Tag Archives: Sustainability

James Rockford and sustainability in the twenty-first century, or “the reel of the desert”

james_garner_as_-jim_rockfordJames Garner was a cool American actor. He had starred as ‘Maverick’ in a 1950s comedy-drama Western TV series. In the 1970s he was James Rockford, a private-eye (“two hundred dollars a day plus expenses”) in a genre-shifting TV show called ‘The Rockford Files’ (1).  What the hell has this got to do with sustainability in the twenty-first century, you are asking.  Have I been click-bait and switched, you are asking.

No, you haven’t. This;

There’s an episode [called ‘The Great Blue Lake Land and Development Company‘]where he is out in the Californian/Nevadan desert, trying to recover some money that was stolen from him.  There is some kind of con going on, involving real estate, with worthless land being boosted.  The real estate con artist is showing Rockford sagebrush and cactus, urging him to get in on the ground floor. Within a year or two all that he sees around him will be sub-developments, houses and malls.  Rockford, playing a long game, manages to keep a straight face.  The con artist also mentions there is going to a lake for recreational purposes and – in the middle of the fucking desert – offers Rockford a cheap deal on a boat.  As I recall, James Garner is able to give this beautiful look of not-quite supressed incredulity (2).

Anyway, that’s how I feel a lot of the time.  People are describing the “desert” (3) that is the acceleration of the already unsustainable (in every sense) trajectory of industrial omnicide and then sell me the boat of sustainability. I’m also (supposed to be able to be) playing a long-game, am supposed to be able to keep a straight face.  But I’m ready for a straitjacket.

(1) See ‘The Nice Guys’ for a recent homage
(2) Think Guy Pearse in LA Confidential  when James Cromwell   asks him if he knows of a Rollo Tomasi).
(3)I use desert in the loose/inaccurate/metaphorical sense of ‘lifeless/barren’, not in the actual sense – there’s a lot of life, if you choose to see it… That’s the real of the desert.


Environmental #IST2015 – of ‘sustainability transitions’ and (beyond) the ivory tower

There’s nowt as practical as a good theory, as we sometimes say up north. If true, this  would make the University of Sussex one of the most practical places in the world about now.

The sixth istlogoInternational Sustainability Transitions‘ (IST) conference (the main event of this network) is taking place over 3 and a half thought-filled days. I write this blog with angry seagulls for accompaniment, on the morning of day 3, while I still have shreds of spare neuronal capacity.

Sustainability Transitions folks look at how ‘we’ (might) get from our state of using up resources and polluting the atmosphere/oceans quicker and quicker to the putative sunny uplands of a (non-growth?) economy that lives within its environmental means. What are the tools for transition? Who uses them, how and when?  What are the obstacles?  How does it all change over time? Are the theories and frameworks valid globally  or only locally?  The questions ramify…
Study of Sustainability Transitions have been going on for years (well, decades – it depends how you define it), but have special relevance now in the lead-up to conferences that look at climate change and new development goals.

Aware of the charge that this called all be dismissed as ivory tower chattering, the organisers have scheduled two keynotes already, one , on ‘Sustainability Transitions in EU policy‘ from the head of the European Environment Agency , Hans Bruyninckx [it may be career-limiting to say this, but that surname would be an awesome, if unlikely, score in Scrabble]’. The second, ‘In times of transition: the role of goal changers.‘ was by  Jan Rotmans (aside a gazillion other activities, he set up Urgenda, the citizens’ group that successfully sued the Dutch State for not reducing emissions as promised on  This was an entertaining post-Toffler-esque riff on tipping point indicators, ‘harmonica dynamics ‘and ‘front-runners, connectors, topplers and followers. (To share one of my own less-successful neologisms, we may need to get a little… transruptive).

Another keynote, ‘Transformations in global governance for sustainability‘, by Frank Biermann and sponsored by Future Earth, follows this afternoon.

I am hoping that in a not-too-future year we can have one on ‘Where’s My Jetpack?’ (which also happens to be the title of my friend Cameron Roberts erudite and interesting blog). Or perhaps ‘Scientific Progress Goes Boink‘.

All the hallmarks of a ”normal’ academic conference are here. (Writers such as David Lodge have had great fun with the rituals of these sorts of conferences, which are important status competition arenas for the academic tribe, and also (if you are REALLY cynical) a lek.] There are sage on the stage style presentations, question and answer sessions that go well and others that don’t (here’s my too-cynical take, with plaintive practical proposals, on that).

There have been some cracking good sessions that combine theory and practice in useful ways, with succinct answers to questions from panelists There have been other sessions that perhaps don’t reach those dizzying heights. There are times when the program is over-packed and people vote with their feet, and have an extended coffee break or natter in the corners (meeting old friends and making new ones, swapping gossip and proposing future work, are of course, the major draw for these events). As with many things in this life,, ‘what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.’

Personally the most ‘useful’ bits (so far) have been

a) the poster session (there are always too many proposed papers to fit into the schedule, so one way of keeping people happy/increasing opportunities for knowledge exchange is to have people make posters of istpostertheir research projects). My poster is on my efforts so far to ‘prove’ (in the French sense) and extend the awesome ‘Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model‘ of Geels and Penna.
I had a bunch of very well-informed people telling me about the (unsavoury) nitty-gritty of the German ‘Energiewende’ (energy transformation)

b) the innovative ‘get-together-three-times-with-a-random-group-of-conference-attendees-and-propose-a-new-research-topic.

Given that sustainability transitions are about innovation (which usually starts at the ‘edges’) it’s good to see the organisers trying to if ‘institutionalise’ this, (or at least create the conditions of it being more likely!) Over the two sessions eight of us, going by the name of the ‘Grand Challengers’ have honed in the topic of ‘Funding the transition(s) – time-lines and tensions between state and private capital.‘ This afternoon we have to write a 250 word abstract and a tweet (bless you, twenty-first century).

The final session of the conference, on Friday afternoon, will hear back from the many groups (none with as cool a name as ours, to be sure) about the proposed topics.

As the carbon climbs, and oceans acidify and the species are disappeared, we humans will try to use the same brains and opposable thumbs that got us into this mess to get us out. It’s what we do.

The politics of socio-technical transitions #03

Here’s the third post on this topic, ahead of a symposium on Monday. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

Mostly I’ll be extolling the virtues of;

Newell, P. and Paterson, M. (1998) A climate for business: global warming, the state and capital. Review of International Political Economy Vo.. 5 (4) 679-703.


Grazia Cecere, G., Corrocher, N., & Gossart, C. & Muge Ozman, M. (2014)Lock-in and path dependence: an evolutionary approach to eco-innovations Journal of Evolutionary Economics Vol 231: 1037-1065.

with a couple of digressions and notes-to-self.

This (Newell and Paterson) is my bread and butter, and though I’d read it yonks (about 6 months), I’d forgotten how good it is, both on the theory but also the rich series of anecdotes.

Here are some clippings.

These groups have adopted a number of arguments to defend their hostile position towards action on climate change.

They have emphasized remaining scientific uncertainties concerning global warming, in order to suggest that the scientific evidence is inadequate as a basis for limitations on CO2 emissions.

They have engaged in what most commentators regard as highly misleading campaigns in the mass media, suggesting that there is no evidence for global warming.

They have argued that the costs of emissions to industrialized economies of limiting emissions will be very high, and will significantly reduce GDP.

They have also argued that this will have other economic consequences, in terms of large job losses, with a high degree of regional concentration in areas involved in, for example, coal mining, oil extraction and processing, or car production.

They have also tried to construct transnational alliances with other states, particularly with OPEC states with which they have clearly consistent interests, but also with developing countries in general, trying to persuade them that the adoption of emissions limitations by industrialized countries would have severe economic impacts on them, primarily through increases in prices for energy and manufactures (Johnson, 1997).
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:683) (emphasis added


Oil companies are often also gas companies, and in the short term can cushion any impacts of limits on oil use with increased gas sales, in transition towards an economy based on renewables. (Shell, for example, anticipates in its internal models an entirely solar economy by the end of the twenty-first century.) Coal companies, by contrast, have no such cushion.
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:692-3)


US concern to protect its energy industries again surfaced at the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC) in Nairobi in September 1991, where the USA showed itself sensitive to the energy sector being singled out and proposed that agriculture be cited as well (ECO, 1991b: 3).15 Concern for these industries on the part of governments explicitly worked its way into the text of the Climate Convention. Article 4 (part 10) states that special consideration should be given to those countries whose economies are ‘highly dependent’ on producing or consuming fossil fuels, the very economies whose transition to a post-greenhouse economy is most urgently required (United Nations, 1992: articles 4.10 and 4.8). The World Coal Institute (WCI) and other groups were instrumental in the drafting of this proposal in collaboration with such states as Australia. The fact that the negotiations witnessed governments anxiously protecting the very industries that contribute on a large scale to the greenhouse effect bears testimony to the particular strength of the energy lobby and brings into focus the problem of expecting states to regulate sectors of industry with which they share key interests.
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:687)

I had less time, oddly, for Moore, M.-L., O. Tjornbo, E. Enfors, C. Knapp, J. Hodbod, J. A. Baggio, A. Norström, P. Olsson, and D. Biggs. 2014.Studying the complexity of change: toward an analytical framework for understanding deliberate social-ecological transformations. Ecology and Society 19(4): 54. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06966-190454 I say oddly because I used to really like the Social-Ecological Systems way of looking at things.  But it seems too abstract, too biologically driven.  I could be wrong…

The Cecere et al. paper was interesting too, and good on the differences between eco-innovations and standard innovation, evolutionary economics (naturally, given the journal it appears in!) and the types of path-dependence.

The extent to which lock-in and path dependence generate costs and inefficiency to the economy has been more carefully discussed by Liebovitz and Margolis (1995), who distinguish among three forms of path dependence. The first-degree path dependence is a situation whereby the influence of some initial events on the final outcome does not create any inefficiency in the economy. The second-degree path dependence is characterized by the scarcity of information in the initial phases of decisional process, which leads to regrettable outcomes that are not remediable. Finally, the third-degree path dependence refers to situations in which an inefficient outcome could have been avoided because of the existing better alternatives.Witt (1997) also suggests that the (detrimental) effects of lock-in need to be considered in light of the existing conditions – e.g. effective availability of better alternatives. In particular, the original model of Arthur (1989) relies on the assumption that technological lock-in amounts to foregoing wealth increases.
Cecere et al. (2014:1042)

It’s good on “cost-related factors, technological niches and complexity” “role of stakeholders” etc
Overall, this seems to be a comprehensive (disclaimer – I am not as on top of this field as I one day hope to be) overview. The glossary of terms “Definitions of eco-innovation” at the end though, IS really helpful

So, what have I learnt/what would I add from the reading?

1) blocking coalitions are a Crucial Thing

2) Cobb and Ross “Agenda Denial”

agenda denial-page001

and the counter-rhetorics way of thinking.

Other things I defo should read –
“Business and the genesis of the European Community carbon tax proposal”
“The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of business in the regulatory process associated with the carbon tax proposal. The first part of the paper describes the Community’s climate change policy, noting first the essential features of Community environment policy-making, the role of consultation with industry and the significance of the ‘subsidiarity’ principle. This part of the paper moves on to examine the carbon tax proposal and its evolution since 1990. The second part of the paper addresses the specific role which business played in influencing the development of the carbon tax proposal. The general strategy of business was to block the proposal entirely. The paper identifies the potential impacts of the tax on business, implications for corporate strategies and the specific channels through which business influenced the tax proposal, by participating in public debates, through representations to different directorates of the European Commission or by making a case to national authorities. The final part of the paper attempts ta draw some lessons about: the business position in relation to large scale environmental problems such as climate change; business responses to economic instruments such as the carbon energy tax; and the wider relationship between public authorities and business in regulatory processes. The question of whether this relationship has entered a new phase or whether there is still ’business as usual’ is addressed.”
Ikwue, T. and Skea, J. (1994) ‘Business and the genesis of the European carbon tax proposal’, Business Strategy and the Environment, 3(2): 1–10.
How does that compare to Australian coal industry (and broader capitalist sectors) successful efforts  to scupper a carbon tax in the early 1990s?

What would I write about if I could (had the time) around the politics of socio-technical transitions

  • The failings of social movement organisations (and what – in theory- to do about it) as niche actors/regime co-creators
  • The collapse – generally – of responsive states. Policy-making has become ever-more-insulated, more neo-liberalised. States stripped of their capacity, their confidence, their legitimacy.  (In the Anglo-Saxon world).

Outa tuna with the natural world: On corporate concentration and environmental governance

A rather intriguing and canny seminar at Manchester Business School…

Ever stand in the aisle, lost in the supermarket, and wonder what went into getting the products on the shelves? The tin mined for the cans, the oil drilled for the plastic packaging, the lives lost and the futures mortgaged for our present convenience?  I do, when I’m not taking my pills.

Supermarkets use tuna as a “loss leader”.  It’s a known price item (KPI), so shoppers base their decisions on that.  Supermarkets then offload the pressure down the supply chain, to the canners, the boat owners and so on.  That leads the charge for more boats, more nets, different species .

That was the gist of a detailed and fascinating seminar delivered today by Liam Campling, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary College.
The seminar was very much in two halves –

The first rattled through a bunch of political economy types who I’d never heard of but will be looking up for my post-doc (cough cough).

The second half looked specifically at tuna as a “worked example”.  It was dead fascinating. I will never look at a tin of tuna in the same way again (I know, #sadmanshouldgetalife.)

  • Tuna production is done on wafer thin margins.  Some of the production plants are in places where the factory is the only large employer, giving the owners the opportunity to demand subsidies from governments. (Campling told the story of Lehmann Brothers extorting, sorry, “negotiating” a huge subsidy for a 1,400 employee factory in the Seychelles, which they’d told the government was unprofitable in order to get a tax-payer bailout.  Guess what.  They lied!?! )
  • Meanwhile, private equity companies want rents, so they aren’t going to invest in the non-branded processing areas.  There is, unsurprisingly, a “Global Ocean Strategy.”  This is not about sustainability…
  • Profitability is about access to markets, and tariff-walls matter; e.g. there wouldn’t be an African production sector but for preferential access to Europe. That said, the Thai companies STILL manage to compete in the EU, despite a 24% tariff.
  • States(US, France, Spain etc)  are, of course, directly subsidising fleets to fish in foreign waters

Concepts (some familiar, some spanking new)

And from Wikipedia

O’Connor argues that capitalism necessarily undermines the “conditions of production” necessary to sustain the endless accumulation of capital. These conditions of production include soil, water, energy, and so forth. But they also include an adequate public education system, transportation infrastructures, and other services that are not produced directly by capital, but which capital needs in order accumulate effectively. As the conditions of production are exhausted, the costs of production for capital increase. For this reason, the second contradiction generates an underproduction crisis tendency, with the rising cost of inputs and labor, to complement the overproduction tendency of too many commodities for too few customers. Like Marx’s contradiction of capital and labor, the second contradiction therefore threatens the system’s existence.[62][63]

In addition, O’Connor believes that, in order to remedy environmental contradictions, the capitalist system innovates new technologies that overcome existing problems but introduce new ones.[62]

Campling’s conclusion: that efforts at regulation need to go beyond the point of extraction

My thoughts:

  • I wonder if there is mileage in looking at what Timothy Mitchell did with the idea of the Carbon Democracy and strategic “choke points”
  • This is another great example of what I call “bio-Taylorism” – after Frederick Taylor and his model of logically intensifying production.  Taylor only managed bodies.  We are managing genes, oceans.  We are as gods.  Sadly, some of the stupider and more venal ones.
  • Death by speed-up indeed.
  • easterbunnyislandcolour1Meanwhile of course, it’s always logical to chop down the next tree (you have to tools, and the know-how,  your shareholders expect it and your competitors will do it if you don’t.)
  • here’s a brilliant cartoon by Marc Roberts

Marc Hudson


Crossing the threshold of ecosystem resilience: the commercial extinction of northern cod
A. Christopher Finalyson and Bonnie J. McCay

The situation began to change after World War II. With much of the infrastructure of European agriculture in ruins, fish became a vital source of food. Under this impetus, and incorporating technologies developed during the war – inexpensive steel ship construction, powerful diesel engines, shipboard refrigeration and freezing, and electronics for precise navigation, long-distance communications, bottom imaging and fish-finding – the hungry nations of Europe, led by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact member states, developed distant-water fishing capacity and combined these technologies into a new and devastatingly effective configuration: the factory freeze-trawler. With the size and strength to fish in ice-ridden waters and all but the worst storms, these ships could be directed by their corporate or state owners to wherever catch rates were highest. Supplied via motherships with food, fuel and fresh crews from their home ports, these vessels could fish the year round and stay at sea indefinitely. By the mid-1960s, their numbers were so great that the Newfoundland fishing banks at night were described as a ‘city of lights’ (see Warner, 1983)
page 316
Warner, 1983 Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman Boston: Little, Brown and Company