Event Report: A game of one half – witnessed

Attention Conservation Notice: MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson makes it half-way through a day-long academic seminar about climate change and social movements before finally losing his rag and invoking the law of two feet. Not of interest to casual readers. Or sentient readers. Look, it’s so tl:dr that it’s almost tl:dw. Go outside, smell the roses, have some fun. It’s later than you think!! This article will only be of interest, perhaps, to other attendees, those transfixed by bile-vitriol-and-bridge-burning, and any fool contemplating an attempt at constructive engagement with the ivory towerers.

Some muppet (1) told me it would be different this time. “Death by powerpoint will be minimised,” they said. “Sage on the stage will be minimised,” they said. “Ego-foddering will be minimised,” they said. Some muppet told me it would be different, and I – muppet that I am – muppetly listened to them.

“It” was a conference called “the everyday politics of sustainability transitions” held in the badlands beyond the M60 (2). Funded by the ESRC (3) it was the fourth of five seminars (see MCFly review of the third one, about the 1970s, held in Manchester in April).

It kicked off (after the rather nice coffee and pastries) with Dr Amanda Smith welcoming everyone. (I really must suggest an acknowledgement of greenhouse gas emissions). There was no attempt, sadly, to get us all meeting each other systematically at the outset, finding out who was in the room (with, say, a spectrum, or series of straw polls). We were told that it was a “very diverse” group, because as well as lots of academics, there were some activists (maybe three or four?) , a post-grad and even an undergrad. (4)

We did a brief mingler on our tables, and some of us had fulfilled the request to bring a photo that represents “transition” (not me – bad writer, no biscuit!) On our table the photos were of an “open space” meeting (of which more later), Garfield having a snooze (the need for sleep,/rest – burnout versus pseudo-burnout will be the subject of a future blog post) and me cheating with an advert for Monday June 25th. Amanda displayed hers which was a smoothie-making bicycle. She related how the Transition group she was part of managed to get a reasonably cheap deal, and then also realised that companies such as EDF and the Innocent Smoothie-Company (now 58% owned by Coca-Cola) had had their logos embossed on the wheels of such bikes. (5) This was a useful reminder that “sustainability” is often sold to us by corporations which, um, greenwash.

The contribution of Peter North (Liverpool) was – as best my scrawled notes, minus the extraneous commentary, say – essentially a long list of questions that anyone who has been doing this stuff (green-ish/social justice ‘activism’) for any length of time will have been asking for themselves. Perhaps a more radical solution would have been to circulate that list, given us all a chance to read it, taken a quick straw poll to find the most popular one and then had him talk about that, or have us all talk about it. As it stands, a list of questions is not so interesting. I could have read that on the tinterwebs, and saved myself the money.

Gerald Aiken‘s (Durham) presentation was absolutely superb. He pointed to the loaded nature of the phrase “community” which is used as a synonym for “good” and “pure” (I always want to say to people who throw it around in that manner that the Ku Klux Klan was a ‘community’). The term community could at one turn be used to smuggle radical proposals onto the agenda, and on the other an excuse for “neo-liberal government at a distance.” Once his presentation (which was filmed) is available, we will point readers to it.

UPDATE: Here’s the youtube wot has been put up…

He had a great quote from Iris Marion Young about people doing politics to look for belonging and then being disappointed when the group they are in falls apart, and another term “zuhanden” from Heidegger via Zygmunt Bauman, from the latter’s book “Community“, which he tells me is a must-read.

He closed with the intriguing suggestion from one of his research subjects that community might best be thought of as a verb rather than a noun (as in something that exists in action(s). I asked him if he was aware of any community group that had had a thorough and informed discussion about how it would respond when the inevitable siren-call came from the powers-that-be, the siren-call of co-optation, answered by opportunists leveraging “the movmeent brand” to get themselves the spoils of victory. Apparently not. Another one for the “to do” list then…

Someone else made a very good distinction (they were quoting someone else I think) about movements having prophets (stepping outside, holding up a mirror) and priests (“follow me, keep going”!) and saying that movements need both.

Finally, Kerry Burton (Exeter here’s her PhD on Climate Camp and other climate “activism” etc) had some very useful things to say under the title “Critical Spaces of Environmental Geopolitics” about exactly where the people involved in Climate Camp and Transition Towns come from (class, intellectual heritage etc) and what shape that gives to their ideas of “outreach” and “networking”. She also cited three academics worth following up;

This session was ably chaired by Jenny Pickerill, who drew out themes from each and guided the questioning well. In the Q and A Sherilyn MacGregor of Keele University made the important point that the private sphere is ignored in the focus on individual motives and social groupings – there is a silence around who is doing the physical household leg-work to make the “public sphere” activism possible.
[mental note to self: clean house more]

Here’s what I would have said if I had not (foolishly, it turned out) encouraged the chair to defer me until other people who hadn’t spoken had had a chance. Next time I’ll just barge right in. I am a white middle-class male, after all, and the universe should always bend to my will.

1) In early Climate Camp gender wasn’t, to my eyes (and yes, my eyes are male) the most interesting or difficult privilege. Rather, it was who was university-educated, had the most activist cred and the most time. Lots of people seemed to have maybe readthe tyranny of structurelessness” but thought that somehow its analysis of invisible power didn’t apply to them. Epic fail.

2) We need to make an analytic distinction between cliques, friendship networks and affinity groups or else we are going to get into no end of an analytic (and emotional) mess.

Out to Lunch and the DPD (7)
Over lunch (yummy) I flicked through a copy of Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society (ed Brian Davey) which I had blagged earlier and which will be reviewed in due course. I also got to hear a few people’s perspectives (esp Kerry, who had lots of hilarious and unprintable stories). This was nice. What followed wasn’t.

Allegedly there were three questions (8) for the panellists to answer, in their “eight” minute slots. Hmmm.

We had the edifying spectacle of one White Middle-Class White Male introducing 4 other White-(now) Middle-Class White Males.(9) This, in the year 2012 [I had to check].

Alan Simpson, ex-MP (who might quibble with my class-rating, if not my class-baiting) basically said “We are ill-prepared intellectually and socially for inevitable collapse. Localisation of food. Meanwhile, Germany is cool!” This took him 10 minutes.

Brian Davey (who gave me a copy of the book) basically said “the capitalists are wicked, enclosing the commons and we have to build our alternatives.” We need “lifeboat projects” -gardening, community supported agriculture, repair cafes. The political system is closed against social justice. Movements can get co-opted. Yes, a speech – as I pointed out – that could easily have been given, with a few name changes – any time in the last 15 (or 150? or 15000?) years. But it doesn’t really address the mechanics of movement-failure, does it? This took 11 minutes.

Dan Glass name-checked the deep-cover police infiltrator Mark Kennedy. Now, this is tricky. I do NOT want to minimise the horrific trauma suffered by his victims. And I hope they get some measure of justice, whatever that is in this grotesque context. But it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the failures of Climate Camp on “massive state repression.” Some people got beaten. Some people got convicted in what were, in effect, kangaroo courts, and their convictions finally overturned. I am not trying to say that “anything short of being thrown out of a helicopter into an ocean is somehow not really proper state repression”, but I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to lay the blame for Camp’s implosion at the door of an amoral thug like Mark Kennedy. But perhaps I am misunderstanding Mr Glass’s point?

He then read out stuff from a blog post/manifesto from a couple of years ago from the So We Stand website, which I am a fan of,  and a ten point plan/manifesto . He pointed out that there had been [in the academic terminology, not his] “spill-over” from the camp into other movements. This speech took him 14 minutes.

Finally, Kelvin Mason of Cardiff University and Climate Camp (though to be fair he was careful to explain not-in-any-spokesman-capacity) outlined the facts of the tale of woe that was Climate Camp Cymru. He admitted its failure, but didn’t spend any time listing the reasons for this failure. Apparently the only choices are to keep plugging away on the ecological modernisation side of things, a la Friends of the Earth or the “radical” ecotage stuff. Feeble binary opposition, much? Not read the aforementioned Foucault much? This took about 12 minutes, or maybe a tad longer.

So, we started about 1.35pm. Given four times eight minute presentations, we’d be at about 2.07, right? [Buzzer noise] Nope. 2.37.

The Irony Police, Jumping the Shark and why failure is a bad thing after all
In my extensive experience, if you go straight from a panel discussion into the “questions and answers” session, the hands that go up are attached to

  • loud people who already knew what they were going to ‘ask’ (or speechify) and
  • curiously-frequently attached to male genitalia.

And so it came to pass. Three hands went up. Mine was one, and I was third to speak. I made a modest proposal for a slight change to the format.

No dice.

The chair said he was going to stick to his plan. (Hmm, well, he wasn’t sticking so much to the plan when all four of the speakers over-ran their “eight minutes” ? Perhaps too afraid to shut them up?)

My rejected suggestion was embarrassingly reformistic. I merely wanted each table to talk among itself for a couple of minutes. That might have thrown up different questions, and would have created more loose links between participants, even though were were still on the same tables we had been before lunch.)

It was pretty clear, from the evidence on offer that we were going to get the traditional tennis match between the esteemed panel and the loud men (minus me) in the audience who want to have something to say in each discussion. We were going to be condemning the women in the room  to “silence” – or rather, only coming in after all the loud men had had their turn. Not the intention, but it is the predictable outcome. And we are responsible for the predictable outcomes of our actions.

So I walked. I wasn’t willing to be complicit. And bored. Anymore.

Hard to believe, but I do have some measure of compassion for the chair of that session. It’s hard to facilitate when some muppet you have never met is trying to co-facilitate.  But this: You could have thrown my proposal out to the room, see what they wanted to do. Instead of, you know, deciding for yourself. If the proposal had not been accepted, then fine. But since you didn’t even put it out, and the seminar had jumped the shark, I decided to put myself out of my misery.

In an event allegedly all in celebration of polysemy (“multiple voices”), when an attempt by white middle-class male to undercut the tendency for the four  middle-class white men on the panel to play comment-tennis with specific (MCWM) members of the audience is shut down by a white middle-class male, then the irony police (if they existed) would storm in and arrest everyone, yes? [Oh,  and in case anyone missed it, the word “esteemed” was being used… ironically.]

If Open Space is in a box, Open Space is in a coffin
The promised “Open Space” session that I decided not to stick around for performed – unintentionally I am sure –  a very useful function; as a stab-vest, a way of deferring and ghettoising the possibilities for real connection, real learning. So, young ‘uns, learn from an old man’s naivety; if the Open Space is only at the end of the day, as an add-on, watch out!

What I would have said over my shoulder as I left in response to those first two questions/statements.
“Failure is a bad thing when you fail in the same way over and over and over again. Failure you do not try to learn from is failure you are likely to repeat. Failure shrinks a movement, destroys its morale. Failure that has not been publicly and quickly learnt from destroys the credibility of the movement in the eyes of potential supporters. It is tricky to mobilise, let alone movement-build if everyone thinks you’re a muppet. Trust me on this.”

“Oh, and ‘why does this matter?’ Well, “we” are – or should be – trying to prepare for the mother of all shitstorms. If you think this is a parlour-game, an academic exercise or an opportunity for personal growth to the exclusion of effectiveness, well, good luck with that.”

“Oh and the idea that we can or should just flit from this to that, from Occupy to Greece solidarity’ to the next sexy thing of 2013? You mean, weightless po-mo activism? You mean, keep doing what we’ve been doing all along; being the SWP with dreadlocks? Yeah, that’s really working out for us, isn’t it?

Mea culpas Expectations management
I’m halfway through reading a staggeringly good academic (!!) article about this: “Growing grassroots innovations: exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions” by Gill Seyfang and Alex Haxeltine. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 2012, volume 30, pages 381-400

The key sentence is this: “In the [Strategic Niche Management] literature Kemp et al (1998) identify three key processes for successful niche growth and emergence; managing expectations, building social networks, and learning.” (emphasis added)

I expected too much. I strolled – again – into an alien subculture where they have their own rituals, their own motives and needs. And I expected there to be a match between the subject – transitions, innovations, polysemy – and the format. This was naïve of me, and on reflection, unfair on them. They are what they are. If they change it will be at a glacial pace (a 19th century glacier, not a 21st century one). That’s fine, that’s up to them. I just won’t be around to see it. I doubt they would welcome me again. More importantly, in the absence of a discussion with them about exactly what I would be letting myself in for – including an agenda and credible implementation plan – I’d not go. Life is too short, and I should be getting on with the mountains and mountains of work connected to this.

My last bit of learning? It’s that I am going to listen to wifey a bit more in future.

Marc Hudson

(1) That muppet can now be named. Marc Hudson, whose wife absolutely and clearly warned him not to be a muppet. Dunning-Kruger, much?

(2) It was in Nottingham. The train ticket was £50 (and the Lush dosh is NOT paying towards that). Still and all, at least I got to see Nottingham. There’s ugly 60s concrete carbuncles, clonetown pedestrianised streets, some canals and even redbrick warehouses now converted into flats and yuppie drinking holes. It’s completely different from Manchester.

(3) ESRC is the Economic and Social Research Council – the money-tap from which the sociologically-minded ivory towerers greedily slurp. “We are the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. We support independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. Our total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time we support over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.”

(4) I stifled a groan. The word ‘diverse’ really is a floating signifier, innit?

(5) I suspect Amanda, over a pint, would agree that the very middle-classness of the symbol – a fruit-drink provided by pedal power – is indicative of a certain “hidden” (4) politics of Transition Towns.

(6) Hidden not from the people who don’t feel they belong, hidden only from the eyes of the people who wonder where everyone else is…

(7) Is a new TLA. Stands for “Dreaded Panel Discussion”

(8) I didn’t write these questions – which were not put up on the powerpoint screen – down. Since none of the speakers seemed to be particularly systematic in addressing themselves to these questions, I don’t know what they were. If I find out, I will have a stab at answering them, in less than eight minutes.

(9) This gender and race imbalance would of course have been utterly utterly altered if a female – from Friends of the Earth – could have been there as planned.

Random observation I couldn’t shoe-horn in anywhere else
When asked her opinion about what she thought when she went to Oakland (California), Gertrude Stein said “There’s no there there.” That’s exactly what I felt when going to an academic conference about social movements around climate change – there’s no there there.

To Google
Paul Routledge   Imagineers, network vectors, charismatic characters

To do
write on burnout and pseudo-burnout

UPDATE: Rather excellent post on “The Academic Conference: Tips and Advice”

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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