years.

Prof Kevin Anderson (see MCFly passim ad nauseam!) made the good point though, that elites are NOT saying that about climate change. They’re actually saying Business As Usual is fine, and some fantasy technology like BECCS can be deployed later. [Prof Anderson was also hilariously rude about Integrated Assessment Models,  comparing them to “analysing astrology”]

The fundamental question – or at least the one I took away is this – who are our bosses? We are academics. We are paid to sit around and concept-monger. By the tax-payer, ultimately. So should we be aiming to impress elite policy-makers and follow what Stirling called “policy etiquettes”, in the hope they will twist this policy knob (and there are many many knobs), or pull that policy lever, to magic the right kind of innovation into existence? Or should we be trying to work with and for the (mostly mythical) social movements? Of course, this is a crude binary. But there are choices to be made, priorities to choose from.
I think I know where Andy Stirling’s preferences lie, and I definitely know where mine are.

 

Footnotes

  1. Released in 1987, the report had a climate change chapter, but it wasn’t a key issue. A UN conference was then scheduled for 1992. The following year, climate change exploded onto the public policy agenda, thanks in part to the June 23rd (!) testimony of James Hansen – the policy entrepreneurs then ‘hijacked/retrofitted the 1992 conference to become the deadline for climate change negotiations. You take your opportunities were you find them…]
  2. Other stuff that I didn’t put in that might be worth your time include three excellent books
    Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism
    A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming
    Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control
  3. From a more unquestioningly technophiliac perspective, Professor Thomas Schelling in Mancheter in 2010.

Of Monbiot, Manchester and miserable ‘feral’ futures.

Nature as redeemer, nature as escape, nature as the solace for our “gridded, controlled, mannered urban lives.” So far so romantic.
Well, nature is on the road, and she’s gunning for the lot of us. We’ve poked the beast, and now it really is waking up. On a quiet day, you could hear it snoring. Nowadays you can hear it going about its morning ablutions while preparing to unleash a can of whoopass on the species wot woke it up.
Which made the Manchester Literature Festival event I went to all the more weird. Row upon row of staggeringly white (this is Manchester?) people, of a certain level of (cultural) capital – not so many upward omnivores here – sat in rows while downloadGeorge ‘Feral’ Monbiot and Sarah ‘Carhullan Army’ Hall stood at t’podium. Hall read from her latest novel, The Wolf Border, which is about a woman, Rachel, involved in a project to reintroduce wolves to the UK. George does what George does well – some witty observations, confidently delivered with a smile. I first saw him do this at the Schumacher Lectures in, bosh, 1996?, when he alarmed the assembled ‘hippie’ gentry by advocating for land rights in the FIRST world. (They were underwhelmed, given the tacit deal with the Schumacher Lectures is that rich people get to be telescopically philanthropic, not locally so. But I digress).  He did not epater la bourgeoisie on this occasion however, but advocated the roaming of the four-legged beasts, especially ones that might contest the ‘white plague’ (sheep, not TB). And deer. [What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out? No eye-deer. What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out and his legs chopped off? Still no eye-deer. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?]

This is all well and good, but as the host alluded to, there are slightly bigger fish (well, planets) to fry. So, uncharacteristically, I stuck up my hand and asked this.
“On climate change. We’ve been warned since 1988 by the scientists and some politicians. We’ve done nothing. We WILL do nothing. So we are going to get acidified oceans, seven metres of sea level rise and four degrees plus of warming. Given that, to be provocative, what does it matter if we re-introduce this species or that. “Mother Nature” will introduce – and eliminate – species over the next hundred years as she sees fit.” 
George’s answer was in two parts. I will try to report each fairly, and then editorialise.
1) You mustn’t say that we will do nothing, that we are doomed, because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The species is hugely altruistic, it’s just a few (percentage) who are screwing it up.

2) Ecosystems with lots of biodiversity (and apex predators etc) are more resilient to shocks.

George – if you’re reading this and I’ve been unfair, lemme know. Ditto if anyone who was there is reading this…

What I wanted to say in response, but obviously didn’t.

1) The “you mustn’t say we’re doomed because that means people will give up” argument is beginning to get on my tits. I think it can and should only be made by people who have done a thorough job of studying WHY our response has been so poor (it’s not ALL Exxon’s fault) and – this is the crucial bit – have some clearly-stated suggestions about HOW TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY ‘GOING FORWARD’. George may have these, but he didn’t say them on Sunday (fair enough – folks were coming to hear him talk about wolves and rhinos, not social movement strategy).
We don’t say “you shouldn’t tell people with lung cancer that they have lung cancer because then they’ll get upset.” We expect to treat ourselves/each other as adults, who can read a Keeling Curve, read the emissions trajectories and understand the concept of climate sensitivity, and do some pretty rudimentary guesstimating.
ALSO, it’s not my ‘doom’ that is killing the species’ chance of seeing the 22nd century in reasonable shape. It’s capitalism, technological hubris, consumerism, population, the failure of social movements to cope with neo-Gramscian passive revolution strategies, and good old fashioned inertia baked into ‘the System’ (, “man”).

2) Hmm, that’s

a) curiously anthropocentric and

b) kinda misses the point about the shocks to the System. The second half of the 21st Century is (probably, okay, probably) going to make the first half of the 20th look like a picnic. This or that species of wolf is not going to mean there isn’t starvation, plague, war and all of that zombie apocalypse stuff. Wishful/magical/totemic thinking to think otherwise, no?

Sarah Hall’s answer I can’t categorise so clearly (I’m sexist man only paying attention to men? Maybe. Or just getting old? Or both). She seemed to be saying, with the example of the 2005 floods in Carlisle, that the cities will be affected, and it’s only when that happens that we will do something.

Worth reading on this “back to Nature” malarkey

  • EM Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops
  • Kingfisher Lives by the late Julian Rathbone, denied the Booker Prize – because one of the judges, the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, could cope with the incest, murder, cannibalism, but not the (in context) dropping of the C-bomb.
  • Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast
  • And of course all the feminist sci-fi/spec fiction writers – Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass), Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler.  And I STILL haven’t read Carolyn ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant. #lazy

PS Thanks to CG for the ticket!!