Monthly Archives: May 2013

History Against Education for Sustainable Development

I have been writing a paper on the politics and pedagogy of history and Education for Sustainable Development. The paper can be accessed at the new History Working Papers Project website, an experimental site that provides open access to working papers and tools for comment and open peer review. It it an excellent initiative, worthy of support.


Waste, Social Change and the Politics of Everyday Life in Twentieth Century Britain

The following is the text of a short piece I submitted to the ongoing Friends of the Earth policy review:

Where are the resources to transform the relations between humans and their environment to be found today? One of the common answers to this question is in the combination between technology and government policy. However apparently attractive this answer may appear, in so far as it leaves out of account the everyday lives of real people, and their desires and capacities to transform their own worlds, it is inadequate to the tasks ahead. Policy alone does not allow us to ask what our common challenges are, or what kind of environment or society we wish to live in. To address these questions, we must look at the level of everyday life.

One of the central environmental questions of everyday life in twentieth-century Britain was that of waste disposal. In the 1900s there was widespread advocacy of incineration as a disposal technology by many experts. By the 1930s, controlled tipping (landfill) had come to serve this role. The objective of such technologies was to render the city sustainable by cleansing it of filth and refuse, the products of which were deposited upon marginal areas. This story is well-known. What is less well-know is the sometimes vehement opposition of those affected by refuse disposal. Local authorities, central government and private companies were all subject to complaints by residents affected. One of the key issues was the priority afforded by experts to the needs of the city over those of rural/marginal urban areas, where disposal sites were often located. At stake was a fundamental power struggle to control technology and the privileging of urban space and different conceptions of the value of nature. Opponents of controlled-tipping were often at pains to protect old-quarries and pieces of ‘waste’ land from being transformed from spaces of play and enjoyment of nature, to flat artificial spaces of plain, boring utility. Indeed, in everyday opposition to refuse tipping the defence of play was as often as important as the defence of nature.

The 1970s saw the first attempt to politically mobilise the power of these everyday politics in the rise of a recycling movement propounded by organisations such as Friends of the Earth. In its early days recycling was very much a ‘people’s’ movement, coming out of local communities as a political intervention into what was seen as the excesses of consumerism. Unfortunately, this link between recycling and everyday life was diluted in the 1980s and 1990s, as recycling schemes were increasingly subsumed by local authorities and then private industry. Today, recycling imposes a great deal of household labour, the profits of which go largely to privatised waste collection and disposal firms. However, the everyday politics of waste are still with us in, for example, the vehement opposition across the country to the imposition of waste incinerators as the ‘green’ alternative to landfill. Historically speaking, this opposition is quite right to be sceptical, as technologies of disposal have come and gone during the twentieth century, often with little regard to the needs of people or environment.

In terms of social change, all this suggests that any really effective change needs to go far beyond relying on the disciplinary mechanisms of policy and technology, which privilege some people and spaces (cities) over others (country, suburbs). Instead, it needs to devise means to reactivate the concerns of people for their everyday environments, and to support their struggles to protect them as meaningful spaces. An everyday politics of environmentalism may be the most effective untapped resource for social and environmental transformation yet. It might partly be possible to tap these energies with history itself, and by careful listening to the knowledge and memories of places and spaces facing the pressures of, for example, climate change.

400ppm as Historical Event

When the Guardian reported last week that the famous ‘Keeling Curve‘ measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide, made at the Mauna Loa observatory, has hit an average 400ppm, it did so in terms which emphasized the moment as an historical event. A kind of step-change, or barrier passed. Of course, in scientific terms, 400ppm does not necessarily tell us very much. Climate modelling and prediction are heroically complex tasks, not reducible to crudely picking  a number from a series as a ‘turning point’. In part the choice to highlight this measurement now is part of the the continuing scientific struggle with the apologists of inaction, who have recently been seeking to selectively exploit recent temperature data to suggest global warming has stalled.

Yet, what is interesting to me as an historian is the representation of the ‘curve’ as historical, and in particular as evidence for a future historian looking back. This representation of the historicity of an attempt to measure and model our atmosphere and climate is both intriguing and important. It demonstrates the way in which the so-called ‘debate’ on climate change (something that would better be understood as a struggle) is deeply structured by our sense of time and history. In part it is perhaps an attempt to fill in for the fundamentally ahistorical, or perhaps, impossibly-historical, character of this field of science. One of the great problems for climate scientists, is that while they have developed powerful tools for understanding past and future climatic change, it is often difficult for these to talk to the human historical dimension. When told we are heading for disaster, we tend to ask “When will the disaster strike?”, or, “When is the point of no return?”. Such questions, which in some ways obfuscate the nature of the political issues at stake, stem from the historical turn of mind.

With this in mind, it is useful to look again at the curve, to consider the nature of the historicity it seeks to communicate. One is struck by the way in which the curve emerges from nowhere, the arbitrary starting date of 1958 is when Charles Keeling began recording the data. From that point, its repetitious peaks and troughs rise almost relentlessly. We can imagine it gently rising in the same manner well beyond 400ppm. As such this is a record of a natural catastrophe, a sign of some mechanism of transformation functioning beyond human control, the ever increasing energy demands and atmospheric pollution of industrial ‘progress’. It is the history of the ‘non-history’ of capitalism itself, ever on the rise, acting independently of human good or human will.

For this historian, however, what is evident is the absolute absence of historicity from the chart. There are no dramatic interventions into its data anywhere, no ‘events’ in the traditional historical sense, merely a continuous intractable rise. This lack of historicity, the absence of an ‘event’, is, however, what is most compelling and provocative about this graph. In the end, 400ppm is just another point on a line. It too will be surpassed in time and concentration like all the others. No human intervention has yet made any difference to the upward trajectory of the curve. Ultimately, the Keeling Curve tells us a story about the absence of a turning point, the absence of a political choice, and this is perhaps the source of our fascination with it. We study it in the hope of the appearance of an historical rupture; a point at which we choose to survive; the point at which capitalism is rendered no longer a natural force acting against our will, but subject to rational control.

We study this chart, then, for signs of revolution, and we are troubled by its absence. For we already know that only with the intervention of a political event will the Keeling Curve finally have been rendered truly historical.

Liberal Democracy and Environmentalism Seminar

The following is the abstract for a seminar paper being given on Campus on May 1 2013 by Daniel Hausknost. It is part of a series of events being supported funded by the Annual Fund

Abstract: Transition Impossible? Liberal democracy and the limits of radical environmental politics

Dr Daniel Hausknost

Institute of Social Ecology, Alpen-Adria Universitaet Klagenfurt

Wednesday 1st May 2013, Seminar 8, 15.00hrs

The transition of industrial societies from a fossil-energy-based economy to a post-fossil, ‘sustainable’ one arguably presents the defining challenge of the 21st century. Although there is significant disagreement as to the exact scope and nature of the changes required, there is a consensus building up that in their entirety these changes will have to lead to a kind of society substantially different from the ‘advanced capitalism’ that characterises the beginning of this century.

This paper looks into the feasibility of radical environmental reform within the liberal-democratic framework. Are liberal democracies able to initiate and facilitate forms of change that are radical and swift enough to avert dangerous climate change and crippling resource scarcities? Put differently: Can capitalist democracy deliberately transform itself into something more sustainable? We use the conceptual model of ‘epistemic legitimacy’ to approach this question. The model suggests that liberal democracies are existentially dependent on a thriving ‘external source of social reality’, aka a growing market economy, to sustain their own legitimacy. The opacity of the market is essential to establishing a form of reality that is perceived as ‘objective’ and to which the political realm can ‘react’. According to this model, then, the transition must be based on market mechanisms and on the business-as-usual model of capitalist reality-construction, including economic growth. Hence the popularity of the ‘green growth’ narrative with governments and European Union officials. The problem of course is that these mechanisms will no doubt fail to bring about the changes required for a sustainability transition. Faced with the alternative of intervening radically into the structures of reality and thus jeopardizing its own basis of legitimation and risking socio-economic collapse while maintaining the ‘epistemic’ basis of liberal-democratic legitimation, however, liberal democracies will (continue to) choose the latter option. Thus they will prefer entering and ‘managing’ a socio-ecological crisis that might end civilisation on our planet to actively averting it, although this would be technically feasible. This paper explains the mechanisms behind this seemingly irrational choice.