Attention Conservation Notice: First the two ironies, then some barely-controlled vitriol, about the cities@manchester event held tonight. Of interest primarily to people who were there, or who like to watch bridges burn to their foundations and then watch the foundations get covered in gasoline and lit up all over again.
Irony the first: For an event during which the speakers said again and again (to the point of parody) that we need “innovation and experimentation,” the format and execution were staggeringly, stultifyingly stale. If it had been in a race about innovation, this event would have made an arthritic snail look like Usain Bolt.
Irony the second: the speaker who lamented the lack of social movement debate about Airport City heads up an organisation that has done the following about Airport City
Press releases… 0
Briefing papers… 0
Events staged…. 0
The event “Towards a Sustainable Manchester?“ is part of a laudable attempt for academics to escape the confines of the Ivory Tower (and probably not unrelated to the new need for them to show research relevance – peer-review articles aren’t enough no more).
After the intro by a white middle-class male (WMCM), and the chair, Andy Karvonen (WMCM and member of the Steering Group – of which more later) introduced the four panelists.
Charlie Baker (WMCM), James Evans (WMCM) Todd Holden (WMCM) and Neil McInroy (WMCM). (1)
Baker, of Urbed, rattled through his presentation. What are we trying to adapt to (there are limits to how much you can do). Is adaptation an excuse not to mitigate. Change is possible. Don’t panic, but we need a plan.
Urban food growing. Billions spent in local economy.. Local R and D supply chain. Disseminate the idea to the right people (Roger’s dissemination curve), the enlightened consumer etc.
James Evans, of University of Manchester talked, as befits a man who has written a text book about Environmental Governance, about governance, or getting things changed.
He pointed out we now have a consensus that we’ve missed the 2 degree guard rail and will hit 4 degrees. We know the solutions (renewable energy, sustainable buildings, sustainable transport) but still we do nothing. He looked at two examples of cities that have actually done something (about cycling), rather than in the Anglo-states in which the state has abdicated responsibility for change and spouts on about partnership and facilitation.
Copenhagen, scene of the 2009 debacle, has sent cycling rates through the roof. They reduced parking spaces 3 per cent per year, and this stimulated innovation (cargo bikes). “Simple policy change opens up a space for people to innovate – the “duality of structure” – allows for change from bottom up.
Amsterdam is a city Evans has visited countless times. He used to just think cycling was “innate, because Holland’s flat, or they are tall, or they invented it in the twelfth century’. But as recently as the early 1970s cycling rates were higher in the UK. Then strict liability laws for motorists made vehicle insurers automatically responsible for any collision with a cyclist. Change came quick… (“utility bikes” etc)
Evans basically finished with a plea for soft paternalism and that this would make Manchester the kind of place policy tourists come to look at how it was done (as happens in Vauban and a corner of Stockholm today.)
Todd Holden, Low Carbon Policy and Programmes, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce was perhaps the most interesting, though he barely spoke of Manchester. He started with the very important point that it is the absolute amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that matters, not x percentage reduction by year y…
He quickly outlined the drivers of the global ecological crisis, around population (he cited 12-15bn by the end of the century. The present reporter hopes and expects not to be around to see it, but doubts we will get anywhere near that number). These people will expect a decent quality of life, and currently it takes 763 grammes of carbon dioxide for each dollar of GDP
“There is an ideology of ‘growth is good’ – like any drug it has its downside. If the economy doesn’t grow, it stalls… we are driving a car towards a cliff faster and faster, it’s foggy and we can’t see the edge. We’re hoping we can swerve… We used to think we could buy our way out of all this, but it won’t work like that. China is no longer exporting raw earth metals. Bolivia is sitting on its lithium (MCFly’s co-editor needs to start taking his lithium again, but that’s another story).
“Cities like Manchester are not really competing with world cities (London, Tokyo, Beijing) but with each other, and it’s a tragedy of the commons.”
Fundamental problem is how we measure wealth/prosperity. GDP is the measure we use because it’s easy to measure – what about value, what about social infrastructure. “The regime is sick, the medicine is killing it.”
In the coming century “you won’t want to be anywhere south of Lisbon” [as in, large chunks of Africa will be uninhabitable].
Lastly Neil McInroy of the “Centre for Local Economic Strategies” spoke, asserting that CLES was polygamous – married to GDP growth but in love with sustainability. (2)
Manchester has always rolled with punches from Cottonopolis onwards, but here comes peak oil, peak water, peak soil, peak everything.. It’s a “perfect storm, “not singular and linear” but “complex and unpredictable.” Everyone should be “arsey and pro-active.” “Policy-makers need to face up to [the problems] of growth.” “Steady state economics…” “DNA of Manchester.” And more in this vain.
So, after 50 minutes of this, the audience got a chance to talk among themselves and introduce themselves to … nah, just kidding. Straight into the question and answer session. After initial tumbleweeds someone asked “Is carbon coop an experiment?”
And the panellists all then talked about how wonderful experimentation is. Hmmm. Experimentation and innovation are motherhood and apple-pie words. Nobody is against them. What everyone is against is failure. And none of the panellists raised this point. If you are going to have genuine experimentation, you are going to have lots of failure. And bureaucracies – public and private – are very risk-averse. And no politician wants to be able to hand his enemies ammunition. And journalists WILL make hay with failure. And the public is scornful of “waste.” So, what would real experimentation, real tolerance of failure look like? Does Manchester do it? Can it? No panellists raised this. If you are interested in failure, innovation etc, then check out this blog (I’ve deliberately linked to one post in it – the links are worth following).
Most of the q and a consisted of several of the panellists pitching in, answering each others’ points etc. Basically, the audience at this “forum” was like people with their noses pressed up against the shop window, watching other people have the fun, watching a private conversation. Fewer than 15% of the audience said a word. Forum? Really?
“What are the points of leverage?”, asked a man, especially for business. “Risk,” and “risk analysis” said Todd Holden. “But it’s not about what the customer wants – where was the clamour for barcodes, containerisation or long supply chains to China – but we have them all.”
Neil McInroy made the good point that capital flows are different from business, and that business and growth are not the same thing.
James Evans advocated local referenda, something he admitted Whitehall would never allow.
Todd Holden pointed to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority as having potential. [He may not have been following the Environment Commission quite as closely as we have.]
And after an intemperate intervention by the present reporter (mea culpa, but I had heard quite enough about how no-one had tried to get any debate going about Airport City [oh yeah??] from someone who admitted his organisation had released nary a press release on the matter), we were into a very useful question indeed. “What are the focal points, where can people put their energy?” The questioner was looking for three points, or ten, or one. Admirably flexible
This question was not, frankly, answered. Interesting; the four panellists can tell us what the problems are, with verve and clarity. One can point to other cities, one can point to his own house and a few other houses But on specific local actions that people can take… tumbleweed. See below in “top ten things you can do in Manchester” for our answers.
Predictably enough some people left straight away, and others clumped into groups of people they knew. I shovelled some grub into my gob and left before I did something I’d really regret.
Aside from an extremely cursory attempt to find out “who” was in the room, no effort had made to engage in genuine interaction, or to get attention diverted even momentarily from the front of the room, to build the networks that will be needed, to help encourage the sort of new networking that we will need as a society to innovate and experiment and “do governance” in the face of contempt and incompetence from Town Halls. Another wasted opportunity, in other words.
Manchester is small and getting smaller. I know a bunch of the panellists. I don’t think I have pulled any punches, but then that’s the introspection illusion for you, isn’t it?
(1) Class-baiting? Maybe I am, but if someone wants to explain to me how complete lack of race class and gender balance makes for urbanity, I’m all ears. [Update: I should have made clear that I myself am a MCWM. There's nothing inherently wrong with MCWMs (well...). They can't change their MCWMness. It's just that the media is full of them, government is full of them, and so when staging events, organisers should, imho, make 'pro-active' efforts to get some representation from the other 70% to 80% of the population.]
(2) Well, we’re not qualified to say if CLES has consumated that love affair, but Mr McInroy’s advocacy of steady-state sat, for him, neatly alongside a belief that Airport City was a necessary thing for Manchester, because it’s going to alleviate poverty. Building big carbon intensive infrastructure is the way forward. I am sure that this truth to power will have ‘em quaking in their boots.
What is to be done?
Don’t call your event a forum when it is clearly a “panel debate” during which the vast majority of time and all the attention is going to be on what four “worthies” think.
You don’t have to comply with the format. If you REALLY believe that social movements are important, and that is important to overcome atomisation, perhaps occasionally forego the pleasures of a captive audience and say “OK, you can read my speech online/I made a youtube. I want to use the time differently. I want to ask you all, as participants in this room rather than fodder for individual and organisational egos, some questions.Difficult questions.
How many of you try to engage people in discussions about climate change and sustainability? What tips do you have for other people?
How many of you know what your local authority is doing on climate change? How many of you have engaged your local councillors? How many of you are engaging your friends and neighbours?”
Find out who is in the audience. Be specific and challenging in your questions.
Announce the gender balance in the room (tonight was about 2 to 1, I think. Why?)
Ask – “how many people under 25?” “how many people over 45. How many people in the room don’t have a university degree? (it will be very few – best to ask who does, then those who don’t aren’t singled out.)
How many people here tonight live in fuel poverty?
How many people cycled here? How many drove?
How many people flew in the last year?
How many have given up flying because of climate change?
How many people have contacted either their MP or their local councillor about climate change in the last year?
A random question about the steering group (that will of course be ignored)
Is there any obligation, expectation that Steering Group members will identify themselves as such when, say, chairing events? There were 40 people in the room tonight, many of whom had never heard of the Steering Group. And they STILL haven’t. Is this how the group intends to galvanise, encourage, connect – by making sure people don’t even know it exists? Good luck with that.
Top ten things you can do in Manchester
1) Talk to your friends, neighbours, work colleagues. Find out what action they are taking. Do what they are doing. Tell other people about it.
2) Grow some of your own food. It will make you feel happy.
3) Talk to your friends, neighbours, work colleagues etc. Find out what their uncertainties are, their excuses and reasons for not taking action are. Research these, and work with people who are willing to take action on individual and community carbon footprints.
4) Find out the difference between carbon literacy and carbon capability. The latter beats the former hands down, imho..
5) Find out who your local councillors are. Phone them up/go to their surgeries. Ask why the council isn’t fulfilling its promises on climate change. If they tell you it is, they at best sadly misinformed.
6) Are your favourite shops doing anything about climate change? Have they endorsed the Manchester Climate Change Action Plan? Have they got an implementation plan (hint, the answer to the second question is “no”)
7) Campaign for more cycling, safer cycling. There are loads of groups, loads of leverage points.
8) If you are a member of a group, challenge the way it holds meetings, encouraging it to hold them better. We’ve published some ideas at the our meetings charter page. There are surely other and far superior ones. Dream them up, try them out, tell us how you get on.
9) Become a reporter for Manchester Climate Monthly. Or a critic of it. Distribute it. Challenge its stances.
10) Campaign against the senseless consumerism that is devouring other species, devouring our societies and devouring our future.
What our provocation would have been (for reasons that escape us we never get invited onto panels.)
“Everyone please turn to someone they don’t know – that will usually mean turning to someone behind you – and ask each other the following questions. What the hell are you waiting for? Who do you think is going to save you?
Governments? At best sclerotic and clumsy in a bad way, at worst incompetent, corrupt and violent. Businesses? Private tyrannies legally obliged to make profits?* Really? The existing social movement organisations, hopelessly outnumbered out-gunned and captured by ecological modernisation? Have you not been paying attention since about 1990?”
[Update 13/6/2012: * We don't advocate nationalising everything, we really don't. But business needs "long loud legal" signals, and regulation to stop dirty businesses free-riding. They need politicians to do what they should. And the politicians need to be made to do it. Simples.]