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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.

Looting the Ivory Tower: “Making the most of community energies”

Super-useful on DECC (RIP) and the “Community Energy” strategy – the costs of getting it. Should be read alongside that paper by Phil Johnstone Andy Stirling and Ben Sovacool  about Policy Mixes for Incumbency  Honest about risk of academic blindness from using one theory (SNM) and not paying close enough attention to interviewees, and what is NOT being said.

The title: Making the most of community energies: Three perspectives on grassroots innovation

The authors: Adrian Smith Tom Hargreaves Sabine Hielscher Mari Martiskainen  Gill Seyfang

The journal:  Environment and Planning A 2016, Vol. 48(2) 407–432

The DOI: DOI: 10.1177/0308518X15597908

The abstract:

Grassroots innovations for sustainability are attracting increasing policy attention. Drawing upon a wide range of empirical research into community energy in the UK, and taking recent support national government as a case study, we apply three distinct analytical perspectives: strategic niche management, niche policy advocacy, and critical niches. Whilst the first and second perspectives appear to explain policy influence in grassroots innovation adequately, each also shuts out more transformational possibilities. We therefore argue that, if grassroots innovation is to realise its full potential, then we need to also pursue a third, critical niches perspective, and open up debate about more socially transformative pathways to sustainability.

In plain English/tl:dr: You can get policy ideas onto the elite agendas, but only the bits the bosses currently find useful. If you want to transform stuff, ya better be wary of trading truth for access (My gloss)

Key concepts:  

The way the transformative potential (or aspiration) of strategic niches has been successfully absorbed, and now an additional ‘critical niches’ concept is needed…


“Summarising, we draw three distinct analytical perspectives from the niche literature: SNM (in which niche influence operates through self-evident improvements in the performance of an innovation), niche policy advocacy (where influence arises by aligning niche innovations with prevailing policy discourses), and critical niches (where influence changes the terms of debate and mobilises transformative action). Table 1 summarises the three perspectives by comparing them in niche terms of: (a) the roles played by local experiments, (b) the knowledge priorities involved, (c) the kinds of intermediation sought, and finally (d) presumptions about the nature of politics.” (p. 412)

smith et al three perspectives

“However, as research proceeded, we noticed discussion in the field was tending to bracket out more critical questions arising from CE development experience. We do not mean evidence about the difficulties of doing projects, of which there was plenty, and where SNM and policy advocacy perspectives helped. Rather, we mean critical debate about transforming energy regimes so that they become more open to some of the originating aims of community involvement and control, rather than CE becoming an adjunct to marginally reformed energy regimes. Critical issues cropped up in conversations with practitioners, yet neither our framework nor policy developments were exploring them in depth. Practitioners rarely persisted in these issues for fear that it would not help their cause in seeking policy support. This prompted us to develop the critical niches perspective and led to us going back through our empirical material to apply and test this new perspective.” (p. 420)


“SNM presumes a singularly rational form of politics: everyone learns the same, self-evident lessons. Consensus exists over the sustainable energy problem framing, which is that CE is beneficial, and policy will develop on the basis of evidence about the way to do CE better. Politics under niche policy advocacy takes a pluralistic approach in arguing why CE matters to policy-makers. CE analysed from this perspective identifies the work necessary to convince policy-makers that CE relates to their agendas. Arguments advance by drawing upon evidence from practical CE experience. Reforms can be pushed pragmatically; they should not depart radically from what prevailing regimes deem reasonable. Critical niches, in contrast, see reason in demanding the impossible. That is, they point to limitations under current policy discourse and seek to mobilise for something more transformative. The critical niches perspective sees politics in much more antagonistic terms. It insists upon issues side-lined by the power relations in CE niche advocacy and the exigencies of strategic development. CE projects that are a poor fit or unworkable under current energy regimes can orchestrate debate about restructured energy regimes under which the same projects are very sensible.”(p. 427-8)


“Practitioners and intermediaries are aware of critical issues. However, they also rely on opportunities provided by energy regimes: funding mechanisms effectively frame and shape CE initiatives. This raises important methodological implications. Had we limited research to a single perspective and method, such as a survey of SNM processes, we would not have picked up the more guarded critical voices. Working between perspectives with multiple methods meant, for example, that critical issues identified during participant observation at an event, could be pursued in one of our workshops, and become a question in interviews. Multiple methods enabled us to return to developments through different analytical perspectives and, especially for critical niches, notice evidence marginal in many toolkits and intermediary support, and absent in the DECC Strategy.” (p. 429)


Marc’s two cents: Another corking article. Shows some of the mechanisms by which the system (“man”) sustains itself. Somebody waves a cheque book or offers a pat on the head and bish bosh, the radicals become willing fig leaves. Big wheel keep on turning…

Should you read this?

Hell yes



Gupta AK, Sinha R, Koradia D, et al. (2003) Mobilizing grassroots’ technological innovations and traditional knowledge, values and institutions: Articulating social and ethical capital. Futures 35(9): 975–987.

Looting the Ivory Tower: “Acceleration of Urban Sustainability Transitions:A Comparison of Brighton, Budapest, Dresden, Genk, and Stockholm”

Heaps of good stuff – conceptually, methodologically, empirically, in here.  Useful for mice who want to bell the cat (though the article itself doesn’t suggest a particular way/particular ways).

The title: The Acceleration of Urban Sustainability Transitions:A Comparison of Brighton, Budapest, Dresden, Genk, and Stockholm

The authors: Franziska Ehnert, Niki Frantzeskaki , Jake Barnes, Sara Borgström , Leen Gorissen , Florian Kern , Logan Strenchock  and Markus Egerman

The journal: Sustainability

The DOI: doi:10.3390/su10030612

The abstract:

City-regions as sites of sustainability transitions have remained under-explored so far. With our comparative analysis of five diverse European city-regions, we offer new insights on contemporary sustainability transitions at the urban level. In a similar vein, the pre-development and the take-off phase of sustainability transitions have been studied in depth while the acceleration phase remains a research gap. We address this research gap by exploring how transitions can move beyond the seeding of alternative experiments and the activation of civil society initiatives. This raises the question of what commonalities and differences can be found between urban sustainability transitions. In our explorative study, we employ a newly developed framework of the acceleration mechanisms of sustainability transitions. We offer new insights on the multi-phase model of sustainability transitions. Our findings illustrate that there are no clear demarcations between the phases of transitions. From the perspective of city-regions, we rather found dynamics of acceleration, deceleration, and stagnation to unfold in parallel. We observed several transitions—transitions towards both sustainability and un-sustainability—to co-evolve. This suggests that the politics of persistence—the inertia and path dependencies of un-sustainability—should be considered in the study of urban sustainability transitions.

In plain English/tl:dr: 

“Everyone” wants to see a ‘take-off’ of sustainability projects (to use the outdated Rostow language). But we looked at a bunch of European cities and the truth is both messier and uglier. Turns out many cities have foot on brake at the same time they have foot on accelerator, and there’s lots of – in the words of Mr M. Loaf “going nowhere fast.

Also,  useful cross-country comparisons


Key concepts:  acceleration, acceleration mechanisms, messiness

Marc’s two cents

This one is worth a re-read or two.  Lots of data collection and careful thinking about what acceleration would MEAN, how it could be done, how it could go dreadfully wrong.  Ties in with the whole diffusion of strategic niche “successes” thing…

“These initiatives start to create new social networks and synergies, develop new narratives on the future of cities and become relevant actors in urban governance arenas [1,2]. These are dynamics that seem to differ from the earlier phases of sustainability transitions, which are focused on nurturing innovations in protected spaces. This raises the question if and how urban societies already move beyond the seeding of alternative experiments and the activation of community initiatives for sustainability action…. It is, therefore, important to examine local agents of change such as community initiatives and learn how sustainability in practice is further diffused and integrated into the life of cities [3,4]. So far, there is a limited understanding of the processes through which the innovations introduced by such transition initiatives (henceforth TIs) are taken up or transferred beyond the community that created, facilitated, and nurtured them.”

Our research addresses this theoretical gap and offers a new perspective on the understanding of the context-led and agency-led conditions that enable or hinder the acceleration of sustainability transition in city-regions. We do so based on in-depth empirical case studies and a cross-case comparative analysis of five European city-regions. In comparing the acceleration of sustainability transitions in five city-regions, we explore the following research questions:

  1. What are the conditions that enable and hinder the acceleration of sustainability transitions in cities from the perspective of local transition initiatives?

  2. What are the commonalities and differences between the dynamics in which the acceleration mechanisms unfold in the city-regions?


Upscaling is the growth of members, supporters, or users of a single transition initiative to spread new ways of thinking, organizing, and practicing

Replicating is the take-up of new ways of DTO of one transition initiative by another transition initiative or different actors to spread these alternative ways. Replicating is recognized as a process that changes the pace of change in diffusing and spreading innovative practices through interested and supportive actor-networks

Partnering is the pooling and/or complementing of resources, competences, and capacities of local TIs to exploit synergies to support and ensure the continuity of the new ways of doing, organizing, and thinking.

Instrumentalizing is tapping into and capitalizing on opportunities provided by the multi-level governance context of the city-region to obtain resources. Instrumentalizing is about capitalizing on opportunities and relies on the openness to change and transparent governance situations for taking place [1,30–32] and refers to moving from mission to action for sustainability transitions

Embedding is the alignment of old and new ways of doing, organizing, and thinking to integrate them into city-regional governance patterns. Embedding captures the connecting of issues and solutions to institutions as a way to spread and formalize new ways of doing, thinking, and organizing [15,19,24,35–38] and the extent to which local TIs strategically shape local governance dynamics

and later in the article –

“Embedding was observed in multiple forms: (1) embedding new ways of doing (i.e., practice), (2) embedding new ways of thinking (i.e., culture) and (3) embedding new ways of organizing (i.e., structure). Embedding occurred via the routinization and institutionalization of sustainable alternatives. The dynamics of embedding encompassed governmental institutions, economic enterprises, as well as community initiatives.” (p15)


These mechanisms operate not only separately, but can also reinforce each other to accelerate urban sustainability transitions. The proposed acceleration mechanisms are to be tested, validated, and improved through the comparison of the dynamics of sustainability transitions in five diverse city-regions

And the methodology

These interviews were complemented by workshops with all interviewees to discuss, validate and enrich our empirical findings.p 7

For our analyses, we recorded, transcribed and coded the interviews [52]. Our coding scheme included categories for the acceleration mechanisms upscaling, replicating, partnering, instrumentalizing and embedding, as well as the local governance patterns within the city-regions. Examining the empirical data, we foregrounded the obstacles and opportunities that arise from the varying settings within the city-regions. Page 8

The upscaling and continued existence of TIs often relied on a few individual enthusiasts who acted as mediators, networkers, and translators between different actors. A withdrawal of these mediators, networkers and translators often causes a TI to lose its drive, to change direction in unwelcome ways or to cease to exist entirely. This makes TIs quite fragile and vulnerable. 

And the various ways it can (will) go tits up…

Upscaling was confronted with the tension of the limits of growth. While replicating other TIs was a vital source of inspiration, it required the contextualization of the TIs to be attuned to local conditions. Partnering was accompanied by the tension between cooperation and the preservation of the core values of the TIs. This held especially if the TIs partnering spoke different languages and represented different world views. Partnering could lead to imbalances in the relationship between the TIs, especially if the burden of cooperation was distributed unequally among the partners. Instrumentalizing created a tension between the reliance on external resources and the protection of the autonomy of the TIs as it provided political leverage for donors to influence the TIs. Such capture of TIs by external donors can undermine their core values [56,57]. Embedding can develop a dynamic of “stretch-and-transform” or “fit-and-conform” [14,77]. While the former can fundamentally transform entrenched, unsustainable ways of DTO, the latter can diminish the innovative potential of TIs. It can rather be turned into a traditional policy implementation approach.These tensions suggest that more is not automatically better. What matters is the quality of how an acceleration mechanism evolves. Therefore, we propose a more nuanced understanding of these mechanisms of acceleration, entailing not only chances, but also challenges. Page 19

Should you read this?

Hell yes


Academic article: “Between innovation and restoration; towards a critical-historicizing understanding of social innovation niches”

So, as promised, I am going to start “looting the ivory tower” for useful work on social innovation (despite my reservations about the term – see here and here).

First up, well – a brilliant article …

The title: “Between innovation and restoration; towards a critical-historicizing understanding of social innovation niches”

The authors: Bonno Pel & René Kemp

The journal: Technology Analysis & Strategic Management,

The DOI:

The abstract:

Social innovation (SI) is gaining attention as an innovation category. However, the SI concept proves vulnerable to stereotypical understandings. Next to the radically novel, diffusion-oriented and thereby manifestly innovative social ‘niches’, it is important to also acknowledge the rather latent SI phenomena of restoration and shielding. This paper therefore develops a critical-historicizing perspective that highlights the social construction of innovations in social relations. Building on scholarship in Strategic Niche Management, grassroots innovation and critical innovation studies, four ‘shapes of social innovation’ are distinguished. Substantiating and deepening this conceptual classification through empirical evidence on 20 SI initiatives, the analysis highlights how social innovations may take on several of the theorised appearances throughout their existence in society (shapeshifting). Disclosing overlooked SI phenomena, this critical historicizing understanding informs more comprehensive and balanced SI research and practice.

In plain English/tl:dr: “Social innovation” is the latest label policymakers and their remorseless remorafish pals are throwing around.  But it is also about going backwards to old ways (restoration) and protecting the Too Big and Stale to Fail brigade, incumbents who make the party donations, control the purse strings (shielding). So, learn from history and previous thinking, they come up with four kinds of “social innovations” and then test it against twenty projects with that label in their titles. The four types of innovation can all appear in one project – it isn’t either/or.  We should be super careful about this term “social innovation” else we end up just concept-mongering while the planet literally fries.

Key concepts:  

They come up with a 2×2 matrix (one of the oldest hacks in the academic toolkit, but it’s an oldie because it keeps on working).

social innovation four types

(Later in the article they do the same diagram with dual direction arrows between most of the circles, trying to capture the interplay and essential wibbly-wobbliness of Real Life.)

Marc’s two cents

This is great – super useful. An intuitive typology that doesn’t claim too much for itself, is humble about the empirical gaps.  Will cause useful (more light than heat) debates
And reference list to die for (I have cherry-picked particularly interesting looking ones below. Won’t be able to read all, of coruse)

Various quotes-

“Social ‘niches’ can be radically novel or restorative, and oriented towards diffusion or shielding.”

“An important ideological line of division has emerged between individualistic, social entrepreneurship-oriented understandings, and the rather collectivist understandings focused on social movements”

“Defined in critical-historicizing and non-essentialist fashion, SI is understood as the introduction of ‘new’ ways of doing, organising and thinking (Avelino et al. 2019b) that gain this innovative significance through their contrast with prevailing social relations (Haxeltine et al. 2017b). Following this definition, a very broad range of social phenomena could qualify as SI (Jaeger-Erben, Rückert-John, and Schäfer 2015). Crucially, this comprises not only the manifest shapes of SI (with an obvious, pronounced innovative profile), but also their relatively latent counterparts.”

“Particularly insightful has been the account of the ‘restorative niche’, characterised by the ‘absence of any strong diffusion push’ (Ziegler 2017, 349) and by ethical motivations. Struggling for survival against the societal current, the associated innovative agency resides largely in the construction of shelter. This active shielding may entail particularly creative work (Ziegler 2017, 341).”

References of particular note

Avelino, A., J. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. W. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, Michael S. Jørgensen, Tom Bauler, Saskia Ruijsink, and Tim O’Riordan. 2019b. “Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 145: 195–206.

Ayob, N., S. Teasdale, and K. Fagan. 2016. “How Social Innovation ‘Came to Be’: Tracing the Evolution of a Contested Concept.” Journal of Social Policy 45 (4): 635–653.

Cajaiba-Santana, G. 2014. “Social Innovation: Moving the Field Forward. A Conceptual Framework.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 82: 42–51.

Collier, D., J. LaPorte, and J. Seawright. 2012. “Putting Typologies to Work: Concept Formation, Measurement, and Analytic Rigor.” Political Research Quarterly 65 (1): 217–232.

Dóci, G., E. Vasileiadou, and A. C. Petersen. 2015. “Exploring the Transition Potential of Renewable Energy Communities.” Futures 66: 85–95.

Edwards-Schachter, M., and M. L. Wallace. 2017. “‘Shaken, but not Stirred’: Sixty Years of Defining Social Innovation.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 119: 64–79.

Haxeltine, A., B. Pel, J. Wittmayer, A. Dumitru, R. Kemp, and A. Avelino. 2017b. “Building a Middle-Range Theory of Transformative Social Innovation; Theoretical Pitfalls and Methodological Responses.” European Public and Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 59–77.

Jessop, B., F. Moulaert, L. Hulgård, and A. Hamdouch. 2013. “Social Innovation Research: A New Stage in Innovation Research?” In The international handbook on social innovation: collective action, social learning and transdisciplinary research, edited by Moulaert, et al., 110–127. Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar.

McGowan, K. A., and F. Westley. 2017. “Constructing The Evolution of Social Innovation: Methodological Insights From a Multi-Case Study.” European Public & Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 93–109.

Pel, B., and J. Backhaus. 2018. “Realizing the Basic Income; Competing Claims to Expertise in Transformative Social Innovation.” Science & Technology Studies.

Pel, B., and T. Bauler. 2017. “A Transitions-Theoretical Perspective on the Social Economy; Exploring Capture Dialectics in Flemish ‘Insertion’ Practices.” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics 88 (2): 279–298.

Pel, B., J. Dorland, J. Wittmayer, and M. S. Jørgensen. 2017a. “Detecting Social Innovation Agency; Methodological Reflections on Units of Analysis in Dispersed Transformation Processes.” European Public and Social Innovation Review 2 (1): 110–126.

Pfotenhauer, S., and S. Jasanoff. 2017. “Panacea or Diagnosis? Imaginaries of Innovation and the ‘MIT Model’ in Three Political Cultures.” Social Studies of Science 47: 783–810. doi:10.1177.0306312717706110.

Pol, E., and S. Ville. 2009. “Social Innovation: Buzz Word or Enduring Term?” The Journal of Socio-Economics 38: 878–885.

 Scott-Cato, M., and J. Hillier. 2010. “How Could we Study Climate-Related Social Innovation? Applying Deleuzean Philosophy to Transition Towns.” Environmental Politics 19 (6): 869–887.

Shove, E. 2012. “The Shadowy Side of Innovation: Unmaking and Sustainability.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 24 (4): 363–375.

Smith, A., and R. Raven. 2012. “What is Protective Space? Reconsidering Niches in Transitions to Sustainability.” Research Policy 41 (6): 1025–1036.

Smith, A., and A. Stirling. 2017. “Innovation, Sustainability and Democracy: an Analysis of Grassroots Contributions.” Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics 6 (1): 64–97.

Strand, R., A. Saltelli, M. Giampietro, K. Rommetveit, and S. Funtowicz. 2016. “New Narratives for Innovation.” Journal of Cleaner Production 197: 1849–1853.

Suchman, L., and L. Bishop. 2000. “Problematizing ‘Innovation’ as a Critical Project.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 12 (3): 327–333.

Wittmayer, J. M., F. Avelino, J. Backhaus, B. Pel, T. Strasser, and L. Zuijderwijk. 2019. Narratives of Change: How Social Innovation Initiatives Construct Societal Transformation, Futures.

Ziegler, R. 2017. “Citizen Innovation as Niche Restoration – A Type of Social Innovation and Its Relevance for Political Participation and Sustainability.” Journal of Social Entrepreneurship 8 (3): 338–353.

“What else by the author(s) looks good?”

Well, the Pel stuff below in the reference list. And Rene Kemp – he’s one of  major guys in the whole field…

The institutionalization of Transformative Social Innovation;: A comparative case study on institutional bricolage and mainstreaming B Pel, F Avelino, A Smith

Unpacking the social innovation ecosystem: an empirically grounded typology of empowering network constellations B Pel, J Wittmayer, J Dorland, M Søgaard Jørgensen Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 1-26

Mainstreaming Renewable Energy Prosumerism:: Directionality of an ongoing Transition B Pel, JM Wittmayer, T De Geus, S Oxenaar, F Avelino, M Fraaije


Should you read this?

Hell yes

Probably, yup


Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

STRN announces partnership with Bilderberg Group

The Sustainability Transitions Research Network today proudly announces a Mutual Love Partnership  (MLP) –  with the influential Bilderberg Group.

The STRN, which has been in operation for almost a decade, acts as a platform for the exchange of ideas and a forum for chest-beating and prestige battles. It will be subsumed within the Bilderberg Group, which has been in operation for more than fifty years, and performs much the same functions for the international capital class.

Details of the partnership are still being worked out, but observers, speaking on condition of anonymity, predict that the STRN’s meetings will move to more exclusive and well-heeled venues, while the Bilderberg Group, made up of large incumbent actors, will harness the academic credibility of the STRN

Jochen Markard, co-ordinator of the STRN, explained
“Ever since the idea of “Transition Management” was shown to be inadequate for really speeding a shift to sustainability, we’ve been looking for a new partner. This MLP is a marriage made in heaven.  Bilderberg members’ companies will be desperate after coronavirus settles to seem radical and caring. They can point to the STRN sponsorship as an example of being forward thinking, while writing off the trivial sums of money involved against their already minimal tax bills.  Meanwhile, we get to host our events in places like Davos, at proper 5 star hotels, instead of slumming around Manchester and Vienna.  Also, we can point to research impact by getting a banal quote from some CEO about how important our research into this or that niche actor is.”
Further details of the partnership will be released in due course, and members are being invited to submit abstracts for a conference entitled “Only Capitalism Can Save the World”, to be held in either Dubai or Mar-a-Lago.on 1st April 2021.

Fear eats the soul – of COVID19, narking and Trump/Johnson approval ratings

Over the last few days I’ve seen some facebook posts/tweets/etc expressing anger/bewilderment that

a) people are phoning up the cops to inform on neighbours who are going out more than the narks think they should

b) the approval ratings for clearly failed “leaders” like Trump, Johnson and Morrison are going UP even though they are clearly flailing over-promoted charlatans.

I was planning a longer blog post taking in Just World theory/some half-baked Freud/Hell’s Angels/voters remorse, but, you know, life-is-short, so this:

People don’t reflect on their decision-making and information processing apparatus at the BEST of times (Dunning-Kruger much?), and these are not the best of times. In this dumpster fire of a civilisation, most folks are having a helmet fire.

And to cut and paste myself from Facebook (because life really is short) –

People are hella frightened. They want to prove to themselves that they are Good People (because, you know, bad things don’t happen to Good People. Because the universe is fair and all…) And so they are “sucking up” and displaying their probity. They haven’t learnt how/don’t have the wherewithal to process their anxiety/dread/stress etc, and so it comes out in these sorts of displays. Deeply depressing, but not surprising…

So, we need to have some compassion for stress-induced stupidity, but also push back against it, because stupid people whipped up by venal/evil string-pullers has often  led to mildly unpleasant forms of historical shit-fuckery…

See also



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?



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!)


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