Category Archives: our doomedness

Book Proposal – “Anthropocenism, or the Ecological Logic of it’s-later-than-you-think Capitalism”

Went to a reading group. The article under discussion was Jason “Capitalism in the Web of Life” Moore’s 2014 article on the End of Cheap Nature..

It got a bit of a kicking from a couple of people (me, I thought it was okay).

The convenor of the group introduced the paper and pointed out that the LRB reviewer of Moore’s book had mentioned that Anthropocene had replaced “post-modernism” as the (my words) object of longing/trendy term to spray onto pre-existing research proposals for self-styled intellectuals (aka academics).

[The actual quote is – “What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”]

And it occurred to me that somebody (not me) should put together a spoof/pastiche with the title of this blog post. Substitute a big COP for the Bonaventure Hotel and the lost-ness it evokes and provokes. Substitute pictures of “nature” and Disneyfied nature for the Van Gogh/Warhol shoes,  and bish bosh, you’re there. Academic careers have probably been built on thinner mash-ups.

And as an added bonus you can justifiably cite that line about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

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Is Capitalism unsustainable? The jury’s out-ish. Is ego-fodderfication unsustainable? Sadly not/hell yes.

I don’t know how much rethinking economics is actually going on (I have my suspicions, but no hard data). I do have a good idea of how much rethinking politics/academia/civilsocietying is going on, and it’s not much at all/zero. The latest piece of hard data came tonight, at the University of Manchester. The debate/discussion was on the hot topic of “is capitalism unsustainable?” (see here for a 1950s Edward Teller/Dr Strangelove throwback: physics Has All The Answers and Salvation We Need).

Around 110-120 (I counted) mostly white, mostly middle-aged/old people turned out on a Sunday night to…. well, I don’t know why they came: to hear from the great and the good, I suppose. Me, I mostly went for the anthropological lulz, and I got them.

Here are the predictions I made, and the scores I got. After that, I’ll do super brief capsule (bullet-points) of what I scribbled down (It wasn’t, as far as I can tell, filmed or audio recorded).

Prediction

How’d I do?

1

There will be no “turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself” at the outset

CORRECT

2

There will be no “turn to the person next to you to share thoughts” between speeches

CORRECT

3

There will be no time for “clarification” question after each speech

CORRECT

4

No one will actually try to define capitalism

CORRECT (they may have had a go in the last 20 minutes)

5

There will be no mention of “false needs” and the advertising industry

WRONG. Molly Scott-Cato had a portion of her speech on this (though she then drew I think too firm a line between Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays)

6

Gramsci won’t get a mention

CORRECT

7

No distinction will be made between capitalism and industrialism

CORRECT

8

No one on panel will make distinction between capitalism and democracy

CORRECT

9

It will be at least an hour before anyone from the audience is able to ask a question

CORRECT (closer to 75 minutes, I think).

Kevin Anderson went first, with the latest update of his “Paris vs Growth? Two degrees, maths and equity” powerpoint.

  • If the top ten percent of global emitters reduced their level to the average European, that would lop 30% of human emissions
  • Human emissions 65ish% percent higher than they were in 1990 (went up 1.5% last year, will go up again this year).
  • The “Climate Glitterati” stick in his craw, and he named names – Mark Carney, Adair Tuner, John Gummer, Nick Stern, Christina Figueres, Mike Bloomberg, Al Gore, Leonard Di Caprio. He also served it out to grey-haired academics who he said were running cover for them.

Robert Pollin, who has a recent article “De-growth vs a Green New Deal” in the NLR went next.

Sound quality was quite a problem, and there was no accompanying powerpoint (a visual prompt might have helped us decipher some of the random syllables?)

  • Mostly advocating a Green New Deal (because the 2008 one gained such traction?)
  • There’s a proposal on the Washington State ballot, which got there in the teeth of some trade union opposition.
  • Vested interests need to be fought and defeated (nowt in speech about the mechanics of how you do that, but I suspect this article and this article might have more on that).
  • Degrowth is a Bad Idea, won’t deliver the emissions reductions we need.

Giorgos Kallis (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Institute of Environmental Science & Technology)

Same sound/no powerpoint issues as before

  • At least tried to answer the question by asking two sub-questions is economic growth unsustainable? Does capitalism need growth? (if answer to both questions is yes, then, well, yes).
  • Took issue with Pollin’s tight focus on energy systems.
  • Thought that even if we could contract the economy it “would be a stupid idea”

Molly Scott Cato (Green MEP)

Talked about sustainable finance initiative

  • kind of (as you’d expect) talked around the question, quite “well, what do you mean by capitalism?
  • Actually talked about advertising and the creation of false needs, and vested interests in, for example the “Pheobus” (sic) cartel. (light bulb manufacturers who kept bulbs life short to keep punters having to buy them).
  • Talked about interest (but not ‘fractional reserve banking”) and the discount rate.
  • Also bigged up Extinction Rebellion – hmmmmm

Then the chair (Maeve Cohen of Rethinking Economics) had a whole set of questions and panellists responding to each other (something, surely, that the audience was present and equipped to do??) Fun only for the sniping.

Finally three questions from the aduience got asked – what about a truce in the green growth/degrowth wars and agreement on caps? – why haven’t we got through to the climate deniers and those who vote for them? And ‘how bad will the next recession be’.

Those (good) questions got relatively brief answers and then the panellists basically started talking to each other again. And I left. Life really is too short, what with pretty damn imminent societal breakdown. I’d rather be under one or both of the bloody cats….

Highlights

  • Professors Kevin Anderson and Professor Robert Pollin lobbing increasingly flashy and bangy skype-grenades at one another.
  • A couple of Polyp cartoons

Lowlights

  • The total lack of clarity in terms of defining what the hell “we” (i.e. they) are talking about.
  • Surely someone of them thinks that capitalism isn’t just a set of organisations but, you know, a social relation?
  • The lack of a sense that we have been having this debate, on ecological terms, for just on 50 years.
  • The chair abusing (in my opinion, maybe not others’) the chair’s position to ask multiple questions, which then bounced back and fourth among the panellists
  • The egofodderfication of it all

What the hell do I mean by egofodderfication? Read on if you wanna know.

Egofodder is what I call the audience at any public event (big or small) which has not been structured by the organisers to provoke the highest possible amount of participation, engagement and mingling.

Here’s an old video.

Is egofodderfication unsustainable? “Sadly No”

The social norm is that you turn up to a meeting and are talked at for at least 45 minutes (if you’re lucky). Then the sharp-elbowed might get to ask a question. Then you file out.

And people keep coming back for that. There’s a hardcore of the same old faces (I used to be one of them) who would go to the opening of an envelope, to keep the gnawing sense of despair and powerlessness at bay. And there is, flowing over these stones, a river of people seen once or twice, who never can see a way ‘in’ for themselves, their concerns, and realise that they’d be better off reading a book/watching at TED talk, for all of the actual human interaction they would get at one of these wretched events, where they are talked at by experts.  But there are always enough ‘new people’ scared shitless by the news and the obvious total incompetence of our “leaders” (not just international and national, I’m looking at YOU, GMCA and MCC) in even having the tiniest idea what to do.  So in that sense, organisers of activist meetings, public events, academic seminars etc will never lack for warm bodies to be their ego fodder, coming from the usual suspects and the not-yet-churned through.

Is egofodderfication unsustainable? Hell yes

We (most of us) think that a civil society upsurge, an unprecedented social movement of diverse groups is required. And yet we tolerate the same old broken tools, thinking they will work this time, because we are too scared to piss off “busy” event organisers.  But what it does is wastes the time and potential connection of usual suspects and ALSO offers a granite wall of alienation for ‘newbies’ to scale. Some do, mostly they don’t. Mostly they go away, and are ‘lost’ to ‘activism’ (of whatever stripe).

Since someone on the panel launched a thought experiment, I thought I’d have one here too.

  • What if there was a social norm that every meeting (whether it was activist, local authority, academic, whatevs) started with a call for people to introduce themselves, very briefly, to someone they don’t know (but always have a system where people can hold up their hand or whatever to opt out!)
  • What if there was a social norm that wherever it was possible (i.e. multiple speakers) there would be a chance for people to compare notes between speakers, and ask questions of CLARIFICATION.
  • What if there was a social norm that before the Q and A (which was never more than 45 minutes from the beginning of the event) people had a chance to turn to a friend/stranger and get help making a long question into a short one, or a half question into a whole one, and then the chair could choose from more hands than the stale male hands that inevitably go up.
  • What if speakers were expected to spend a quarter of their time explaining concrete things that could be done, and how people in the room could take concrete steps towards that?
  • What if speakers were expected also to address the question “what have ‘we’ (academics/activists/politicians) been doing wrong/badly in the past?” and explain how they were doing better in the future (i.e. from right fricking now.).
  • What if speakers via skye were asked to record their initial talks, and have a powerpoint alongside, sent to the organisers in advance; and then come in “live” purely for the Q and A (though obvs have been “lurking” to hear the other speakers’ comments).
  • What if there was a social norm that events would be filmed and blogged so people who couldn’t make it could still feel a part of it, rather than apart from it?

Maybe then, the networks of people who care (and if you came out on a dark Sunday night, you care) would grow thicker, people would randomly encounter people and we’d all be better connected, less atomised, less isolated. Who knows, you might even be able to grow some movements with the help of those networks. I know, I know, crazy talk.

More apocalyptic word salad

 

A species corsuscating on thin ice,
Snap, crackle, pop.
Faster faster (or else), kill (the) pussycat.
How I wonder what you’re at.

Kill them all
Let the gods we kept creating in our own image sort them out.
A fetish for fish, a fetish
For bondage, human bondage.

Ah, a sondage would show -has shown –
What is to be done
but we
have telescopic philanthropy, telescopic misanthropy and
the triumph of the wilful blindness –

Our lovely brains caught in a
Half-Nelson of our own devising, of our
Own devices.

Left to them.  We will, briefly,
be left to them.
In a billionaire’s bug out bunker far Down Under (and then second star on the left).

And the loneliness will eat our souls
After the fear has done the first digesting.
No-one, no thing left to mourn us in the
Morning.

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

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

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

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

Speech, speech!

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

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

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

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

Three issues for tonight

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

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

Argument

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

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

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

Social Values and Political |Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Michel Houellebecq nails this.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Karl Mannheim and cohort effect!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel Discussion

Karin Bäckstrand: Three critiques

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

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

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

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

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

Arias-Ladonaldo

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

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

Christoph Gorg

Not easy to comment on paper/speech.

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

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

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

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

Thanks to everyone! Clarifications will go into paper

Questions from floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 sectors of middleclass not progressive!

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

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

My take

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Background

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

Ecological democracy versus eco-authoritarianism

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

BUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

cat emissions gap

Clearly needs transformation of economy and society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

The Panel discussion

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

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

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

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

Luks then asked Stagl – is this too optimistic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karin Bäckstrand on the subject of resistance –

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

Questions from the floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenore Taylor, Mike Seccombe & Australian #climate politics – institutional memory

Australian content alert: Yeah, this is a bit of geekery.

There’s a Sunday morning politics show called  Insiders, which is a ritual thing I do with my mum and her next door neighbour. The format is solid (stolid?)- a host (usually Barrie Cassidy) and three hacks, sorry, journalists. There’s a long interview with a pollie, a roundup of cartoons and photos, and a comedy video skit. Bish bosh, all done in an hour.

Two weeks ago, two of the three hacks, sorry, journos, were Lenore Taylor (now editor of the Guardian but she has worked everywhere) and Mike Seccombe, now of the Saturday Paper.

At the end of the show Barrie Cassidy invites the hacks to say one thing each as a takeaway. That’s usually some observation about the horserace politics of it all. But two weeks ago Lenore Taylor pointed to the ‘planet may become unlivable’ study and Mike Seccombe wondered out loud about all these farmers suffering from drought who consistently vote for climate-change-denying politicians in the National Party and when that might change.

The thing is this. Lenore Taylor has been reporting -very very astutely- on environmental stuff since at least 1989. She reported for the Australian on the December 1989 summit that kicked off the legendary (I move in small circles) Ecologically Sustainable Development process.

1989 12 08 secret green summit praised theaus p3.png

Taylor, L. 1989. Secret Green Summit Praised. The Australian, 8 December, p3

Meanwhile, in December 1991, Mike Seccombe had a front page story on the Sydney Morning Herald about the final reports of the ESD process.

1991 12 03 blueprint for greener oz smh1.png

Seccombe, M. 1991. Blueprint for a greener Australia. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 December, p.1.

So, while Laura Tingle’s point about lack of institutional memory in political parties, bureaucracies and the media is mostly accurate, there are exceptions. And very fine exceptions indeed.

We’re toast. It’s not a problem of science- the scientists communicated. It’s not a problem of (some) journalism – we’ve had brave and smart reporters. It’s a problem of the power of incumbents, and an inability of social movements to sustain themselves. Or it was. Now, now our problems are different. And a little bit bigger.