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Of eagles and geese – capitalising Aesop’s fables for capital accumulation

The word ‘natural’ is one of the busiest and slipperiest in the English language. One of its many shades of meaning is that something ‘natural’ is ‘right’ and ‘normal.’

Naturally (!), powerful actors hoping to become still more powerful will try to convince those who might constrain them that they are ‘natural’, and should be allowed to do whatever they like, free from ‘artificial’ (i.e. ‘unnatural’) regulation.

Two examples from the Australian mining industry (oh come on, you knew I was going there).

The first I only stumbled upon yesterday, in the State Library of South Australia. It is a 1992 publication by the Institute of Public Affairs, an extremely neo-liberal ‘think’ tank and policy mill based in Melbourne.

1992 clipping wings

The second is Rio Tinto’s submission to the 1998 Productivity Commission investigation of the Australian Coal Industry.


Bless you, Mr. Aesop.


Of Garnaut, geosequestration and the (non)belling of the neoliberal cat

Professor Ross Garnaut is a highly intelligent, tenacious and formidably well-informed public intellectual,  and I’m not just saying that because I want to interview him for my PhD research. Because look, in my very next sentence I say ‘I think he is wrong about the future of energy.’

He was speaking tonight in Adelaide, giving the 2015 Luxton Memorial Lecture  (Russell ‘Sam’ Luxton was a major renewable energy figure in Australia).  The topic was ‘Australia: Energy Superpower in a Low-Carbon World’. There were about 120 people present, overwhelmingly white, mostly male, mostly the wrong side of 50.

Garnaut’s cv is formidable, and for the last eight years – since the Australian Labor Party asked him to turn his attention to the policy nightmare that is climate change – he has been thinking, writing and talking non-stop about what to do about Australia’s carbon emissions, within a framework of market mechanisms. [For a critical view on all this, see Beeson, M., & Stone, D. (2013). The Changing Fortunes of a Policy Entrepreneur: The Case of Ross Garnaut. Australian Journal of Political Science, 48(1), 1-14.10.1080/10361146.2012.760526]

I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow account of his talk; the organisers of the event have, bless them, filmed it and will be uploading it onto the web very soon (this in 2015 should be totally standard practice and unremarkable.)  Here’s the transcript.  A few things that leapt out at me

Garnaut set great store by two recent documents/pronouncements-

Australia as a source (and refiner?) of rare earth minerals that will be needed for renewable energy infrastructure.  And uranium, natch.

Australia as blessed with huge amounts of wind, solar, geothermal, ‘excellent geosequestration in a few places.’ (see below)

Garnaut calling on individuals to challenge bad information on the health implications of energy policy, setting store on the ‘scientific evidence being examined by independent experts’.  Ditto, Garnaut hopes to see denial of climate science lessening in its impact and frequency.

What was interesting was that these were framed as individual responses, rather than societal ones, channeled through intermediary organisations like trades unions, community groups, NGOs etc.

At various points Professor spoke approvingly/casually/optimistically about ‘geosequestration’, aka ‘carbon capture and storage’, in its various iterations (liquefy the co2 and pump it underground, do stuff with algae etc).

The central dilemma for CCS is, imho, this – even if you could get all of the technological problems and uncertainties ironed out, all the ducks in a row, even if you could sort out all the formidable legal liability issues, the only way (other than state fiat) that it could be economically viable is with a carbon price that was astronomically high.  And if the carbon price were that high, then the investment would surely flow to lower risk ‘proven’ technologies like wind and solar, and to energy efficiency.  So as far as I can see, outside of very very niche experiments like the Canadian CCS project known as Boundary Dam (where they got grants, wanted to slide down the learning curve and had enhanced oil recovery to soften the blows), then it is a non-starter; the clue in the name Zerogen is in the ‘zero’

I asked a question (well, two), after pointing out that we’ve been talking, in Australia, about climate change since the late 1980s. Like an alcoholic, we know what we are supposed to do, and we promise again and again to do it, but….

I asked about CCS (see above) and then a bit of a peanut gallery question – what does Garnaut say to prime denialists Maurice Newman and Dick Warburton when he sees them? It got the appreciative audience chuckle that I was aiming for.  But agnotology – the intentional creation of ignorance – is no laughing matter, of course.

There were other, good, questions, and Garnaut dealt with them well (giving long answers can be a way of limiting exposure to potential embarrassment – you see politicians do it all the time. In this instance it worked, because the answers included gems and nuggets like reference to the joint Chinese and US Academies of Science report on the causes of lower life expectancy north of the Huai river (turns out giving people free coal isn’t an unalloyed blessing).

The age-old question is ‘what is to be done’, and it was fitting that the final question of the night, which cited an article in the Sydney Morning Herald today in which Nobel laureate Peter Doherty described Tony Abbott as global climate ‘wrecker’, was ‘what do we do about it?’

It’s worth remembering that a generation ago Australian policy-makers proclaimed themselves open to ‘Ecologically Sound Development’. (This was after Australia had promised to reduce its carbon emissions 20 per cent below 1988 levels by 2005 – the so-called ‘Toronto target’.)

esd energy production

As late as 1996, the Australian Conservation Foundation was trying to get the then-new Howard government to listen to it on the subject of budgeting for environmental protection –

1996 funding future

Professor Garnaut’s answer was perhaps quite revealing – he said (correctly) that the pain of staying in our current state over the long-term is higher than the making a change.  The implication, I think, is that it is logical for us to pursue a lower-pain path. But if the last 25 years of climate policy failure, stretching back before Abbott through Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Howard, Keating and to Hawke, has taught us anything, it’s that there are powerful vested interests able to make other people feel the pain while their pleasure is protected.

These vested interests can (and hopefully will) be defeated, but it will be quite a job.  The mice can’t just agree the cat should wear a bell– some constellation of forces is going to have to get out there and bell the neoliberal cat.  Fur will fly. Or pigs.


Images of our green future;  from politics to platitudes in 29 short years.

What hopes do ‘we’ have for the future?  What choices do we think we will have to make, or perhaps seek to avoid?  What do our old hopes tell us about our new fears?

All good questions, which I can’t really answer particularly well, until I’ve had a longer think/looting of other people’s thoughts.  But while failing, I will at least be able to share some interesting images I’ve stumbled across over the last few days, that come with words like energy, community, coal and so on.  They’re from 1978, 1992 and 2007; from just before neoliberalism properly took hold, from the beginning of its long peak and from the year before it should have imploded but didn’t…

First up; during his talk on Tuesday night, Dr Mark Diesendorf alluded to a conference he helped organise in Canberra in 1978, called ‘Energy and People’ (for a fascinating personal history of Australian wind power research, see here).  By coincidence, the following day I stumbled across a copy of the book that emerged from it, and scanned the cover.


So, on the left, low-rise and co-operative. On the right, autogeddon.    The war over whether our cities would have streets (for pedestrians, play) or roads (for cars) has been going on for a long time.  Battles are won and lost.  Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide accumulates….

Next up, the 1992 Australian Coal Association Conference.  The cover is a fairly crude ‘we’re one of you’ bid, about which not much more needs to be said perhaps. Oh, alright – this – White family, man in charge (it’s only natural), and none of them has any asthma or health issues. Oh, and ‘Community’ is a hard-working word…

1992 australian coal conference cover

Next up, from that same conference, from a presentation by Tamio Kawamata on ‘New Coal Technologies – How Critical in Ensuring Coal’s Acceptability’, here is one of the first images from an actual coal industry publication that I’ve found of what carbon capture and storage might look like.

1992 aus coal conf ccs image kawamata

So, we’re at the stage of ‘yes, there are serious problems with capital accumulation – insofar as it causes carbon accumulation, but Our Technology Can Solve It.’ This is classic ‘you don’t have to make a choice’ stuff, for a future that has been sold off, and folks atomised, aka ‘ecological modernisation‘.

That logic continued through the 1990s, with its soothing platitudes.  By 2007, in Australia at least, climate change rose (back) up the political agenda, for a host of reasons, to do with state-level action, prolonged drought, international events (Al Gore, the IPCC, the Stern Review, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme), and the Labor oppositions’s use of climate as a stick to beat the incumbent Prime Minister with in the run up to the November election.  It’s in this context that  the ‘Your Eco Handbook’, published by the closest that Australian mainstream print media has to reasonable journalism – the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald – should be read.

yr ecohandbook covers



The final image here contains one of the hardest-working words in the English language – ‘balance.’

yrecohandbook inside back

We know there are problems.  We know that all the previous promises of technological resolution (if not revolution) have not worked.  But we can do Our Bit (since collective solutions are dead), and intone the magic incantations.  And she’ll be ‘right’ mate.  Except ‘she’ won’t.

Damn glad I am in my mid-40s, not my mid-20s…

Of oil companies and #climate – let’s party like it’s 1997…

Some not-yet-jaded climate activists are getting quite excited that six European Oil companies recently wrote a letter to the United Nations requesting a carbon price and emissions trading scheme. Ever-so-kindly,they even offered to help design it…

This is part of the general flurry of activity in the lead up to the Paris climate change talks in November,  the 21st meeting of the “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That framework, signed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, committed its signatories to avoiding dangerous climate change.  The intervening generation has not seen much activity. To quote Mark Moody-Stuart –

“I find it quite distressing that 18 years after major oil companies, such as BP and Shell, acknowledged the threat of climate change, and the need for precautionary action, and began to put in place modest steps to address it, that the world in general and the industry has made remarkably little progress.” [Carrington, 2015]

While the European companies are pro-actively seeking to guide the policy process,  US-based companies such as Exxon and Chevron are less enthused by the prospect of a carbon price. Chevron’s head told a recent OPEC meeting “It’s not a policy that is going to be effective because customers want affordable energy. They want low energy prices, not high energy prices.” (Hume and Clark, 2015).

So why should we party like it’s 199…7? History isn’t necessarily repeating herself, she never does. But she might be rhyming; this isn’t the first time that the oil industry has been divided on climate change.   In May of 1997 John Browne, who two years previously had become head of BP, gave an earth-shattering speech at Stanford University. Referencing the recently published Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he noted that there was;

“mounting concern about two stark facts: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. And the temperature of the earth’s surface is increasing.”

Warning against the banning of fossil fuels, he invoked the image of a

journey taken in partnership by all those involved, a step-by-step process involving both action to develop solutions and continuing research that will build knowledge through experience.”

Both BP and Shell left the Global Climate Coalition. Despite its cuddly-sounding name, it had been set up by the US National Association of Manufacturers in 1989 with the purpose of derailing attempts to agree reductions of  greenhouse gas emissions.

Shell, bruised by the damage to its reputation caused by Brent Spar and its Nigerian operations, invested in renewables. In 1997 it announced a five-year, $500 million plan. By 2009 it announced it would drop wind and solar altogether, and invest in biofuels.

In July 2000 BP changed its logo and declared it was “beyond petroleum”  [For further analysis,see Beder, 2002],

Of course, the oil companies major investments were in oil exploration and takeovers. For example;

“Mr. Browne … built BP by taking over other oil companies, like Amoco in 1998, and then ruthlessly cutting costs, often firing the acquired company’s most experienced engineers. Taking shortcuts was ingrained in the company’s culture, and everyone in the oil business knew it.”

Since those heady years either side of the millennium Shell and BP have decided that renewables aren’t going to be where they make their profits in future. BP tried – and failed– to sell of its US wind energy division in 2013. Shell remains determined to drill in the Arctic, and has huge investments in Canadian tar sands.

Those enthused by the ‘carbon price’ letter would also do well to remember Shell’s recent successful lobbying to undermine European Union targets on renewable energy.

Oil versus coal

There aren’t just splits within the oil industry.  The fossil fuel industry generally has been thinking about which of the three strands (oil, coal, gas) might be most vulnerable.  Recently the head of Shell, Ben Van Beurden explained one obvious barrier facing Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). He

“insisted that he had his hands tied from investing more heavily in renewables or CCS because they would not produce the high financial returns that investors had been used to from oil and gas. “I would lose my job over it if I just threw a few billions away [on CCS] … CCS is essential for society and … is ultimately important for our company, but listen, I have great difficulty to have shareholders focus on the quarter after next.”

While the head of Australian mining giant BHP understandably wants everyone to say that gas is cleaner than coal, the head of Woodside Petroleum clearly didn’t get the memo. Peter Coleman (the clue is not in the name) gave a speech to the World Gas Conference (also in Paris) last week has been described as ‘punch’ and included the immortal phrase –

“Give me a break – who coined ‘clean coal’ and why did we let that happen.” (Chessell, 2015)

It’s worth noting that when the Australian Gas Association was trying to get the Business Council of Australia to modify its anti-Kyoto, anti-emissions trading scheme 15 years ago, the uncertainties around the lower carbon intensity of gas were raised by coal’s supporters.

These intra-industry battles are useful to remember when reading comments like those by Peter Freyberg, head of Glencore Coal when he bemoans the lack of investment in clean coal technologies claiming  “global carbon dioxide emissions could have been cut by 2bn tonnes over a decade if all power stations built between 2000 and 2010 had used the best technology available.” (Smyth, 2015),

What does it all mean?

Various industry actors appear to be trying to ‘throw each other under the bus’. To use a more European analogy,  it’s a game of pass the parcel, and nobody wants to be left standing away from a chair when the music stops, because this isn’t just about who doesn’t get the present, but about whose multi-billion dollar investments lose their value.

Update: Think Progress has an excellent piece entitled “Why You Should Be Skeptical of Big Oil Companies Asking for a Price on Carbon“, which goes into detail on where the campaign contributions are going…


Beder, S. (2002) ‘bp: Beyond Petroleum?‘ in Battling Big Business: Countering greenwash, infiltration and other forms of corporate bullying, edited by Eveline Lubbers, Green Books, Devon, UK, 2002, pp. 26-32.

Carrington, D. (2015) Fossil fuel divestment is rational, says former Shell chairman Guardian , 4th June

Chessell, J. (2015) Woodside CEO slams coal industry: ‘Give me a break, who coined clean coal’ Australian Financial Review, 3rd June

Hume, N. and Clark, P. (2015) Chevron chief lashes out at European oil groups on climate change Financial Times 3rd June [paywall]

Nocera, J. (2010) BP Ignored the Omens of Disaster New York Times 18th June

Smyth, J. (2015) Glencore attacks anti coal lobby Financial Times, 4th June [paywall]

Suggested reading

Kolk, A., Levy, D., 2001. Winds of change: corporate strategy, climate change and oil multinationals. European Management Journal Vol. 19, pp 501–509.

Kolk,A..and Pinkse, J. (2007) Multinationals political activities on climate Business and Society, Vol.46(2), pp.201-228

Levy, D. and Spicer, A. (2013) Contested imaginaries and the cultural political economy of climate change Organization Vol. 20(5), pp.659-678.

Pinkse, J. and Kolk, A. (2012) Multinational enterprises and climate change: Exploring institutional failures and embeddedness Journal of International Business Studies Vol. 43, pp 332-341.

Pulver, S. (2007) Making Sense of Corporate Environmentalism An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry Organization & Environment Vol. 20 no. 1 44-83

For Millicent?

“Why so sad?” she said, as I walked towards her in a cloud of gloom.

Millicent (not real name) is a young woman who works somewhere I go a lot. I don’t know what kind of contract she is on. It’s probably not zero hours (yet).  She probably has shit terms and conditions that leave her vulnerable to all sorts of subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressures.   She’s probably on minimum wage or not much more.

“The election results” I ventured.

“Really, that makes you sad?  Why?”

“Because of what is coming.”

She gave me an apologetic smile “I don’t know much about it. I know I should pay more attention…”

I hesitated.  I don’t know her very well, just to say hello to maybe half a dozen times a month. If I came over all apocalyptic she could bin me as a weirdo.  I was about to explain about zero hour contracts, the NHS, and maybe climate change (the reverse of my actual concerns) when she was saved the rant by her bus arriving.

And as I crossed the road, her bus overtaking me, I thought about how “we” (see footnote)  – the parties, the unions, the social movement organisations – have been failing the Millicents – the decent, ‘hard-working’™ people just getting through the weeks, for decades and decades.

Because, what if Millicent DID come to a meeting?

She’d be asked to sit in a row, and she’d listen to someone give a litany of how bad things are (which she kind of knows). Then she’d hear a bunch of “speech-questions”  from angry people spouting various kinds of jargon (mostly Marxist).  She’d be told that the next demonstration was a) really important and b) likely to make a big difference.

Nobody would ask her why she came, what she already knows, what she feels she needs to know, what she feels she might have to offer.  If she missed the next meeting, she wouldn’t know how to find out where things were up to.

And Millicent, who absolutely should – for her own benefit, let alone the “movement’s” be involved, almost certainly won’t come back for seconds. Why should she?

And that, to me, is the central dilemma.  Thousands of Millicents – intelligent, (com)passionate, talented – pass by the movement organisations, and are not able to be involved without becoming full-time hacks.

And what do I do, in an incredibly safe (Labour) seat?  I have certain talents and abilities. I would like to offer them to an effective organisation that is working credibly and steadily for the sorts of social and environmental change we need.  I am all ears.

I will find a food bank to volunteer at. When I am in the city I will make sure I always have fruit for the growing (and set to grow more) numbers of rough sleepers.  To salve my conscience.  Am open to other suggestions.


I (believe that I) am fully aware of the race, class and gender dynamics here. I do not want to be a white (male) saviour. Which is a good thing, since nobody else wants that either. What I DO want is a way for people to be able to get involved in controlling their own destinies, in fighting back against those who are exploiting them, and will – unless stopped – exploit them even more on this dying planet.

Stepper reading: Delayism from IPA, Mann’s “Serengeti Strategy” and “policy dictators”…

So, started with “The Greenhouse Panic” by Dr Brian Tucker, who was a leading player in the CSIRO’s climate efforts, and wrote a 1981 book on the “C02 connection”.

From his obituary I knew that he’d gone to work for the (libertarian) Institute of Public Affairs. This article,written in mid-1995, (IPA Review, Vol. 48/1) is interesting and depressing.

There’s stuff that wouldn’t get published by the IPA these days (they’ve well and truly been drinking from the well of looniness of late) such as this;

“Greenhouse scientific theory is well founded, despite the criticisms of sceptics and iconoclasts” (p. 51)

but much flannel about uncertainties and incoherence (the IPCC scientists being both self0interested AND “independent” as it suits his argument). There is much unreflective boosting of economic reports that say the costs will be astronomical. Most depressing of all, Tucker lists all the “tinges of hypocrisy evident at Berlin” (the first COP meeting, March/April 1995) including from “bureaucratic opportunists, environmental opportunists, ‘rich nation’ opportunists and ‘poor nation’ opportunists.

What’s missing? The interests of the oil and coal companies. Their opportunism is around delaying/deferring/shaping any regulations that would hurt their profits. Some of these companies have been known to fund the IPA. Tucker was unable to see them, which is sad and embarrassing for a trained observer. Ho hum.

It would be interesting to know what Tucker, who didn’t die until late 2010, thought of the attacks on Ben Santer (1995-6), or the attacks on Michael Mann (2004 onwards).

Which leads nicely into Mann’s BRILLIANT piece

Mann, M. (2015) “The Serengeti Strategy: How special interests try to intimidate scientists, and how best to fight back” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 71 (1) pp. 33-45.

The abstract says it best;

Much as lions on the Serengeti seek out vulnerable zebras at the edge of a herd, special interests faced with adverse scientific evidence often target individual scientists rather than take on an entire scientific field at once. Part of the reasoning behind this approach is that it is easier to bring down individuals than an entire group of scientists, and it still serves the larger aim: to dismiss, obscure, and misrepresent well-established science and its implications. In addition, such highly visible tactics create an atmosphere of intimidation that discourages other scientists from conveying their research’s implications to the public. This “Serengeti strategy” is often employed wherever there is a strong and widespread consensus among the world’s scientists about the under-lying cold, hard facts of a field, whether the subject be evolution, ozone depletion, the environmental impacts of DDT, the health effects of smoking, or human-caused climate change. The goal is to attack those researchers whose findings are inconvenient, rather than debate the findings themselves. This article draws upon the author’s own experience to examine the “Serengeti strategy,” and offers possible countermeasures to such orchestrated campaigns.

Full of verve, wit, quotable quotes and enraging details. Read this now!

Next up was Jensen, C. (2011) Focusing events, policy dictators and the dynamics of reform Policy Studies Vol 32, (2), pp. 143- 158.

Lots of good stuff in here on policy dictators, “existing policy monopoly” and so on. Useful indeed for the paper I am writing about Manchester (except Jensen was writing in a place where there was, in fact, a political opposition. In Manchester, there is none, with all the cynicism, complacency and incompetence that that implies/promotes).

Finally, made a start on Powell, WS., Koput, K., and Smith-Doerr, L. (1996) Interorganizational Collaboration and the Locus of Innovation: Networks of Learning in Biotechnology. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, pp. 116-145.

Good stuff on who learns how and when during collaborations.