Category Archives: our doomedness

On #climate bullshit – interview with Dr Hayley Stevenson

A couple of weeks ago the academic journal Globalizations published a new article. “Reforming global climate governance in an age of bullshit” by Dr Hayley Stevenson. I’m the social media editor of another academic journal, Environmental Politics, and I tweeted it from @Env_Pol. It got a lot of Twitter love… I asked Dr Stevenson, who I “met” while researching my PhD (she’s written about Australian climate politics and lived to tell the tale) if she’d be up for an interview. She very kindly said yes. Here it is!

on climate bullshit1. Who are you? (e.g. where born, where did undergrad/PhD/post docs/where are you now, what have been your intellectual/academic interests?)
I am an Australian academic. My PhD is in International Relations and I have always been interested in how rules, norms and concepts travel across spaces and diffuse from the international to the domestic sphere (which of course is not a one-way process). The discipline of IR has real limits for understanding these processes, especially in an environmental context. So my reading has always been extremely varied – across different subfields of political science, ecological economics, sociology, etc.
I started studying environmental issues in 2005. A last-minute decision to attend a Friends of the Earth talk on climate change refugees ultimately changed the course of my PhD research. I knew nothing about climate change, but the injustice of it really struck me, and I have been writing and teaching about the politics of climate change and unsustainability ever since.
Following my PhD at the University of Adelaide, I spent three years at the Australian National University working as a postdoc with John Dryzek. From there I moved to the UK where I was based at the University of Sheffield from 2012-2017. I loved the intellectual environment in the UK – there are massive structural problems and enormous pressures in British universities, but there are also a lot of opportunities for early career academics: workshops, conferences, research funding schemes. I went everywhere and applied for everything! Of course, I ultimately discovered that academic busy-ness and hyper-mobility are fairly counterproductive (and probably mostly ego-driven rather than purpose-driven), so I have spent the past few years trying to create a context for more thoughtful work. This involved the decision to leave the UK and move to Buenos Aires, where I could happily keep my feet on the ground. Why Buenos Aires? I dance tango and it has always felt like home. I speak Spanish so it was possible to move here without abandoning my academic career. I now teach International Relations and environmental politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. Sustainability is still a marginal topic here – recycling is generally about as radical as it gets (there are movements against pesticides, deforestation etc. but they are small). But interest is growing, and it is genuinely rewarding to be able to guide students through their discovery of the politics of sustainability.
There are huge debates about the pros and cons of academic travel, and that´s probably a topic for another day. But I cannot talk about my own trajectory without touching on this topic. Climate change requires us to confront many contradictions, and this is one of them – for me it was a huge one. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to rethink this anyway. But I must say that life is so much better without airports – there is more time to think and read, and more energy for teaching.

2. When did you first read about the Frankfurt School – by which I mean bullshit, not any of that Horkheimer and Adorno thing – and when did you first think about applying it to global climate governance?
Honestly, I cannot remember. I have always been intellectually promiscuous, straying well beyond my own discipline. I think you have to do this when you study unsustainability; the insights that any single discipline can lend are limited. My most fruitful periods of reading are when I have spent time just wandering, like you might wander a city without a map, it´s hard to retrace your steps and you often wonder how you ended up where you are, but that´s when you find the most interesting things!
I read those little Frankfurt books – On Bullshit and On Truth – about five or six years ago and immediately drafted a paper plan. I had too many things on the go at the time, and it sat untouched for years. David Cameron was the British Prime Minister at the time, and I thought his “greenest government ever” was a perfect case study!
From time to time I would see the Frankfurt books in my shelves and be reminded of that paper plan. The concept of bullshit immediately resonated with me. As climate change moved from the political and social margins, I could see optimism growing. There was always a new announcement to celebrate, a new pledge, a new agreement, a new reason to be hopeful! But if we´re all environmentalists, then what the hell does that even mean? It´s meaningless, and I wanted a way to make sense of that meaninglessness.
Last year, Matt Bishop and Tony Payne invited me to contribute to a special issue on reforming global governance, and my immediate response was “look, I really don´t have anything new to say on the topic. I can´t see any reforms that are going to make much difference in the current climate.” And then I remembered this old paper that I´d sketched out several years before and I said “if this piece interests you and is not too polemical, I will write it, because it is really the only thing that I want to say about climate governance at this point in time”. Happily, the special issue editors were keen.

3. Did you have any hesitations about using the term in an academic publication, or any pushback from editors or reviewers?
There was no pushback. To be honest, I suspect most publishers would see the click-bait potential. I was slightly wary that readers would dismiss the paper in this way; that was my only hesitation. But actually I think it has resonated with what a lot of people were thinking. In earlier plans, I used the term “humbug” but this sounds straight of a Charles Dickins novel. Ultimately, I think we urgently need to talk straight about the climate crisis. Bullshit resonates in a way that humbug doesn’t.

Relatedly, are you worried about now being known as “that bullshit academic”?
If people find the paper useful in some way, I will be happy to be known in any way at all! Besides, there are a few of us writing on BS now. Perhaps it´s time for a Journal of Bullshit Studies. There´s no shortage of empirical material.
4. In the article (which is properly brilliant by the way – congratulations) you focus on international aviation, military aviation, bioenergy carbon capture and storage. Were there other sectors or technologies you had to drop for reasons of space/time?
There are so many other sectors and technologies that we should analyse. I wanted to look more closely at the Climate Emergency declarations. Ireland for example, declared a Climate Emergency while simultaneously purchasing carbon credits. I had to drop a section on corporate bullshit, which included the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The members of this initiative are the thirteen largest companies in the sector, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, and Saudi Aramco. So many corporate initiatives on climate change involve just sharing information or releasing data, so this was seen as more significant because it involves real money – a US$1 billion investment fund “to lower the carbon footprints of the energy and industrial sectors and their value chains”. That sounds like a lot until you calculate its actual significance, which I did. The combined annual net profit of members in 2018 (excluding Pemex, which recorded a net loss) was US$228.06 billion. Creating a $1 billion investment fund shaves less than 0.5% off their combined profits for just one year (the fund itself is not renewed annually). Profits for most of these companies soared in 2018 on the back of increased oil and gas production. These companies talk about how they are committed to the Paris Agreement, and it is pure nonsense.

5. What would it have taken for global climate governance NOT to have been bullshit?

(for discussion at a later date!)

6. Are there any countries or regions/cities you know of which aren’t bullshitting on climate change?
I don´t hear any political leaders talking about the contradictions and inconsistencies in their policies, or the uncertain assumptions on which they base their analysis. If you compare national pledges with the data on Climate Action Tracker you can see inconsistencies across the board. The Scandinavians are usually thought to be making the most genuine progress, but I don´t hear any Scandinavian political leaders acknowledging differences between production-based emissions and consumption-based emissions. Sadly I think the only ones that are not bullshitting are the villains who are honest about their indifference – Trump and Bolsonaro. Perhaps my impression is too sweeping. It would be great to see some analysis that convinces me that I am too cynical! I think that one of the greatest dangers of bullshit is that it breeds cynicism, which can become paralyzing.

7. What would you like to see the following groups do about the problem of bullshit, in the context of your call for ‘democratic reglobalization’ to “harness worldwide interconnectedness to bring the climate regime under greater public scrutiny and control, with the aim of producing better outcomes.” Specifically, what are the skills they need, and what are the barriers they would need to overcome?
– Academics
– Politicians
– Civil society organisations

8. You note that “Few citizens have the capacity to readily distinguish truth from bullshit in the pronouncements of political leaders and policy actors.” – so, how could sympathetic actors (especially academics) help citizens gain the capacity?

[combined answers to 7 and 8]

I think a real problem is getting citizens to even care about detecting bullshit. The amount of money invested in maintaining unsustainable preferences is so much greater than that invested in developing concerns about sustainability. A marketing statistic that has always stuck with me is that in the 1940s in the USA, total spending on marketing was about $30 per capita. Now it is over $500 per capita. This is a major obstacle. Some cities around the world have managed to ban public advertising, but it is hard to sustain in the face of corporate pressure. So much money is spent ensuring that we think as consumers and not as citizens. I suppose if we were all granted a citizen’s wage and had more hours for active citizenship, this would help!
Bullshit detection requires a lot of time to get a handle on the nuances of different issues. Think of all those ecolabels – they are based on the idea that we have complete information and can tell the difference between things produced sustainably and unsustainably. But most people don’t have the time to investigate, or if they have the time they would prefer to spend it on other activities.
But there are citizens who do care, so how do we help them? Civil society organizations have developed lots of tools for easily understanding personal environmental impact (like carbon footprint calculators). I think those are important, but we still don’t really have accessible tools for making sense of national and local climate policies, and identifying the bullshit. Greater collaboration between academics, civil society groups, and digital designers would be fruitful to give citizens access to reliable tools to identify bullshit.

Academic article on social tipping dynamics – or “Oh for cockpity’s sake…”

Ignore my snark later on – this is a good article, that you should take the time to read.  Crucially though, understand that the authors – like most academics – are addicted to trying to play what Haraway calls “the God Trick” and has also been called “cockpitism“.  To be expected, I guess, since the authors have hundreds of years between them of making detailed warnings to policymakers who… ignore them. Those authors know the depth of the shit we are in, and in order to cope with their fear, double down on being able to “see” and “advise.”

Also though – STIs?  Really? Was there not a better acronym, especially when you’re talking about things being contagious? (and yes, I will go again with that joke my wife mysteriously does not like: “What’s the difference between true love and herpes?”  Answer – herpes lasts forever.”)

The title: Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050

The authors: Ilona M. Ottoa,1,2, Jonathan F. Dongesa,b,1,2, Roger Cremadesc, Avit Bhowmikb,d, Richard J. Hewitte,f, Wolfgang Luchta,g,h, Johan Rockströma,b, Franziska Allerbergera,i, Mark McCaffreyj, Sylvanus S. P. Doek, Alex Lenfernal, Nerea Moránm,n, Detlef P. van Vuureno,p, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

The journal: PNAS

The DOI: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1900577117

The abstract:

Safely achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement requires a worldwide transformation to carbon-neutral societies within the next 30 y. Accelerated technological progress and policy implementations are required to deliver emissions reductions at rates sufficiently fast to avoid crossing dangerous tipping points in the Earth’s climate system. Here,we discuss and evaluate the potential of social tipping interventions (STIs) that can activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization within their functional domains that we refer to as social tipping elements (STEs). STEs are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The results are based on online expert  elicitation, a subsequent expert workshop, and a literature review. The STIs that could trigger the tipping of STE subsystems include 1) removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation (STE1, energy production and storage systems), 2) building carbon-neutral cities (STE2, human settlements), 3) divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels (STE3, financial markets), 4) revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels (STE4, norms and value systems), 5) strengthening climate education and engagement (STE5, education system), and 6) disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions (STE6, information feedbacks). Our research reveals important areas of focus for larger-scale empirical and modeling efforts to better understand the potentials of harnessing social tipping dynamics for climate change mitigation.

In plain English/tl:dr: We asked  a bunch of our academic mates who work on this stuff what it would take to stop us from continuing on the same tragic trajectory to dystopian hellholeness.  They came up with a bunch of “tipping points” and feedbacks.

(But nobody really said who was gonna bell the bloody cat)

Key concepts:  Social tipping points/elements/dynamics/interventions.

“In this paper, we examine a number of potential “social tipping elements” (STEs) for decarbonization (27, 28) that represent specific subdomains of the planetary social-economic system. Tipping of these subsystems could be triggered by “social tipping interventions” (STIs) that could contribute to rapid transition of the world system into a state of net zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The results reported in this study are based on an online expert survey, an expert workshop, and an extensive literature review”

Fine. You asked a bunch of your cockpitty mates. And cat-bellers? How many of them did you ask?

The social tipping dynamics of interest for this study are typically manifested as spreading processes in complex social networks (35, 36) of behaviors, opinions, knowledge, technologies, and social norms (37, 38), including spreading processes of structural change and reorganization (34). These spreading processes resemble contagious dynamics observed in epidemiology that spread through social networks (39). Once triggered, such processes can be irreversible and difficult to stop. Similar contagious dynamics have been observed in human behavior (35, 36), for example in assaultive violence (39), participation in social movements (40), or health-related behaviors and traits (36), such as smoking or obesity (41, 42).

btw, (40) is  P. Hedström, Contagious collectivities: On the spatial diffusion of Swedish trade unions, 1890–1940. Am. J. Sociol. 99, 1157–1179 (1994).

BUT  some useful for my immediate purposes stuff on energy –

STIs in the energy production system. The technological development in the energy production system is a dominant element of the decarbonization discussions in international institutions (55, 56) and business partnerships (57). The results of our expert elicitation confirm that technology development is likely to play a key role, however, not in the sense of yet-to-be invented technological solutions, but rather in the adaptation of existing carbon-free technology primarily in the power sector and by facilitating a smarter utilization of energy. The main control parameter that drives the adaptation of fossil-fuel–free energy technology is associated with the financial returns of its adoption (58). Our expert group believed that the critical condition needed to trigger the tipping process is the moment when fossil-fuel–free energy production yields higher financial returns than the energy production based on fossil fuels. The empirical data show that this critical threshold is about to be reached; the prices of renewables have dropped sharply in the last few years, and they have already become the cheapest source of energy in many world regions. The average cost of onshore wind dropped by 18%, and offshore wind fell by 28% (59).

TYPICAL BLOODY ECONOMISTS.  BELIEVING THAT CONSUMERS, OR INVESTORS, ARE “RATIONAL” and that there is not an enormous issue around social acceptance of (energy) technologies.  Plug anxiety etc etc Sigh. But this is useful –

2050 tipping points

Finally, the urgency and complex character of climate change require transdisciplinarity and engagement with social movements, knowledge brokers, and change leaders (151). More research is needed on understanding the required social processes and the drivers and incentives for short-term engagement of diverse coalitions of action around concrete solutions and strategies at various governance levels (152).

Indeed.  But how? And to what effect?  In what languages (I don’t mean English or German).  As a dialogue? Who facilitates? For how long? With what ‘outcomes’? Who is not in the room? Whose intellectual labour will get looted (probably the women of colour, if history is any guide).

 

Marc’s two cents

They almost lost me in the second sentence – “It is also an indispensable prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.”  That, my friends, is a tautology – show me a dispensable prerequisite. And why two words with so many syllables right next to each other? What are you trying to prove, and to who?

But, yes, we need the big picture thinking.

2050 tipping points pretty picture

But we also need much better answers to the “how will civil society get up on its hind-legs and STAY ON ITS HINDLEGS when the tear gas disperses and the neo-liberal think tanks move back in…?”

 

Should you read this?

Hell yes

Probably, yup – but with your ‘academics are waffling’ sensors set to kill.

Depends

Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

 

And on cat belling

Tribal barriers to cat belling

https://marchudson.net/2020/05/15/on-the-tribal-barriers-to-cat-belling/

Economists, the post-coronavirus world and that cat in need of belling

https://marchudson.net/2020/04/22/economists-the-post-coronavirus-world-and-that-cat-in-need-of-belling/

The 4Cs- coronavirus, capitalism, climate and cats (belling of)

https://marchudson.net/2020/04/01/the-four-cs-coronavirus-capitalism-climate-and-cats-belling-of/

“Social innovation” acceleration and the belling of cats

So, my intellectual energies have been mostly devoted to the Active Citizenship Toolkit, which is a project of the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester.  I’ve researched and written a couple of novice’s guides – to Manchester City Council’s budget process, and to the thorny question of allyship.  Other two page guides are ‘under review’ and will go up soon.

ALSO, and this is Good News – I have been shortlisted for an academic job.  It’s about social innovation.  So, over the coming few days expect a bunch of posts about that subject, and “acceleration” and so on.  This is to help me figure out what I think and what I should say (and of course NOT say on the day itself…)  Here’s a link to a list of ‘adjectival innovations’  and innovation terminology I made a while back.  Doubtless will have to expand it…

So, below, a few preliminary comments about my prejudices, and then I will follow up with another, more “ACT” related post about the thorny question of “capacity building”…

First banality:  The word “innovation” is sprinkled around like magic pixie dust. Like its cousins reform and progress it sidesteps/silences profound questions about morality and end-states.  Most of the time it is used there is a (knowing?) naivete around questions of incumbent power and resistance.

Second banality:   Most work on “innovation” and “efficiency” also largely ignore rebound effects – what will be done with the money/time/energy ‘saved’?  So, you insulate someone’s house so they aren’t being bled white on fuel bills. This is a good thing. But from a “carbon saved” perspective, what if they then use the money they saved to fly to Barcelona or Prague for the weekend.

Third banality: Most innovations fail, or take a hell of a lot longer to mature than folks think they will (people and hype-cycles, eh?) 

Look, we’re in the shit.  We have had over 30 years to take action on climate change, and in all that time we have just dug our holes deeper.  More people on the planet, yes, but crucially, far more fossil fuel infrastructure, far higher expectations of an always on world etc etc etc (and yes, this is not individual consumers’ “fault” blah blah systemic blah blah regimes).

And because we are in the shit, we are busy bright-siding ourselves. You saw it after the Paris Agreement, when people who really ought to have known better (and probably, in private, DID know better) spouted all sorts of guff about turning points [here’s a blog I wrote about that in December 2015]. And now here we all are in coronaworld, spouting guff about Green Recoveries, with no sense of the coalitions-work needed to make that happen.

So we latch onto the idea of social innovation “(versus” technological innovation? I don’t know, I haven’t read the literature. Hopefully nobody is that ill-informed?)

And we Need To Believe that it will get us to where we need to get to.  Social Tipping Innovations etc.  Yes, we all apparently need to contract an STI…

soc tipping dynamics

It reminds me of that clip from “The Newsroom” where they get a climate scientist on and he says “x/yz/ would all have been great 20 or even 10 years ago…” 

So, sophomoric ill-informed doomster rant over.  I am going to dive into various academic articles about social innovation, energy transitions, urban governance. . Going to blog about each (usually in a batch).

Criteria for articles on a kind of Likert scale on Should you read this ?

Hell yes
Yes 
Depends
Probably not
Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

And also “What else by authors is any good?”

My coda.

Social innovations like technological innovations, are all well and good, and fun to study at the Research and Development stage.  But deployment and dissemination/diffusion whatever, that is usually a far trickier thing.

Individuals  who are part of innovation get tired, burnout, demoralised, or sell out (literally)

Meanwhile, organisations are fantastically bad at sustaining morale. On the whole they either flame out or become self-sustaining rigid bureaucracies, trading on past glories.

That doesn’t, it seem to me on a rough first glance, get captured in academic work about social innovation, because who goes back after five years, or ten years, or fifteen years and sees “where are they now?” It is just endless polaroids, some explicit, some not, all always fading.

This is a marathon, not a sprint, So, need to think of it as a relay race to – how does “the baton” get handed on? We (activists) need to think of sharing the load. Which is the subject of the next blog post – on “capacity building”.

 

Online meetings as skeuomorphs – the old pathologies imported, affordances not afforded (cyber)space

If you suck at designing and facilitating meatspace meetings, then – everything else being equal – you are probably going to suck big hairy dog’s balls at online meetings.

Is it just me? (1) Am I the only one who has been in several really painfully bad online meetings during this lockdown?  Where the organisers clearly have given NO THOUGHT to what could or should be different. They’ve just shifted their dismal “in real life” formats over to Zoom. And guess what, they’re still dismal! Hoodathunkit?  But as long as the invited guest speakers get to treat everyone as ego-fodder, as long as the punters can feel they were close to Wisdom, or that they’re not losing touch, then everyone seems happy.

It’s as if the opportunities of online spaces (I’ll come back to them) are being very very consciously ignored.  There’s something skeuomorphic – the online meetings consciously replicating/signalling their continuity with the old formats which, well have nostalgia and soothe value (if not use value).

Why?  Again, trying to think systematically rather than continuing the Fundamental Attribution Error of ascribing cowardice/laziness/stupidity.

  • Most organisers are not familiar with what online meetings might offer
  • Most organisers are not willing to take the risk of innovating at the best of times, and right now, it’s not the best of times. (insert rant about fear eating the soul, helmet fires yadda yadda).
  • Most organisers are under no selection pressure to DO BETTER.  Any old crap will do at the minute (insert rant about the smugosphere) because most punters have never had better, and would be reluctant to demand it in these times when everyone is (understandably and rightly) cutting other folks lots of slack.

Okay, now I have got my tokenistic and  entirely abstract compassion tokens sorted: this.

DO BETTER, YOU FUCKERS.

At the least

  • Ask yourself: why gather people together for an hour and spend the first third of that asking them to, in effect, watch a youtube together? Srsly.  Have your speakers pre-record and upload their initial statements. That way they are not speaking off the cuff, they can be kept to time. Tell everyone to watch the damn things before. Most will, some won’t.
  • Be concise and clear in your opening statements. There is no excuse for waffling, and the consequences for it are HIGHER online, imo.
  • Encourage people to use the ‘chat’ function.  That is what it is there for (affordances schmafordances). This is NOT like a meatspace meeting where the chattering will be disruptive.  It’s an online meeting. Only Connect, as that old English dude said.
  • If you are going to go into breakout groups, then have the instructions for this  – what it is you are expecting each group to do – on a slide.
  • For any reporting back, ask the groups to make a slide of their own, rather than verbal feedback. People can read faster than they can listen.
  • Think about having a googledoc to which people can properly add comments in real time, reading suggestions etc.  The “chat with everyone” function is okay, but it is inaccessible once the meeting is over.  You can edit/polish the googledoc, before the rest of the world sees it, to remove anything libellous/confusing etc.
  • DO A POSTMORTEM. Ask people who leave early to tell you why they did.  Have a mechanism for everyone to give anonymous feedback (the only kind worth collecting.)
  • ITERATE> INNOVATE> ALWAYS IN BETA>  THIS IS THE WORLD WIDE WEB, PEOPLE.
  • Oh, and if your organisation is named after someone super super SUPER cool, but unjustly obscure, then explain who they are. The world really does need to know.

 

Yes, I am going to “put up”.  The group I am involved in is going to start to do more regular online meetings.  We will get things wrong, obvs. But at least we will be trying to actually use the technology in less grotesquely inadequate ways than I’ve described above. FFS.

 

Footnotes

(1) That’s a semi-rhetorical question. I know very few people who share my vocal, vehement, vivid disdain for suboptimal (“shitty”) meetings.  There should be more, but most people seem to shrug their shoulders and say ‘this is the way it’s always been’.  While calling for fundamental immediate transformations of our polity and economy. Go figure.

On the tribal barriers to cat-belling

Think in systems, dammit.

When I am frustrated (i.e. always) with the “left” endlessly reheating and repeating the same things (“wasn’t  1970s social democracy great?”, “the main problem is we don’t have enough diverse voices” (1) ) through truly wretched online events that are every bit as stultifying and wrist-slashingly excruciating as their meatspace equivalents, I often – through laziness and stupidity – ascribe the failures of others to laziness or stupidity.

But think in systems, dammit.

If you WERE to say, for example

“part of the problem we need to think about is that our shopping list of the ways the world ‘should’ be won’t get us there, but that people can gain and maintain status simply by repeating this shopping list.  They get brownie points for doing so, because we are so keen to hear their soothing words, and they are our bosses, and we are, ultimately, wanting to be saved by bosses.  We are like the sheep in Animal Farm, hoping for a better kind of pig, while still incanting the all animals are equal thing.”

Well, three things would happen

a) you’d open yourself up to criticism for having done your own shopping-list incanting in the past (and people rarely really like to open themselves up, unless they are particularly neurotic), and the fatal question “well, why should we listen to YOU then?”

b) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking your chums, including probably the people who organised this event and invited you to be on the panel (so, this might be your last panel for a while or -checks notes – for fucking EVER.)

c) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking those in the audience for having taken false comfort in shopping lists in the past.  They won’t thank you for that condemnation. Fur monkey may have no milk, but she’s got fur, fur goodness sake.   Life under ecocidal capitalism is already quite uncomfortable enough without some wannabe whistle-blower adding to it.  So, the questions will be hostile, the invites to speak at other events will dry up, your books won’t get read, your tweets won’t get retweeted. Siberia beckons.

So far so banal.  If a culture doesn’t have homeo-dynamic mechanisms for keeping within certain parameters, it’s not really a culture is it? Throw in some (rightful) righteous indignation and cognitive limitations (Kahneman Thinking Fast blah blah) and you’ve sort of explained why the key question of ‘what do we need to do DIFFERENTLY so that we have a chance of getting a different result?’ rarely gets answered (though often – as at a recent terrible-content, good-format/facilitation Zoom – gets asked.)

Somehow though, this isn’t satisfying me.  We “ought” to be better at this. We are supposed to be the ones who can challenge power. But do we use up all our courage and cortex in spotting the obvious, and then hunker down?  Do we find new tin gods to worship, and then let them rule us?

Or is it just so damn hard to think of ways that the incredibly embedded/entrenched/tooled-up status quo (that is endlessly capable of adapting/defending itself – T1000, not T800) could be defeated, that we retreat into soothing lullabies and never face any real challenge from the audience to sing a different song?

I will try, for what it is worth, to

a) have more compassion for those with nothing to say who say it at great length and to relatively great acclaim

b) understand the dynamics/incentives that keep them in place, and keep them from actually trying to answer the ‘who will bell the cat?’ question

c) provide clear cat-belling ideas and then implement them as best I can at a local level

d) obey the Cocker Protocol, in these dark, nay, shitty days

 

Footnotes

(1) For the sake of clarity: I am not – of course –  disputing that we need more diverse voices. What I am disputing is that if they are saying the same banal and info-deficit things that the middle class white men are saying, we (collectively) are not actually any further ahead. And I would very much like us to be collectively further ahead.

Of activist self-care and the need to think in systems and #Freud #Darwin etc

I attended portions of a zoom seminar this morning on “activist self-care.” Portions not because I flounced (this, as those who know me will attest, does happen) but because of technological issues and my steam-powered laptop not letting me into the break-out groups.  So my “criticism” of the seminar (which was on the whole good!) is constrained by that – maybe they got to what I want to say, but it didn’t look that way.  Here’s my two cents on what was “wrong” and what “we” (who that?) would need to put it “right” (and that, is, of course, a process not an event).

The structure of the seminar – and therefore the intelligent and compassionate contributions from those attending – was very much coming from an individual ‘coping’ strategy – the world is in a terrible state, and those who want to help unterribilise it are going to experience frustration, excessive demands (from others) and themselves.

The contributions (therefore) centred very much on ‘taking time away’, ‘having a buddy’, ‘delegating’, ‘breaking tasks down’ .  These are ALL EXCELLENT AND ALL NECESSARY.

But also very inadequate. Because many people, for whatever reasons, can’t do those things. If they could, there’d be no need for these seminars.  And in any case, there is an elephant in the room – which I mentioned in the chat function, but nobody responded to it, at least in the time I was on the call. It’s this:

There are pathological cultures and assumptions within “activism”.  Until we recognise these, talk about them, and try to do something about them, then we are stuck with “coping strategies” akin to telling victims of domestic violence – “don’t do anything to set him off.”  We need to think in systems here.

So, let’s take the eminently suggestible suggestion of ‘delegate’ as a way in to what I mean.

You could look at this from a psychoanalytic point of view (and I would recommend that as a starting point). Why DON’T people delegate? Well, when you delegate you lose control.  And in this world, control – or the illusion of control – is something most of us struggle to have.  We want to believe that we are brave, dedicated people who can rise to the challenges of being citizens in the 21st century. We know that there are many many people in far worse situations than ourselves, and we want to believe in our own power to overcome our doubts, our fears (Samuel Johnson wrote brilliantly about this in an essay called “What Have Ye Done?“)

There’s also the status issue – if you are known in your group(s) as The Person Who Does That Thing (be it the website, the lobbying, the coach-booking, the facilitating), well, delegating will lessen your status, if the delegation succeeds. And if the delegation does NOT succeed (and it often does not), your status will take a hit, as will your morale. David Rovics kinda nails it in “I’m a better anarchist than you“.

So we can’t talk about delegation, really, until we talk about the culture within most activist groups that accountability for performance, and respect for expertise, is somehow Hierarchical, Capitalistic, Oppressive, Fascistic etc.  We all know people who are able to scoot along the edges (or even near the middle) of activist groups through charisma, optimism and other forms of social capital, but who either often don’t do what they said they would, or who do it badly (either through laziness/lack of focus or because they’re not actually quite as good at something as they, or others, think they are).  And this can persist  for… (checks notes) … indefinitely because the structures of accountability and performance assessment are essentially absent in activist groups.  Until you “fix” that, only somebody who doesn’t care about their own morale or status, or the achievement of group goals, is going to delegate. Such a person is probably not really an activist, no?

Related to this – the question of breaking down a task into its component parts was suggested. YES. Good idea. But again – who is going to be the person checking in that a sub-task was actually done, in the timescale that matters, to the level required? This is going to require project management, volunteer management, time management and diplomacy skills that most of us lack most of the time, and cannot often deploy when we are tired, frustrated, etc.

Ultimately, there are few if any selection pressures (this is where the Darwin from the blogpost’s comes in).  Individuals are aware that activist groups are so low on numbers, and lack accountability mechanisms that can be activated (I hesitate to type the word ‘enforced’) that a certain amount of free-riding is inevitable.

Now, the term ‘free-riding’ is of course offensive. It suggests that the “real” reason people don’t participate fully is that they have made a deliberate calculation that they will be able to get away with not doing what they are supposed to while still getting the benefits (of being in a group). In the vast majority of cases, I think, the reasons for under/non-performance are to be found in the group culture (lack of mentoring, lack of a specific job description, fear of outshining others etc) rather than in cold calculation.

 

So, unless groups are able to ask the following questions of themselves, and provide real answers, then the individual-coping-mechanisms stuff, while necessary, is ultimately totally insufficient.

  • Does our group have a clear sense of what its mission is in the next few months?
  • Is this mission realistic? (This can only be known when you know what resources – skills, knowledge, relationships, stability – your group has. Most groups don’t know this, so cannot answer this question!)
  • What are the mechanisms by which our group measures whether any given task is being done effectively and efficiently?
  • What are the support mechanisms in the group to help people who are struggling with the promise-delivery issue?
  • Can these mechanisms be accessed by everyone, or are they really only available to the popular people in the group?
  • What are the accountability mechanisms for dealing with persistent cases of under/non-performance (no, not an accusatory Star Chamber, an exercising in one-upmanship. But at some point, if someone is consistently not delivering and it is hurting the momentum, morale and credibility of the group, failure to take action is actually a decision to fail.)
  • What collective resilience,  collective morale maintenance mechanisms are in place for this group?  (this does NOT mean compulsory singalongs).

 

For what it is worth, the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester – is developing or has developed answers to many of these questions. We’re working on an “Active Citizenship Toolkit” to help ourselves and others with these questions, and others.

 

Economists, the post-coronavirus world and that cat in need of belling.

Let’s start with the joke. No, I don’t mean the last 10 years of non-dealing with climate change at a local authority level. That’s not funny.  Let’s start with this:

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island, with a large can of soup.

The physicist says “We could drop it from the top of that tree over there. The kinetic energy involved will make it break open.”

The chemist says “We could build a fire and sit the can in the flames until it bursts open.”

Those two squabble a bit, until the economist says “No, no, no. Come on, guys, you’d lose most of the soup. Let’s just assume a can opener.”

Okaaay.   And?

And this. Without exception, all the articles I have seen about the post-coronavirus world and how it could be a wonderful place (nature is returning, after all) are as deluded and hand-wavy as the economist.

They assume the existence of what is needed to Make the Good Things Happen.

They assume that policymakers are going to put the long-term ahead of the short, the needs of their species (and let’s not even bother to speak of other species) over the people who are in their ears, in their faces, whose pockets they in turn are in, mentally and financially.  They assume that somehow the tragic trajectory of the last 50ish years – of states realising that the problems of the modern world are too tricky for the post-war planning assumptions to hold (academics call this reflexive modernisation. It’s one of the useful bits of conceptual toolkit you might wanna grok) – no longer matter, can be wished away.

Or they assume that there is a vibrant, connected, resilient set of civil society actors – unions, community groups, academics, students, think tanks, church groups etc etc – just champing at the bit, waiting to force through the policies and bolster the institutions (in both senses) that will Make the Good Things Happen.

Uh, no.  This is to make the economist seem wedded to the reality principle.

It Just. Is. Not. So.  There are reasons for this, to do with the hierarchies, secrecies of ‘normal’ states, and with the prolonged, determined and sophisticated attack on democratic structures that flies under the banner “neoliberalism”.  If we do not admit that this is the case, what is the actual point?

We might get some twitter shares for our latest glossy well-meaning and well-written report, that lays out a coherent set of things that SHOULD happen.  But if it is not answering the basic question –

How do we open the can (of whoopass on the status quo actors)?

then we are not any further forward, we are, in fact, further behind.

Who. Is. Going. To. Bell. The. Bloody. Cat?  If you don’t have an answer to that, if you are pretending that question can be assumed away, why don’t you do everyone a favour and shut your cakehole? You’re just taking up bandwidth.

Interview with Rosemary Randall, psychoanalyst and author of brilliant #climate novel “Transgression”

A superb novel about climate activism (and much more) was released earlier this year. It is by Rosemary Randall, a retired psychoanalyst who has written a great deal (of extremely useful) work on the psychodynamics of meetings, and on climate change. You can read a 2013 interview I conducted with her for Manchester Climate Monthly.
A review of Transgression (ordering details at the foot of this interview) will appear soon (I would gush too much about it, so I have asked Dr Sarah Irving to read and review it).

1. “Transgression” is your first novel – can you say a bit about how it came about, what you hope readers will take away?

The genesis of the novel was strange. The plot and characters appeared, pretty much fully formed, in my mind when I came round from a major operation three years ago. It was as if the anaesthetic or perhaps the morphine had released something from thetransgression cover unconscious. More generally however, the novel deals with political events and experiences that had a big impact on me personally. Although these events – the political agitation in the run-up to Copenhagen and the devastating failure of the negotiations – are only ten years ago I’ve been struck by how much of that period has been forgotten in the grim grind of austerity. Most of the people I meet in XR for example are completely unaware of their predecessors, of the size of the climate movement of that time and of its successes (the near-closure of the UK coal industry, the rejection of a third runway at Heathrow for example) as well as the failures. The (in my view misguided) idea of some in XR that everything that went before was useless probably has something to do with this. But many of those involved at that time were angry, clever, inventive and innovative and many of the techniques used by XR were honed and developed by those who were involved in the earlier period. It was also a time when the whole movement was much broader and more connected I think, with more overlap between people engaged in different aspects or approaches. My aim in writing the novel was primarily to tell a story however and I hope that what readers will take away is the satisfaction that comes when you read a novel that speaks to you in some way.

2.  It’s obvious where you got the knowledge for the psychoanalysis scenes, but the activist scenes read pretty well too – for instance you’re particularly strong on the emotions around big actions and meetings, both “positive” and negative” –   how did you do the research for them?

Over the years I’ve talked a lot with my son and his partner and some of their friends about their involvement in the kind of climate activism that features in the novel, so that was the primary source, along with my own involvement with more community based action where there was a lot of overlap between people taking part in direct action and people doing more conventional stuff. Something which provided additional background was a piece of research I did which explored the quite different emotional experiences of climate activists and climate scientists. The characters however are the products of my imagination. When you write fiction you become a thief – you steal stuff from everyone you know – an incident that your transform, a personality trait that finds its way into a character for instance – but most of this happens unconsciously. Once a character has formed in your mind, that character writes themselves. The actual incidents – climate camp, the ambush of the train, the occupation of the open-cast mine for example – are a mash-up of events that actually happened but transposed in place and time. If you were there you will probably identify what I’ve drawn on and be either pleased or irritated at what I’ve done with it.

3.  There are some characters (no spoilers) who are particularly caught up in their own views of the world, who don’t seem to be able see things from anyone else’s point of view, and thus do quite a lot of damage to those they purport to love and serve.   They are also the most prominent (but by no means only!) male characters – was that a conscious (!) decision?

Thomas (the transgressive psychotherapist) is perhaps an amalgam of all the bad men I’ve ever known, all the male arrogance, all the sense of entitlement, all the blindness to reality. I did want him to seem real however and I hope that the reader gets glimpses of another side to him. Similarly with Jake, I wanted the reader to see how powerful self-deception and self-duplicity can be as well as how destructive. I hoped that some of the other male characters – Felix for instance with his wounded sensitivity, or Stefan with his skilled good sense – would provide another side to the portrayal of masculinity.

4.  We’re ten years on now from the events in the book – either side of the Copenhagen conference and the revelation that the UK environment movement was riddled with police spies.  Any plans to revisit the same characters, or to write another novel in light of the deteriorating situation?

A number of people have asked me what happens to the characters in the novel and how I would write a sequel but at present I don’t have any plans to follow them up. I suspect that their later lives might be much less interesting than the events of ‘Transgression’. Felix and Clara in particular are at a turning point in life, they have all the hope of youth and face all the disappointment of a bitter political reality. I’m not sure I could write the sequel to that at present.

The current deteriorating climate situation is of course so inflected by the Covid-19 crisis that it feels much too early to be able to put anything intelligent into words of any kind, let alone fiction – but who knows. At the moment I’m working on another novel which is set during the cold war and maybe by the time I’ve discovered whether that one will work and whether I can finish it I will find it in myself to write more fiction about the climate crisis.

5. Anything else you’d like to say?

There’s been a lot of fiction written about the kind of future we might face as a result of climate change, most of it understandably dystopian and I’ve often wished that there was more fiction about what this issue feels like now, what it feels like to live it. Although ‘Transgression’ is set a little bit in the past my hope is that it gives imaginative space to what it feels like to be involved politically in this most desperate of issues. So much of what people talk to me about at present is the same as what people felt ten and fifteen years ago – the anger, the distress, the anxiety, the sense of your world being reshaped, the need to throw over your existing life and commit yourself, the fear that we will not succeed in stopping this. There was perhaps a little more hope then but the devastation that came with Copenhagen and the imposition of austerity was immense, greater than anything I’ve seen since. So perhaps my hope is that as well as creating a good story I’ve given space for some of the feelings and experiences of the climate movement to be validated imaginatively.

 

'Transgression' is now available, £2.50 Kindle, £6.99 paperback.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=Rosemary+Randall+Transgression&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss 
Also available direct via www.rorandall.org

Whatever happens to the people who give a damn? Abeyance, activism, academia

First, listen to this very cool song by Gil Scott Heron

With one exception (1), what goes up, must come down. The big (2) wave of climate concern was, I thought, gonna crest and break in November-December 2020. But COVID-19 has pushed the Glasgow climate meeting into the long-ish grass of next year, and XR’s “let’s all get together, and block roads” repertoire is probably a busted one (3). Can they pivot? Seems a long shot – so, my money is on the wave of climate activism from 2018 having come to a premature end. I could, of course, be wrong.

Meanwhile, there’s work to be done. Bless, I have a job where I am SUPPOSED to be reading academic work about activism and how it comes about, what happens to it.

As Mr Scott Heron sang –

Whatever happened to the protests and the rage?
Whatever happened to the voices of the sane?
Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn?
Did that just apply to not dying in the jungles of Vietnam?

So, I’ve read two good academic papers today –

Mary Searle-Chatterjee, (1999). Occupation, biography and new social movements. The Sociological Review, Volume 47 2,258-279

and

Nick Crossley, 2003. From Reproduction to Transformation Social Movement Fields and the Radical Habitus. Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 20, 6,  43–68

Searle-Chatterjee’s work is based on interviews with 20 activists in a “northern industrial city” (poss. Manchester?) and highlights the importance of experiences BEFORE university/white collar-ish job in the formation of activist identity.    Crossley  deploys some of Bourdieu’s work (habitus, illusio) to look at how activists think of what they do, how they situate themselves, hinting too at ‘abeyance’ – what happens when ‘the moment passes’ and the previously full meetings dwindle in size, the media stops paying attention and a legislative ‘victory’ means it’s harder to mobilise folks, and some of the best and the brightest are now on the other side of the table, if not the riot shield.

For me, as someone who has been to way too many shitty activist meetings (and perpetrated my share), and see groups go up like a rocket and tumble down like a stick, I think there’s a couple of extra questions that help us think about what I used to call “decruitment” –

firstly, what was the actual emotional experience of the person within the “movement” – did the protests and events that some thought were invigorating actually de-motivate? Were people bored, patronised, ignored, over-worked, underworked?

secondly, what did “the movement” do to make the long-term involvement of the new member more likely rather than less likely? Was there any investment in that individual’s skills, knowledge, relationships, or were they just treated as ego-fodder, to come on marches, to buy newspapers?

Whatever happened to the Revolution, indeed…

Crossley refers to some work that looks at this, and not just the justly-canonical McAdam citations – see also Fendrich, J. and K. Lovoy (1988) ‘Back to the Future: Adult Political Behavior of Former Student Activists.’, American Sociological Review 53(5): 780–84.

Those questions though – they are ones that are, methodologically, extremely challenging. Also, perhaps, conceptually, since the dominant assumptions are that people join movements to Change The World.  But might also there be a second, largely unspoken and unstudied motivation – to cope with the yawning, gnawing sense of loneliness, confusion and despair that so many of us feel?

I will keep blogging about the other articles I have on my list, and other stuff that comes to mind on this topic. If you know any more songs that deal with the “where did everyone go?” question, do let us know!

Footnotes
(1) Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide
(2) Though I was beginning to have my doubts – outwith the Yoof Strikes and XR, there didn’t seem THAT much going on, compared to, say, 2007-8.
(3) A footnote per sentence is Too Much, I think we can all agree.

The four Cs- Coronavirus, Capitalism, Climate and Cats (“belling of”) 

Another hot take about what may be coming. The USP for this one is that 

  • It tries to use some academic theories but in plain English
  • It admits up front – “who the hell knows?”
  • It actually foregrounds the crucial question other posts (e.g. this otherwise interesting one)  ignore – “who is going to bell the bloody cat?” 

Look, you’re in lock down, and this will kill 15 minutes or so….

Introduction

In the following essay I try to do four things. Firstly, I want to suggest some intellectual tools which might be of use to you in thinking about what is going on/will go on. There are plenty of such tools knocking about (Marxist-or-other dialectics, policy theories, conspiracy theories, economics and other poking- around-in-the-chicken-entrails). This essay only focuses on two, and some of my favourites (1) don’t make the cut.

The two in use here are sociotechnical transitions (“Multi-Level Perspective” and deep transitions)  and neo-institutional theory (both the ‘pillars’ image and ‘institutional work’). I will try to keep this first section as pithy and vivid as possible, but, you know, these things come from academia, so there are limits on their digestibility. I’ll end that section with a shout out to some ideas I’ve encountered in the last few days which look tasty but which I haven’t had time to chew on.

Secondly, I want to use these tools to make some suggestions on the sorts of behaviours we will see as the pandemic continues/wanes. This section will draw on what others have been writing of late.

Thirdly, I want to suggest the cat belling question is equivalent to the “Van Halen demand no brown M&Ms backstage”  tactic(2).  That is to say, if an article – academic or popular – isn’t clear about who has to act, and how, then it’s probably a waste of your time.  And so in order not to be a waste of your time, I give my current answer to that question.

Finally, I want to flag just how much we don’t know, and things we should look at. This is the bit where I hope someone with access to ERC funds goes “give that man – who has signally failed to get more than one of the 6 jobs he has been interviewed for in the last year – a postdoc.  Money is no object.”

First, two disclaimers –

  1. Who the hell knows?  The ball we are staring into is less limpid crystal ball and more pitch black bowling ball. And while we are talking balls, the wrecking ball of Coronavirus puts paid to many firm facts that seemed so damn solid four weeks ago. (who knew there was a magic money tree, eh?) But which of these facts have melted into air, and which of them have moved aside/fallen over, only to get up again in the near future? Who the hell knows?
  2. If I seem glib, it’s because I am glib.  I, famously, don’t have skin in this game. If I had gone done the breeding thing, I’d be going out of my gourd about now. But the glibness, well, it’s a transparent (in every sense) defence against the night terrors, innit?

 

 

Part 1: “If the only tool you have is a hammer…”

We are all of us struggling to make sense of what is going on these last few weeks.  The most easy thing to do is keep track of death rates, of where we are compared to this country or that country (Italy seems to have become the baseline for Europe at least), and curse that we aren’t living in New Zealand, where they seem to mostly have their shit together (certainly their Prime Minister talks a much better game than her Australian/UK counterparts).  That gives us a temporary sense of control, because, you know, numbers make it scientific(3).

Next along, it becomes a morality play – of who ignored what warnings, who shut down what, who stripped what public sector organisation of which crucial resources.  This is all good grist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be held in (checks notes) …2022 or so.

The slightly more sophisticated version is to decry neoliberalism, and the casual stripping of the state’s capacity to act, flogging off anything that isn’t nailed down and selling it at firesale prices to rich mates who happen to be donating to your political party and/or providing you with a job once you’ve done your years in the trenches as a party hack or a bureaucrat. That’s a morality play with footnotes, with the added advantage that it takes you closer to the systemic nature of what has been done to collective provision.  And you can bop along to REM’s Ignoreland as you read Harvey, Mirkowski, Brown, or the “much raking” about Dark Money. If you’re nimble, you might even get a couple of publications out of it.

Still, morality plays with footnotes don’t help us orient ourselves. And right now, we could seriously do with some shared situational awareness.

So, what is to be done? What tools (that I am aware of) might help us see this more systemically, but still allow us to think in a granular level about the what is to be done (WITBD) question in ways that go beyond pleasantries, platitudes and shibboleths?

I’ve got two proposals, which are, to be fair, kinda linked. The first is socio-technical transitions (mostly “Multilevel Perspective” –  I am probably overcooking it and under-referencing ‘deep transitions’  ). The second is institutional theory – especially the work of Scott (three pillars) and the whole “institutional work” thing.

First, MLP/Deep Transitions.

The MLP was first propounded in the late 1990s in the context of ‘sociotechnical transitions’. These are long, slow changes from one relatively stable state to a new relatively stable state. Shortest way to explain transitions: if Doctor Who used his/her Tardis and went to 1400 and found a sailor and took them to 1800, the sailor would be impressed but not totally freaked out. They’d see that the basics were the same – trees were cut down, turned into planks into hulls. Then some masts. Sails were made. Ropes were made. People had jobs as sailors, provisioners etc.  Sure, some new kit (astrolabes, chronometers etc) but the basics were unchanged. If the good Doctor were to scoot them forward to 1900 and it’s all metal steamships and it would blow their 1400AD minds: “wtaf?”

So, in the intervening 100 years, “everything changed”.  And there had been a prolonged battle between sail and steam, with all sorts of folks jockeying to maintain the current system or switch to a new one, based on where their money was coming from, what they thought was ‘right’.

So, one durable/popular way to talk about sociotechnical systems and their staying power/inertia has been the multilevel perspective (MLP). What follows is exceptionally crude.

The MLP three levels – landscape, regime and niche. The landscape level – this is where there are long term “big” factors which no individual actor can really shift or control – so for the rise of the steamship it might be associated developments in transport (railways), communications (telegraph), business management (see Alfred Chandler), Western expansionism/colonisation etc.

The “regime” (or “system” – there’s a lot of debate about these terms, because, well,  academics) is where the “big beasts” are trying to keep things on, ah, an even keel (sorry). Big business, trade associations, government departments, regulators.  Anyone who is likely to get quoted in the first eight paragraphs of a Financial Times “state of the sector” special feature. And in the 19th century it would be the big shipbuilders, insurers, the British Navy, the American Navy etc.

Finally, you’ve got the “niches” where lots of experiments take place – people tinkering in their proverbial garden sheds, innovators and entrepreneurs who either want to bring a new product to market to get rich (or die trying), or who want to change the way the “regime” is made up and what it does.  There’s a whole industry around “strategic niche management” and who counts as a niche actor. Obviously regime actors are paying attention and will adopt innovations from the niches in order to gain position within the regime or else kill an innovation that would threaten their position (think of the Japanese state versus Western tech, up until 1853).

What happens is that eventually the technology (and behaviours which enable and are enabled by that technology become more ‘efficient’/obvious and a new regime is formed from the wreckage of the old.  Wars can speed this up (Johnstone and McLeish, 2020). Pandemics? Well, we shall see….

There are many many criticisms of the Multi-Level Perspective, many of them compelling , and all of them outside the scope of this particular article.  Recently, there’s been a repurposing of the MLP, or subsuming of it into the notion of “Deep Transitions (DT).” DT covers the idea that the kind of transition we need to cope with climate change – a massive, rapid decarbonisation of the interlocked systems which mean we can move about, feed ourselves and live in warm-enough houses – can/must be accelerated, and that we can learn some tricks to do that from looking at history.

The MLP and DT are useful tools, perhaps (but certainly not on their own).  Where coronavirus fits in is in the sense of “landscape shocks”. This pandemic, long predicted (Garrett, 1994) is, as the person who kindly phoned me the other week (4) put it, the mother of all “landscape shocks”, which destabilise and possibly delegitimise the regime. The regime relies on the consent (cognitive capture, if you want to go full Gramsci) of those participating. This last few weeks beats the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, 911 and so on as the ultimate “wtaf?” moment.  We are in the earliest days, and it already has unfathomable implications for many industries (newspapers, restaurant industry, insurance, you name it). With many “normal” things now stigmatised, what might emerge in its place?

As Johann Schott says

“The key question is whether the new practices, that generate positive impact, can be continued over the longer term when the shock disappears.  After all, ‘cancel everything’ can’t be a motto for the longer term, but perhaps cancelling the commute to work to attend just one face-to-face meeting that could be conducted online instead, may become the norm. ”

And – more importantly which of these new behaviours/norms might stick around and which will be gone like a fist when you open your palm?

Which brings me to the second useful intellectual tool: institutional theory.  There’s a basic confusion in English between organisations and institutions, with the latter term being used to describe the former.  But organisational theory is something else (and quite fun – especially if you get off on understanding just how horrifically unfit for purpose most outfits (in the Richard Stark sense) are: Pournelle’s Law, the Peter Principle, Parkinson’s Law, Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, the Tyranny of Structurelessness etc etc).

Institutional theory is more about “institutions” in the sense that, in the words of Peter Cook that mawwiage, is an institution. So, the two ways I find particularly useful (again, see (1)) for thinking about “institutions” defined as

“ … social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts. Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localized interpersonal relationships. Institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous.”

are (drumroll please) these.

  1. Scott’s Three Pillars and
  2. Institutional work (creative, maintenance, defensive, disruptive)

Scott (1995) suggests we think of institutions as held up by three pillars.

  • Cultural-Cognitive Pillar – “how the world works, according to my culture, what I should think of as proper and commonsensical
  • Normative Pillar – what seems “right” and proper
    (side-note: Bourdieu kind of went here with his ‘habitus’)
  • Regulatory – what are the rules (both legal and otherwise) of the game (yes, in The Wire sense).

The crucial point is that although these are “pillars” they can (and do) change over time. When I was growing up in Australia in the 1980s it was a ‘fact’ that homosexual men were perverts, and child abusers.  Well, common sense changed…

The pillars/norms around “the market” and “neoliberalism” were contested from their birth, but gained dominance in the early 1980s and endured until 2008.  Zombie-like, they have staggered on. In the coming months and years there will be an intense battle over not the existence of the magic money tree, but who gets to shake it and who gets to gather what falls from that tree…  There will be all sorts of battles…

This brings us to institutional work, first propounded by Lawrence and Suddaby (2006). It is

“the broad category of purposive action aimed at creating, maintaining, and disrupting institutions and businesses .”

So, those pillars are being built, shored up, chipped away at all the time.  One of the most intriguing papers on this is about how DDT went from wonder-chemical to pariah in the space of ten years (Maguire and Hardy, 2009).  We will be seeing a hella lotta defensive and disruptive institutional work over the coming years, and also concerted efforts at creative institutional work – trying to create new norms and common senses around new behaviours.

Before I try to deploy the MLP and institutional work to ‘what next’, I want to shout out to two other tools which don’t make the cut but have the potential to be seriously interesting.

Firstly, within psychoanalysis – the Claustrum (Fife and Hines, 2020)

“When experiencing an environment which is intensely punitive, has little to provide, but upon which one’s survival depends, people develop predictable defenses—fantasies of how their environments work—and in various ways retreat into these fantasies, which filter their perceptions of the world and can provide a sense of safety. Or, if not safety, at least predictability—the truly new being far scarier than repeated contact with the evils one is familiar with. Psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer described the resulting subjective reality as the “claustrum.” These defensive fantasy-lenses are structured around three primary themes: 1) a dreamy apathetic denial of problems, 2) a compulsive need to convert everything into a bacchanalian party, and 3) a preoccupation with exposing and unmasking “falseness.” What draws one into the claustrum is the need to replace the confusion of reality with some kind of predictable, repeating experience that will reduce anxiety or at least provide a familiar cast of characters.”

Secondly, Peter Mair’s “hollow but hard” states.

Part 2: If I had a hammer

There are already a bunch of quite good “what comes next?” posts out there about how the pandemic ends  (Yong, 2020) and what might come next (Mair, 2020 ) and how climate change action ain’t gonna happen (Bordoff, 2020)

Fwiw, I should probably map the Mair one

“From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.”

onto David Holmgren’s peak oil/climate matrix at some point… But not today.

Pretty much everyone is alive to the danger of the status quo getting shored up. See Mazzucato (2020) and also Lombrana 2020-

“There’s a risk that countries and companies will  revert back to what they know works, Mountford says. Shovel-ready coal or fossil fuel projects that were halted in recent years on environmental concerns could easily be reactivated”

Let’s take the two intellectual tools I banged on about in the first part of this essay – MLP and Institutional Theory – and see if there are any rough (5) thoughts we can sketch out.

MLP

Well, there has been a landscape shock.  So, the regime actors will be looking to either maintain the status quo OR ELSE push towards a new stable system they think they can dominate.

That is to say, there is not and will not be a single “they”.  Some current incumbents and incumbencies (we need to think of this processually. Get me another time on the whole “T-800 versus T-1000″ thing) will want to return to a recognisable version of the good old days. Others may think that they are more likely to be able to dominate a NEW system, and put their energies into creating that.

Maybe we should start thinking in terms of “status-quo-seeking incumbents” and “change-the-world-to-get-rich-from-the-change incumbents.”  It will depend on what assets they have, what absorptive capacity, what cognitive capacity and appetite for risk the decision makers have, how they can communicate that, how constrained/embedded they are in other relationships (can they get their shareholders/investors to take a punt?)

When it comes to mobility and energy, Elon Musk, presumably, will be in the latter category, as will electric scooter makers.  Car manufacturers with enormous sunk costs and interests in something that looks and sounds like an internal combustion engine maybe less able to be nimble, for a host of reasons (6).  This battle, clearly one that was coming, just got accelerated by a very small bug. So it goes.

In terms of consumer goods, new “zero infection risk” products will be promoted.  There will be an emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘ease of disinfecting.’ These will be advertised with a seal of approval from this or that official sounding body (some legit and desperate for cash or needing to burnish their own cred, others little more than front groups).

What will incumbents do in defence of their incumbent position? The glib answer – “whatever they think they can get away with”. The more interesting question is how they will go about doing it.

We are of course already seeing massive bailouts being garnered already (Tienhaara, 2020;  Dayen, 2020). Simultaneously, we are seeing a bonfire of ‘red’ and ‘green’ tape (environmental regulations.

ustoannounce

Matt Lubchansky

Niche actors

All sorts of niche actors will either believe in their own ‘technology’ as the rightful one (and there is, as you would expect, a tendency to moralism among the niche actors, many of whom are motivated by disgust and despair at the behaviour of the regime actors).  Others will be hoping for a quick buck, to form a marriage of convenience with existing incumbents. To the dismay of many, the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, on the morning of Wednesday 1st April, announced some kind of sleazy sponsorship deal with the Bilderberg Group.

However, before we get too bogged down in incumbents and niche actors, I would argue that the best way to think of this is through MLP and Deep Transitions PLUS institutional theory.    It’s a bit clunky, because this is a first pass. See section 4 for more about this…

Work which  incumbents/incumbency might do. Work which ‘niche’ actors, and “change the world to get rich from the change” incumbents  will do
Cultural cognitive pillar Maintain and defend by finding new partners to burnish selves (as per STRN). More tie-ins/sponsorships of charities/worthy causes

Highlighting the the work it did during the crisis (donations of stock/expertise)

Defend by delegitimising niche actors as unproven, dangerous, ‘dirty’.

Create new common sense by showing  customers that new products and behaviours are easy, clean, pro-social.
Disrupt existing incumbents by emphasising their bad behaviour, their need for taxpayer bailouts, labelling them dirty old dinosaurs.
Normative pillar Create and maintenance work by states and security apparatus attempting to (further) habituate consumers and citizens into a) handing over their data automatically as an act of civic-mindedness and b) delegitimise citizen questioning of states as ‘carping’ or ‘a resource drain during an emergency’ (already we’re seeing in the UK various public bodies delaying answering Freedom of Information Act requests) (7) and Agamben, (2020). Disrupt by delegitimising previously ‘normal’ technologies and behaviours (the improvements in air quality in cities will be latched onto by EV makers, as soon as it doesn’t look opportunistic. They will try to kill off the legitimacy of the Internal Combustion Engine.  Someone will go too early, others will learn, hold back. Then there will be a flood)

Legitimise “sharing,” but in ways that allow capital accumulation (they’ll try, but personally I don’t see AirBnB making a big comeback anytime soon).

Regulatory pillar Using the state to maintain the status quo, via using “safety” and “cleanliness” rhetoric to raise bar for new entrants  (especially likely in food production/retail) Try to disrupt by getting new rules attached to bailouts for “status quo seeking incumbents”

Try to get wiggle room in regulations and laws for ‘experiments’ (ideally with the tax payer picking up the tab/acting as insurer or last resort).

What will happen when the emergency “ends”?

If you asked me to bet, I’d say  we will see “corporate liberalism as Gabriel Kolko called it or The Thing as Cobbett called it ever further entrenched. Obviously I could be wrong, and I hope I am. (But hope is not a strategy – as we shall come back to.)

Some new practices will last only for the period of emergency, only to be undermined by wily incumbents, exploiting and amplifying the enormous and understandable desire to return to something like “normality”.  Presumably some new infrastructures (such as they are) and new social and moral norms will persist. Who knows which ones?

Part 3: Give me a long enough damn hammer and I will move the world, aka “who is gonna bell the bloody cat?”

In which I argue that if the worthy “our post-coronavirus world needs to look like this” article by the worthy person/people you are reading is not explicit and specific about WHO IS  GONNA MAKE IT HAPPEN, then it is not worth your time (8).

For those who don’t know the story

Conseil_Tenu_par_les_RatsA group of mice get together to discuss ‘what is to be done?’  A new cat has been gobbling them up at will. They debate various plans to nullify the threat of the marauding cat. Various stupid ideas are put forward (e.g. “ask the cat to be socially responsible”). Finally one of the mice proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are all warned of its approach.

The plan is applauded by the other mice, and the meeting is about to break up, ‘job done’.

Then one of the elderly mice raises his little mouse paw and asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat.

Tumbleweed….

All of the applauders make excuses about why it can’t be them…

 

Look, we bring our baggage with us, to new towns, new places. I may as well put my baggage on the table: I have (terminal?) ennui, a dread of (and inability not to go on?) making the same mistakes.  And I go to meetings – be they activist or academic where smart and/or brave people reel off shopping lists of Good Things that Should Happen.

But it isn’t real.  We’re deserting the real, most of the time, for understandable (and sometimes forgivable) reasons.  For me, the question is not “what needs to happen?” but – and sorry for shouting-  Who. Is Going. To. Make. It. Happen? What constellation of actors are we talking about – Activists locking themselves to things? Academics whispering in policymakers ears? CEOs driving change from above?

So, I agree with David Osland

“Coronavirus will likely see a transformation in popular political consciousness on a par with 9/11 and the financial crisis. If the left cannot harness that shift behind an egalitarian agenda, the right will use it to ram home its nationalist and authoritarian vision.”

I also agree with the skepticism of  Chris Shaw

“I wish I could believe that the millions of impoverished and the bourgeois will together use this crisis to waken to a new consciousness of the oneness of all existence and the suffering caused by grasping.”

With regards to “last chance to save the earth”, we have been here before.  I know I am a stuck record on this, but there have been three previous waves of concern about ‘the fate of the planet’ in relation to (gradual) environmental degradation – in the late 1960s to early 1970s (Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, Earth Day), the late 1980s to early 1990s (Amazon, Ozone, Greenhouse, Rio), and then the late 2006s (Inconvenient Truth, IPCC 4AR, Copenhagen) one.

Now we are (or were?) in another, thanks to the obvious failure of Paris, Greta, XR, 1.5 degrees report, COP26.

But (and it is a big but)

Social movement organisations and “left populism” (I cannot speak highly enough of Fife and Hines, 2020, btw) are generally unable to sustain their anger, their energy. It’s too easily captured, corralled (see Barlow 2010 on this) and commodified. And on climate – well, we’re staring into the abyss here, folks, and the Nietzsche had some advice for niche actors who do that.

We sociotechnical transitions scholars know this.  We know how hard it is to create a sustained and sustainable market for ideas, technologies, how easy it is for incumbents to disrupt or purchase them.

And look, the COVID19 thing MIGHT be an enormous opportunity but

  1. If green groups go too early, they will look opportunistic and suffer a backlash.
  2. There will be an enormous amount of money spent on PR to burnish the status quo or funnel it to a new accumulation-friendly regime.
  3. Captured states (and all of them are) will pass all sorts of hellacious laws against dissent.
  4. There will be a desperation among grieving impoverished populations (so many businesses shut down, so much domestic violence – mostly by men, so much education interrupted, so much PTSD,  many hopes and dreams shattered) to ‘return to normal’.  Yes, even when that normal was in every available sense ‘unsustainable.’

So, what is needed is the following.

Citizens’ groups which are capable of

  • sustaining themselves, emotionally, financially, cognitively – avoiding the temptations of being co-opted, the dangers of being repressed, the lure of the smugosphere/and enacting or being enacted by emotacycles
  • Linking with other groups for mutual aid
  • Forcing the state (local, national) to be less horrifically a captive of the incumbents
  • Figuring out how to have sustained alliances with people who don’t look like, talk like, think like them
  • Figuring out how the incumbents will try to crack them (see above) and devising effective countermeasures

Here is something – CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done? – I mostly wrote, with input from my colleagues in Climate Emergency Manchester. It’s seven weeks old and feels like it is from another century. But it kinda stands up as a program. Kinda…

Oh, and there’s that climate change thing from a few years ago. (ONION)

I am not saying this is doable. I am not saying it isn’t doable. I am saying that if we allow the intellectuals who enjoy our attention, in meatspace and cyberspace to

  1. Keep it all in the realm of Shopping List Politics,
  2. Decline to answer the basic question “what have we been doing wrong in the past?”

then we are wasting the last of the last chances our species has for some sort of comfortable non-barbarism life on this planet. (8)

Section 4: Gizza postdoc

Here’s what – imho – needs studying, using MLP/Deep Transitions, Institutional Pillars/Work and whatever other intellectual tools I find down the side of the sofa…

  1. How will the incumbents in [insert sector here – transport, mobility, food, politics] use the COVID19 pandemic to reinforce their position?  What coalitions and constellations will they mobilise (industry bodies, relations with political parties). What discourses (around cleanliness, safety, reliability, care) will be mobilised. Under what circumstances are challengers (be they niche actors or incumbents from competing/overlapping systems) able to force system change?  In what ways will the state be a primary arena for struggle? How will civil society actors be tactically incorporated? What are the fracture and fissure points? (How) will the need to decarbonise economies and institutions be imbricated into these battles? Methods – Interviews with participants, keeping tabs on the industry associations and the revolting door – sorry, revolving door – with the state, and intra-state battles.
  2. How will existing NGOs and SMOs seeking to force a transition/transformation at the socio-technical/socio-material level actually stuff it up, (because they will).  What strategic alliances will they be unable, unwilling to create and maintain? What lacks – of operational capacity, of credibility and legitimacy- will doom them to ongoing irrelevance?  Methods – Participant observation, attending sage-on-the-stage meetings (aka “the meatspace equivalent of clicktivism”), going on marches, interviewing “strategic” leads of NGOs/SMOs.
  3. What scope is there for new actors (entrepreneurs morally, politically, economically) to repurpose existing discourses (safety, responsibility, justice) and forge (in every sense) alliances and constellations of actors which can accelerate (ah, that bloody word again) the delegitimisation of fossil fuel-centric incumbencies and give birth to some new rough beast, as we all slouch towards Armageddon?  Methods –  Participant observation, interviews, getting nicked, that sort of thing.

Have PhD, will travel. Not great at quantitative, but I do a mean interview. Reasonable general knowledge.

References (may not be complete, and may include some stuff that I didn’t reference. So it goes).

Agamben, G. 2020. Clarifications. Itself, 17 March.

Applebaum, A. 2020. The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff. The Atlantic.

Baker, P. 2020. ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?The Guardian, 31 March

Bordoff, J. 2020. Coronavirus pandemic shows why no global progress on climate change. Foreign Policy

Dayen, D. 2020. Unsanitized: Bailouts, A Tradition Unlike Any Other. The American Prospect,

Fife, B.  and Hines, T. 2020. I can’t relate. Damage, 9 March

Garrett, L. 1994. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance.

Ghosh, B. Bloomfield, G. and Schot, J. 2020. Conversations on COVID-19: Consequences for the Second Deep Transition and the Sustainability Revolution.  TIP Consortium, 27 March

Johnstone, P. and McLeish, C. 2020 The Role of War in Deep Transitions: Exploring Mechanisms, Imprints and Rules in Sociotechnical Systems. SPRU working paper.

Joshi, K. 2020. Watch out for this symptom of Coronavirus: lazy ecofascism. Ketan Joshi. Co. 20th March.

Lawrence, T. B.; Suddaby, R. (2006). “Institutions and Institutional work”. In Clegg, S; Hardy, C; Lawrence, T (eds.). Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.). London: Sage. pp. 215–254.

Lombrana, L. 2020. The Post-Virus Economic Recovery Could Be a Green One. Bloomberg

Maguire, S. and Hardy, C. 2009. Discourse and Deinstitutionalization: The Decline of DDT. The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 52, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 148-178

Mair, 2013. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing out of Western Democracy. Verso

Mair, S. 2020. What will the world be like after coronavirus. Four possible futures. The Conversation

Mazzucato, M. 2020. Covid 19 Crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently. The Guardian, 18th March.

Meadway, J.  The Anti-wartime economy. Tribune

Tienhaara, K. 2020. Coronavirus and the economy: we need green stimulus, not fossil fuel bailouts. The Conversation

Yong, E. 2020. How the Pandemic Will End. The Atlantic, March 25