Category Archives: our doomedness

Retching wretchedly in the datasmog

Long-time case researcher Harry Wolcott wrote in his manual (1990).

The critical task in qualitative research is not to accumulate all the data you can, but to “can” (i.e. get rid of) most of the data you accumulate. This requires constant winnowing. The trick is to discover essences and then to reveal those essences with sufficient context, yet not become mired trying to include everything that might possibly be described. Audiotapes, videotapes, and now computer capabilities entreat us to do just the opposite; they have gargantuan appetites and stomachs. Because we can accommodate ever-increasing quantities of data – mountains of it – we have to be careful not to get buried by avalanches of our own making.

Stake, R. 1995. The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage. (p 84)

Wolcott, H. 1990. Writing Up Qualitative Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

2019:  How the #climate activists blew it, again #debacle #doomed

Imagine it’s 2019.  Imagine that “climate activists” get the perfect conditions handed to them on a plate.  What would happen?

 

Sometimes Mother Nature gives climate change activists a boost. She tried in the summer of 1988. She tried again in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina bulls-eyed New Orleans.  She tried again in the long hot summer of 2019.

The Indian heatwave saw thermometers bump up to 48 degrees on four occasions during a two week period.  The power system buckled, and only those who could afford generators and ever-more expensive fuel could afford air-conditioning. Pictures of overflowing mortuaries – stuffed with the old, the young, the poor –  and mass graves in major cities around the sub-continent were beamed around the world.  Social media hashtags proliferated, and protest events about Western indifference and the slowness of relief efforts were held in cities with significant Indian populations around the globe.

Just as that was becoming old news, a pall of smog hung over China’s capital (that’s what you get when you melt the Arctic). Millions of middle-class Chinese people, fearful for the health of their child (or more rarely children), were not fooled by official declarations that – after four days of warnings to stay indoors – that it had suddenly become safe to go outside. The twitter feed of the monitoring equipment on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing was endlessly reshared and reposted. The 50 cent army failed to distract people, and the real army was on standby, and but nobody quite knew if it would, or could be called upon to repeat its show of force of 1989.

Meanwhile in Russia, in an eerie repeat of 2010 , fires surrounded Moscow, and wheat exports were again banned.  Globally, food prices surged, with devastating impacts on the poorest.

Closer to home, a freak tidal surge hit Norfolk, leaving 8 dead and thousands homeless. (Sadly European Union reconstruction funds were not going to be available). Although the surge had nothing to do with the other events, it added to the growing sense of panic and despair.

In response to that disaster, the Prime Minister exuded gravitas, flew over the damaged areas in a helicopter and said all the right words.  This backfired spectacularly when a conversation about climate change activists being “opportunistic luddites and crazies” leaked to the media, thanks to a microphone being left on.

All that got people agitated.  But “shit got real” when David Attenborough did everyone a huge favour. He died.

And then the video turned up.

He’d made it at some point in 2017, when he knew that the end was near. It was short, sharp, beautifully made, of course.  In it, over a montage of his documentaries, he delivered a simple, powerful message in his inimitable and adored voice, which was at times frail, but always clear.  He asked anyone who had enjoyed his documentaries (and that was pretty much every man woman and child in the UK, let alone the rest of the world) to start taking climate change seriously.

It was not a problem that could be ignored any longer.  It was not a problem that could be left to politicians and international gatherings. It was, he said “not about what is happening internationally, or even nationally. It is about what your local council is – or isn’t doing. It is about what your church, mosque, sports club is doing.   You must get involved, you must stay involved. This is the fight of our species’ life.”

The video almost broke the internet. It was reposted, tweeted, shared, mashed-up, translated, beamed against parliament buildings everywhere.  It took off in a way that left even social media ‘experts’ speechless. Efforts by climate deniers to point to Attenborough’s lifetime carbon footprint elicited ridicule and contempt.

The rest of this article is about what happened next – what the state did, what the corporate sector  did, and most of all how the environment movement blew it again, for the last time.  There are some words about ‘what we could have done differently’ at the end, but my heart isn’t in it.  This is only going to play out one way.

State responses

The responses of states were the standard, and not always subtle, mix of soothing blandishments, co-optation of repression. New taskforces sprang up, inquiries were promised, ministers reshuffled.  Meetings of serious-sounding –acronym groups (“COBRA,”   anyone?) were held.  Action (as yet unspecified) would be taken.  International gatherings were scheduled, made up of chief scientific advisors and stern-faced ministers.  Loose talk about geo-engineering as a regrettable necessity started to get picked up by the news media, which was in an economic death-spiral of its own.   Penalties for “interfering” with “critical national infrastructure” were given a quiet boost.

Local authorities and city governments pointed to various token climate strategies that were adopted during the last upsurge in 2008-2010, and then left to rot. They hosted tedious self-congratulatory and defensive top-down meetings, and invited various tame-able movement ‘leaders’ to be part of ‘environmental advisory panels’, while shifting the blame and attention to the national government, and shifting the topic from impending ecological debacle to the safer ground of rubbish collection and pot holes.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

The corporate sector

The corporate sector called upon governments to ‘set the policy framework’ (never mind that they had diligently undermined all previous attempts). We cannot damage the profitability of our own company/industry they would say, since jobs would merely be exported to countries with less stringent standards.

Old front groups were dusted off and rebooted, new ones formed. Advertising campaigns showed branded bottled water being dropped on parched and suitably grateful Indians. Earth Hour was rebooted, and turned from an annual ‘event’ into a monthly one. Anxious and guilt-ridden consumers suddenly had dozens of feel-good/‘do-your-bit-for-nature’ products to choose from, and books, websites, glossy newspaper supplements and gurus to tell them how to shop for a better planet.

CEOs bought up more land in New Zealand, and worried about how to get to it when it all suddenly went horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

 

Civil society

Academics wrote papers about the socio-technical transitions, the  anthropocenecapitolocene and cthlulocene,  which were read by literally dozens of ordinary people all around the world.

The bank accounts of the think-tanks and industry trade associations swelled in synchronicity with the Indian graves, and their well-drilled drones filled the screens and airwaves, explaining that if anything was to be done, it could only be done on market principles.

Religious groups saw a serious uptick in attendances, as people began to make Pascal’s Wager.

The big “green” movement organisations could barely believe their luck. Their coffers full, they would hire lots of “campaign organisers” and tussle over who would dominate a new umbrella organisation “Stop Saying Yes to Climate Chaos”.

They held big meetings around the country, each a panel with a scientist, a politician and a celebrity, all based on the “information deficit model,” with sages on the stage stoking fears.  Attendees were urged to give their emails and money. The mis-named “question and answer” sessions which followed these talks were dominated by those most anxious and most ‘knowledgeable’.  Numbers were great, but follow-up meetings were ever-more sparsely attended.

Marches were planned and held, with the specific of David Attenborough’s plea that people take action locally lost in the more familiar “we must show world leaders that we care” message. Papers were sold. Protesters were pepper-sprayed.  Splits, hidden in the first honeymoon months, emerged, between the “Change the System from Withins” and the “Global Revolution Nows.”  Groups fought for their part of the global problem to be top of the shopping list of demands.

Some activists stormed runways and power stations, and were jailed for their sins. This, combined with well-placed articles and websites gently remind activists that the last time direct action had been tried, the movement was riddled with well-placed deep cover spies, helped keep radical action to a minimum. Who wants to run a very high risk of serious jail time when there might only be a few ‘good years’ left?

And nine months later, all that energy and concern?  Gone like a fist when you open your palm.

 

Why was it so?

The social movements had dreamt of this ‘wake-up’ moment, but they had never bothered to prepare for it.  The skills required – the ability to retain new members, to broaden out beyond stale but comforting repertoires of meetings, marches and the ‘emotacycle,’ to acquire new skills and make sure there were no single-points of failure – were never selected for, in the Darwinian sense. Social movements had low expectations, and were able to avoid awkward questions the ‘absorptive capacity’.

So when the moment came, when the great ‘awakening’ happened, these organisations were simply not able to retain the hordes of people who came to them, were not able to co-ordinate with other groups to provoke a long-term, sustained pressure building, not able to counter the tried and tested methods that the state and corporate actors had at their disposal

In their own defence, the movement organisations pointed out that this wave of concern about global apocalypse had been different from the previous ones, from 1970 to 1973, 1988 to 1992, and 2006 to 2009. In each of those cases scientists could be found who would say “if we act now, things will be okay”.  By 2019, that had morphed into “if we act now, and we are really lucky, then we may avoid the very nastiest of the impacts.” Hope was in short supply.

But after the pulse of activity died, many activists turned at each other, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears, in sympathy and said “that’s it.  There’s no point any more.”
They were right.

 

What would need to be done differently? 

Well, first, get a time machine…

Second, think maybe about running this above as a scenario planning exercise for your group. Not because it will unfold like this – of course it bloody won’t, but scenarios are not predictions, they are thinking and doing tools.  What ways is your group likely to fail?  What can you do to lessen the likelihood of that particular kind of failure now?

Third, from this as a planning exercise, think about how many skills today’s activists need – in terms of meeting design, facilitation, keeping ‘newbies’ and returnees- maintaining connections and everyone’s morale, identifying the skills and knowledge that exist in a group (and its bottlenecks) and how to plug those, choosing winnable targets, and figuring out how to not be bought off, ploughed under or burn out.

Or you could just shut it all out and follow the Pulp Protocol – “dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do.”

Neoliberalisms: Combative, Normative and Punitive

Neoliberalism, eh?  That handy catch-all insult that helps mainstream liberals not say “capitalism”, that helps radicals not have to think very hard about how to think or communicate.  Nota bene, I am not saying it is not real, that it does not matter, that there is not a usefulness to the term.  Just that we tend to use it very lazily.

That point is one among many very well made in an extraordinary (in a good way) piece in the New Left Review Sept/Oct 2016, called – wait for it – The New Neoliberalism.

The author, William Davies silkily moves from an anecdote of Yanis Varoufakis (that bald Greek Finance Minister guy the Guardian drools over) to the Artist Taxi Driver and on to Ludwig Van Mises.  Some Carl Schmitt, Tony Gramsci, Maggie Thatcher. And so on.

The take home is this:

  • 1979-1989 – Combative Neoliberalism (smash dem unions, colonise hope)
  • 1990-2008 – Normative Neoliberalism (imagine that grinning warmonger saying ‘we’re all meritocrats now’)
  • 2008 – 20?? Punitive Neoliberalism (‘this thing of darkness, I do not acknowledge mine’), when people who have heart attacks on their way to the benefits office get sanctioned for non-attendance…

It is a very cogent heuristic, which I want to remember (thus this post), and merits further thought.

What’s missing from the article?

  • From the past: the use of the ’60s rhetoric of individuality as part of the cultural battering ram, as per Boltanski and Chiapello.
  • From the present (i.e. his assessment of why this is happening –  “Yet somehow this increases the urge to punish them further).  We’ll, there’s probably some narcissistic rage  going on, at the lack of adulation from the masses?  Hegel would say the master doesn’t like the lack of a (proper) slave.  And fear, there is always fear. Of the pitchforks, of the future.  That’s how this breed of hominid rolls…
  • From the future: the rise of the surveillance capitalism, the bots, the pending ecological debacles as game changers.

But as I am learning, no single article can (or should try) to deal with everything.  This is a corker. Read it now.

The tyranny of small decisions…

A transformational change in Australia’s assessment of cumulative impacts is required, including the comprehensive assessment of the direct and indirect impacts of coal mining, if the Reef is not to suffer from the “tyranny of small decisions.” As described by Odum (1982), this phenomenon involves a big decision arising post hoc from an accretion of small decisions, without the central question being addressed directly (in this case, how to maintain the values of the Reef) and without constraints or guidance from an effective high-level authority.

(Grech et al. 2016: 205)

Grech, A., Pressey, R. and Day,J. 2016.  Coal, Cumulative Impacts, and the Great Barrier Reef. Conservation Letters, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp. 200–207 doi: 10.1111/conl.12208

Thinking institutionally, dialectically, iteratively, recursively #noteasy

Our wetware has missed quite a few upgrades, hasn’t it?  It left the factory all buggy and in beta, shaped by encounters – over millennia – with sabre-tooth tigers etc that saw us as easy meat.  We have cognitive biases up the wazoo, and often lack even the awareness of that [Dunning-Kruger etc etc].

It’s only recently for me, when I’ve been trying to construct airtight arguments that synthesise a lot of other people’s work, that I realise quite what a kluge a brain is.  And how hard it is to think institutionally, dialectically, iteratively, recursively etc  (don’t ask me for the distinction between those last two – pregnant elephants or something).

Everything in our “DNA”, our educations, our culture(s) makes it easier to do system one thinking, and be happy, exp-post-facto-y with that….  Hmmm.

All this came from re-reading another excellent paper from Professor Thomas Lawrence, he of ‘institutional work’…  He has a good website, and it gives access to his papers, which is cool for people without a password through the paywalls…

Thinking institutionally, according to Heclo (2008), involves adopting an “appreciative viewpoint” that allows one to “acknowledge, and then through choices and conduct, . . . help realize some normative order reflected in the task of upholding (an) institution and what it stands for” (p. 102). This viewpoint, Heclo argues, provides individuals in contemporary civic society the capacity to think and act in ways that allow them to transcend the totalizing cognitive influence of institutions.

2011 Lawrence, T., Suddaby, R., &  Leca, B. 2011. Institutional Work: Refocusing Institutional Studies of Organization. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(1), 52-58.