Event Report: “Groaning the City” #citycons #Manchester

Marc Hudson attends (1) a redemption ritual for corporate “environmentalists” and finds himself musing about ecological modernisation, prostitutes and the #deliciousambiguity of the ‘cons’ in #citycons…

There were 130 (2) or so of us, sat in rows, listening to the incredibly inspirational speakers. Probably 4:3 male to female ratio, and all but about 5 of us various shades of white.

The event was (mis?)-named “Greening the City, and was the latest in a long line organised by “City Co.” Who they? They’re one of those fuzzy public-private partnership style things that has done so much to make the city centres of the UK the vibrant, civic spaces that they now are. (3)

The event was novel and brave in that it gave time to five white, middle-class white men, a demographic so scandalously under-represented in public life. Someone once introduced me to the phrase “stale, male and pale.” If I could remember who it was, I’d thank him.

Steve Connor (4), chaired the event very imaginatively indeed, encouraging people to introduce themselves to the person behind them, making sure that the Q and A was not just the usual self-adverts and ensuring that the video being presented by one of the speakers played seamlessly, without any hiccups. (5) Sadly he was unable to prevent the speakers biogs and the schedule for the day being printed on two separate single-sided A4 sheets.

Digression #001
Ecological Modernisation is the fairy-story we tell ourselves about how we are going to invent, spread and maintain technologies that will more than make up for the huge rise in both population but also demand for ever-more consumption. Ecological modernisation wants you to believe that there are simple-ish technical solutions to social problems like poverty, despair and anomie. It’s a useful fairy-story, since it allows us to believe politicians when they say that we can have our (ever-expanding) cake and eat it, regardless of pesky things like Jevons’ Paradox. Simply, if ecological modernisation were going to work, it would have worked by now. Our technologies are helping us cause this problem quicker than we solve it, not the other way round.

After an exhilarating and inspiring anecdote about the value of “soft side” projects – they convinced “the wife” of a big investor to convince her husband to plonk his factory/facility in Manchester – it was on with the show.

First of the Four Speakers were John Darlington, the Notional Trust‘s director for the North West
He was at pains to expand people’s view of the National Trust (scones served in stately homes) and to talk about its work on “nature deficit disorder” (not that he used that term).
The “burning platform” (he did however use that term, at least twice) is kids’ disconnect from nature, with more able to recognise a Dalek than a magpie…
And to this end the National Trust has hired Sean Harkin as a “Gardener-in-Residence” to work in Manchester for 18 months.

Tom Webster, CEO and co-founder of “Grow Up”, a London-based company talked at length about aquaponics and food containers. In a telling metaphor, he talked described fish shitting in the water as them “doing their business.” I wonder if anyone from CityCo took him to one side afterwards and asked him to use a different euphemism next time?

Next up we had someone from Peel Holdings. Readers with longer memories will recall that Peel was so very very effective during the referendum campaign on the Transport Innovation Fund and Congestion Charge. Almost as effective as the “pro” campaign. Can’t remember who headed that up…

His entire spiel was mostly about the Atlantic Gateway project, which is all about “rebalancing the economy.” Rebalancing towards massive emissions reductions and living within ecological limits? Don’t. Be. Silly. Ecological. Limits. Don’t. Exist. Ecological Modernisation tells us so. No, this rebalancing is to do with the north-south divide in the UK – to stop all those grubby South-Easterners getting their grubby mitts grubbier.
If you’re ever needing a practical example of the “Spatial Fix and the Sustainability Fix“, this presentation is it. And I actually mean that in an admiring way.

Paul Lincoln from the Landscape Institute showed us a bunch of pictures from New York and a greened abandoned train line, before whizzing through slides of a competition in London that included entries like an 80 mile linear swimming pool and growing mushrooms in a Royal Mail tube-line.

In a highly entertaining irony, missed by perhaps, um, everyone in the room except your humble correspondent, he advocated the writing and completion of “local green infrastructure” plans, and showed the cover of one done for a bit of London. As readers of MCFly with even a short memory will know, Manchester City Council has yet again failed to produce its own “Green and Blue Spaces” strategy, which should have gone to Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee… this afternoon.

Mr Lincoln advocated a competition for Manchester around green infrastructure. Wait, don’t I dimly remember […rapid google]…, oh, yes, there was going to be a “Manchester Prize” for just that. Who proposed that? Why, Manchester City Council, back in 2009. What happened?
#tumbleweed.

The Q and A (6) was everything you’d expect – a mix of good questions (“how come there is so little about Manchester during this event?”) and rambling self-adverts (you know who you are, both of you).

Now, about those prostitutes.
There’s a simply amazing book “Occupied Minds: A Journey through the Israeli Psyche” by a guy called Arthur Neslen. He went and interviewed people from all walks of Israeli life, and then transcribed it (kinda Studs Terkel in the Middle East). He talked to a dominatrix. She told him that her most high-powered clients, the CEOs, generals and party leaders, wanted not straight sex, but in fact to become babies, literally infantilised. Which led me to think up this –

The social function of these events, with some cod-Transactional Analysis thrown in for larfs
“We” (members of the climateriat) are afraid because of the concatenating environmental crises. We are afraid because we see the hollowing-out of our democracies, and the clear inability of civil society organisations to challenge the eco-cidal global elite with more than occasional occupational spasms.
We are afraid. Very afraid.
When we are afraid, we want to “regress” to a state where someone else has to look after us.
The elite described in Neslen’s book need to regress all the way to diapers. The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.
And, for those who know we are doomed, there is another motive. Ignoring the tiny minority who want more copy for their silly little web blog, others are attending because they want to believe that it is possible to placate and propitiate a vengeful Gaia with our good intentions. #magicalthinking
For more on anxiety-reduction and the power of numbers and powerpoints and so on to allow people to switch off their critical faculties, you must run (not walk, run) to the nearest library or bookshop and get yourself a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan.”)

What was missing.
a) The irony police. The fact is, Manchester City Council have been promising a “Green and Blue Infrastructure” strategy for years. It keeps getting delayed (without public explanation). It was supposed to go to Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee… today.
Ditto their “Meanwhile land” strategy.
Perhaps this is why the new Executive member for the Environment, Kate Chappell, was not on the platform – the rhetoric-reality gap could have gotten a bit awkward.
b) Any sense of reality. The species is accelerating towards a global catastrophe. Any vaguely numerate person knows this (so, perhaps this excludes, PR flaks, bankers and politicians?). That’s kind of anxiety-provoking, isn’t it? Events like today are a soothing lullaby, an opportunity to swap business cards and feel good about ourselves. Me, I ain’t interested in lullabies, business cards or circle-jerks. Still, to each their own.
c) A two minute pop-up lecture by a sociologist explaining i) ecological modernisation and its discontents, ii) the spatial fix and sustainability fix and

iii) the Keeling Curve and what it means for you and me.

Marc Hudson
mcmonthly@gmail.com

See also
Airports Commission as redemption ritual.
Investing in Nature? Or pretzelled people hearing pretzel logic

Footnotes
(1) I ought to know better. I do, in fact, know better. So why go to yet another sages-on-the-stage-followed-by-quacking-and-airkissing event? For the anthropology of it all, is why.

(2) No-one else had kicked their own sorry ass out of bed at five am, I suspect. I did, in order to do battle with Allan Beswick (on Mandela, fracking, super-cockroaches and cricket, fwiw).

(3) From their about page – “CityCo is a membership organisation that connects businesses with each other, and public agencies, to drive forward initiatives that support an improved, thriving and aspirational city experience. We seek to support economic growth and ensure the city is competing on national and international scale. We represent companies across sectors, sizes and locations; giving businesses a voice, ensuring they can run effectively and expand activities. We operate at both a strategic level with city decision-makers and on a tactical level, providing solutions and delivering on the ground. We report to a Board of the city’s influential business leaders.”

See Anna Minton’s “Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st Century City” for more on this.

(4) According to a single-side of A4 with biographical info about the speakers, that was clearly put together very recently “He is the Chair of Manchester’s Climate Change Steering Group.” Really? Then who is this imposter Gavin Elliott with whom I’ve been having meetings then? I want my money back!! And my time. And my “expertise” (cough cough).

(5) Actual facts may vary. Always read the label.

(6) The bits I caught – I nipped out strategically and left early after my genuine attempt to point to someone who hadn’t raised their hand very far and was, I thought, invisible to the front of the room, was [understandably] misconstrued. And life is short. This event, in its full dismalness (dismality?) helped me understand what is – psycho-social-analytically – going on, why these events persist beyond the standard “it’s just greenwash and schmoozing” – argument. So for this I should be thankful…

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Event Report: “Groaning the City” #citycons #Manchester

  1. Dick Venes says:

    Thanks for your report Marc. I was thinking of going to this event but I’m glad I didn’t. Mind you, the Manchester Cycle forum wasn’t much better – I tend to go to this once a year but every time i go I realise why it’s a waste of time. I was hoping Cllr Chappell as Chair would make a difference – unfortunately not.

    • Cheers Dick,
      I don’t think these corporate events are worth much of anything. They are anxiety-relief and schmoozing opportunities. The “civil society” organised events *should* be much better, but usually aren’t, because the organisers are so risk-averse and are trying to meet the ego-needs of their organisations/selves/speakers. There’s virtually no innovation worthy of the name going on, and thus we continue to have a staggeringly high failure rate at “converting” curious attendees into active members of groups. The waste of human talent (and discouragement we cause) is shocking…

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