Category Archives: Uncategorized

Trying to talk with people about (stopping) the end of the world. And failing.

Since I got back from 7 weeks and 10 tonnes of climate criminality, the same conversation – if you can call it that – has been had several times.

Here’s the dynamic of it (not obviously direct quotes, for various reasons, and a certain l’esprit d’escalier, but this is my website, so suck it up).

 

Me: Protest groups have come and gone – not at this scale on this particular issue, granted – and have a dynamic I call the emotacycle.  Tl:dr – it doesn’t last, and what is left behind is anomie, despair and unkept promises.  If we want a different result, we should probably do things differently.

Person 1: Yes, but at least we’re doing something.  You are saying we shouldn’t do anything.

Me: Really?  Really?  When did I say that?

Person 1:Look, a squirrel (scuttles off).

Person 2: Well, okay, then what’s your big idea about doing things differently?  You haven’t proposed anything.

Me: Really?  You know me.  You know that I have been writing about – and doing where possible – how to hold meetings differently, how to design events so they are not alienating to new folks, that I have been designing and holding skill-shares, talking about how we could change activist culture and expectations  etc etc etc for literally over a decade.  And you say I haven’t proposed anything.  And you expect me not to get angry at that?  Well, luckily for both of us I am not going to get angry. Not because I’ve been on anger management training (though perhaps I should) but because I am not even exasperated. I can’t take you seriously.  You know – and you know I know you know – that  I do in fact have a series of implementable proposals.  And you know that those threaten the status quo, and force today’s ‘we are winning’ crew to think differently, and they won’t – can’t?- do it.  And that all scares and frustrates you, but rather than deal with that, you simply say that I haven’t proposed anything. A convenient falsehood, instead of an inconvenient truth.

So, um, nice talking, but maybe I should be walking, ‘kay?

 

 

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The law of two feet: or “refusing to be #egofodder” #Manchester today

You have two feet. One is for learning, the other is for contributing. If you find yourself in a place where you are doing neither, it is your responsibility to respectfully use your two feet (or wheels) to go somewhere that you are.  If you don’t, chances are you’re gonna be ego-fodder.

Respectfully: So, no resentment-grenades tossed over your shoulder as you flounce out.

But then, as long as I don’t reveal the details of the event, I’m allowed to rant, right? Right?

Fuck me sideways, I have had enough of this shit.

No tea, no coffee, no lunch. No attempt to get us talking with other folks. No written programme with agenda timings.  Just bang, straight into some old white guy self-satisfiedly talking about other self-satisfied white guys. And it was gonna continue like this.

I’ve been around the block(heads) enough to know that while it is theoretically possible for an event to start badly and get better, we don’t live in that theoretical universe, and that if you throw good time after bad, you don’t get the sympathy from the Wife.

It’s a pity, because I suspect there were some interesting people there, but the cost of finding them was simply too high.

Whose fault is this?  It’s easy (and fun, and largely right) to blame individual academics, or individual activists who put on these events (I hesitate to use the term ‘design’, because no design effort appears to have been made.  But it’s also incomplete – they are simply monkey-see-monkey-do-ing.  They came up seeing these meetings, and think it’s the norm (it is, it’s just that it is a – deep breath – REALLY SHIT NORM.)

So, they’re complicit, but the simplicity of the complicity can defer action.

Will I reach out and tell them any of this?  I should, but I simply can’t be bothered.  And the big wheel will, regardless, keep on turning.

Of plastic documentaries, heroism and Spanish Researchers

The Spanish Researchers UK network is kinda cool.  They were created to promote communication within the community of Spanish Researchers working in the United Kingdom by creating a social network that facilitates the sharing of professional and life experiences. The association has encouraged this communication via the establishment of Constituencies throughout the UK.”

Last year some Northwest SRUK folks got in touch with me because they were putting together a day’s seminar on climate change and sustainability, here in Manchester. I got together with colleagues from the Sustainable Consumption Institute (hello Sherilyn McGregor and Joe Blakey) and, along with other folks (from Tyndall Manchester) we helped them put on a good day.(Their blog–  and fwiw my reflections.)

They got in touch again (usually a good sign) and asked if I’d come along as an “expert” (cough, cough) to a film showing and discussion. I said yes. The event was last Wednesday, 30th January. This is a blog about that.

After welcoming everyone and pointing to the popcorn and pop, they showed the film. It’s a recent documentary called A Plastic Ocean, and it was very very much of its type. That is to say, it started with some photogenic/sympathetic (if you’re white and middle-class) people doing something Nice.  And then realising that there was Trouble. And so then setting out to find the Source of the Trouble. And while not necessarily DOING that (erm, capitalism, much?), finding that things are A Lot Worse Than They Thought. But nobody wants a downer. There’s enough of that, so the second half of these documentaries – and this one is no exception – have to talk about shiny New Technologies. If ONLY these could be deployed, maybe there would be some Hope.

standard doco narrative

This, of course, follows the hero’s path (thanks to David Ruiz for this insight – he put the theoretical meat on mere empirical bones).

So we started with some ocean-photographers and divers realising there is trouble (plastic) in paradise (oceans off Sri Lanka) and then expanding to the human and ecosystem impacts, without ever doing more than hinting at the vast lobbying power of the plastics industry, or the Anthropocene or… well, anything that would orientate people and empower them.
And – as I said in my comments afterwards (I was asked along for my ‘expertise’, after all), these documentaries never almost never talk in any historically informed way about the power of social movements to force the state to regulate private corporations, and create some of these new industries we pin our hopes on (e.g. the USA and recycling).

Anyway, the Q and A went pretty well. The chairs went straight into a big circle, so everyone could see each other and the “sage on the stage” thing was mostly undermined,  but for one painful instance when some idiot older white guy interrupted a younger woman before she’d finished what she was saying. Sigh.  Could it have been done better? Well, perhaps if people worked in pairs on observations and questions before feeding into the group, but that doesn’t always work. Anyhows apparently the feedback was good, and I hope the organisers are happy – they did a fine job.

Next up for SRUK in Manchester is a showing of a film about how women were passed over by NASA as pilots, back in the day.  It’s on Wednesday 6th February, from 6.15 at the Cervantes Institute on Deansgate. It’s free (but you’re welcome to make a donation for the popcorn and fizz!)

 

Fwiw- On plastics – here are some articles that I will be blogging about (I need to read anyway for an upcoming TAing thing)

  • Clapp, J. 2012 The Rising Tide against Plastic Waste: Unpacking Industry Attempts to Influence the Debate. In Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice, Publisher: MIT Press, Editors: Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini, pp.199-226
  • Meikle, J. 1997 Material Doubts: The Consequences of Plastic. Environmental History Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1997), pp. 278-300
  • Fisher, T.2004.  What we touch, Touches Us: Material Affects, and Affordances. Design Issues Volume 20 | Issue 4 |p.20-31
  • Walker, A. 1994.  Plastic The Building Block of the Twentieth Century. Construction History.Vol. 10, pp. 67-88

Two novels on undercovers and infiltration – #Spycops #Spycopsfiction

Books reviewed:

  • Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)
  • Demo by Richard Allen (New England Library, 1970)

 

So, I am guiding my reading a bit, because I am Writing A Paper.  These two are both

  • about Russian secret intelligence operations overseas.
  • about the infiltration and attempted disruption of dissident social movements.
  • pretty tough to read (for different reasons).

There ends the similarity.

Under Western Eyes (UWE) is a late novel from Joseph “Heart of Darkness” Conrad, and apparently almost broke him in the writing (and me in the reading – not to War and Peace levels, but in the same ballpark).  It’s about a young student, Razumov, in Moscow who gets caught up – against his will – in an assassination plot and its aftermath.  The majority of UWE takes place in Geneva, where he is attempting to infiltrate/spy on some expat Russians.  My god it goes on. This is Conrad, so obvs there is an Unreliable Narrator, an elderly Brit trying to keep his lechery under control. It is, apparently, a Novel of Ideas.  Yes, well, Conrad sure does stint on the car chases and explosions…

People say things like this-

“I’ll tell you what you think,” he said explosively, but not raising his voice. “You think that you are dealing with a secret accomplice of that unhappy man. No, I do not know that he was unhappy. He did not tell me. He was a wretch from my point of view, because to keep alive a false idea is a greater crime than to kill a man. I suppose you will not deny that? I hated him! Visionaries work everlasting evil on earth. Their Utopias inspire in the mass of mediocre minds a disgust of reality and a contempt for the secular logic of human development.”

(Conrad, 1911: 95)

This is Conrad, of course, so there are plenty of acid observations to be going along with

“No!” Razumov interrupted without heat. “Indeed, I don’t want to cast aspersions, but it’s just as well to have no illusions.”

Peter Ivanovitch gave him an inscrutable glance of his dark spectacles, accompanied by a faint smile.

“The man who says that he has no illusions has at least that one,” he said, in a very friendly tone. “But I see how it is, Kirylo Sidorovitch. You aim at stoicism.”

(Conrad, 1911: 207)

and, if you like it really really over-wrought

Then, looking hard at me with her brilliant black eyes—

“There are evil moments in every life. A false suggestion enters one’s brain, and then fear is born—fear of oneself, fear for oneself. Or else a false courage—who knows? Well, call it what you like; but tell me, how many of them would deliver themselves up deliberately to perdition (as he himself says in that book) rather than go on living, secretly debased in their own eyes? How many?… And please mark this—he was safe when he did it. It was just when he believed himself safe and more—infinitely more—when the possibility of being loved by that admirable girl first dawned upon him, that he discovered that his bitterest railings, the worst wickedness, the devil work of his hate and pride, could never cover up the ignominy of the existence before him. There’s character in such a discovery.”

(Conrad, 1911: 379)

But tbh, I would not have finished it but for the Paper (see below) (And yes, this is almost certainly a reflection on my shallowness rather than the book’s worth!)

richard-allen-demo-bk

Meanwhile, Demo is a 1970 offering from the New England Library (men of certain age will know that this means violence, sex, sexual violence and Social Darwinism that would have Herbert Spencer saying “steady on old chap”). This book is the kind of trash that gives enjoyable trash a bad name.  The racism, sexism, classism, unabashed madness of it all makes it a very hard read.  Plot? Well, if you can call it that – some old farts from a thinly veiled Special Operations Executive get it in their heads that all the demos around the world are being orchestrated by Moscow.

Here’s a flavour of the writing (warning, there are pages and pages of this-

The colonel felt pride wash over him as Mai Bedford lifted her glass high. It was a distinctive appelation (sic) – like Flying Tigers and Desert Rats. But for sheer guts and courage none of those others could begin to match a Hartsman or Hartswoman as they had fondly been called in those final days of Europe’s torment. These were the backbone Britain and the Free World had needed when dark clouds clouded the horizon> They had been a strange mixture of bravery, nervelessness, patriotic neurotic so vital in that ancient game called espionage.

(Allen, 1970: 19)

And they are right – there is a baby-faced KGB agent inciting and pulling the strings, while getting laid a lot (who knew that Bolsheviks could be so, well, horizontal).

So these codgers get their mostly willing kids to do counter-espionage. Most of this seems to be done by shagging hippies (always with huge tits, obvs) who have relevant info-

““They’re avid protesters. Anything goes for that Cy, Tim. He’s part Panther, part anti-pollutionist, part anti-Vietnam. You name it, he’s in there pitching against established order. He hates pigs, too,” and she laughed uproariously.
(Allen, 1970: 45)

There’s a grotesque faux-apologia for My Lai and by the end……. ah, look, I can’t go on.  It’s repetitive, lurid, gratuitous, with plot holes you could stage a march of millions through.  …  I would not have finished it but for the Paper (see below).  This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be…  blow-torched.

Weirdly it makes zero reference to the Angry Brigade shit that was going down at the same time. It should be read against the slightly- later “Leftwing Terrorism in Britain literature” that has been so well-explored by Joseph Dartington.

 

 

I am writing an article for an upcoming conference, organised by the State Violence Research network with the title “Spies Like Us: Of the usefulness to activists of fictional representations of the agent provocateur and the spy.”

IF YOU KNOW OF ANY BOOKS, FILMS, PLAYS, TV shows that have a representation of the penetration of a social movement organisation (ideally an environmental one), ideally by a member of the police (but corporate spy will do), ESPECIALLY if it set in the recent past (i.e. since, oh, 2000), then please let me know!

 

At the moment the A-list includes

Vida by Marge Piercy (an all-time favourite, which I look forward to reading with my all-time favourite wife in a few weeks)

My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru

The Invisible Circus by Jenny Egan

Invisible Armies by Jon Evans

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The meh list

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

 

The Under NO circumstances attempt to read list

Demo by Richard Allen

 

(I will do a separate review for some non-fiction that I read – Under Cover, Deep Cover etc)

 

 

The I don’t know yet list

The Weatherman Guy by Jon Burmeister

Event report: PIECES of advice about (energy) policy engagement #EnergyPIECES

On Monday 10th December about 60 PhD students and ECRs (early career researchers) gathered in Cambridge for an interesting event, with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title “Engaging with energy policy: a masterclass for Social Sciences & Humanities PhD and early-career researchers.

Hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy (Cambridge University) and the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, this was an event of two halves.  In the first we heard sat in a tiered lecture theatre hearing from various people with perspectives and advice that could/would be useful to a career in energy policy engagement (aka green confucianism). In the second we got to pick each others’ brains, primarily for the benefit of some people who will be doing secondments with outfits such as the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Energy Saving Trust and Practical Action.

Chris Foulds of the GSI and Robert Doubleday of CSaP opened with a defence of the importance of the Social Sciences and Humanities in offering broader perspectives on energy policy and the rationale of the “PIECES” project (I do sometimes wonder if there could be an annual prize for the best retronym). This was followed by Neil Simcock of Liverpool John Moores talking about the Energy Geographies Research Group and, well, energy geographies and Kate Jones, speaking on Vitae, which has developed several handy tools for personal and career development.

In the Q and A the good point was made that focus on an individual (female researcher’s) ‘resilience and need to be ‘more assertive’ can simply be compensatory for bad systems (nobody, though, dropped the P b-bomb – Patriarchy).

After a refreshments break, a panel discussion on “what makes the Social Sciences & Humanities unique when engaging with energy policy(makers)?”  There were four panellists

  • Alena Fielding, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
  • Liz Hooper, Practical Action
  • Amber Sharick, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC)
  • Tom Hargreaves, Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group, UEA

Since it was never made clear if the meeting was happening under the Chatham House Rule, I’ll not ascribe any specific advice to any individual.

  • Think of the three Rs –  Rigour – (sine qua non); Relevance – timing, and luck, Opportunities may pass and not come back; Relationships
  • Be aware that there are specific individuals – who will be very busy and have their own mental frames of reference – who you need to convince
  • Engineers do clever things that don’t resonate with policymakers…(question of politics priorities/personalities, resource constraints/time constraints, context/consensus)
  • Be clear, structured, let go of being pure.
  • Don’t take people who support you (more senior, less senior) for granted.
  • There was a reference to work around four key questions; where are we going with energy transition?, who wins loses and how?, is this desirable?,  what should be done?  STEM avoids asking these questions, ESS doesn’t
  • Policy space has existing momentum
  • SSH provides answers/evidence that don’t fit with existing assumptions/patterns etc
  • As an academic you may produce things that policymakers actively don’t want to engage with
  • Engaging with policymakers can be very disruptive of work patterns, and throw a lot of stress into a group, as other people end up picking up slack at short notice while you go off to (interminable and short-notice) meetings.
  • Stand up for the value of SSH
  • Don’t bow to pressure to simplify or reduce complexity to realise short term impact
  • Don’t focus only on policy decisions, but look across and  engage across multiple actors in the energy system
  • Don’t just focus on decision-moments, seek longer-term learning
  • Consider using “Trojan Horses” – approaches which get you into closed cultures and then stimulate reflection
  • Provide constructive alternatives
  • Don’t just sling mud and criticise – provide additive alternatives
  • Be diverse
  • Engage multiple audiences, play multiple roles, experiment with different techniques
  • Don’t just shout louder, but also know when to dig your heels in and kick off
  • Get experience on the ground
  • Work in partnership
  • Enhance your skillset (e.g. excel, GIS): Think about the things you can’t get away with not knowing.

The afternoon was given over to small group work about policy engagement (who, how, when, why etc) and brainstorming for the upcoming internships. I blathered about sustainability socio-technical transitions, the multilevel perspective and a few other things. This was apparently useful.

So, a good day – exposed to some new ideas, met some new people…. Finally,  thanks to the organisers for the travel bursary and the enough-detail-but-not-too-much emails beforehand

#Climate delay and consequences in a simple metaphor

So recently I was having to explain the delay in doing anything about climate change since 1988, when it became a public policy issue, to a bunch of young women.

One of my go-to metaphors is if you’re dieting to get into a wedding dress, then if start six months before the wedding, losing a pound or two a week, it’s no problem.  Leave it later, and it’s starvation.  Leave it later still, and you’re looking at liposuction, bruising, pain and general horribleness.

Young women have enough crap going on with being body-shamed and all the rest of it that I decided, before opening my big fat patriarchal mouth, to come up with a different analogy.

This is what I came up with.

Imagine you’re invited to a party with y our friend.  You could walk – that’ll take about 60 minutes.  You could catch the bus, that’d take about 30 minutes. Or you could drive.

  • If you keep playing on your X-box, until 50 minutes before you’re supposed to be at the party, then you’d have to run at least some of the way.
  • If you stay on the X-box until 25 minutes, the only choice left is driving.
  • If you leave it to five minutes to the party starts, you MIGHT still make it, by driving both illegally and like a maniac, but there is a good-to-excellent chance that you will kill innocent pedestrians and/or yourself.

I didn’t tell them that the party’s over and that they’re gonna be left with the clean-up.  Why spoil their day, eh?

 

Will #ExtinctionRebellion end up as #chugging for Friends of the Earth?

So, sitting with two very clever friends this morning, spit-balling ideas of where the whole Extinction Rebelliion thing might go, this came up:

It’s possible that Extinction Rebellion, if it keeps the same set of repertoires (blocking roads, disrupting meetings etc), may end up not moving beyond the students and retired who seem (I have not been at the London stuff) to be making up a fairly heft wodge of its demographic.  The biographical availability here is ability to get arrested without huge immediate financial/career risks.

So, in this scenario, where ER’s repertoires and prospective participants stay the same, the following could possibly happen: ER puts the issue of climate breakdown squarely on the political agenda (where it should have been since, oooh, 1988).  A lot of busy/unavailable guilty liberals who let their direct debits to Friends of the Earth and/or Greenpeace lapse during the Global Financial Crisis say to themselves “Gee, yeah, end of human civ. Kinda puts the whole school fees for Tarquin and Cressida into context. But I can’t afford – in any sense – to get a criminal record. And who has the time for interminable activist-y meetings? So, um, I’ll give some money.”

And who would they give money to? Probably FoE/Greenpeace and the rest of the reformist gang that ER has so far only gently chided.  Thus, ER’s efforts may end up reinforcing the mainstream groups, being particularly spikey chuggers (for non-UK people: chugger is a contraction of ‘charity mugger’ – street solicitation for direct debits)

UNLESS (and it’s a big unless), ER morphs or creates offshoots to harness the other (non-financial) energies and potentialities of those middle-class types, this seems to me a likely outcome (but icbw).  There are some straws in the wind that suggest this morphing might be attempted.  Whether it is possible or not, well, that remains to be seen.