Category Archives: environment

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.


Energy “futures”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

Sociologists like to talk about the sociology of expectations, the manufacture of futures. You can’t just say “it’s the future, take it” (or at least you can’t and not just sound like a bit of a tool). But futures are made, not least by imagining what we might expect, and those expectations can be managed. Or, as the sociologists put it, ‘the future of science and technology is actively created in the present through contested claims and counterclaims over its potential’ (UCL has a good overview, if you want to read more).

A nice study of making the future in action can be found in Megan Prelinger’s book ‘Advertising the Space Race: Another Science Fiction’. We’re all quite used to the idea that science fiction may interact with actual science and technology (nice report on this from NESTA or just go have a nostalgia over Jetson’s videophones). What Prelinger’s book does is show how science fictional ideas and images were really reflected in 1950s and 1960s adverts for space technologies. Amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century, Prelinger shows how some of the most fascinating discourses of hope for the future weren’t in the pages of pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. As such, they actually worked to construct this future too.

What has this got to do with energy?

Much of this Dialogue on energy was about offering us imagined futures from which to make decisions about today. Because so much of the energy debate comes down to ideas of economic growth and climate change, it is deeply futuristic; obsessed with forecasts. Technological forecasts. Economic forecasts. Climate forecasts. All uncertain – indeed, we saw several of the Dialogue speakers joke about having forecasted incorrect oil prices – but all powerful too. Just the very idea of what the future could be can provoke a particular response, used as tools to both close down and unlock policy ideas. Forecasts frame futures, they are part of the materials we make tomorrow from, even if they can’t predict or determine what is going to happen, or we act in spite of them rather than with them.

The futuristic aspects of the energy debate were played out quite reflexively at the end of the Dialogue with the concluding discussion ‘mapping scenarios for our energy future’. The panel – Fatih Birol, Steven Chu, Karin Markides, Johan Rockström and Semida Silveira – reflected in a reasonably dramatic way where they might imagine being at some date in the future. Or at least it was more dramatic than the usual abstracted graphs of the business (which we’d all seen many examples of during the day) though less dramatic than traditional science fiction, rooted in their expert ideas of what they feel to be real and likely rather than simply what would make a good story. Day After Tomorrow this wasn’t.

Earlier in the day saw some interesting debate around the role of technology in building the various environmental and economic models. Rajendra Pachauri in particular argued that we were not baring in mind technology enough in terms of forecasting. We need to consider technology prospects and work out how to better fold them into our energy projections. We need to think about disruptive technologies (e.g. that shale gas revolution we’re always being told about). Such arguments have a long history. The Limits to Growth report in the 1970s was criticised at the time by people such as Chris Freeman, arguing that, for all that yes, the Earth only contained so many resources, their particular projections had failed to give enough attention to technology. One might argue, however, that we already work too much influence of technology into our forecasts as we fold in still under-developed technologies such as CCS into our forecasts (Kevin Anderson is interesting on this, even if you don’t agree with him). Or as Greenpeace’s Isadora Wronski tweeted in response to one of the Dialogue’s talks, ‘every year @IEA projections gets closer and closer to ours, but they overestimate the role of nuclear and CCS in the decarbonisation.’ Maybe the IEA are right. Or maybe Greenpeace are. I don’t know. My point is simply that it is contested. And that you may have to expect the unexpected, but you can’t count on it.

Above all, I think we need to think more about how we might involve a larger number people in this sort of imagining. As my colleagues at the STEPS Centre might say, too often it’s narrations of the future built by powerful actors and institutions which become ‘the motorways channeling policy, governance and interventions’ overrunning a host of often valuable and more diverse pathways which stem from and respond to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values.

Because nice as the scenarios session at the end of the Dialogue was, it was a line up of the great and the good giving us stories. It wasn’t an exercise in collaborative story-making. And we need to take more time to do that. Otherwise I doubt the futures we make will be nearly robust or fair enough. And the policy-makers, scientists and engineers need to get better at devoting large chunks of time to talking with a diverse set of people about what they are doing, in a very routine way. Relying on technologies such as CCS or geoengineering into the various forecasts we use for energy policy before they are even built is one thing we might fight about, but doing so without first explaining what these are to the public and inviting them to be part of decisions around them is another.

Captain Eco and the World of Tomorrow

My set the inaugural Green Showoff last night was also a chunk of my talk at the Story today, so I thought I’d post it here.

eco books

I did my PhD on kids science books. When I tell people this, they often get a sort of “aww bless” expression on their faces.

Patronising f*ckers.

Written by one generation for the next, children’s books are full of concern over what aspects of the past to maintain and what might be different in the future. They can be deeply anxious often self-conflicted cultural products; both futuristic and nostalgic at once, full of guilt and pride about what sort of world we leaving along with fears and hope for the future. Such anxiety is especially obvious when adults try to tell stories to young people about the environment. There are all sorts of inter-generational hang-ups going on here and it’s bloody fascinating.

There was a boom in kids’ environmental media loosely surrounding the 1992 Rio summit and another running up to Copenhagen in 2009. I have a small collection of the books that were part of that, which I thought I’d share with you, and I want to focus on something interesting I found in them – the recurring character of the eco-superhero.

At first I wanted to turn my nose up at these characters. Who needs a bloody superhero to save us? I kind of find it offensive even. I don’t like a great man view of history, why the hell should we have it about our future? We need to find ways of talking about mass, cooperative action, not some magic pseudo-religious superhero savor from the sky. But – actually looing at the books – these eco-superheroes are quite diverse (well, gender aside). Some are, indeed, quite patronizing. But others take the piss. And they all sit an a social context which say something about our ideas of agency with respect to climate change.

Books aren’t the only place you see this character. Flying far above all eco-superheroes stories is TV star, Captain Planet. As the theme tune repeatedly told viewers, “he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero”. Created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle, the show ran from 1990-1996 and is still syndicated today. Though Gaia “the spirit of the Earth” was awakened by human destruction of the planet (a nod to James Lovelock) and sends five magic rings to five chosen young people across the globe, “the Planeteers”, to fight environmental destruction and, occasionally, social injustice. When the Planeteers faced a particularly tough foe, they could pool their magic rings to create the superhero character of Captain Planet. This caped crusade may fly in to assist us, but as a booming voiceover informed audiences every episode, it is only “by your powers combined” that change really happens.

Captain Planet is anything but subtle, and very earnest in its message of world peace as well as care for nature. There was a memorable episode where Captain Planet and the Planeteers tacked peace in the West Bank, South Africa and Northern Ireland, as well as episodes on animal rights and attitudes to HIV (there are quite a few online, google). When a movie remake was announced last year, Funny or Die satirised this tone, as well as contemporary inaction, with Don Cheadle as the Captain gone rouge; cynically loosing faith in humanity he manically turned people into trees ignoring the pleas of preppy Planeteers before switching his hand from a peace sign into single middle finger and shouting “the power is MINE” as he flies off.

As earnestly played as the original Captain Planet, but published more recently, in 2007, is “Understanding Global Warming with Max Axiom”.

Max Axiom  and Global Warming

Part of a series of science-themed comic books, Max is a muscle-bound (and not always fully clothed) character who, after being struck by lightening, was inspired to travel the world collecting degrees in as many subjects as possible to become a Super Scientist. His lab coat allows him to travel through time and space, he has x-ray sunglasses and the ability to shrink to the size of an atom. Other books cover photosynthesis, bacteria, sound or light. Importantly perhaps, here the heroism is less about saving the planet, and more about the adventure of finding out.

It’s not just Americans who apply superheroes to green issues. Take, for example, Jonathan Porritt’s 1992 large full-colour hardback, “Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth”. We’re told Captain Eco comes from the Earth, angry with the way humans are mistreating it (again, perhaps a nod to Lovelock) he flies around waggling his finger at everyone for being lazy or stupid.

Captain Eco

After being introduced to “Clive” aged 9 and “Michelle” aged 12 (both more interested in books, television, sleeping, music and football than the environment) Captain Eco exclaims “Suffering Solar Systems! If these are “standard” earthings, no wonder the Earth’s in such trouble”. Whereas Captain Planet was powered by the collaborative action of young people (albeit in response to a supernatural force), Captain Eco only really features child characters to be spoken down to.

Fast forward to 2009, and the Science Museum’s “Your Planet Needs You” takes a very different approach. Here the superhero character is called upon from space by politicians but, with very British tongue in cheek, he is clearly constructed as possessing more glamour than intelligence and has to turn to a group of young people to explain the problem of global warming. They take him to their climate club where the force of knowledge is clearly introduced as the science teacher, Miss Weatherbottom. He’s a joke, as well as a sort of scientific straightman the explanations can be told to.

Equally interestingly, the Eden Project’s “George Saves the World by Lunchtime”, from 2006, features a small child dressing up as a superhero, making small changes around the home. Similarly, in “Michael Recycle” (2008, Ellie Bethel and Alexandra Colombo) we see a superhero fly in from the sky, but it is one with a colander as a helmet, clearly painted as a child playing fancy dress. Further, crucially, change here is enacted by people in the polluted town in question talking to one another (there’s a joke about threads of environmentally friendly toilet paper connecting them).

In these last three books, the superhero guise is a bit of a joke, domesticated and made juvenile, with a knowing rather postmodern incredulity for saviour narratives. Like Don Cheadle’s satire of Captain Planet, they laugh at the earnestness of the 1990s and yet, less cynically, they seem to revel in the basic narrative too.

Perhaps they are best described as having their superhero and eating it.

Looking at my collection of eco-superheroes as a whole, one omission was strikingly recurrent: a clearly articulated villain. Some locate blame with human stupidity or laziness but its usually kept vague. The closest we get to anything concrete is Captain Planet, though even here it is a cohort of baddies symbolizing a range of problems such as misapplied, uncaring science or reckless business as well as characteristics such as greed, gluttony or hate (and interestingly specifically, nuclear power). In a few episodes they even join forces in an echo of the composite powers behind Captain Planet to make an alter ego, Captain Pollution. Environmental problems have multi-causal, complex explanations, even on the Cartoon Network.

Whether this relative lack of baddie is because such stories accurately depict the abstract nature of climate change or more simply because media producers are too nervous to point fingers at people who might advertise with them, I’m not sure.It might also reflect an approach to climate communication which focuses on the positive actions people can take. One might argue fantasy super-villain characters devolve public responsibility as much as the idea of a savior from the sky, so perhaps it is for the best.

Moreover, Captains Planet and Eco, Michael Recycle and Max Axiom 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, or simply ignored. There is Captain Planet fanfiction if you know where to look. I’ll leave you with that thought, and you can make your own mind up about what it means for public engagement with climate change.

inside captain eco

Information, advertising and the fracking debate

frack off

For a while this autumn, one of the first things I’d see from my train as it approached London was a giant advertising billboard celebrating British reliance on Norwegian gas, perhaps placed for commuters en route to Westminister via Victoria. This was balanced by a rather less slick “Frack Off” banner which greeted us on arrival home in Brighton. I was often struck by the differences in style of presentation, and the very different approach to energy policy.

Though both posters have now gone, I remembered them today while reading a report from risk consultancy on the global anti-fracking protests. My personal view on fracking – or rather “unconventional gas” – is that we probably need to try to keep fossil fuels in the ground and there is a worrying about of hype around shale gas because, at least, we should have a debate about such policies, but maybe I’m wrong. The report makes their view reasonably clear:

Unconventional natural gas is often described as game-changing and transformative, a revolution heralding a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy for a resource-constrained world. But only if it makes it out of the ground. […] As unconventional gas development spreads worldwide, and becomes more central to government energy policy and corporate investment strategy, a better understanding of the anti-fracking movement – its goals, structure, methods and trajectory – is essential for companies, policymakers and other observers of the emergent energy boom.

It’s a fascinating read, for many reasons. It argues the movement has worked largely through the mobalisation of grass-roots activism (p 6-7), facilitated by the inter-connectedness allowed by social media. They note the involvement of large NGOs (notably Friends of the Earth in Australia) and suggest this has pulled it towards an climate change agenda (p9) but that the rhetoric of grassroots activism lends the movement “legitimacy, credibility and authenticity” especially with policymakers and the media.

The report also credits the film Gasland with a lot of influence. One might laugh at their idea of a film-fulled grass-roots movement as a bit contradictory, but it’s worth thinking about the way Gasland was made and distributed (as well as the style of storytelling); it’s not like saying some Hollywood movie caused alarmism. This report may not be very reflexive about the politics of a call for shale gas, but they aren’t patronising the activists who oppose it. They go on: “the industry has underestimated the sophistication, reach and influence of the anti-fracking movement. It is not simply ‘NIMBy-ism’ masquerading as environmentalism, but a diverse coalition of ideological and vested interests unlikely to be swayed by industry-funded studies or glossy public relations campaigns” (p.2). I’d agree with that.

I think my favourite bit is when they note how good the anti-fracking websites are at monitoring the the unconventional gas industry and publicising industry information (p8). I got the report via the Frack Off twitter account, appropriately enough.

1958 advert for Shell nature studies guides

You know when you pick up an old book and there’s something tucked inside a previous owner was using as a bookmark? And it’s amazing?

This weekend’s find: An advert torn from a 1958 edition of Punch, for the Shell guide to “Life in the Corn”. If you can’t make out the blurb of text, it starts: “In the growing and ripening stages corn and hay are a sanctuary for wild life which man does not invade”. The small print on the right hand side recommends books based on similar posters, and I found a few other examples of the series in the Advertising Archives (put “Shell” into search). It ends with a tagline that might make some gasp: “You can be sure of Shell. The key to the countryside”.

I would have guessed the thing we now call “greenwash” wouldn’t have started to emerge until the growth of the green movement from the mid-1960s onwards (and a Greenpeace USA history describes it as a phenomenon of the 1970s onwards). But I suppose the energy industry has always had a significant impact on the landscape, people will have noticed that, and so companies will have sought to minimise negative reactions. More simply; nature is nice, lots of companies draw on allusions to it in advertising.

Has anyone done a history of adverting the oil industry? That’d be a fascinating project.

EDIT: (via twitter) Shell sponsored nature guides because people drove to see nature. Of course! It’s a mid-20th century rise of the car and suburban life thing. I’m such a city kid that didn’t occur to me (parents didn’t have a car a lot of my childhood, I never learnt to drive). I didn’t find the Wikipedia entry on the Shell guides when I was having a google for this post, but it’s quite clear there. These were edited by John Betjeman and focused on different parts of Britain. However, re-reading the small print on this advert, I’m not sure this series are quite the same thing, even if they may well come from same relationship between nature and the oil industry. The Betjeman Shell guides were rooted in places, like a tour guide, these were themed around nature (flowers, birds, insects, etc).

EDIT2: (again, via twitter) Guardian piece from 2009 on a recent re-issue of a similar book and great online archive.

Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

A call for open journalism, and open campaigning, on climate change

A view from the Science Museum’s climate gallery.

This was originally published on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog and written for a debate they ran at the Frontline Club last month. I might well have written something different today, as I read debate over climate and Sandy and keep track of the anti-gas protest in West Burton. I still think it applies though.

Is journalism fit for purpose when it comes to energy and climate change? I have two answers. They’re both questions.

Firstly, whose purpose are we trying to fit to exactly? This is important. It draws our attention – crucially – to the politics of it all, because the public debate on energy and climate change is all about the politics.

We might, if in a conciliatory mood, agree that we all want to make a happier, safer future for us all. But what this future looks like and how we get there is up for debate. It might be nice to imagine scientists could simply pass their great knowledge on to the rest of the world. But they don’t know everything, and we’re not going to quickly believe them either. Neither is it as simple as a matter of saying we should argue with scientists. See, for example, cases of “false balance” (where a marginal view is put up against a rigorously worked out one, as if they were equivalent) or “merchants of doubt” (where small amounts of uncertainty are exploited to rhetorically unravel strong cases).

I give my students the difference between top-down versus discursive models of science communication to play with, but the reality is too complex for such rarefied models.

Secondly, is journalism really the problem? Greenpeace may organise an event like this, ready to point fingers at journalism, but they should take the chance to look at themselves too. For all that I’d like to see a continued role for professional, independent journalism, we’ll increasingly see direct communication to the public from activists, academics, politicians and more.

We could all be better.

The involvement recent Arctic Ready campaign came under particular criticism. I personally felt those wailing “but Greenpeace LIED” needed to get some perspective. It’s not like Greenpeace is the first to pull something like this. The Office of Fair Trading tried a similar game a few years ago, working with Sense About Science to highlight misinformation around health. Other parodies such as the pregnant man or downloadable tan invite people to consider quite how credulous they are when it comes to science and technology. Arctic Ready fooled you? You should ask yourself why. So far, so reflexive modernisation, perhaps. But I don’t think Greenpeace should cast their audiences in the role the fool. The public discourse on energy and climate change is shadowy, elitist and confusing enough already.

In contrast, Leo Hickman’s “Eco Audit” live blog is a good example of the sort of communication I’d like to see more of. He asks a question, shows the answers he’s actively gone looking for and provides a space for more people to chip in. He listens to these contributions, pulling bits out of the comments threads and twitter, before offering a conclusion.

If nothing else, this approach lets him draw on more expertise than he can imagine when he starts off. It leaves him more open to serendipitous surprise. It also helps build trust around his analysis; even if you only read his conclusion at the end, the workings are there to check if you want to.

I want to see more of this in environmental journalism, and I want to see politicians, activists and scientists similarly asking questions in public in such an interactive way too. Hickman’s approach isn’t as flashy as Arctic Ready, but it offers a more meaningful form of collaboration than space to upload photo-art or a point and click game. It asks readers what they know and think, not simply to perform jokes within a set framework. Maybe we do need more LOL-cat humour in the climate debate (LOLpolar bear? LOL oilrig?).

And arguably the odd bit of subversive art invites us all to think. But both politics and science can still be done with respect for the public sphere as a source of inspiration for what new directions to take, not simply a space to amass support on pre-set routes.

There is a place for privacy, even secrets, when it comes to a lot of work in climate change and energy. Many in the field are defensive for good reasons; be it email hacks, undercover cops or simply a desire for a bit of uninterrupted time to explore an idea on our own. But that doesn’t mean we should close off. Be bold, be open, listen.