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.

Open for business: Going freelance

"change your life" bit of Berlin Wall outside Imperial War MuseumThis picture has very little to do with this post. It is of a bit of Berlin Wall outside the Imperial War Museum

Personal note: I left academia at the start of the year and am currently freelancing. There’s no big drama behind the change, more a growing feeling of meh.

The widening inequalities of the sector – and those inequalities it wilfully helps sustain – as well as the egos and corruption didn’t exactly help. I found the intellectual bite went out of it a while back too; it got boring. But really it’s me. I want something a bit less abstracted from the real world, and something a bit less isolating. I want to work with other people, and work on projects with a bit more obvious impact.

I’ve freelanced in science communication and policy on and off since I was an undergrad, as well as spates of full and part-time work outside of academia, so it’s not like I’m suddenly tip-toeing out of the ivory tower. But I’m still a bit stumped about what I want to do long-term. Eventually I want something less piecemeal than freelancing. One of my frustrations with the work I’ve had in academia the last few years is how ephemeral it’s been; I’m itching to get my teeth into a bigger project, and to be part of a team.

But one of the advantages of freelancing it is offers chances to diversify skills, knowledge and contacts a bit, as well as simply giving me time to wait for the right post to come up.

So, I’m open for business. Want to hire me?

Contact details are Dr Alice Bell, alicerosebell at gmail.com. Full CV on request, or there are some notes in my about page. I’m an adept writer, researcher and teacher. I have a PhD and have taught on several leading science communication and policy degrees. I know loads about the workings of science and engineering, with a particular interest in environmental politics, bioethics, the mass media and public participation. I am equally at home arguing with Nobel Prizewinners or Government ministers as I am running classes on climate change for teenagers or participating in workshops to unpick communications strategy. I’m a decent analyst, good listener and don’t pull punches when it comes to asking questions.

I’m especially keen to find ways to bring my expertise of the scientific and engineering establishment to groups that currently lack much knowledge/ contacts there, but helping science and engineering think outside of its bubble is always something I’m up for. So if you have a something you think I might help you with, get in touch: alicerosebell at gmail.com.

And if anyone has any bright ideas as to what I should be when I grow up, let me know.

Arming Mother Nature

Book review: Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, Jacob Darwin Hamblin (OUP: 2013). This was first published on New Left Project.

When you look at recent cuts to environmental research – the Keeling Curve appealing for crowd-funding, for example, or the destruction of Canadian fisheries libraries – you might be forgiven for wondering how such work ever got funding in the first place. Environmental science challenges our current economic and political structures quite profoundly, and politicians the world over seem to be playing the toddler’s game of covering their eyes in hope it’ll go away by shutting down our systems for measuring it. You need to invest heavily in environmental research to render climate change visible, it’s not something you can spot by peeking out the window. How did anyone manage to get funding to even start looking?

According to Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s recent book, Arming Mother Nature, much contemporary environmental thought has political roots in the Cold War. Far from deep-green hippies, it was built by military and political elites who sought to control the planet, not save it. 20th century ecology was aways as much about war-mongering as tree-hugging.

The book’s early chapters are very much in the shadow of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima marked a change in the nature of war, of weaponry and relationships between science and the government. These changes were long in the making, that was partly how and why the bomb had been made itself, but they were ingrained by the fallout (political as well as physical) of Hiroshima. There is a longer history of chemical and biological weapons – both the development of them and questions about the ethics of their use – but the context of environmental science offers a slightly new frame. Biological and chemical weapons are seen as unusually ethically problematic because they turn the work of science – which could be applied to heal, protect and liberate us – to cause pain and suffering and achieve social control. But the atomic bomb turns the very fabric of our environment against its targets. It uses detailed physics to work deep across our bodies, into our soils and through our airs. It’s not a bullet from a machine, it’s a massive release of energy which is followed by a range of parts of our world working often slowly and invisibly against us. A divide between technology and nature is simplistic (bullets are made from the Earth too, as well as by people) but there are reasons why nuclear weapons feel more extreme.

In this context, Hamblin offers us a story of the growth of the idea of total war. Here, the whole environment could be considered as a weapons system, and scientific expertise on how the planet works would be used as inspiration. We think of ecology and its systems-based approach to viewing the world as something favoured by the hippies, but it can be applied to a variety of ends, including war.

One of the clearest examples of the sorts of weaponised ecology the book is about comes with a story riffing off Operation Plowshare (peaceful use of nukes). There had been an environmental impact audit of an idea to use thermonuclear explosions to excavate an artificial harbour in Alaska. It was decided it would impact too heavily on Eskimos’ diet, so the idea was scrapped, but the data collected inspired military thinking. Having traced radioactivity through the food chain, NATO scientists could now build more advanced models of ecological warfare. They knew Eskimos lived interdependently with seals, otter, fish, caribou and plankton. If the plankton were killed, the rest of the chain would drop out. ‘At best he would have to move,’ the group pointed out. ‘At worst he would die.’ This kind of thinking, they realised, could be tailored to other regions. A lethal rice-rust could make life in parts of Asia much more difficult, perhaps untenable. Further, weaponised ecology offered more insidious forms of biological coercion. You didn’t have to kill people as your goal, and that meant populations could be part of the prize. Getting rid of plankton, for example, would make the Eskimos’ entire food system collapse and force them to be entirely dependent on food supplied from outside the region. Toxic agents could be developed to target very specific links in ecological chains, with the aim of shaping a new interdependent web, forcing ecology to a new will, and with it forcing the people into newly disempowered positions.

In 1961, Kennedy approached the start of ‘Operation Ranch Hand,’ the codename for the US’s herbicide campaign in Vietnam. This was advanced environmental warfare, with immense ecological and chemical expertise going into developing agents that could target particular crops, deciding which plants would live and die in Vietnam. Monsanto and Dow did trials, but they also drew on a network of university scientists in the US and the UK, including Oxford plant physiologist Geoffrey Blackman. Interestingly, British researchers at Porton Down were keen to distance themselves from US offensive action, arguing that they were helping to develop ‘true defoliants’ – where the leaves fall but the plant doesn’t die – compared to the more destructive Agents Orange, Purple and Pink. This, apparently, stood on a more ecological footing (we have calls to ‘green the military’ today, lead-free bullets and the like). By 1967, the US Army knew its crop-killing schemes in Vietnam were having little effect on the food sources of soldiers. But scientists at RAND linked data on spraying with more on the Vietnamese soldiers’ rice rations, and concluded that this policy was primarily hurting civilians. The US Army rationalised this as helping to weaken ‘sympathisers’ but such a grand starvation campaign was unpopular, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science calling for the military to halt the spraying programme.

Another key point in this story is the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8. A project in science diplomacy, the idea was that science could be an apolitical means for collaboration between East and West, but behind the talk of peace, hope and understanding were some very canny political games. One of the outcomes of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, which established the space for cooperative scientific research, with freedom of scientific investigation and a ban on military activity on the continent. The text of the treaty is worth a read – there is something quite inspiring about it – but for all the rhetoric of peace and knowledge, it is very much a product of Cold War politics. It could play a colonising role; study on a bit of the Antarctic and you get to put your flag there, a point satirised by Punch at the time (even if isn’t populated, there are minerals you don’t want the other side getting their hands on). Much of the polar research looked ostensibly like studies in weather prediction, but was also detailed observation of spaces which could be a crucial future battleground. The scientists were happy to do military monitoring, knowing they could also do their own work around it. Indeed, we have knowledge of the hole in the ozone layer from Antarctic work, and that Keeling Curve has its roots in the IGY too. Moreover, as Hamblin describes, the buzzword of the IGY was ‘synoptic’ – literarily, and for many of the scientists, just a matter of viewing together – a word which was taken up by the military as a sense of vastness, the idea of ‘synoptic scale’ weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. As Hamblin puts it, ‘while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation.’

In constructing ideas of environmental warfare, military planners also drew inspiration from the natural events earth sciences studied. There was a devastating earthquake in Chile in May 1960. Whole villages were swept away in 24-feet tsunamis, with quakes so powerful whole mountains disappeared and lakes appeared, all going on for several weeks. The New York Times described this as ‘tragic testimony that in this age of the conquest of the atom and of triumphs in outer space man is still helpless against the vast and still largely unpredictable forces that frequently go berserk in his immediate environment – hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes.’ NATO saw it quite differently. It gave them ideas. If this earthquake was equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs, why not find some way to bring such disasters into their arsenal? The idea of controlling the weather was particularly appealing, especially as they were increasingly aware of the impact humanity was already having on the upper atmosphere. Whereas weaponising the weather got into the popular press with jokes in the Financial Times about the 1975 British drought being a cunning Warsaw Pact plot, military analysts in the US had already pondered whether it’d be possible to punch a hole in the ozone layer to expose the Russians to fatal amounts of radiation. The most alarming of the more wildcat ideas was probably the one to melt the polar ice caps by exploding nuclear weapons on it, thus raising the global sea level. It was calculated it would take about a million tons of fissile material to melt enough to raise sea level by 30 feet, but it was, apparently, worth considering (just in case the Soviets were plotting the same).

The point I remain unconvinced by in Hamblin’s book is his continual reference to the idea of catastrophic thinking, which simply doesn’t cohere for me, and the idea that this still frames our thinking today. He uses the discussion of environmental warfare in Vietnam – and in particular how it was discussed publicly in the US – as setting some of the tone for environmental politics of the 1970s. Thus, Nixon’s environmentalism can be understood at least in part as part and parcel of his foreign policy. Hamblin also refers to how the American obsession with environmental warfare meant early 1970s discussions of the greenhouse effect were framed by nuclear war in diplomatic discussions, as a world-ending cataclysm, and how this frustrated scientists at the time. Finally, there is a neat story of two Al Gores. In 1951, Congressman Albert Gore advised Truman to ‘dehumanise’ a belt across the Korean peninsula by covering it with radioactive waste which would, he argued, deter Communist troops from crossing. From the 1990s onwards, his son framed environmental policy as a sort of new Cold War struggle; as if ignoring climate change was equivalent to going ‘soft’ on communism. Whereas many saw environmentalists as green on the outside but red in the core (‘watermelons’), Al Gore Jr. referred to a new Global Marshall Plan and a need for a Strategic Environment Initiative, echoing Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. For all that this is part of the story, it seems only partial. Perhaps if Hamblin had traced his story alongside one on the rise of neoliberalism, it might have had a stronger core, but I still feel it would only offer part of the picture.

That quibble aside, it’s a great book. One of the best I read in 2013. It offers an important, fascinating study of intertwined stories of nature, technology, science, war and peace, and offers a very different frame for considering the history of environmental science than is usually offered. If you want to take a lesson from it, simply remember that science is useful to politicians, and they know this. We’re increasingly invited to worry about a neoliberal war on science, but we should spare some concern for those in power who do profess a love of science too. Owen Paterson likes science when it serves him (genetically modified foods, for example), as do George Osborne and Vince Cable (new products for the arms industry, ever more inventive ways to extract fossil fuels). What science, to whose ends? Technologies of control, or of liberation? As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing concern, more than ever we need science and engineering managed by the people, for the people.

We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.