Category Archives: Politics

News from Somewhere?

I recently attended an event with History and Policy and Friends of the Earth in which a number of historians were invited to offer their comments on the FoE policy review process Big Ideas Change the World. After the event the participants were invited to contribute their own ideas and responses in the form of blog posts. The following is the text of my own reflection. The views expressed are, of course, mine alone.

Tim Cooper

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For the historian and critic, the Friends of the Earth paper, Big Ideas Change the World: Mapping a Route from a Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being, makes fascinating reading. The title sets up an opposition between historical failure and future possibility. As Mark Levene has written, in the anthropocene, it is exactly this gap between history and the future which is a potentially productive point of ethical intervention for the historian.

‘Smart optimism’ is the watchword of this document. But a more compelling vision might be that of pragmatic utopianism. In the face of astonishing environmental crises, the authors dare to think in extraordinarily hopeful terms about the future. In so doing they draw upon the resources of hope to be found in history, not least the knowledge that sudden and radical change is not only possible but is, if anything, likely. It is a powerful practical account of why history remains crucial in thinking about the future.

Consider the quiet, but remarkable, radicalism of the claim that global ‘well-being’ should offer the founding principle of social life in the future. This is not simply a claim about fulfilling needs. This is a potentially open-ended, promise. Well-being is, rightly, not delimited to a set of objective economic criteria; it is opened up to being a subjectively open set of social and cultural desires. This is a call for a politics of care that flies in the face of the politics of what Molly Scott Cato has called Austeria.

One is reminded throughout this document of News from Nowhere, William Morris’s compelling vision of a communist England. Framing this document is a vision of how the world will be in 2050. This world of well-being has no material poverty, environmental destruction has been reversed, population stabilised, the fruits of modern production are distributed more equably, and there is good health and health-care for all. Society is still globalised, interconnected and cosmopolitan, but this is no longer the imposed cosmopolitanism of the capitalist market, but a voluntary collaborative cosmopolitanism.

But why is this the world of 2050? How are we to get there? The wonder of News from Nowhere is that Morris brings his utopia into present reality through the dream of his narrator. But in FoE’s route map this utopia remains distant. Perhaps this is one of the profounder weaknesses of time, our timidity in dreaming. Whereas nineteenth-century utopians would unashamedly dare to dream of their tomorrow as already present in their today, we see this as too risky. Our fear of disappointment is palpable.

For most of us 2050 is so far away as to be unimaginable. Ironically, to really radicalise this vision one has to cut out the complex historical process of actually getting there. One must demand this world not for 2050, but for 2014, for tomorrow, for today. One can imagine here a fantastic arts project based around envisioning this world of well-being as the world of today. Not something absent, but something present. That is what political hope is.

And to whom would such a project speak? Who can enact this world of tomorrow today? To whom should this route map be addressed? One must doubt whether it should be ‘policy-makers’. Twenty years of all the policy-making in the world in the field of climate change has enacted one of the most complete failures of politics in the history of modern democracy, perhaps only surpassed by appeasement. The Mauna Loa index of atmospheric carbon dioxide it the historical record of this failure. To ask policy-makers to carry out a revolutionary transformation of our common social life is to suggest they are about to utterly reverse this story of failure.

No! This routemap needs to speak to everyday life. As Alex Loftus argues, it is everyday life which must ultimately be transformed. It is everyday well-being that is at stake. It is to the opponents of incinerators and fracking, the recycling and anti-bin tax campaigners, the wind-farmers and opponents of wind-farms that a political strategy focussed on well-being must address itself. It is in this realm of everyday experience that modern democracy might yet be revolutionised and modern life transformed into a world of well-being.

We are all aware of living with the consequences of the past two-hundred years of capitalist history. We already live in a world living with the effects of climate change. We have a permanent oil crisis that confronts every opponent of fracking or parent on the daily school run. The limits of parliamentary democracy in tacking such existential issues is abundantly clear as politicians dump green levies to subsidise energy monopolists.

If history tells us anything, it is that the change to come is not an issue for 2050, it is here already. The historical moment of transformation is already upon is. It is what we do today, and how people in their real lives are mobilised for change now that is building the future world of well-being. FoE’s future strategy must be a strategy for the transformation of everyday life, or it will be nothing.

The Media and Climate Change in the 1990s

This is a summary of an undergraduate dissertation on climate change and the media in the 1990s, kindly contributed by Laura Williams, one of my students. Her work address some of the limitations of newspaper coverage in constructing the way climate change was viewed in the nineties, and concludes with some of the lessons to be considered as a result of this research. It is an excellent example of how historical knowledge can contribute to the questions of how we got where we are, and “what is to be done?”.

TC

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“I was first drawn to selecting a dissertation focusing upon climate change due to a module I took in my second year concerning Anthropogenic Climate Change. In this module we studied various ideas surrounding the development, acceptance and approaches towards Anthropogenic Climate Change and how this was reflected within society. The issue of climate change is an important topic that has relevance to many disciplines and is one that I find can be directly related to the skills and approaches utilized by historians. Climate change is a global issue with potentially global consequences; therefore it must surely be understood and appreciated in both academia and wider society. The study of climate change and the way it interacts within society is perhaps where history becomes most significant. In taking specific questions through tasks like dissertations, there presents an opportunity to explore broader issues and concerns.

The title of my dissertation is “What power relations were at stake within media representations of climate change in the period surrounding the first and second IPPC Reports, 1990-1999?”. There has been much work done on the discussion of climate change throughout the media and within newspapers in particular. Significant examples of such works that I used to initiate my research were studies by Anabella Carvalho and Maxwell T. Boykoff. However in these cases and indeed many other studies the primary focus is upon broadsheet newspapers, with the influence of the tabloid press disregarded as excessively simplified. It is upon the perceived notion of tabloid insignificance that I decided to base my research. The quality press is often focused upon due to its perceived influence upon public and climate policy, however this argument with regards to climate change is perhaps questionable. I would argue that surely public policy is dependent upon and indeed reflects public policy; a policy may encourage action, but the public must first be prepared to act. The tabloid press and especially the newspapers I chose to focus upon, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, have a far greater readership than many of the broadsheet newspapers combined. As such I decided to explore the power relations permeating coverage specifically within the tabloid press and challenge the notion that climate coverage in such publications is too simplistic, serving no influence in politics.

Throughout the two samples I considered I found that a number of similar themes emerged. The establishment of both national and knowledge hierarchies within the text, variations in meanings and language plus a persistent trend of technological optimism all display the operation of power relations within the newspapers. These power relations are significant throughout the samples due to their ability to alter and control public understandings and actions regarding climate change. The use of hierarchies is particularly problematic for they narrow the public’s perception of climate issues, blinding readers to the global nature of a problem that we are not only significantly contributing to, but also suffering from. Nevertheless, there is a difference in each newspapers use of this. The Daily Express often used the notion of national hierarchy to displace individual blame, whereas The Daily Mail often appeared to displace blame from capitalist industries, instead using hierarchy to appeal to provincial readerships. The use of a knowledge hierarchy is equally problematic for in focusing upon the scientific and expert professions, the need for individual responsibility is often diverted. The same issue can be extended to issues of technological optimism and it is here that seems most pertinent to pause and consider the power relations at play. If climate coverage is consistently interspersed with technological ideas then this must surely create a template for publicly acceptable solutions to the problem. By creating a binary based upon climate change and technology, newspapers are protecting the primary position of technology and its associated industries in our society. By using this thematic approach in examining climate issues within the tabloid press I believe I have come some way in questioning whether it is appropriate to disregard the influence of the tabloid press in climate discussion.

Perhaps the most interesting section I found of my dissertation was the consideration of how we should attempt to address climate change issues in the public sphere. The manipulation of language throughout the newspapers has often served to maintain the particular vested interests of industry. A situation has been encouraged whereby the readers have accepted a manipulated form of debate and as such no meaningful action is pursued. Although overcoming such ingrained practices may seem daunting, the situation is far from hopeless. In many cases newspapers themselves are overcoming such issues. By using particular examples, such as a traditional love of animals or peoples pastimes, where the newspaper recognizes values that are important to ordinary people, the papers power is divested. The newspapers must rearticulate their coverage from abstract theorizing to addressing the contradictions that emerge in the face of concrete emotions. Therefore in this way we not only see the power relations at play, but also the power established through the relationship between a newspaper and its audience. Regardless of a newspaper’s rhetoric it is ultimately governed by the desires and concerns of its audience. As such, as anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly accepted and its effects increasingly threaten our society, the demand for information and hopefully subsequent action will surely begin to permeate not only the tabloid and quality press, but all forms of media.”

Laura Williams (3rd Year, History)

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.

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.