Author Archives: alice

New climate stories blog

Every fortnight I’m posting a short story from the history of climate change over at the climatehistories site I’ve set up.

Here’s post number one. If you want to read more, head over to climatehistories.

Story one. The chemist with a broken heart

The history of climate change science is, at least in part, a story of side-projects – things people do when they probably should have been working on something else.

Humans knew climate change was a thing from roughly the start of the 19th century, but it was a while before anyone bothered investing much energy properly investigating the topic. It just wasn’t a big deal, there were other more pressing things to be looking into. So, at least in the early days of unravelling this thing we now call global warming, research was left to the enthusiasts, the easily distracted, the bored or the eccentric.

Here’s a story of one such side-project. One that wasn’t taken seriously at the time, but is now considered central to the history of climate change science. It’s also a story of a broken heart (or at least a broken relationship), maths and volcanoes.

Meet our chief protagonist, Svante Arrhenius – Nobel winning Swedish scientist and, for several decades, director of the Nobel Institute. Trained as a physicist, a lot of his work bordered on chemistry, and arguably he helped found what we now call physical chemistry. He looks terribly serious in photos, but his Nobel Prize bio assures us he was “a contented man, happy in his work and in his family life.”

Arrhenius was born in 1859, in Vik in the South East corner of Sweden where his father managed land for the University of Uppsala. There are stories about him being a bit of a prodigy – teaching himself to read aged 3, then learning maths by watching his father add up his accounts. But there are always stories like that about great scientists. What we do know is that he did pretty well at school and went on to study maths, chemistry and physics at the university.

In 1883, he published a PhD thesis exploring the electrical conductivity of salt solutions. It did not do well at first, only receiving a fourth class mark. Perhaps it was just a bit ahead of its time, or a little too much like chemistry for physicists to really get a handle of. Still, a chemistry professor picked it up, publishing a favourable review, and Arrhenius took it upon himself to send copies to prominent scientists across Europe, some of whom were really impressed. Job offers and opportunities to travel and develop his ideas followed. Arrhenius bagged the Nobel prize in 1903, humanity gained a load more knowledge of electrolytes and a whole field of physical chemistry opened up.

Or at least that’s the potted history you might get in the box at the side of your textbook, possibly placed for a bit of a break from acid/ base equations. But as any historian of science knows, it’s the stuff you find behind those boxes that’s the most fun.

Enter Sofia Rudbeck, one of the first women to earn a bachelor degree in science from Uppsala University. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography describes her as Arrhenius’ “best pupil and assistant.” But the entry is more interested in the conductivity of salts than scientists’ personal lives. So if you want details of them shagging round the back of the conical flask cupboard you’ll have to make it up yourself. What we do know is that they married in 1884 and had a son, Olof, but the marriage was unhappy, and they divorced in 1886.

This is where we get to the side project. The divorce was stressful. Arrhenius was worried he’d lose contact with his son. He found temperature calculations soothing. So, for months and months he’d scribble away with his pencil calculating the atmospheric moisture and radiation entering and leaving the Earth for each zone of latitude.

This was not the sort of project that, at the time, was seen as a sensible thing for a scientist to be devoting their energies to. The data Arrhenius was basing his calculations on wasn’t even that rigorous, and he simplified the climate system in immensely. But it wasn’t necessarily meant to be scientifically significant. It was just therapy. Maybe he picked it precisely because it wasn’t all that important – it was something he could have a play with.

Crucially, Arrhenius wasn’t really concerned with the idea that the planet might warm up. He was much more worried it’d get cold. This was not a new idea, or a new concern. People had long puzzled about why the ice age and other climatic changes had come about. Scientists had worked out the greenhouse effect, even if they didn’t call it that then (we’ll do that story another week, it includes a truly outstanding scientific beard). They’d wondered about the carbon emissions from volcanoes, and how soils and oceans absorb carbon too, and worried that if volcanoes stopped erupting, maybe global temperatures might take a nose dive. Arrhenius gave a mathematical basis to these concerns, and his calculations showed that halving the amount of CO2 in the air would cool the world by 5 degrees C – enough to bring on another ice age.

This might have stayed a footnote to Victorian obsessions with the ice age if it wasn’t for a colleague of Arrhenius, Arvid Högbom. He’d been studying the carbon emissions of volcanoes and how things like the oceans absorbed carbon and had what was, for the time, a pretty weird new idea. What about all these new factories that had sprung up over the past century? What about man-made carbon emissions?

Högbom’s sometimes ignored in the history of climate change science. He certainly doesn’t have the profile of a Nobelist like Arrhenius. But arguably his contribution was one of the most important. He brought the idea of man-made global warming to the table.

The amount of carbon dioxide Arrhenius and Högbom were talking about wasn’t that much though, atmospherically speaking – for every thousand bits of atmosphere, the coal burnt in 1896 would add maybe add just one more bit of carbon dioxide. But these additions could make a difference if they continued long enough. Arrhenius ran the maths, just as he had run the maths imagining a lack of carbon dioxide, and calculated that doubling carbon dioxide emissions could raise the Earth’s temperature by five or even six degrees Celsius.

Still, Arrhenius wasn’t too worried. Like most 19th century Europeans, he tended to see technological changes as progress. And if it caused new problems, the scientists and engineers would create new ways out of them. Plus, anyway, these calculations still figured five degree warming would take thousands of years. The global population in the 1890s was only a bit over a billion (compared to the 7.4 billion it’s estimated to be today), with the bulk living in poverty. The idea that humans could impact the planet in such a way was the stuff of science fiction stories.

As historian Spencer Weart puts it, this was common sense at the time: “Hardly anyone imagined that human actions, so puny among the vast natural powers, could upset the balance that governed the planet as a whole. This view of Nature – superhuman, benevolent and inherently stable – lay deep in most human cultures. It was traditionally tied up with a religious faith in the God-given order of the universe, a flawless an imperturbable harmony. Such was the public belief, and scientists are members of the public, sharing most of the assumptions of their culture.”

There were, at the time, good scientific reasons to doubt Arrhenius’ work. Simple lab measurements seemed to refute the idea. Other scientists argued convincingly that the oceans would soak it up, or clouds would reflect the sunlight back into space. And this Arrhenius dude, he always had crazy new work going on. Climate calculations weren’t his only side project – he had ideas about immunity, bacteria, and an explanation for the origin of life involving seeds being transported from interstellar space by the pressure of light. He was just a super-clever guy playing around with ideas and numbers to see what would come out.

By 1910 most scientists had thrown out Arrhenius’ work on climate change entirely, even if later they were to come back to it. They were, in a way, the first climate sceptics. Back then, arguably, it was a pretty sensible position to hold, even if that was to rapidly change as the 20th century got underway. But more on that another time.

And I don’t know what became of Sofia Rudbeck. If anyone has any clues, I’d love to hear them.

Next up: A Cold War yarn about a father, a son and their very curvy graph.

Municipal murals of 1980s London

Humans have been making murals — painting a bit of art directly on a wall — for millennia, the world over. Different walls, at different times and in different places, have all reflected different mural cultures. I’m a fan of the crumbling remains of the municipal murals of 1980s London, and here’s a brief trip through some of them.

The London Mural Preservation Society have a great map of these, with detailed notes. It’s not exhaustive — they don’t, for example, cover the many murals in primary school playgrounds — but it does offer background information for over sixty of them.

Surveying them as a whole, some key themes emerge. First up, nature. The French town of Grenoble recently announced it would get rid of advertising billboards and plant trees instead. It seems that when 1980s Londoners were offered the side of a wall for community art, rather than to sell as advertising space, they looked towards something green. And it wasn’t necessarily an escape to the countryside, but to draw out the nature around them too.

A great example of is the Highbury Grove Mural. Painted in 1986-7, it was sadly destroyed last September, after a “blunder” at the Town Hall. Stretching the height of a several-story terrace house, it celebrated the biodiversity of the local area with paintings of plants and animals which lived around it. There was even a numbered key next to the mural, identifying the species included.

South of the river — and still in existence, albeit heavily faded — the Tapestry of Life mural near Clapham Junction is based on the hothouses at Kew Gardens. Opened by David Bellamy in 1983, it was the first mural to be funded by the Greater London Council (GLC).  I love the little girl peeking out at the side.

Tapestry of Life Mural, near Clapham Junction.

Tapestry of Life Mural, near Clapham Junction.

Detail, Tapestry of Life. Can you spot the Peacock?

Detail, Tapestry of Life. Can you spot the Peacock?

Detail, Tapestry of Life.

Detail, Tapestry of Life.

Hoxton’s City Garden mural was painted by local schoolchildren in 1981. Rows of corn, cabbages and beetroot are tended by the shadow of an agricultural worker (though it’s so faded, he or she is little more than a ghost). It looks like beds of roses at the base too, but it is hard to see because it’s covered in graffiti. The piece is a mix of paint and mosaic, with gleaming pieces of mirrored glass picking out particular crops. If you want to visit, it’s just up from the Geffrye Museum, and makes an interesting contrast to the more modern street art the area just South of there is so well known for now.

City Garden Mural, Hoxton.

City Garden Mural, Hoxton.

A couple of murals in Brixton demonstrate public enthusiasm for painting nature on the side of their buildings. When the Bellefields Road mural was designed in 1987, the London Wall Mural Group sent out questionnaires to local residents, asking about what they wanted to see. The answer was birds, flowers and something non-political. At night, you can spot live foxes scurrying along under the painted one.

Fox, Bellfields Road mural.

Fox, Bellfields Road mural.

The Mauleverer Road mural — on side of the stables of an old lager factory — was developed in 1983, when a local residents group wanted to cover up a wall of graffiti. The mural starts with woodland, based on photographs of the New Forest, which lead onto a walled garden based on the local Brockwell Park. There is also a large image of the Caribbean, reflecting geographical links of the area, and horses, reflecting the previous use of the building. It was varnished, which is maybe why it is in such good condition, but it’s also threatened with at least partial demolition due to redevelopment, so visit it before it goes.

Mauleverer Road mural, Brixton.

Mauleverer Road mural, Brixton.

Another strong theme of the 1980s London murals is anti-war, with a particular focus on nuclear proliferation. This reflects the politics of the time, especially the rather left-leaning pro-CND stance of those involved in commissioning or producing the murals.

In the early 1980s, six murals were commissioned from a ‘London Muralists for Peace’ group. One of the most striking of these is Nuclear Dawn, painted by Brian Barnes in 1981. Stretching twenty-five square metres in size, a giant skeletal figure, swathed in the flags of nuclear states, stands astride the city as a nuclear bomb goes off behind and more pour from his hands. Just opposite an entrance to the newly developed Brixton Village, it can be quite alarming to stumble across as you wander out of the local pubs at closing time. It’s another one likely to be demolished soon and worth a visit before it goes.

Nuclear Dawn, Brixton.

Nuclear Dawn, Brixton.

Nuclear Dawn’s sister mural, Riders of the Apocalypse, is harder to find, but no less an unsettling sight. On the side of the Sanford Housing Co-operative in New Cross, it’s also by Brian Barnes, but a couple of years later, in 1983. Slightly shorter, but still the height of the side of a house, it shows Minister Margaret Thatcher, Yuri Andropov, Ronald Reagan and Michael Heseltine riding cruise missiles, Strangelove style. Both Thatcher and Reagan are showing rather a lot of thigh. You can also spot references to the economics of the military industrial complex, CND, ecology, and the role of feminism in the peace movement. At the base of the mural are a set of portraits — I’d love to know who they all are — and a nod to explicitly socialist stance of the aspects of the GLC which supported it.

Detail of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Detail of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Detail at base of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Detail at base of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Brian Barnes pops up again in 2005, in connection to dispute over a rather different war. The war memorial mural at Stockwell was being redeveloped, and a portrait of Jean Charles de Menezes — killed by police at Stockwell underground station in 2005, wrongly suspected as a terrorist — had been flagged as graffiti. As a report from the time in the Guardian notes, most graffiti doesn’t take 16 hours from a graduate of the Royal College of Art. What’s more, it was part of Barnes’ commission and, he argued, in keeping with the spirit of the memorial. Members of the British Legion protested, because de Menezes didn’t die in a war, and there was an attempt to paint over the portrait in blue emulsion, but activists at the weekly vigal to commemorate the shooting told the Guardian “It’s because it’s meant to be a war memorial? Well, he is a kind of fallen soldier. He died because of the war on terror, didn’t he?”

A less obviously anti-nuclear peace mural can be found in Dalston Junction, just next to the CLR James library, with the Hackney Peace Carnival mural. Painted in 1985, it was restored in 2014, so is in excellent condition. At first glance it just looks like a joyous street party, but the political message is there, with banners proclaiming jobs not bombs, no more Hiroshimas and nuclear fee zone. You can also spot references to several unions, Greenpeace and local community arts space, Chats Palace.

Hackney Peace Carnival, Hoxton.

Hackney Peace Carnival, Hoxton.

Detail of Hackney Peace Carnival, spot the "Jobs Not Bombs" banner.

Detail of Hackney Peace Carnival, spot the “Jobs Not Bombs” banner.

There’s also a way in which murals are used to stress a sense of peace in the community. In North London, the Broadwater Farm Peace mural was commissioned in 1987, after riots. One shows Gandhi, John Lennon and Bob Marley in a park with children playing and a mountain in the distance, with Martin Luther King at the summit of the mountain, deep in thought. A sister mural, from 1991, also offers a calming waterfall. This took seven and half months and two dozen brushes. Due to the wall being pebble dash, the artists had to beat the paint into the walls with the brushes.

Brixton also has an example of a post-riot mural. Children At Play — high up, above the road, by the Brixton Academy — was painted in 1982. The initial idea had been to depict the struggle of local community, but apparently, following the Brixton Riots, that was seen as a negative reminder for the area, so an imagine depicting radical harmony was picked instead.

It’s a stone’s throw from the Police Station, and I’d like to know which parts of the local community, exactly, got a role in making that decision. Something about the overtly propagandist nature of this makes me uncomfortable. There’s something about the Broadwater ones that just feels patronising. There is a lot to be said for the community art projects reflected in these murals, and the ways they allowed people to work together, but the independent street-artists we are more familiar with today are possibly freer to offer a strong critique of the state.

That said, another striking theme in the 1980s murals is an attempt to depict a deliberately provocative “people’s history” of the area, stressing the role of protest, anti-racism and socialism. As with the peace murals, they are, at least, an example of left-leaning local political groups wresting for a voice against more right wing tendencies at both national and local level.

The most famous of these murals is probably the one on Cable Street, depicting the 1936 ‘battle’ of local residents against a group of fascists who choose to march through the area (and, to no small degree, the police). The idea was first floated in the mid 1970s, but not completed in March 1983, with actions of far-right groups a big part of the problem. Even after it was opened, it’s been vandalised several times. In June 1993 when it was attacked with paint bombs, then the artist restoring it had to contend with intimidation from far-right activists who poured paint on his car and slashed its tyres. Look out for a chamber pot being emptied onto fascists, and marbles being thrown under the hooves of police horses.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural was painted in 1990, with more than a nod to the Poll Tax of the time, and commemorates a protest of 1921. Thirty local councillors — including George Lansbury, Angela Lansbury’s grandfather — refused to collect taxes from residents who were living in extreme poverty. They knew they might risk being sent to prison, and were. Undeterred, Lansbury would address crowds through the bars (he’d previously been imprisoned for inciting suffragettes, it wasn’t an entirely new experience for him). Someone should make a movie of that story, not just a mural.

Poplar Rates Rebellion mural.

Poplar Rates Rebellion mural.

More centrally located, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Mural in Islington was painted in 1984 to commemorate a local gathering of people to protest against the deportation of 19th century Dorset trade unionists. The mural was temporarily covered up by advertising in the 1990s, but local residents campaigned to have them removed, and a 2008 addition to the mural reflects the role of a local activist in this fight.

Tolepuddle mural, Islington

Tolepuddle mural, Islington

Back in South London, Battersea in Perspective offers an ariel view of the local area, but also some social “perspective” of sorts by way of some local history. A series of portraits at the bast of the mural include John Archer, Britain’s first elected politician of African descent, Shapurji Saklatvala, a Mumbai-born Communist MP for Battersea North in 1922 who was jailed for two months in 1926 for making a speech supporting striking miners, Alf Dubs, who arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport and went on to be a local MP, and suffragette, anti-vivisection advocate and Sinn Féin activist, Charlotte Despard. This was 1988, when references to Sinn Féin and miners would be especially resonant. Using special German mural paint, it is in excellent condition today, but social make up of the area has changed radically since it was painted. I wonder what sort of perspective similar artists would put Battersea in today.

Battersea in Perspective, top.

Battersea in Perspective, top.

Some of the portraits at the base of the Battersea in Perspective mural.

Some of the portraits at the base of the Battersea in Perspective mural.

Not all the memorials to local histories are centred on political events. Love Over Gold, painted in 1989, in Depford is named after a Dire Straits song, because several members of the band grew up in the area (apparently Mark Knopfler was inspired by graffiti on a wall near the Crossfeilds Estate). The artist, Gary Drostle, worked with kids at the local primary school, using their pictures as the basis of the mural. He asked them to consider issues of wealth distribution and the environment, and disability is a strong theme, reflecting an organisation training disabled people which used to be in the area. There’s even some braille in the mural, though it’s two-dimensional, sadly it’s not really tactile art (though, as with most murals, you can touch it if you want).

To cheat a bit, and end with one of the murals of the 1970s that laid the ground (or rather, wall) for this wave of public art, the Floyd Road mural is a real classic. It depicts local people working together to stop their housing being destroyed. The mural uses the side of the house it’s painted on as an explicit frame, with windows and the shape of the roof offering the angular arms of the diggers the people are fighting. Floyd Road is a nice example of the community activity that many of these murals reflected.

Floyd Road, Charlton.

Floyd Road, Charlton.

Detail of Floyd Rod mural.

Detail of Floyd Rod mural.

Scientists, torture and history

As NBC reports, “torture teachers” for the CIA earned $80million, and applied the expertise of academically trained psychologists.

This got me digging out my notes on the 1970s radical science movement (full feature on this for Mosaic early next year). One of the reasons I’m interested in them is the work they did unpicking technologies of control in Northern Ireland. It’s a story in itself, but one with a fair bit of relevance today: rubber bullets, CS spray, water-cannon, and interrogation techniques.

The bulk of the work on so-called “in depth” interrogation was done by Tim Shallice, who later went on to be director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Although it wasn’t directly Tim’s area of expertise, he knew enough of the relevant science to help translate it for a broader audience, and bring the topic under greater scrutiny. He had some professional distance from the subject, so could be a lot more critical/ take a lot more risks than many others working more closely in the field, whilst still having some specialist knowledge. Some scientists might be happy to weaponise their scholarship, but people like Tim could disrupt that.

Here’s an extract from a 1974 pamphlet The New Technology of Repression: Lessons from Ireland, co-authored by Tim, which explores the issue of interrogation.

Of the 342 internees arrested on the rely morning of August 9th, 12 were subject to much more complex procedures than the others. After being held for two days at Regional Holding Centres, they were transferred to an “interrogation centre” (location unknown) for ten hours, transferred again to Crumlin Road Jail, and returned to the interrogation centre. (All movements were performed hooded.) The men were held at the centre for ix days. Except when actually being interrogated they were kept in a room — the ‘black hole’, as one of the interrogators called it. When it the black hole, they were forced to stay in a fixed position with their hands spreadeagled high on the all and their legs apart. (The KGB called this the ‘stoika’ position.) If they collapsed, or moved to try to relive the numbness in their limbs, they’d be beaten back to position. the room was filed with a loud monotonous sound “like the escaping of compressed air” or “the constant whirring of a helicopter blade”. Their heads were reseed in loosely fitting boiler suits. No sleep was allowed or the first two or three days, and their diet was restricted to bread and water. The temperature was normally too hot, occasionally too cold.

The components of this process — disorienting and impersonal post-arrest procedures, sleep deprivation, inadequate food and isolation — are the classic components of personality break-down processes long used by interrogators. The best documented use of these methods was that by the KGB in the Soviet purges of the 1930s. The British methods of 1971 we’re hover more severe than those of the KGB. In particular, the KGB achieved isolation by placing the prisoner in a featureless, relatively silent room, and making him continually face the same way. In Northern Ireland, isolation was achieved by the prevention of ay chafe in sensory input by use of the hood the mashing noise (white noise of 85-87 decibels), the fixed position and the wearing of a loose-fitting boiler suit — an altogether more extreme regime.

The Russian methods are the culmination of the break-down methods gradually developed during the long history of the craft of interrogation; the methods used in Ireland result from the scientific analysis and hence the perfecting of the realty cruder methods. Isolation is extrapolated to its limed by presenting any change in sensory input as far as is practicably possible […]

Even in the reassuring atmosphere of a psychological experiment, her subjects are amply rewarded for staying in a comfortable sensory deprivation environment, the situation is a very stressful one. Hallucinations, nightmares, inability to think, fears of madness, body-image distortions (e.g. “my body is like a spinning cone going away from my body”) and paranoid delusions occur frequently. In situations where subjects are also printed from moving, hardly anyone can stand it for more than 10 hours. In Ireland even the official Compton Report admits to durations “at the wall” of up to 16 hours at a stretch, and of up to 43 hours if breaks for interrogation are ignored.

Moreover, the effect of sensory deprivation is highly dependent upon the subject’s anxiety — the higher the anxiety, the more fearsome its effects. In Northern Ireland even before the sensory deprivation began, the depersonalised and highly confusing arrest procedure produced very high anxiety levels. As could be predicted from the psychological research results, the techniques produced a psychotic breakdown in the men within about 24 hours of their being at the wall. The symptoms consisted of loss of sense of time, visual and auditory hallucinations, profound apprehension, depression and delusional beliefs. […] Perhaps the best way of indicating the symptoms is by a quote from a statement by one of the sufferers: “The hood was put on my head again and I was put against a wall for a short time they beat my head on the wall. I was then taken into a copter; taken a journey of 1 hour, put in the lorry and back into the room with the noise. I was put against the wall again and left. I was beaten when I could not stand any longer, taken away for questioning, taken back to the wall, back for questions back to the wall, back for questions — ‘God when will it stop’. Time meant nothing I was only a sore, aching body and confused mind. After a time I was only a mind.”

I’m not sure where the equivalent scientists like Tim are today, or if a 21st century academic career allows the same time and freedom he enjoyed.

Britain ended up in the European Court of Human Rights on this issue, in case you were wondering.

I don’t know if any of it offered useful information for the interrogators.


This blog was active when I was an academic but now I work primarily as a journalist, I tend to write elsewhere.

You can read my work on How We Get to Next, where I’m editor, the Guardian science policy blog or, for climate coverage, ICSU’s Road to Paris. You can also follow me on Twitter or check out my main professional site.

If you want to read something I’ve written recently, here are a few:

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 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. Heckle literature with comment cards left in books in libraries and bookshops. Follow UN negotiators (e.g. Tear up your syllabus and invite teachers to work with you to produce something more sustainable instead (e.g.

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, 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.