Category Archives: Natural World

James Rockford and sustainability in the twenty-first century, or “the reel of the desert”

james_garner_as_-jim_rockfordJames Garner was a cool American actor. He had starred as ‘Maverick’ in a 1950s comedy-drama Western TV series. In the 1970s he was James Rockford, a private-eye (“two hundred dollars a day plus expenses”) in a genre-shifting TV show called ‘The Rockford Files’ (1).  What the hell has this got to do with sustainability in the twenty-first century, you are asking.  Have I been click-bait and switched, you are asking.

No, you haven’t. This;

There’s an episode [called ‘The Great Blue Lake Land and Development Company‘]where he is out in the Californian/Nevadan desert, trying to recover some money that was stolen from him.  There is some kind of con going on, involving real estate, with worthless land being boosted.  The real estate con artist is showing Rockford sagebrush and cactus, urging him to get in on the ground floor. Within a year or two all that he sees around him will be sub-developments, houses and malls.  Rockford, playing a long game, manages to keep a straight face.  The con artist also mentions there is going to a lake for recreational purposes and – in the middle of the fucking desert – offers Rockford a cheap deal on a boat.  As I recall, James Garner is able to give this beautiful look of not-quite supressed incredulity (2).

Anyway, that’s how I feel a lot of the time.  People are describing the “desert” (3) that is the acceleration of the already unsustainable (in every sense) trajectory of industrial omnicide and then sell me the boat of sustainability. I’m also (supposed to be able to be) playing a long-game, am supposed to be able to keep a straight face.  But I’m ready for a straitjacket.

(1) See ‘The Nice Guys’ for a recent homage
(2) Think Guy Pearse in LA Confidential  when James Cromwell   asks him if he knows of a Rollo Tomasi).
(3)I use desert in the loose/inaccurate/metaphorical sense of ‘lifeless/barren’, not in the actual sense – there’s a lot of life, if you choose to see it… That’s the real of the desert.

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.

I just saved a life!

Okay, it was a snail.  But it was interesting nonetheless, and surely racks me up some karma points (I am not yet sure if those are transferable with my good guy tokens)?

Cycling along Higher Cambridge Street I almost squished a snail who’d started a long and perilous journey across the road, and wasn’t looking left and right. I doubled back.  A bike and a van missed him/her/it  (they’re hemaphrodites, yes?)  by a gnat’s whisker.  I picked him up and she did the whole ‘going into my shell, literally‘ thing.  As the Chinese proverb goes, once you save a life, you’re responsible for it – so I had to find some grass that wasn’t getting built on  (that’s tough in Manchester).  There was a school opposite, and I threw him at low velocity through the black mesh fence.

And she landed on its back, foot up and quivering.  Great, I thought, I’ve saved him from a mercifully quick crushing death only to condemn her to a slow one.  But snails are not, it turns out, tortoises.  The snail arced up out of his shell, like a gun-metal grey finger, like the T-1000 in the vat at the end of Terminator 2.  Incredibly long, she latched onto the leaf of a weed and pulled itself over.  I left it making happy (non-crushed) trails across a patch of grass…


Oh, and googling this, I found evidence that there are in fact, genetic dickheads.

Turbellarians mating by penis fencing. Each has two penises on the undersides of their heads which they use to inject sperm.”


Hookworm and the class struggle…

Wow. It’s almost as if there is a long-running class war where the rich try to demoralise and demean the poor, kick them in the teeth and then blame them for not having a nice smile. I know, I know, crazy conspiracy theory...

“Bringing a condition under human control often poses a challenge to old hierarchies of wealth, privilege, or status. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many poor rural whites in the South were afflicted with a chronic sickness later discovered to be caused by the hookworm parasite. People with the disease were listless and eventually became slow-witted. Popular belief held that the condition reflected the laziness and lax moral character of the victims. When Charles Stiles demonstrated in 1902 that hookworm was the cause and that the disease could easily be cured with a cheap medicine, he was widely ridiculed in the press for claiming to have discovered the “germ of laziness.” The discovery was resisted because it meant that southern elites had to stop blaming “poor white trash” for their laziness and stupidity and stop congratulating themselves for their superior ability to work hard and think fast – a supposed superiority that served to justify political hierarchy.”38
[38 Deborah A. Stone, The Disabled State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 93-94. The history of medicine is full of stories of resistance to discoveries that would make disease controllable. See, for example, Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).]
(Stone, 1989:295-6)
Stone, 1989. Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas. Political Science Quarterly Vol. 104 (2), pp. 281-300

On medical foul-ups, see also: Medical hubris and arrogance leads to iatrogenic agony.


A lively dodo!! On extinction, Derrida and solastalgia

Went do a corking seminar this afternoon, at the end (well, middle) of a corking day (more on that another time).

It was by Gitanjali Pyndiah, a third year PhD student at Goldsmith’s University (scene of a crime against academia and activism 10 days ago, but I digress).

She’s looking at how ‘we’ (people from both Mauritius and the wider world) think of and portray … the dodo.

Dodo_tennielThe title was “The objet-Dodo: reframing extinction in a post-colonial context.

This blog post is NOT a verbatim summary of what she said, more of the interesting stuff (and also my stuff) that came out of the talk and the discussion.

She started in with a brief history of the dodo and how it is native to Mauritius. It got wiped out by the Dutch, who then scuttled off and left the island to be colonized by the French, who had it till 1810, when the English took it (but left the language, laws and everything else untouched).

There was a good short description of “Imperial Nostalgia” –

a mood of nostalgia that makes racial domination appear innocent and pure; people mourning the passing or transformation of what they have caused to be transformed. Imperialist nostalgia revolves around a paradox: A person kills somebody and then mourns the victim; or someone deliberately alters a life form and then regrets that things have not remained as they were. . . Imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture peoples’ imagination and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination (R. Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis)

There was a fascinating bit on the biology of islands and “island dwarfism” – how things either shrink or become giant when isolated. May use it to think about social movements some more, and how they shape people’s habits… But I digress

There was a fascinating section on how the Oxford Dodo (on display, in multiple senses, at the Natural History Museum there) is worth thinking about.

There was a bit on Derrida where my attention became decidely undecidable; I thought and wrote some theoretical stuff about my PhD (on the dialectical issue lifecycle model, since you ask), which would make my supervisor happy, but he doesn’t read this blog.

Then there was some cool stuff on a Mauritian artist whose representations of the dodo are again worth thinking with.

This was followed by a lively discussion. If only I could read my hand writing that suggested I read something “Essay on Cr…., essay on…..”

Other books and essays to add to the tottering pile

“Borders, boundaries and frameworks.” Hmm, can’t find, but this, by someone called Mae Henderson, might be it?

Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India” by Vinayak Chaturvedi

My thoughts, fwtw

Solastalgia – sadness for what we’ve lost thanks to climate change.

Solastalgia is a neologism coined by an Australian; The philosopher named Glenn Albrecht in 2003 with the first article published on this concept in 2005.[1] It describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change.

Hans Haacke – German political artist

Elizabeth Kolbert and her book on The Sixth Great Extinction

Extinction as a passive term where the doer is missing, but in Chile the dictatorship would “disappear” people, as a verb…

The Portuguese only have one word that covers exploration and exploitation, which is sensible and honest, if you think about it…

The dodo as US (we are stupid but don’t know it). An invading alien would do for us the way the Dutch did for the dodo. As per “The Arrival” which stars Charlie Sheen as a rocket scientist…

Martha the Passenger Pigeon and the last Tasmanian Tiger (that we know about  and that sad sad footage.)

Baudrillard’s Simulacrum – representation of a thing that never existed/no longer exists blah blah

Dodo as boundary object?

In sociology, a boundary object is information, such as specimens, field notes, and maps, used in different ways by different communities. Boundary objects are plastic, interpreted differently across communities but with enough immutable content to maintain integrity. The concept was introduced by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in a 1989 publication (p. 393):

The animals we choose to represent us (the hippy students of UC Santa Cruz getting the banana slug instead of the sea lion. But not every animal “means” the same thing the world over, of course…)

Oh, btw, Shell, we have that ‘hybrid world’ – thanks in part to you…

Yesterday I posted a piece on Shell’s beautiful (in a Leni Riefenstahl kind of way) new advert in which two vegan, pierced women act as spokespeople for the exploration, extraction and burning of natural gas.  I should have pointed out that this advert is also an appropriation of the whole “we need more women in STEM” thing. And even more than that, I should have pointed out that we already have the hybrid world they are saying they’d like, just not quite in the way they probably mean…

As the late Ulrich Beck said in a May 2014 discussion with Bruno Latour –

“… global warming is already transforming the world dramatically. For example: there is no longer such a thing as a purely natural weather event. Equally, no weather event can truly be described as artificial, that is human induced. By changing so substantially the composition of the world’s atmosphere, humans have not simply brought a new category of weather into being – ‘human weather’, for example, as distinct from ‘natural weather’. Rather, the planetary system which yields distinct weather at distinct times in distinct places is now a both-and-system – it is a hybrid system yielding hybrid weather. Whatever the weather outside this window today – whether storm or calm, whether heat wave or cold wave – it is a result of this new co-produced natural-societal system.”


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!!