Author Archives: alice

Climate Change: What shall we tell the children?

I have a chapter in a new collection of essays on climate change narratives; Culture and Climate Change: Narratives edited by Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler. My contribution is entitled ‘What shall we tell the children?’ and explores the stories – fiction and otherwise – constructed to talk to young people about environmental issues. A pdf of the whole book is downloadable from the Open University, and he’s the last section and conclusion to my piece as a preview:

There is an interesting question about the materiality of kid’s eco-media. Because amongst that discussion of eco superheroes is what amounts to a pile of dead trees telling kids to recycle. Take, for example, a recent ‘eco’ reprint of 1971 classic the Lorax on 100% recycled paper. Because the ‘The Lorax loves trees and so do we’, some how managing to forget that we might be better off just picking up a second hand copy. There is also the infrastructure of the bookshop to consider (air conditioning, etc) not to mention all those never-read books picked up on a 3-4-2 deal. Books have become such a disposable product that “Healthy Planet” bookshops have popped up with stock offered for free saved from landfill.

One of the many ironies here is that, for all its relationship with a particular thread of Romanticism which privileges the outdoors over shopping, children’s literature as a product has been a force in consumer capitalism. Which, in turn, is arguably, part of the problem. The New York Times might complain that children’s books tend to cast consumers as villains, but the Romantic spirit has long helped sell things, in bookselling as much as anywhere else. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to children’s books, be they piles of Harry Potters, the purchasing of a ‘classic’ (or edgy new science fiction for that matter) to express a form of identity, cross branding and spin-off toys or topping up formal education through revision primers. Arguably, the types of consumption at work here, including its apparent discontinuities, intersect with 21st century green consumerism very neatly, as it can be a form of middle class performance through consumption even via the shunning of other products.

Back in 2005, Greenpeace ran a campaign comparing international publishers of the book in terms of their use of sustainable fibre. there was a bit of a mini-movement towards ecologically sustainable publishing around that time with Random House having publicly committed itself to making its book production ancient forest friendly, and Leo Hickman asked for his ethical living book (via Eden Project Books) was printed on recycled paper, using vegetable inks. Egmont Press not only decided to source their paper carefully, but encouraged other UK publishers to do similar, sharing knowledge about wood-pulp sources across the industry. It promoted this move with a re-edition of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, a story about a boy ship-wrecked on an island, newly printed entirely on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) approved paper. Morpurgo noted in a preface: “next time you’re looking for a book or your parents are buying furniture, think of Kensuke and look for the FSC logo” offering a nice example of the environmentalist message of the book being directly linked to its materiality.

Green has long been a marketable property in the consumer cultures of children’s media. to the extent that the BBC publication, the Blue Peter Green Book, is actually orange in colour, on account of carrying the precise hue of its supermarket sponsor, Sainsbury’s. It isn’t just books. The Reverend Billy Talen makes jokes about “Drowning Elmo” toys to keep us entertained while the tsunamis and flash floods “bounced on the horizon like Loony Tunes”. But when the climate change and energy galleries at the Science Museum are sponsored by Shell and BP respectively, do we really need such satire? There are even anti-pollution sweets, or “smog ball” sours (see toxicwastecandy.com). At this year’s Royal Society summer exhibition a stall on energy gave out slices of rock with solar energy written through (discs, yellow, I think they were meant to be the sun). At the Big Bang Fair 2013, BNFL handed out sticks of rock, apparently to symbolise nuclear rods.

It’s hard to see what impact sponsorship has on content, but it is striking that the Sainsbury’s Blue Peter Green Book has notes on green consumerism, but manages to avoid too much discussion of cutting consumption, just as the Shell sponsored Climate Stories exhibition at the Science Museum avoids prominent reference to oil and gas. There also more direct forms of campaigning, without the need for sponsored mediators. A fracking themed colouring in book featuring “Talisman Terry, your friendly Fracosaurus” was speedily withdrawn as a giveaway for county fairs after being mocked on US television but other resources have been more resilient to critique. There’s the online game Richie’s World Of Adventure which, courtesy of nuclear enrichment company, Urenco, invites players to pick up energy orbs releasing “facts” such as how reliable and safe nuclear energy is. On the other side, there’s Greenpeace’s equivalent, Duke Anti-Nuke where part of the aim of the game is to doge publicity agents. Such materials might seem funny, but raise a larger issue: when we privatised our energy system, did we also privatise the public engagement with energy, and is that ok? These kinds of communications point to a segmentation of our energy imaginations, meaning we talk of wind, gas, nuclear or solar in isolation, not low carbon as a whole. It may also serve to segment audiences casting them as customers not citizens.

But Captain Planet, Michael Recycle, the Science Museum’s climate change gallery any number of other items in this essay are merely the stories adults offer to young people. They may be offered ready-made, but they can be re-made by their audiences too. I’d like to conclude by celebrating participatory and reflexive environmental communication.

Between 1973 and 1994 the BBC broadcast a children’s television show: Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? Putting aside the ‘Auntie Beeb’ ideas that television should be rationed for young people and that the outdoors is somehow more healthy, there is a message in this apparently self-critical media stance. Get making for yourself. Hack. Blog. Occupy media culture. Run your own discussion events. Offer alternative tours of museums, either in real space or through podcasts (e.g. http://www.tateatate.org). Heckle literature with comment cards left in books in libraries and bookshops. Follow UN negotiators (e.g. http://www.adoptanegotiator.org). Tear up your syllabus and invite teachers to work with you to produce something more sustainable instead (e.g. http://www.post-crasheconomics.com).

Young people are, all too often, seen and not heard when it comes to environmental issues: they are recipients of knowledge or even simply symbols of a future requiring protection in campaigns aimed at adults. That’s not to say older generations should not offer their knowledge to young people: we should draw on the wisdom of the past. Neither do I want to — in Jacqueline Rose’s words — set the child up as the site of a lost truth. The framing of climate change as an issue of inter-generational justice can also serve to pit one age against another, and we should remember that much youth media was largely constructed simply to segment audiences with an eye on making new markets, with a sense of generational conflict thrown in to emphasis difference. Maybe our energies would be better channeled into a more multi-generational approach.

There is much to be gained from building multi-generational stories that splice together the wit and wisdom of the past, present and future. Or we can give out sweeties at the Big Bang Fair.

Welcome to the gutter, brother of science

Last month, I did a bit of science policy standup. Part of the ‘Standup Tragedy’ series (one of the Guardian’s ‘ten great storytelling nights‘), the programme was a mix of spoken word, music, comedy and more.

The podcast is now online – my piece starts at 45 mins in. I should warn that this was recorded after 11pm in a bar in Brixton. The language may offend. Within 2mins of my set I say “Isaac Newton was such a f*cking c*ck” and that pretty much sets the tone for the whole thing.

I was inspired by this month’s topic of martyrs because it gave me a chance to talk about science’s persecution complex. Like much self-pitying posturing, I think science in martyr mode should probably check its privilege. I discussed the cases of David Nutt and the Galileo Movement, as well as the latest public polling data on attitudes to science and the ways in which politicians say they love some bits of science whilst speedily cutting others.

I also discussed the Royal Society of Chemistry’s outrage over a mad scientist costume, suggesting that if chemists are worried that science is seen as violent, they might want to consider how many scientists are involved in industries of war. Rather than just screeching that people should pay more and more attention to science, sometimes science could do with looking at itself. As the public attitude polls show, bits of science regularly (and scientifically) audit their privilege. The data is there, it’s not hard.

I also talked about how screwed up this idea that pain gives truth is, and that such macho posturing is not only a bit limited, but also plays a part in science’s diversity problem. Some truths are found in cuddles. Arguably having the freedom to have a life outside your job makes you a better scientist. If we stick to this weird idea that you have to suffer for science, we are only going to have a very limited view of the world.

As a more honest manifesto for science in society, I ended with alternative version of the Galileo story; Bertolt Brecht’s powerful line “welcome to the gutter, brother of science.” I’d much rather sit with scientists in the gutter, looking up at the stars together, than see them pinned to a cross.

Hit the Fossil Fuel Industry Where it Hurts: Science

There was another one of those International Panel on Climate Change reports published last weekend. Having already outlined the physical science basis back in September (i.e. it is happening, yes, really, we triple-checked, sorry), and then a report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability at the end of last month (i.e. it’s going to get really shit), we had a third on mitigation (i.e. there’s stuff we can do to stop it being really, really, really shit).

WWF’s Leo Hickman summarised the reports neatly with the simple nugget: “Climate change is real. We are to blame. It will get worse if we fail to act. The solutions are available and affordable. But time is short.” If that’s still too long to digest, he also offers an extra-short version: “Please. Get. On. With. It.” And if you want it in the words of a scientist, here’s Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London: “We should stop wringing our hands and just get on with it.”

Even before this most recent intervention, after the adaption report, activist Bill McKibben, suggested that the time had come for scientists to strike: “At this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more. Work with what you’ve got. We’re a quarter-century ahead – when you deal with the trouble we’ve already described then we’ll tell you what’s coming next.”

I like this idea. But even if you could inspire climate scientists to down tools (good luck…) I suspect it would be a misplacement of our energies. As is often the case, people not listening to the science acts as a distraction from other aspects of the political debate, including what science itself is up to.

Desmond Tutu’s call last week for an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet was rousing, and it reminded me of something Hilary and Steven Rose wrote about Israel. Hit them where it hurts: Science.

The fossil fuel industry is often described as anti-science. Although undoubtably bits of the fossil fuel industry are what might be dubbed anti bits of science, they are also heavily dependant on other areas of it too. Public structures of science and engineering train staff for the oil and gas industry, they also help develop new techniques, provide cultural credibility and open social spaces within which to lobby. Too few climate campaigners appreciate the activity that goes on here, not nearly enough political activism and political light is shone on it. The industry itself knows it though, and so keeps aspects of science and engineering very close indeed.

Not for nothing did Shell sign a collaborative research framework with Cambridge, and a Memo of Understanding with the NERC. Not for nothing are EDF sponsoring the Cheltenham Science Festival. Not for nothing is the next President of Imperial a board director at Chevron. Not for nothing is the list of industrial sponsors at the Heriot-Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering quite so long. Not for nothing does the National Centre for Universities and Business’ latest report devote several pages to BP. This is just the tip of the speedily melting iceberg though. For more, I can recommend the Knowledge and Power report 350.org, People and Planet and Platform put together last autumn (the bit after they talk about divestment, which really is only a small part of the story).

Just as Mariana Mazzucato tells us everything smart in the smart phone was funded by the state, a lot of the oil and gas industry is supported by publicly funded science. With the case of smart phones, we might ask why are we selling our work so short, but when it comes to fossil fuels, we might ask why are we giving it to them at all? One of the key ways in which the extractive industries are able to not only operate, but actively extend those operations is through their involvement in the structures of publicly funded science. If you want to act on climate change, it is worth considering this. Rather than beating people ever-more over the head with climate science and going off in a strop when they don’t listen, if we want action on climate change, we need to cut off the science and engineering the fossil fuel industry relies upon.

Unlocking the ties between science and fossil fuels involves remembering one simple point about science: It is a social system. This idea is sadly tarred with the idea that if something is socially constructed it is somehow not real. It’s fun for the odd philosophy seminar, but it’s also largely bollocks. Just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t also real. St. Paul’s was constructed by society, but it still hurts me if I kick it. Understanding science as a social system merely means reflecting on the fact that it is both directed by society and does more than just make research. It isn’t to deny science in anyway, only to want to make it work better.

Science as a social system has outputs other than just research. I don’t just mean spin-off products. It offers social situations for people to network. It offers events upon which we can pin larger social debate (IPCC reports, for example, or papers, conferences, festivals). It has a lot of cultural capital too. A recent study of public attitudes to science found 90% said they trusted scientists working for universities. That is very, very high (no wonder Centrica wanted academic scientists to do the talking for them). And it trains people. Because of the way science is constituted, with a lot of junior (cough, cheap, cough) researchers at the bottom, most PhD students won’t stay in academia. They’ll go elsewhere, including the oil and gas industry.

Another element of this social system to remember is that some bits of science are funded and others aren’t. Choices are made over what studies get done. Some science is designed to have particular applications, some is more curiosity-driven. This is ok. The problem is when limited set of people get to direct what we are doing so the social systems at work is run to serve a rather narrow interests. It’s not just how big the science budget is, it is what you do with it that counts. This is a problem Canadian scientists have learnt the hard way, as whole areas of environmental research have very strategically been cut. It is also why it is worrying when the NERC/ Shell memo of understanding includes agreements to ‘Influence academic behaviour by articulating Shell long-term research’ especially when NERC centres already contain references to extracting oil and gas from polar regions.

We’re crap at discussing any of this. It is too easily dominated by fantasyland complaints that ‘no one should interfere in science,’ ignoring the fact that many people already do. We have to recognise the politics here, because it is quietly happening under our noses. Last year’s BIS/ DECC oil and gas strategy is possibly the most brazen example of this. Aside from a bit where the government agrees to consider its role in improving public perception of the UK oil and gas industry (apparently we incorrectly perceive it as unsustainable and deflecting progress towards a greener UK economy, silly us), the strategy expresses much concern over the supply of skilled staff and R&D spend in the sector, with a clear expectation that the government should support industry here. But no one much critised the government about this strategy when it was published. I doubt many people knew it existed.

This week Caroline Lucas asked a parliamentary question about NERC’s oil and gas innovation programme. She didn’t get much of an answer, but these are the sorts of questions green activists – and scientists themselves – need to be asking more often. The oil and gas industry needs our science to operate. We don’t need to give it to them. Sorting this out is just one of those things we need to be getting on with.

This was first published on New Left Project.

Because a refusal often offends (and you look ridiculous)

Institutions of various sorts: if your advisory panels consist of people who can give their time for free, the advice they give you will be limited.

They might even be corrupted, in as much as they will be more likely to serve interests of people with sufficient money and/ or axes to grind for them to give their time.

So stop letting yourselves be unduly influenced and fundraise to do this more effectively.

Similarly, academics who are running public engagement projects or conferences may well wish to include viewpoints from outside to help them share their ideas more broadly and be challenged by a range of perspectives. But they will have to be prepared to pay for some of them.

Because you may run on an informal economy where the prestige of speaking or writing in a particular space is reward enough, but my landlady doesn’t.

Like almost everyone I know, I do a huge amount of work for free and also often ask people if they want to join me in it too. Such work can be worth doing when you want to grow something niche, or when you are actively challenging power in ways there just isn’t money for or a patron might be constraining. Or you might just want to do something for fun. Or you might be caring for something there isn’t funds to protect. There are a host of reasons you might not want or be able to be paid for something. But, so we can put our energies into stuff like that, professional organisations which do have access to funding need to organise their budgets to pay. I am looking at you, universities and learned societies (and a fair few charities) who are simply taking the piss.

The Wellcome Trust engagement and arts grants have an excellent policy when it comes to asking people to do peer review for them. If doing this review is your job, appreciate you are already paid. If not, they can offer £50 for your time. I never took it when I was a full-time academic, I do now. You won’t make a living out of it, but it won’t disrupt you from making a living either. It doesn’t exploit people. And leaves Wellcome’s grants scheme less open to being exploited itself. As research councils increasingly open up peer review to larger stakeholders, this is important concern for them too. They need to budget for that external time.

My favourite example of clueless academy recently was from an eminent professor I used to respect: “oh, you’re not an academic any more, that’s sad, but you still have very interesting ideas you know, I bet you could still publish in journals! Think of that! Then people like me might read you!” Lol. If I want to write and not get paid there are multiple spaces I can take my ideas, all of which are read by many more people than I’d get from a social science journal and, moreover, foster debate with readership so I get something out of the interactions and learn from readers.

Much of science and engineering runs on an informal economy of sharing expertise and time. It often works well, but limits you to either those inside this economy, or those rich enough to show they care. If science is serious about opening up to larger groups, they need to budget for it, else they’re turn themselves into a limited, incestous exercise of capital breeding capital.

And put some of the budget towards childcare too eh? Cos if you’re wondering why you struggle to get women speakers, that might be a reason. And if you don’t have money left over to take the speakers out for a posh dinner afterwards? Well, I’m sure you’ll all cope.

And yeah, that bit of public engagement advice comes for free.

Masters as luxury goods

There were many reasons I left academia. But here’s one. In case it resonates.

To secure my role, and the roles of other staff, I was expected to help recruit masters students. But to do a masters these days not only will you have had to go through massive cultural, financial and social hoops to even be accepted, you need a lot of money on top of it.

(a) I was selling a luxury good. If nothing else, I didn’t feel trained in how to sell this sort of product. But it also wasn’t what I went into academia to do.

(b) As the option to do postgrad study was increasingly exclusive, the student body was less interesting. I mean, each individual student was great. I’ve never taught someone I wasn’t interested by. But as a whole, each classroom was a less diverse place and not so interesting as a result. So the job wasn’t so much fun. Universities are duller places, and get duller the more “elite” an institution you go too.

(c) This luxury good of a masters was often sold to students on the promise of a good job for those with the qualification. Via a mix of nepotism between graduates and the sheer competition for jobs being reasonably arbitrary criteria is used for triage, this worked. So, often the very existence of these courses kept people out of jobs they’d be great at. I couldn’t be part of that and sleep well at night.

So I left. I am currently doing a bit of teaching part-time. I love it and it’s tempting me to think about going back. But I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable being part of the business it’s become. There are other reasons too, but this was a key component to my decision and I thought I’d share in case others feel similarly uncomfortable.

Rising Damp, by U.A. Fanthorpe

London's beach

It is World Poetry Day today. And World Water Day tomorrow. So here’s a poem about London’s rivers.

—–

Rising Damp, by U.A. Fanthorpe

At our feet they lie low,
The little ferment underground
Rivers of London
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
Whose names are disfigured,
Frayed, effaced.

These are the Magogs that chewed the day
To the basin that London nestle in.
These are the currents that chiselled the city,
That washed the clothes and turned the mills,
Where children drank and salmon swam
And wells were holy.

They have gone under
Boxed, like the magician’s assistant.
Buried alive in earth.
Forgotten, like the dead.

They return spectrally after heavy rain,
Confounding suburban gardens. They infiltrate
Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken
Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded
Watercourses and is taken
For the footing of the dead.

Being of our world, they will return
(Westbourne, cages at Sloane Square,
Will jack from his box).
Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,
Plant effluent on our faces,
Sink the city.
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowsers rod bends to the source below.

Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.