Carbon literacy versus “carbon capability”

Many of the academic articles we read here are MCFly Towers – when we aren’t organising the climate hustings on Tuesday 17th April – are obtuse, abstruse vocabulary abuse.  That is, they are long on long words, short on good non-banal ideas.

A recent honourable exception is Public engagement with carbon and climate change: To what extent is the public ‘carbon capable’?. It is a 9 page wonder by Lorraine Whitmarsh, Gill Seyfang and Saffron O’Neill,* published in Global Environmental Change 21 (2011) Here’s a pdf.

Here’s the bit that leapt out at us.

Carbon capability is defined as: “The ability to make informed judgments and to take effective decisions regarding the use and management of carbon, through both individual behaviour change and collective action’. We identify three core dimensions of carbon capability:

(1) decision-making (knowledge, skills, motivations and judgments
(2) individual behaviour or ‘practices (e.g. energy conservation), and
(3) broader engagement with systems of provision and governance (e.g. lobbying, voting, protesting, creating alternative social infrastructures of provision).

In contrast to the concept of ‘carbon literacy’, then, carbon capability is not defined in a narrow individualistic sense of solely knowledge, skills and motivations (although these are important components); rather, the concept of carbon capability implies an understanding of the limits of individual action and where these encounter wider societal institutions and infrastructure, and so prompt the need for collective action and other governance solutions. The notion also suggests an appreciation that much consumption (and hence carbon emissions) is inconspicuous, habitual and routine, rather than the result of conscious decision-making.

There’s more, all of it bloomin’ useful. At some point in the next few months, we shall make a youtube about this article’s contents. Nag us if we don’t.

We will ask the people behind Manchester’s “Carbon Literacy” program for their perspectives, which may appear as comments here or in a ‘response’ article….

* Only a crazed feminazi would suggest that having three female authors might lead to an outbreak of clarity and a lessening of chest-beating and posturing.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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3 Responses to Carbon literacy versus “carbon capability”

  1. Jonathan Atkinson says:

    Interesting stuff, well worth a read…

  2. Phil Korbel says:

    As one of the team at Cooler co-ordinating the city’s Carbon Literacy project I’m glad to see Carbon Capability getting more coverage. A paper voicing much the same as your precis suggests came up as part of our literature search some two years ago and sparked a good debate in the project working group.

    Personally, I like the concept of carbon capabilty and perhaps it can be embraced in our work – as a progression for learners once they’ve engaged in the first stage.

    I guess it all depends on what you mean by ‘carbon literacy’. If it’s a classroom or on-line tick box exersise on climate change science then it must surely fall short of the challenge – and that thought has spurred us to incorporate some of the notions behind carbon capabillity into what we’re piloting as Manchester Carbon Literacy. Without going into detail, we will require anyone delivering Manchester Carbon Literacy to enable the participants to devise their own solutions to climate change – relevant to where they are – and to work in a group to do so. This may fall short of the ‘political’ aspect envisaged by the paper’s authors but that will be down to what the participants want to do – in their initial day’s worth of carbon literacy learning.

    Watch this space…

  3. Good to hear!! This is something that MCFly will keep an eye on, and this distinction between literacy and capability is a very useful one…

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