Category Archives: Looting the Ivory Tower

Getting your head around other people’s heads. Phenomenologically, tingle-ing-ly good

Can we ever really know what is going on in someone else’s head?  Meh, there’s one way to piss someone off and that’s to say “I know exactly how you feel, the same exact thing happened to me.”  Because, of course, there’s events but they have to be interpreted,  and even the same person’s interpretations shift and re-shift over time* (see below for disclaimer).

Two examples from Australian political memoirs/essays of late (reading For The Thesis). One is from Nicholas Stuart‘s ‘Rudd’s Way- November 2007- June 2010’, which he started writing while Rudd was moving from hero to zero, and delivered to the publishers two hours before the surprise Gillard assassination.

The other is from Laura Tingle, who writes for the Australian Financial Review, and is a phenomen(oligic)ally good hack, along with Philip Coorey – also at the Fin,  and Lenore Taylor – at the Grauniad).  They dig up the stories, they have respect for the importance of history in policy debates.  To not read all three regularly is to court ignorance of Australian political affairs.

First, from Stuart

This was part of Rudd’s approach to politics that perhaps originated from his study of China. The so-called Middle Kingdom has never been genuinely democratic. It size has always made it easier for the rulers in the centre to issue policy edicts and expect them to be obeyed throughout the country.  Persuasion had rarely been a valued skill. Rudd attempted to impose a similar political style in Australia. On the positive side, this engaged him intensely in the debate, but he needed to be persuaded before anything could happen. Once he had been converted to a particular policy, it appeared to him to be axiomatic that everyone should simply accept that he’d weighed up all the evidence and made the correct decision. There was no room for dissidents and no need for argument.
(Stuart, 2010: 112)

FWIW, I think this may be overplaying the China thing a bit – even dictatorships have politics and ‘heaven is high and the Emperor is far away‘).

Then from Tingle.

We are products of our time, and our views of the world are formed accordingly. My professional career began with the 1980s and coincided with a  dramatic new era in politics and policy debate. All that has happened in the following thirty-five years has shaped the way I see politics. Sometimes you realise with a rude shock that all the stuff you carry around every day in your head isnt in everyone else’s head.

This came home to me most powerfully in 2012, when I was doing interviews to discuss my first Quarterly Essay. Before we started the formal interview, a radio journalist warned: ‘Oh, by the way, don’t presume too much political memory in the audience.’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘what shouldn’t I presume they know?’ ‘Well, don’t presume they will know who Paul Keating is, or what he did.’ I concede this caused a sharp intake of breath on my part. Yes, it was a youngish audience, but a politically articulate one. How could they not know who Paul Keating was? He had been one of our prime ministers , for goodness sake. Then I thought again. There had been three prime ministers since Keating left office in 1996. Anyone aged under thirty would have no adult memory of government before John Howard. The views of these people are just as relevant as mine. But they will be shaped by a very different set of memories.
(Tingle, 2015: 83)

So, there’s a cognitive cost to inhabiting (or trying to inhabit) someone else’s cosmology, even for a short period.  And given that most everyone is lazy as most of the time, and given that there are costs to your own credibility if you try to see things from the point of view of “the enemy”, then is it surprising that the seeing things “from another point of view”  is as common as rocking-horse poo?


* Let’s not toooo relativistic about all this – after all,  we manage to communicate, we manage to predict more or less what other people will do, at least within our cultural frames. We are not total mysteries, all the time, to ourselves and each other.


Stuart, N. 2010. Rudd’s Way: November 2007- June 2010. Melbourne: Scribe.

Tingle, L. 2015. Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern. Quarterly Essay, 60. Melbourne: Black Inc.

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.



  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.

#Awalkinthepark – Coal, climate, counter-movements

Almost every morning I lug a heavy (25kg/55lb-ish) backpack and my sorry ass around a local park. There are squirrels, dogs, dog-walkers (but no doggers) and also things to read. Yep, I read as I go. What I haven’t been doing is systematically writing about what I read. No more! Today I begin this, and – with the help of friends nagging me on facebook – I should turn it into a very useful habit indeed.

Today’s readings were all/portions of-

Rubin, E. 1991. Envionmental constraints: threat to coal’s future? Keynote session presentation to World Coal Institute Conference on Coal In the Environment, London, 3 April 1991

McMullan, J. 1991. International Collaboration in Carbon Dioxide Collection and Disposal. In Thompson, P. (ed) 1991. Global Warming: The Debate. London: John Wiley& Sons.

Evans, R. 2006. Nine Lies about Global Warming. Melbourne: Lavoisier Group, February 2006.

Evans, R. 2006. Nine Facts about Climate Change. Melbourne: Lavoisier Group, November 2006.

Rotty, R. 1979. Atmospheric C)2 consequences of Heavy Dependence on Coal. Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 33, pp. 273-283.

Breslow, J. 2012. Robert Brulle: Inside the Climate Change “Countermovement.” PBS, 23 October.

Edward Rubin, 25 years ago, makes for rueful reading. He admits coal’s environment problems date back to 1300 and that “the argument coal used for power generation accounts for only 8% of the global warming problem so please leave us a one and go worry about more important things simply will not carry way in a world where growing environmental concerns are increasingly being voiced through political action and regulatory change.”

He flags the “enormous uncertainties” in climate change, and notes “fully a third of the presentations at this conference are devoted” to it.

His solution? Well, the primary one of the top five is “technological innovation. New and improved technologies that reduce the cost of using coal in compliance with environmental requirements in different parts of the world represent the best long-term solution for the sustained growth of this industry, and we must pursue such developments aggressively.”

Didn’t happen.

McMullan casts a wary and weary eye over energy conservation, increased use of nuclear power, a shift to renewables, a shift to hydrogen, stop cutting trees and replant more. The most interesting thing is his sceptical eye on what we now call carbon capture and storage. He outlines the problems and opportunities with ocean disposal, geological structure storage and enhanced oil recovery. None seemed convincing to him…. So much has changed!!

Next up the ‘exec summaries’ of two “climate counter-movement” pamphlets by the late Ray Evans, Tonto to Hugh Morgan’s Lone Ranger. (Morgan is a mining executive and much much more. Since the 1970s he has had a very keen interest in shrinking the state and attacking the legitimacy of environmentalists.
The Lavoisier Group was founded in 2000, the first explicitly climate denialist group in Australia. The February 2006 set of “lies” starts with “Carbon dioxide is a pollutant” and carries on in that vein. Reminds me a bit of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s ad campaign later that year ahead of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” – “Carbon Dioxide. They call it pollution – we call it life”. Evans had visited the CEI in November 1996, and helped plan the “Countdown to Kyoto” conference. But I digress…

The “Nine Facts” on is a rewrite, sort of. It got launched at Parliament on 28 February 2007, with Arvi Parbo (Aussie industrialist) leading, and Dennis Jensen (soon to be ex-Liberal senator) also giving comments. Such is the nature of political and economic elite thinking on climate change…

Next up, Rotty, 1979. Nothing terribly surprising, once you know the history of US scientists concerns (they grew massively in the 1970s). Best book for that is Howe, 2014, and best short article is Kellogg, 1987. Spencer Weart’s Discovery of Global Warming is pretty damn excellent too..
Anyway, Rotty lays out the problem, the possible impacts (there were more uncertainties back then)
My favourite bit was when, having looked at probable increases in fossil fuel extraction and use he concedes that “even lower fossil fuel-use scenarios are conceivable if the global society recognizes the potential environmental challenges soon enough.”

Ha ha ha.

Finally, an excellent interview with Robert Brulle, a US sociologist who studies the climate change counter-movement. Some clips –

So they are very much, I would say, neoliberal foundations. There are some libertarian foundations, but they are not anywhere near as prominent as what I would consider to be traditional conservative foundations. The funding of the countermovement organizations from the oil and gas interests is actually, when you look at the foundations of those organizations, fairly minimal. So it really is driven by these ideologically focused organizations, which is no surprise, because they’ve been building a conservative movement now for 40, 50 years, and they have these organizations that they’ve created and sponsored and helped develop over that period of time. So what they did was alongside of all of the other conservative issues — affirmative action, English as the official language, the Defense of Marriage [Act], these sorts of issues — they added on climate change as an additional dimension to the conservative movement’s issue agenda.


Institutional movements really function through what we would consider to be informal arrangements and weak coordination. So in the case of the climate countermovement, what you see is that the conservative movement coordinates itself quite well, that when you look at the funding flows you can go and look at the dynamics of the Philanthropy Roundtable, which is where these sorts of issues of funding flows are discussed.


What you see in the number of sponsorships in the Heartland conference is the attempt to build a worldwide climate countermovement. So you see a lot of organizations from different countries: Italy, New Zealand, Australia. You see a lot of sponsorships from those kinds of countries, and the more organizations you have, the more legitimate the conference looks.


Looting the Ivory Tower: On #climate adaptation and local authorities

reposted from here.

LootingIvoryTowers amended.jpgPaper(s) under discussion

Porter, J.,Demeritt, D. and Dessai, S. 2015. The right stuff? informing adaptation to climate change in British Local Government. Global Environmental Change, Vol. 35, pp. 411-422.

What’s the issue? (and why should we care)
Are British local authorities pulling their fingers out and taking long-term adaptation action? If not, why not?

What do they have to say?
In 2003 many local authorities didn’t know about the robust work on climate impacts that had been done, but were relying on newspaper articles (Gaia help us all). Ten years later most everyone has the ‘right’ information, but austerity and the Conservatives’ bonfire of the National Indicators (e.g. 188) means that there is still hardly anything happening. Everyone points the finger at someone else. Reframing climate adaptation as “weather resilience” might help get local councillors interested.

How convincing is their methodology?
It’s good! They did a web-based survey that had a reasonable (25%) response rate, and then followed it up with 20 semi-structured interviews. Used Nvivo for coding those interviews, did some statistical tests. Compared some 2003 work on barriers with what they’ve discovered.

What would a critic say?
Mmm. This article actually does what it sets out to do. There’s lots of “whataboutery” that you could do – on neoliberalism, on bureaucratic inertia, on cross-country comparisons, but this is an article, not a book, and the references point you in the direction of lots of useful material.

What else could they have said
There’s two papers I’ve recently read that would have been interesting to see these authors include
One is on where this wretched term ‘resilience’ comes from – looking at Buzz Holling/Fred von Hayek
Genealogies of resilience: From systems ecology to the political economy of crisis adaptation. Security Dialogue April 2011 42: 143-160,
Another on blame-shifting in local authorities (But only came out in October, so, absent a time machine, Porter et al. can hardly be blamed!)
Symbolic Meta-Policy: (Not) Tackling Climate Change in the Transport Sector
Political Studies Volume 63, Issue 4, pages 830–851, October 2015.

It’s interesting (but not wrong!) that the authors did not consider civil society/social movement pressure as a factor.  The British state is so centralised, and NGOs so obsessed with Westminster and marching in London, that local authorities come under very very little pressure from civ soc.  Oh well.

What else do these people refer to that looks interesting?
Hjerpe, M., Storbjörk, S., Alberth, J., 2014. There is nothing political in it: triggers of local political leaders’ engagement in climate adaptation. Local Environ. 1–19.
Meyer, M., 2010. The rise of the knowledge broker. Sci. Commun. 32, 118–127.
Meyer, R., 2011. The public values failures of climate science in the US. Minerva 49, 47–70.
Mukheibir, P., Kuruppu, N., Gero, A., Herriman, J., 2013. Overcoming cross-scale challenges to climate change adaptation in local government: a focus on Australia. Clim. Change 121, 271–283.
Preston, B., Mustelin, J., Maloney, M., 2015. Climate adaptation heuristics and the science/policy divide. Mitig. Adapt. Strategies Global Change 20, 467–497.

What are the implications for (Manchester-based) activism?
“Whereas a decade ago local authority staff were unable to find scientific
information that they could understand and use, we find that these technical-cognitive barriers to adaptation are no longer a major problem for local authority respondents”
Yes, it’s merely the technical-competence barriers that we need to worry about in Manchester. And the utter lack of political will.

Usefulness for my PhD
Well, not on topic, but this qualitative research article looks good-

Baxter, J., Eyles, J., 1997. Evaluating qualitative research in social geography: establishing ‘rigour’ in interview analysis. Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr. 22, 505–525.

Their argument in a tweet: Local authorities did nothing on climate because no good info. Now because no money, no pressure.
Should activists pay attention? Yes. Neoliberalised Local Authorities like Manchester are saying “let the devil take the hindmost”. That’s not good public policy.
Should activist try to read the source material, or is this summation probably All A Busy Activist Needs To Know?
Use the Source, Luke.
Summary suffices.


This post is the first of twelve promised “Looting the Ivory Tower” blog posts that I will write this calendar year, where I try to summarise academic findings for a ‘normal’ audience.  You can help by;
a) letting me know how I did
b) suggesting topics or specific articles that I could tackle