In his March 2017 manifesto for the Mayoral election, Andy Burnham promised to hold an environmental summit ‘within a year’ of being elected. Originally scheduled for late 2017, there was “slippage” and the summit is now going to happen in late March, in Central Manchester..
This (too) long blog post gives historical background to Manchester’s past grapplings with environmental and climate policy, some contextualisation of the present, and my best educated guesses on how it will all play out over the coming year(s). (tl:dr – history doesn’t repeat, but she rhymes: first time as tragedy, second time as farce).
The Past is prologue, and a country where they do things pretty much as we are doing them now.
There’s a fascinating history to Manchester’s (achingly slow) responses in the 19th and early 20th century to the local environmental and social problems caused by the burning of coal (aka “the first industrial revolution”), but you’ll have to buy me a beer to get it out of me. Let’s skip forward: by the late 1960s a small but growing number of scientists and citizens were getting worried about environmental matters. For most that was about charismatic megafauna going kaput, or local air quality, but concerns about climate change caused by changes to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases goes back to then (I have a bunch of books, published then, which mention it. The most famous is the Limits to Growth (1972)). It’s unclear to me if news reached Castle Grayskull (aka Manchester Town Hall) and what the response was if it did. This, after all, was the era of GBH.
In the next wave of environmental concern – late 80s and early 90s – climate change most certainly did reach Castle Grayskull. Giddy during the whole ‘Rio Earth Summit’ period, some Manchester types proposed that the city hold a follow up (what was known as the ‘Global Forum’).
The then Council Leader, one Graham Stringer, boasted at the time
““We would not have won this event if our green credentials were not already so good…. Manchester has a great reputation for pioneering work in environmental areas, ranging from smokeless zones to municipal parks, and we have developed a green strategy to ensure that the 2000 Olympics would have a sound environmental base here. Land reclamation, clean technology, tree planting and material recycling are all part of our Olympic bid,”
However, the John Major government didn’t come through with the promised cash, and the whole thing was a damp squib. To quote again from the defunct Aussie publication Green Week
“British Environment Secretary John Gummer last week attacked “the absolutists” in the green movement after demonstrators disrupted his appearance at an international conference.
First the tram taking him to the Partnerships for Change meeting at Manchester town hall was halted by protesters who labelled the summit a ‘whitewash’. Then Mr Gummer was heckled by a Twyford Down demonstrator over the M3 extension when he made a speech at the dignified opening session. And later a news conference he was attending was disturbed by two banner-waving women who had to be removed by Police.”
Anon. 1993. Extreme Greens attacked. Green Week, September 28, p.11.
However, another part of the Rio aftermath was something called “Local Agenda 21”, where a transparent and democratic local government sector (oh, how we laughed), was supposed to put ‘sustainability’ and ‘the environment’ at the centre of all their concerns. A few glossy booklets and top-down meetings/processes later, it all fell over.
Then a few years later in response to various pressures (not least the rise of the Lib Dems in the Council- because of Blair’s crusade), Manchester City Council created an Executive Member for the Environment role. The first one (Neil Swannick) was good, but it has been largely downhill since then.
Late in his tenure (2007), Swannick managed to get a ‘17 Principles’ document through the executive, and secure 1 million pounds of funding. The document said there would be a stakeholder-led process to write a climate policy by the end of 2008. It didn’t happen, and the money went unspent. In 2009, with the Copenhagen conference approaching, the Council wisely adopted the methodology activists (this author included) had used to create “The Call for Real Action” document. That resulted in a document called Manchester A Cretin Future. Sorry, Certain Future, aka Manchester Climate Change Action Plan. Alongside this, Greater Manchester made a bunch of similar promises.
However, thanks to a change of National Government, staggering incompetence by bureaucrats and those who are supposed to scrutinise them, and the lowered importance of the climate issue, from 2010 to present has been one long increasingly unfunny farce (see Manchester Climate Monthly passim, ad nauseam).
Why is this summit happening? Let’s look at this from international, national and regional setting (not that any one of them is most important, and ignoring possible links between the levels. Let’s call them Paris, Brexit, Burnham-Leese
There are very very good reasons to be cautious (okay, downright cynical) about the Paris performance and all that it gives us (1.5 degrees Celsius? Srsly?). The MGVSS is an echo of that, with various actors, picking up on and amplifying leadership cues for reasons of their own, are joining in the collective hallucination.
While we definitely can’t agree on Brexit (and I will confess to remoanerdom status), we CAN, bar a few very very um, “interesting” people at local branches of Rotary International, agree that human-caused climate change is a Bad Thing, and that Something Should Be Done.
Till Burnham wood has come to Dunsinane
We also have a new actor, entering an existing power ecosystem and needing/wanting to differentiate himself. Climate change offers one such issue on which the Mayor can do this, especially given the overall laughability of Manchester City Council’s climate efforts to date. It’s not like Leese has a great record and can shoot back saying “nah, we’ve got this all covered.”
(For the benefit of any libel lawyers who have wandered in, this: I have zero doubt, and zero intention of implying that the honorable Mayor is anything but perfectly sincere in his concern over climate change. I duly and dutifully acknowledge that while in Brown’s cabinet he (and the rest of the cabinet) signed up for the 10:10 campaign
(not that, of course, anyone who signed that pledge actually got within shouting distance, but that can hardly be pinned on him). In 2015 he supported a moratorium on fracking. The climate thing has been part of his ‘crowd-sourced manifesto’.)
No Future (“but the one you make”)
Let’s look at the coming weeks (the listening events and their outputs, the selection process for who is allowed to go) the summit itself, its aftermath (the release of the Environmental Charter) and a year from now. Then we can look why I might be wrong and what is to be done.
These wretched listening events will continue. The ones I’ve been to or heard from reliable sources about have been poorly designed, poorly executed exercises in meaninglessness. There has been very little (or zero) actual network-building (let alone movement-building), instead they are based on the information deficit model and conducted to turn the attendees into little more than egofodder. (see update at end of this post).
The “results” of these events will be “fed back into the writing process”, whatever that means.
Your ability to register interest for what is an ‘invite only’ event closes tomorrow. Although the venue can cope with 800 people, recently it emerged that there have only been 300 expressions of interest. Who knows, that may have gone up.
To quote a friend who knows about these things-
“Sources report that apparently it started off as a listening event, then became a telling event, then became a means to secure a mandate and then turned into an elite policy event. Now it seems to have turned into a playground event where you have to wait to see if you’re one of the chosen ones.”
MCFly presumably excluded
Back in 2013, the last time the so-called ‘Steering Group’ tried to hold an annual stakeholder conference, the two editors of Manchester Climate Monthly (me and Arwa Aburawa) were explicitly excluded from attending. Not docile enough, you see.
So, I am fully expecting the history to repeat. Although I have registered, I am expecting to be told my registration has been declined. I will then ask why and will be told there isn’t space/that there isn’t catering. When I ask how many other people are on the waiting list/offer to brownbag it, I will be ignored. When it is revealed there IS space, or someone else who did get a ticket says they are willing to give up their spot for me, I will be told I am not welcome because I have not been “constructive”. (i.e. I have asked too many awkward questions, offended the wrong people by laughing at their horseshit).
There will be some minor grumbling about this, but those who care about these things are tiny in number and will go along anyway.
I will miss out on a minor anthropological opportunity.
The event itself
So, hundreds will gather. There will be the usual blandishments and bullshit, a keynote full of motherhood and applepie statements. If (and it’s unlikely) they try to do anything innovative (blah blah Open Space blah blah) they will screw it up as badly as Compass did all those years ago. Because they are fundamentally incompetent.
(Btw, If someone promises to buy me two pints, I will write and post the speech that Andy Burnham SHOULD give at this summit.)
But the point of this is to virtue signal, to be seen to be Caring About a Problem. It’s essentially potemkin democracy, populated by potemkin organisations.
The absolute best way of thinking about this, imo, is from the Grauniad a week or so ago.
Frozen foods had enjoyed a boost during the war because of tin rationing, and the first frozen ready meals were launched in 1952. More women were working outside the home, making the convenience of these meals especially appealing. Incomes were rising, too, during this postwar period, which gave families more money to spend on convenience items, and on trying out new dishes. Not all such products were new – cake mix, after all, had been around for decades – but in this postwar climate, the food industry assumed there would be a much larger market for them. And yet, cake mix sales were slow…..
Dichter’s groups for Betty Crocker diagnosed the trouble – women felt guilty that they were not doing the work of baking the cake for their families. Serving prepared foods made them feel inadequate….
Bill Schlackman, a colleague of Dichter’s, would recall years later, in this case the solution was to assuage the housewives’ guilt by giving them more of a sense of participation. “How to do that?” He smiled. “By adding an egg.” With this simple adjustment to the recipe, sales of cake mixes took off. It was an early focus-group marketing triumph.
We’re just adding eggs, is all, after our lords and masters have said ‘let them eat cake.’
Actually, this is a good point for a digression. Who are the various kinds of people who will attend this event, who are engaged in going along with the Summit caravan? In my distracted intellectual laziness/limited-capacity, I have been thinking there are three kinds of people/organisations. (The borders between these groups can be fuzzy- there is situational overlap, and of course traffic between the three by some individuals.)
Firstly, you have the hard-core ‘true believers’ who know that we are in the shit and are desperate for some hope, and will go along with anything on the basis that “it’s a start” or “it would be worse if this wasn’t happening” (which is usually code for “we have to be involved in this to get our vital resource needs met, where resource could mean a) money, b) ego (at an individual or organisational level c)publicity/reputational-with-the-public d) being seen to be doing what the big boys want needs are being met” (or some combination).
These are the most easily placated, especially as they have invested significant time, money, effort and political capital in the past year in getting all the right words into the manifesto, into the speeches.
Literally any old shit will do with them, because once they are inside the tent then – excuse the mixed metaphor – they won’t rock the boat for fear of being thrown overboard/out of t’tent. If these guys know anything serious about climate change (and some of them seem to know about the scale of the problem, if not its velocity) then they are also desperate for hope.
Secondly there are the dazed and confuseds. Attuned to the fear of the hard-core ‘true believers’, these guys Really Care. However, they know none of the history, think this is the first time anyone has tried to put climate change on the agenda, and believe that environmental “progress” (i.e. emissions reductions – for god’s sake don’t tell them about the sixth great extinction and the species’ EROI problems) proceeds by sincere statements from our Lords and Masters. They are like the audience at a very down-market TV show (Jeremy Kyle’s got talent?), applauding and laughing when the fluffer/illuminated sign says so. They are hoping for an invite to the Green Room, and maybe the financial/ego/whatever equivalent of a selfie and autograph with a star (e.g. Andy) at the stage door.
Finally, there are the “along for the ride” types, in every sense. They are attracted by the noise made by Important People, not the so-called ‘content’ of that noise. The signal-to-noise ratio is a foreign concept to them, and anyway, there will be a new bandwagon of feed trough along in a while. That’s the nature of things. They’ll probably be meerkating as to what that is even as the ink is dry on the ‘Environmental Charter’. Also in this category are those who can’t afford NOT to be seen caring. Participation in these sorts of things offer some nice reputational stab-vestiness when someone asks awkward questions about the scope 3 emissions of all those football players and the fans, rather than getting entranced by the recycling bins at the various stadiums….
So, back to the process
The magna charter
An “Environmental Charter” of surpassing banality and irrelevance will be produced within, say, two months (could be longer of course). The launch will involve photo opportunities with blond moppets telling us that the World Must Be Saved.
It will be a series of vague “commitments” which are hard to measure and easy to wiggle out of.
- The airport will be extolled as a leading example of environmental good practice. Its actual emissions (i.e. above a thousand feet etc) will not be mentioned.
- There will be talk of local jobs, biodiversity etc, all cut and pasted from similar documents over the last 30 years, not that anyone will notice or care.
The amount of attention it gets will depend on the day of its release and whether 22 millionaires are kicking a pig bladder between some white sticks, or if it happens on the day Trump tweets something sane (which would be huge news) or gets impeached. So many variables…
At this point, many will have got what they came for, metaphorically. Their names will appear on the list of sponsors/endorsers, they will be either getting invites to sit on Environmental Advisory Panels, or emails about the wonderful outcomes of these EAPs.
Within six months, unless David Attenborough dies, then normal service will resume. For one thing, we will all be running around like headless chickens over Brexit, which will be Looming Large by then. A few of the true-believers types will ask one or two awkward questions about the (lack of) specific progress, but will be fobbed off. They will be told, subtly, once or twice to shut up or else. If they don’t take the hint, they will suddenly find themselves on the outer – emails/calls unanswered, grant applications mysteriously lost/turned down, meetings with the Relevant People postponed. That sort of thing.
On the one year anniversary of either the Summit or the Charter’s release there will be another photo-op, perhaps with a report put together in the tedious house style (it’s not a creative concern of anyone’s) that lists all the wonderful “Achievements”, since the summit, with colour photos and big rectangular slabs of yellow or light green, with a few happy clappy and ill-informed grab quotes from Martin of Moss Side, Alison from Alderley Edge and Elijah from Eccles, with full page pictures of blond moppets planting trees and a ‘clear-eyed statement of intent’ from Andy (‘some progress… challenges…. more to be done’): bish bosh and we’re almost there.
The Mayor may try to kickstart the process with Mayor’s Environmental Hearings, but sensible people will say “meh”.
And normal service will have resumed.
In another four or five years, if (and it’s a big if) everything is still hanging together mostly (no wars, pandemics/zombie apocalypses, economic collapse, slaughterbots), then people will have forgotten the whole sorry process enough for Andy or his replacement to perform the whole ritual again.
I could be wrong: the possible game changers?
Some people, who claim to want to change things, seem to be relying on Andy Burnham’s sincerity, integrity, courage and knowledge. Who knows, maybe they are right and I am wrong and Andy’s s.i.c.k. will be enough.
Maybe, in contradiction of all evidence and psychoanalytic insights, some more ‘natural’ disasters will push people to realise that the future of human civilisation is in fact on the line, and they will start being involved in sustained and intelligent movement-building and mobilisation that leads on to more movement-building (rather than working against it).
And who knows, maybe Saint Jeremy will become Prime Minister and be able to institute all the wonderful things he suggested in a quite good speech last weekend, against the alphabet soup of opposition that he will face (MI5, CIA, CBI, BBC, etc etc: time to watch ‘A Very British Coup‘ again, methinks).
We are closer to the end than the beginning – I don’t just mean this article, I mean human civilisation. And therefore a little gallows humour is therefore probably called for. For those lucky lucky people who are going to the Mayor’s Green Summit, I think there should be either bingo cards and/or “I Spy” cards. I will get the ball rolling. Email me with additional suggestions…
“First Industrial Revolution began here.”
“When Jeremy becomes Prime Minister”
“We can’t solve climate change without reversing Brexit”
“We all need to go vegan”
“What about the airport”
“We have a plan. Now the hard work begins”
“The Tories have been a disaster for climate action”
“100 per cent renewables by next Tuesday”
“We have a plan. The hard work starts now.”
“No point dwelling on the past. I’m looking forward.”
“The steering group has done a terrific job”
“We need a low carbon culture.”
Virtue signalling by groups wanting “more ambition”
Some clown using the “first industrial revolution began here, so does the next one”
Studious avoidance of the failures to keep promises since 2010 onwards
Bureaucrats and their colourful organograms of who does what
The Airport like the mad racist Uncle – everyone knows, everyone tries to stay off the subject.
Disclaimer: Of course, I am writing this all from a position of relative ignorance – for reasons of thesis and sanity I’ve not bothered following all the dreary and predictable meetings and manifestos as closely as I once would have. I no longer bother blogging most of what I do go to (for example, in the last three weeks I stumbled into an egregious ‘listening event’, went to a rancid book launch and endured an unintentionally hilarious denialist powerpoint. Nowt of it reported on MCFly.
And who knows, maybe I just have Relevance Deprivation Syndrome, and can’t hack the fact that others are ‘succeeding’ where I ‘failed’. Maybe, but what little I have heard on the grapevine is that the listening events are not well-attended, well-planned, or meaningful. But maybe people don’t bother sharing Good News with me?
Update: This from facebook today (15 February).
I went to the food listening event and must say I thought it was well facilitated, with very short presentations to help get us thinking and discussing in pairs, what we would like to see happen, what would the value be, and what would the specific ask be. We then discussed in bigger groups, before feeding back main points and looking for key themes emerging across the room from that feedback. The room was booked for longer than the advertised meeting, so those who wanted to follow up any conversations could do so. There are probably some good listening events and some bad ones as they’re all organised by different groups. Just wanted to bother sharing Good News with you 😉
Keep on keeping on. More and more people are recognising ‘sustainability’ to be about mass die-off, the collapse of our civilization and maybe the death of life on earth for a few million years. So thats progress.
Cheers from Adelaide Australia