Articles Review: Crises, Camps and Citizenship

MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson reads three academic papers on the stepper at the gym. And is impressed, distressed and depressed, in that order. Compressed reviews follow.

Economic and Ecological Crises: Green new deals and no-growth economies Bob Jessop
Beyond the ‘Green Economy': System change, not climate change? Nicola Bullard and Tadzio Muller
Incentives to Promote Green Citizenship in UK Transition Towns Amy Merritt and Tristan Stubbs
all published in Development: Greening the Economy, Vol 55 (1) March 2012

Bob Jessop is a very big name in theories of the state and capitalism. He’s been around a looong time, and a lot of people cite his ideas. That doesn’t, of course, automatically mean this paper is any good. Turns out it is though.

He sets out to explain that we think in stories, and that these stories can be unpicked (“critical semiotic analysis”). So, there are stories we tell ourselves about the economic crisis (greedy bankers, sleepy regulators, dodgy mortgagers) and stories we tell about ecological crises (greedy capitalists, sleepy publics, dodgy technologies). He uses the term “imaginaries” to label these stories.

“An imaginary provides one entry point into a supercomplex reality and can also be associated with different standpoints, which frame and contain debates, policy discussions, and conflicts over particular ideal and material interests.”

As in – some stories hide more than they reveal, and are successful because of who they are told by, and how they help things stay the same/change. Stories are fought over (the sides have different resources and ‘truth’ doesn’t necessarily win”.)

Interestingly, Jessop then talks about crises in a system and crises of a system.

“Crises of a system are less common. They occur when there is a crisis of crisis-management and efforts to defer or displace crises encounter growing resistance. Such crises are more disorienting than crisis ‘in’, indicating the breakdown of previous regularities and an inability to ‘go on in the old way’, indicating scope for new imaginaries, visions, projects, programmes and policies.”(p 19)

Having laid this theoretical ground work, Jessop looks at the way elites have talked about the recovery from economic crisis.

“Of particular concern is how the imaginaries and imagined paths to recovery from the GFC that shaped crisis management neglected or marginalized ecological issues, food and fuel crises, and issues of social development and social justice from the mainstream policy agenda.” (p 20)

Well, concerning, yes, but hardly surprising (I suspect Jessop would agree). He then looks at how the various “Green New Deal” proposals become an inkblot test for individuals and institutions to project their own desires and expectations.

It is hard, Jessop points out, to think “outside the box” (‘never ask a goldfish for a definition of water’, as we say too frequently here at MCFly towers).

“… it is the deeply rooted nature of these categories that makes it so hard to think outside a capitalocentric imaginary, and therefore relatively easy for the logic of capital to reassert itself theoretically and practically. Small-scale trial-and-error experimentation and the collection of best-practice have a critical role to play here in designing and implementing a no-growth strategy and in providing evidence that another, non-economistic, ecological-friendly world is possible…. Local solutions can be developed to address the short-term effects of the crisis in its various local manifestations, and the challenge is to establish ways to exploit this real-time experimental laboratory to find what works, for whom, when, and why, as a basis for mutual learning and policy transfer among subaltern groups.” (p 23)

Jessop has made a rigorous and nuanced argument that will doubtless repay repeated reading. I defy anyone to say the same about Bullard and Muller’s effort.

They argue that the main reason for the weakness of the “counter-hegemonic ‘climate justice’” movement is that global elites are not talking about climate change in the way they did up to the end of 2009.

There is an extraordinary brace of sentences (p56) “The movement’s hopes were set high. Indeed, Barack Obama had (in)famously referred to this summit as ‘the last, best hope’ for avoiding runaway climate change.”
Several points here. The movement, as I recall, was far more skeptical about a positive outcome, but went on and held its marches (anyone remember the “Big Wave”?) and its summit-hoppings anyway. For various reasons, none of them that reflect well on the participants.

The suggestion that no-one predicted failure is akin to George Bush arguing that nobody could have predicted Hurricane Katrina, i.e. demonstrably false and morally repugnant.

For example, the current author was arguing – in print – by the middle of 2008, that Copenhagen, in the words of Admiral Akbar “a trap” that would at best drain energy away from local climate activism and at worst create the kind of dilemma faced by NGOS after the Kyoto Protocol (complaining it was grossly inadequate, but defending it all the same). Much more significantly, and with far more suppleness, an Australian writer Ant Kelly wrote “Demobilisation: avoiding the post cop doldrums.” It is extraordinary that this work is nowhere mentioned in reference list (nor the response it elicited by Tord Bjork).

From reading Bullard and Muller’s article, an uninformed reader would have no sense that thorough-going critiques of activist cultures and assumptions were written in the aftermath of the J18 Carnival(in Cologne and London) that provided the inspiration for the “Battle for Seattle”. [Give up Activism. much?] The reader would not be aware of the critiques of “summit-hopping” (turning up to disrupt IMF, World Bank and G8 meetings). The problems of summit-hopping (Gleneagles 2005) was a major spur for the very creation of the Camp for Climate Action that Bullard and Muller write about. The bitter irony that in the space of a mere three years the Camp went from staging its own events on its own terms to … summit-hopping at Copenhagen is one that has either escaped the authors or one that they feel it would be impolite to mention.

The article also takes at face value the movement’s self-description  “open, networked and consensus-based”, where all these terms could profitably be challenged. Still, we should be grateful that they at least are able to see that these features (whatever label you would want to put on them) create “problems in terms of sustainability and organizational growth and from their extremely narrow base from which broadening-out has been very difficult both to other existing movements and towards affected communities.”

To use the word “dynamic” for climate justice movements in the Global North is, frankly, embarrassing. The movement desperately needs thorough, unsentimental and constructive analysis. This article is not within a thousand miles of that.

Finally, Merritt and Stubbs want “to determine the key challenges of participation in the green economy, and how local and central government can play a role in promoting community action through formal political channels.” Turns out you can’t trust councils to help out (who knew?). The paper then “explores innovative ways of funding community initiatives by publicly indexing local sustainability initiatives, and considers how indexing could work in practice.”

They did a desk survey (i.e. read a lot) and “supplemented [their] findings with extensive primary research, including interviews with TT members, environmental campaigners, political party candidates, policymakers, academics, NGO and think tank staff in the UK.”

But not anyone particularly cynical, it seems.

Still, there were a couple of wry and rueful smiles to be had -

“people become very passionate about their work in TTs, and egos come into play rather than looking at the bigger picture”;

“TTs tend to be dynamic [that word again – it's the new 'sustainable, it seems] in areas where the local council is dynamic on sustainability issues. In more deprived areas, TTs tend to be more lacklustre: their council shave to deal with more pressing socio-economic issues.’

“Our research has identified engaging people from marginalized and poorer backgrounds to be a key challenge for TTs.”

Dr Amanda Smith‘s work on Nottingham Transition Towns is conspicuously absent. Whitmarsh, Seyfang and O’Neill’s distinction between carbon literacy and carbon capability might also have usefully got a look-in, but still and all, these three from the bibliography look interesting -

Brannan, Tessa, Peter Jon and Gerry Stoker (eds) 2007 Re-energizing Citizenship: Strategies for civil renewal. Basingstoke

Trachtenberg, Zev (2010) Complex Green Citizenship and the Necessity of Judgment Environmental Politics 19 (3): 339- 55.

Weber, Edward P. (2003) ‘Bringing Society Back’ in Grassroots Ecosystem Management, Accountability, and Sustainable Communities. American and Comparative Environmental Policy. Cambridge MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Monthly Magazine/newsletter about all things climate and resilience in Greater Manchester.
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5 Responses to Articles Review: Crises, Camps and Citizenship

  1. Your article is once again aimed at academics, and you mention names that mean nothing to most people, and use initials without explaining what they mean (TT, I assume means Transitional Towns?).

    • Hi Patrick,
      you say “aimed at academics” like that is a bad thing?! If it’s “Articles Review” at the top, and I am clear what I am writing about in the first para, I think that’s ok. TT does mean Transition Towns – my bad! Best wishes Marc

      • Sorry, I thought you were trying to reach out to the normal public.:-)

      • As you well know, Patrick, we are trying to reach out to the “normal public”. But I don’t assume that the “normal public” will be uninterested in hearing about academic work occasionally. We’ve done book reviews that are of far more obscure books. We do event reports of academic events. We don’t pretend that everything about climate change is self-evident and easy. If MCFly were only to contain material that each and every member of the “normal public” could digest easily without any effort, it would be a very very dull – and short-lived – beast, IMHO. Do we always get it right? No. Do we have a hell of a long way to go? Yes. But, as ever, I think it’s really important that you be the change you’d like to see, and so I’d really like to see you – and other MCFly readers – doing better than we do on your own blogs. We will then find it easier to raise our games to that level.

      • That is what, I am trying to do, in my little way, I am still on a steep learning curve.

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