Litter post at ‘The Conversation’

In defence of litter

By Timothy Cooper, University of Exeter

What propels us to notice when a place is badly littered or surprisingly clean? When abroad, why do we often make comparisons between well-swept cities and badly kept ones?

Of course, there is the banal response that cleaning our city streets is necessary to keep people and traffic moving, so obviously we notice when this has not taken place. But it’s interesting that the positive condition of urban “sustainability”, which includes the vast and expensive complex of refuse collection and disposal, only becomes apparent when it fails. The experience of litter, then, is the experience of negativity – when the positive order on which contemporary life is dependant displays its hidden existence to us.

Perhaps a more important question, then, is why we notice litter when we refuse to see its necessary obverse: the heroic labours of urban cleansing that grease the wheels of life in cities. There are no workers more essential to our world than the refuse collector and the street-sweeper.

Litter and littering are historical phenomena. They were invented in the early twentieth century, and are distinct from previous urban concerns with street-sweeping that can be traced back to every form of urban existence. Medieval parishes in England paid for the removal of dead dogs from the streets, for instance. “Littering”, by contrast, emerged in the years after the Great War. Urban officials had certainly noticed this “other great nuisance of the roads” in the period before 1914, but it was only after 1918 that littering became a subject of popular concern and effective political campaigning.

The emergence of littering was partly a consequence of the changing patterns of an intensified consumerism in the early twentieth century. But this is not really enough to fully grasp its rise. For littering was, at the outset, a class phenomenon. It was presumed that the “Litter Habit” was learnt by working people experiencing the new freedoms of public holidays and the pleasures of consumption, and who were unused to the ways of the countryside or careless to the civic well-being of towns. In a world with an emerging Communist superpower, littering was also a sign of the decay of the rights of property. The “litter bug” did not simply defile landscapes; they also symbolically affronted the basis of capitalism itself by claiming, through careless disposal, the very property on which they stood.

“There is apparently a feeling”, a Times correspondent wrote in 1925, “that a place dedicated to the people (parks) has not really passed into the possession and usufruct [right to enjoy other people’s property] of the people unless they are allowed to do exactly as they please in it… to leave behind them any rubbish which they are too lazy to conceal or take home with them.” One landed MP complained of finding a family out picnicking on his drive about to “leave behind them a mountain of mess”. When asked to take their refuse with them the father of the group replied, “if you can afford a place like this, you can afford to have somebody pick up the mess”. This was not mindless vandalism, this was a very deliberate act of resistance to private property.

Little wonder then, that after the Second World War the Litter Act 1958 sought to abate the “litter nuisance” by applying a £10 fine to offenders. The act brought tangible benefits to the Keep Britain Tidy Group, formed in 1954 by members of the Women’s Institute. It received a £1,500 per annum grant to publicise the new act. By the 1980s it had a £500,000 income from both public and private sources to contribute to this disciplining and control of public behaviour.

And yet as we all know, littering did not go away. While the heroic figure of the father littering in pursuit of the class struggle may be a rarity, there are probably few people who have not carelessly (or perhaps joyously) infringed the law by tossing away an odd cigarette butt or paper cup.

This is the dark, but necessary, underside of noticing litter. Littering is a means to resist the tired domination of petty officialdom over everyday life. We can all experience the momentary freedom of rule-breaking by littering. The irony then is precisely this double-sided character – in litter we recognise and abhor rule-breaking, yet at the same time we also see our own fantasies of liberty. Perhaps this is why littering has never really died out, and why there will always remain a need for those heroes of the cities, the street sweepers.

Timothy Cooper does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

History and Climate Change: The Learning Experience

Increasingly important within the discourse of the University is the need, with rising fees, to provide value for money. Yet how does such an institution go about providing ‘value’ in the first place? In an environment where the consumers (students) come from a variety of different backgrounds (culturally, personally and intellectually) ‘value’ becomes extremely difficult to define. This has however, not prevented the University in an age of increasing competition for graduate jobs articulating value along the lines of employability. As a student, I am wary of university discourse being framed in this way. The pre-emptive move to seek value in employability has the potential to reduce the amount of critical engagement with degree programmes. For subjects such as history this is potentially catastrophic. I want to argue that the Wiki project I worked on, along with two classmates, for the module ‘Past Actions Present Woes: The History of Anthropogenic Climate Change’ offers the opportunity to develop key transferable skills whilst not sacrificing engagement on a critical historical level. The Wiki project therefore offers the opportunity for the contemporary undergraduate programme to sit within universities definition of ‘value’ without losing the core of what an undergraduate degree is, in my view, all about.

Before expanding on the usefulness of the Wiki, there are some problems that need to be raised. Firstly, is the need for at least one member of the group to have a sound knowledge of IT. This might not be so problematic these days with most able undergraduates more than capable of mastering all the latest technology, I however, do not count myself amongst such company. Yet even when the basic techniques have been mastered, to really exploit the full potential of the Wiki requires an exceptionally creative mind and a lot of time, without which the finished product can appear conservative. With restrictions due to other commitments, there is simply not the time to fully explore the capabilities of the Wiki programme, especially since most of the marks come from the content rather than how it is presented.

Leaving these problems aside, our specific task placed a lot of emphasis on critical thought and the ability to bring a new perspective to a contemporary climate issue. My group decided to investigate the conception of a ‘sustainability’ discourse and the potential ideological and political imperatives that its use concealed, which we referred to as the ‘absent referent,’ a concept that we developed from our Lecturer Dr Tim Cooper. Evidence regarding the perceived lack of coal within the British Empire around the turn of the twentieth Century allowed us to investigate explicit references to sustainability. We argued that the use of ‘sustainability’ is a political move to sustain a particular way of organising society and the power relations that are embedded within. By playing on fear of societal collapse, those who control the sustainability discourse are able to reproduce their power through the legitimation of certain practices, colonial expansion being one among many. It should be plain to see how in this process how critical historical thought is developed. While given guidance, the onus is on the group to find relevant historical material and to utilise it in a critical and original way. I cannot think of a better way to develop a history undergraduate’s scholarship.

Gradually however, module programmes have begun to centre themselves around ‘transferable’ skills, often at the expense of other skills. The Wiki project in my experience does not; instead its unique nature, catered for the development of both critical and transferable skills, particularly when we were required to identify a specific audience that our project would ‘speak to’. This took learning out of the traditional lecturer-student complex because we were communicating with an independent group. We therefore had to think carefully about the language we used and how we organised our material to best fit the context we were operating within. The audience for my group’s project was the sustainability committee at Exeter University. To figure out how best to communicate to the audience, we interviewed the chair of the committee to understand their view on sustainability. It was then possible to engineer our argument towards these specific assumptions. By learning to communicate to a specific audience outside the traditional university environment of lectures and seminars, the Wiki allowed us as a group to develop a valuable transferable skill.

‘Past Actions, Present Woes’ used historically relevant material to shed light on contemporary debates and the Wiki project was the perfect way to explore this. A group task, that involved using a critical historical perspective to inform a particular audience about contemporary climate issues allowed students to develop critical scholarship as well as key transferable skills. In the ‘Wiki experience’ there are, I think, two critical components that could provide value for the current and future undergraduate. The first is the development of critical thought. Second, is the conception of a new way of learning, one that moves beyond the current lecturer-student relationship, opening up the production of knowledge and encouraging the development of new skills.

Dan Webb (2nd Year, History)

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?”.



“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)

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.

Teaching Climate Change as History

For the past two years I have taught a second year module about climate change. In many respects this is a departure onto unfamiliar ground for me. I am not a scholar of historical climate change, nor do I have an extensive background in the history of science. So the module that I teach (Past Actions, Present Woes, which is based on an HEA model syllabus that I collaborated in producing a couple of years ago) is very much at the limits of my experience and knowledge.

Yet, something draws me to teaching climate change as history that I think is both important in itself, and troubling about the ways in which historical knowledge is generally thought of. Anthropogenic climate change is after all, very much a subject for the future, and an uncertain future at that. As a problem its parameters are set by scientific knowledge and the heroic effort to push forth our understanding of uncertainty through that knowledge. What possible use can history have in such circumstances?

This is the founding question that has underpinned the way in which I have approached this question with my students. What if we cease to assume historical understanding is legitimate, and instead ask why we should bother ourselves with knowledge of the past when there may not be a future. This is a question that Mark Levene has provocatively outlined in his essay on the ethics of history in the present age.

In reality, there are many possible answers to this question. but one of the most fruitful to explore is the way that historical knowledge can query the very ways in which we perceive anthropogenic climate change as a ‘problem’ or ‘crisis’ in the first place. This is not, as many people take it at first, a ‘denialist’ statement. I am very much convinced that anthropogenic climate change is both real and an urgent social question. Yet, one of the first victims of urgent social problems, is often the historical context from which they have been produced.

Take for example the desire sometime expressed to find ‘lessons’ from history about how to respond to climate change, and other environmental questions, in the here and now. This is, of course, a legitimate way of ‘using’ historical knowledge, but we rarely do we stop to think about what such an approach excludes. It leaves a very flat utilitarian picture of historical knowledge that often fails to do more than reinforce the obvious point that we are in a very bad way.

Another real risk of this ‘lessons from history’ approach comes from the attraction for historical of sailing too close to the sun of policy making, in the course of which the critical spirit of history can be lost. The risk of surrendering a critical historical discourse to the language of policy making and techno-solutions is very great given institutional pressures to show ‘impact’ as measure from the perspective of those who exercise authority.

It is against these temptations that I think teaching history in an age of anthropogenic climate change becomes so important and compelling. Even after the radical transformation of Higher Education in the past couple of years, in the wake of which elites have sought to encourage students to see themselves as passive consumers of an education that is a product embodying skills and employability and little else, what remains astonishing is the way that undergraduates continue to resist this narrowed vision in everyday life. Students know very well that the world they will inherit demands responses to more than where their next job comes from. They desire and demand thought. They have a critical voice that is worthy of being heard. It demands answers to the question of human existence itself. How shall we live together on a planet at risk?

To even ask this question then is our staring point. To demand the right to do more than give instrumental answer to questions determined elsewhere. Rather  to rethink the very terms through which anthropogenic climate change it interpreted, and what is possible is delimited, this is what is both possible and utterly necessary now.

Thinking with history about the future

Where do we stand today in relation to environmental change? Why have we failed so badly to respond adequately to the problem of climate change? Can historical knowledge help us to guide us in thinking critically about our present predicament? My aim in this blog is to bring together historical work on these themes with the work of students and others to rethink how we engage with humanity’s future dimension. The basis assumption of this site is that a critical utopianism is a necessary prerequisite to establishing a common future for all. Our environment cannot be left in the hands of technocrats, politicians and businessmen, it must be politically reclaimed as the space of democratic practice. This means restablishing the temporal dimension of environments, as places with both a past and a future. In this project historicity, in the broadest sense,  is central.