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

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

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

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

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

The journal: PNAS

The DOI:

The abstract:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT  some useful for my immediate purposes stuff on energy –

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

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

2050 tipping points

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

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


Marc’s two cents

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

But, yes, we need the big picture thinking.

2050 tipping points pretty picture

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


Should you read this?

Hell yes

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


Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)


And on cat belling

Tribal barriers to cat belling

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

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

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)

Building whose capacity to do what? How?

This is a direct follow on from an initial rant about “social innovation”.  At the end of that I went on a rant about how social change is a marathon not a sprint and that the ‘load’ has to be shared.

There’s an article, very astute, by a Development Aid specialist that I read as I yomped around Alexandra Park with my backpack full of bricks and weights. I should try to track it down… meanwhile, this –


But what IS the load?

There’s the technical work – be it writing press releases, responding to consultations, gathering evidence for a judicial review, fundraising, prisoner support.  

Sharing the load would be making sure that the knowledge and skills were easily shareable – written down, turned into videos, workshops, trainings etc, that it was possible for folks to be apprentices in meaningful ways

There’s the credit – if people are going to do grunt work, then they should also be able to get – if they want it – credit, exposure etc.

Power to decide – what are the decision-making processes? Who has final say? How can they be challenged etc? At what point do those who have been doing grunt work get an invitation to be part of the decision making (which they may of course choose to decline).
All this brings me to the buzzword of many a year – “Capacity building”

As meaningless and frustrating as “innovation”  (yes, vaccines were an innovation. So were machine guns, mustard gas and concentration camps. For god’s sake stop using innovation as a synonym for ANY form of progress).

And always ask the following

Capacity-building To DO what?

To do endless pilots which allow policymakers to defer and defer and defer? To do the leg-work for big beasts to swoop in and create new markets and marketisations? To be the thin-end of the neoliberal wedge?

For WHO to do what?  White middle-class professionals sitting in offices, being suitedly and suitably parasitic on those taking the risks?

For how long is this capacity going to be maintained? 

Are you just creating the next generations of micro-bosses, or are you trying to spread the capacity to capacity build and create the vibrant civil society you say you want? Are you teaching the pigs on animal farm, or also the cows, hens and the sheep?


And when you’ve answered these questions

How is this CBW done?

By who?

Peer-to-peer or  Top down info deficit bullshit?

(Horizontal, peer-to-peer, social innovation – all the right buzzwords. Old wine in new bottles, we’ve been on this rodeo before.)

 The whole point of the Active Citizenship Toolkit, as I see it, is to make it easier for individuals and groups  to see what is at stake – what skills, knowledge and relationships are needed for sustained social innovation around the climate crisis, the racial and sexual injustice crises…  If we are serious about transition/transformation and the acceleration of them, then it becomes a question of WHO IS GOING TO KEEP BELLING THE CAT?

The cat WILL take the first bell off, and eat the brave and clever mice who put it on.  So those brave and clever mice better have prepared the next generation of cat-bellers.  And also devised ways of helping them cope with watching a vicious cat eating their buddies. And figured out how to learn from all the failed attempts (one is reminded of the bomb disposal experts who would describe each step of the way over a telephone, so that when they made a mistake, someone else could learn. Not inspiring, but hey ho…)


Okay, I have completely lost control of my metaphors. Happens when you’re rusty at blogging. So it goes. Publish in beta and be damned…

“Social innovation” acceleration and the belling of cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

soc tipping dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

My coda.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


At the least

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


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



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

On the tribal barriers to cat-belling

Think in systems, dammit.

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

But think in systems, dammit.

If you WERE to say, for example

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

Well, three things would happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will try, for what it is worth, to

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Okaaay.   And?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Anything else you’d like to say?

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


'Transgression' is now available, £2.50 Kindle, £6.99 paperback. 
Also available direct via

Activism, patriarchy and still saying goodbye to all that 50-ish years on…

Dr Manuel Cervera-Marzal, the author of  a book chapter – “Ordinary Resistance to Masculine Domination in a Civil Disobedience Movement” – very kindly sent me a copy of his work.  It’s … really good, and everyone doing activist work should read it. It escapes that most common of academic-studying-activists traps,  the uncritical puff-piece extolling the ‘grassroots/blockadia’.  In fact, it doesn’t just escape this trap, but shows how a critical reading of the rhetoric-reality gaps can be done. It is based on participant observation and interviews he did in a French civil disobedience group “Les Refuseurs.”  It’s pretty painful reading (men will wince, women will seethe).

The article is clearly written, and clearly argued.  While it might be possible to quibble over some interpretations, the big picture is surely indisputable.

“While the comments collected through the interviews present activist work as shared out in an egalitarian fashion, observation in the field reveals the gendered character of this distribution. The Refuseurs continue to assign traditionally female tasks – domestic and affective – and positions – subaltern, devalued and invisibilised – to women…. Buying materials, preparing and serving meals, tidying and washing up are carried out by women in the vast majority of situations…. Some of these domestic tasks are subaltern tasks. This is true of cleaning the premises, which a woman does by herself for an entire day because the leader of the group asked her to. Most tasks involving implementation fall to women while the men monopolise decision-making functions. The latter determine the collective’s agenda themselves (which actions? on what subject? with what demands?) and its political line (management of the Facebook page, supervision of the pamphlets and books edited by the collective).”

There’s also good stuff the resistance of the women – which mostly involves (in the short term) work-to-rules, strategic deafness and in the longer term, voting with their feet…  And the (male) leadership are (wilfully?) blind to this –

“Among the Refuseurs, the disengagement (Fillieule, 2005; Bennani-Chraibi, 2009) of women is always individual, intentional and, almost always, silent. The female activists from the hard core leave without warning, without explanation and without a trace.”

Reading it I was constantly thinking of two things

a) Robin Morgan‘s seminal essay of January 1970, when women took over the New York underground/alternative newspaper ‘Rat’. She wrote ‘Goodbye to All That’, naming names about the sexist Male Left.

b) The essay, from the same year, by Jo Freeman – “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” for its understanding that power is more supple than we give it credit for

c) The importance of this topic within the ‘Climate Citizenship’ programme that Climate Emergency Manchester is embarking on.

h/t to Dr Termagant, who pointed me to this cartoon, all those years ago…

There’s lots of intriguing looking references, mostly to French literature (one exception is Parlee M. 1989, “Conversational Politics. In Feminist Frontiers II, New York: McGraw-Hill)

“Activist organisations do not just welcome people in as they are; they are themselves places of socialisation “(Bargel, 2008) that fashion their members’ habitus through the political training they offer them (Ethan, 2003) or, in a more informal way, through activist sociability (Yon, 2005).

Bargel, J. 2008, Aux Avant-postes. La socialisation au métier politique dans deux organisations de jeunesse de partis. Jeunes populaires (UMP) et Mouvement des jeunes socialistes (PS), PhD in political science, Université Paris-I-Panthéon-Sorbonne

Ethuin N. 2003, “De l’idéologisation de lengagement communiste. Fragments dune enquête sur les écoles du PCF (1970-1990)”. In Politix, 63: 145-168

collective reflexivity and “gender awareness” (Varikas, 1991; Achin & Naudier, 2010)

Achin C., Naudier D. 2010, “Trajectoires de femmes ordinaires dans les années 1970. La fabrique de la puissance d’agir féministe”. In Sociologie, 1: 77-93

Varikas E. 1991, “Subjectivité et identité de genre. Lunivers de l’éducation féminine dans la Grèce au XIXe siècle”. In Genèses, 6: 29-51

“As the author of a research dissertation on the political sociology of activism, Thierry knows Daniel Gaxie’s famous article. He knows that devotion to a cause is generally not enough to maintain activist engagement. Engagement is even better able to strengthen itself to the extent that it provides those who engage with individual rewards, both material and symbolic (Gaxie, 1977).”

Gaxie D. 1977, “Economie des partis et rétributions du militantisme”. In Revue Française de Science Politique, 27/1: 123-154

Words, ideas, videos