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.

“We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

The UK Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander recently claimed the new government energy bill cutting plan was a “win, win” policy.

But can there really be any such thing as a win-win policy when it comes to energy? Because even putting aside specific scepticism about the UK context of that line, the simplistic binary of ‘win-win’ limits the sorts of questions, perspectives and expectations we might have about energy policy. It glosses over the diversity of people within such groups and the diversity of ideas or impacts they might have. There are more people on the planet, and more people yet to be born in the planet to consider than simply those charging and playing bills in one country today. There also other businesses, other ways people interact with energy than simply bills, other ideas, other frames, other ways we might weight our concept of winning.

As Sujatha Raman, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham, said when I asked for questions to take with me to the Nobel Dialogue: ‘Can we have affordable uninterrupted energy supply (the International Energy Agency’s definition of energy security) without the exploitation of somebody somewhere?‘

With that in mind, one of the most interesting themes I saw emerge in the Nobel Prize Dialogue was discussion of difference. As Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, started off his discussion on energy outlooks: ‘We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way.’ On a very simple level, some people are getting to use more energy than others. There are big emitters, who also get the value of these emissions, and low ones, who simply don’t have access to such value.

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, stressed issues of difference perhaps most of all the introductory morning talks. As well as making a moral case for a pro-poor global energy strategy with drive to even out access to energy resources, he outlined some of the complexities of the global energy market, showing that what is true for one country is very different for another. He also stressed change; difference over time. Or, as he put it, the ‘job descriptions of key energy players are being re-written’. Countries which had previously been major energy importers are being significant energy exporters. There’s the US and its so-called shale gas ‘revolution’ but also Brazil, which is becoming a significant exporter due to the impact of two major policies – increasing production, but also pushing biofuels – which are quite different from the picture we’ve seen in America. Conversely, more established energy exporter countries are looking for new markets, largely in Asia. Back to the pro-poor dimension, he also discussed how divergent prices for energy are in different countries (gas is cheaper in the US than in Asia) and how this price differential provides an important dimension for different economies. Above all, perhaps, Birol stressed the role of subsidies to change to appearance of energy prices, especially in terms of picking between energy choices: ‘For me, fossil fuel subsidies are number one public enemy of sustainable energy development’ as governments are putting money from their own citizens to push the price of fossil fuels down, encouraging us to use them in a wasteful manner.

We also heard a moving speech from the UN’s Richenda Van Leeuwen outlining why increased energy access is so important; not just in terms of fuelling economic growth and improving lives by opening up new possibilities but also to save people, especially women, from the sorts of energies they current rely on. Fuels that cause burns. Fuels that choke. Fuels which put young women in danger of rape if they go out to collect firewood.

What we hadn’t heard much of however – at least by lunchtime when I wrote this – was the impact of climate change on poorer parts of the world. References to poverty are often used in calls for greater use of one energy or another – and it was indeed mentioned by BP’s Carl-Henric Svanberg in his address at the start of the dialogue – but unless the views of the people in the countries you are talking about are discussed, with full inclusion of concerns about the impacts of climate change too, it seems a bit like empty rhetoric. I’m totally in agreement with Van Leeuwen about this element of the energy challenge, but I can’t help thinking that if we in the west really want to take the well-being of the rest of the world seriously, some sort of sense of their ‘growth’ is going to have to give. And pro-poor rhetoric from the likes of BP looks a bit crass. Because I still have hope that Raman’s wrong and that we don’t need to exploit people for energy, but we might have to change how we live our lives, and recognise how much exploitation it is built upon.

A postnote though: As Christof Rühl (also of BP) noted in his talk on energy outlooks, we’re seeing a convergence in fossil fuel mix, and this is a big deal because for the first time in human history, we don’t have a dominant fuel. Maybe there’s a sign of hope for change there, even if the use of non-fossil fuel options are still way behind.

George Osborne’s misplaced sense of ‘security’ in higher education

students flying a flagSussex students flying flags as they occupy Bramber House last Feburary. This post was first published on New Left Project.

Of all the lines in George Osborne’s autumn statement speech this week, the idea that UK higher education is on a ‘secure footing’ ranked high on a scale of taking the bloody piss.

This was days after the second strike from higher education workers this term. It also followed revelations last month about BIS budget mismanagement. Further, the strike was accompanied by wave of student activism which has roots in the 2010 occupations and protests but, students graduating as they do, is in many ways a very new wave of activism; one that has been building steadily across the country since the start of the calendar year, when students at University of Sussex occupied a central building in against privatisation.

These protests escalated further on the day of Osborne’s autumn statement itself. Heavy police presence which has increasingly become a norm on campuses further grew to accusations of police assaulting protestors. As has become a familiar pattern the last few years, police have been called in to control students and this has only escalated tensions.

Update: and now the University of London is trying to ban protests. Further update: Looks like the so-called Sussex Five have had their suspensions lifted (though disciplinary action continues) and Andy McGettigan’s found a hole in Osborne’s figures.

Perhaps the most haunting image was a picture of a pool of students’ blood outside Euston Square, shared on Twitter that evening (and confirmed to me by eyewitnesses later).

Is this really what secure looks like? Tip-toeing over pools of students’ blood to get the tube home? That’s ‘secure’ now?

Securities can take many hues though. What is secure, how, where, why and serving whom? The particular security Osborne seems to mean is economic, not whether students are rioting. But that security is still dubious. Even putting aside the BIS budget issue last month, as Chris Cook argues, be wary of promises to fund anything based on selling off the student loan book, as it is worth more to the government than private investors. And policies aiming for such ‘economic security’ are linked to the students protests, anyway. These protesters have quite a complex set of complaints, encompassing a range of contemporary economic and social issues, drawn from within and outside higher education. They are looking at the working conditions of a range staff on campus as well as they ways in which various economic interests are controlling their curricula, their careers advice and the research which is conducted on campus.

A trope of much of the backlash against government HE policy has been the idea that students are being treated as customer and this reflects an insidious marketisation of education. Although I have some sympathy with this critique, I think it’s a lot worse than that. They’re not customers. They’re financial assets.

That’s what first forming, and then selling off the student loan book does. It makes the students – and their postgraduate paycheques – something to invest in. It engrains both formally and informally an idea that education is about fuelling a very particular view of the economy, as opposed to the multiple other things a university could be about (including a chance to question how we choose to pattern our economy, and who gets to control it).

Repeating the complaint that the government is turning students into customers only plays into those who know the idea alludes to a promise of greater student agency (forgetting the rather curtailed extent of any customer agency, or if it’s applicable to education, it implies power nonetheless). And none of this is about student agency, it’s entirely about student use. As a friend said to me recently in the different context of the disproportionate amount of landlords’ power: It’s farming people. I’d almost settle for my students as customers at this stage, the idea of them as simple meat for the economy is so much more sinister.

I fear we’ll see many more pools of blood on the streets around universities before we reach any idea of ‘security’. I only hope there isn’t much blood, and any sense of security we conclude with is lead by and serves students, rather than seeks to exploit and control them.

Confiscation Cabinets at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

children's weaponsA Rubik’s cube remade as a weapon. This post first appeared on New Left Project.

Confiscation Cabinets – a new exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood by artist Guy Tarrant – shows a series of artefacts confiscated by the artist from schoolkids, while he was working as a teacher.

The objects include homemade games, toys, adornments, weapons and keepsakes from 150 different London primary and secondary schools amassed over the last three decades. A preview I’d seen of it suggested the exhibition was largely about old toys, a trip down memory lane sort of exhibit. But it’s far from that. You can see products like that in the main galleries anyway. What makes this exhibition different is that they are artefacts of confiscation; objects which show the bits of contemporary urban childhood which are much less marketable.

So, after the plastic spiders, friendship bracelets, yo-yos, hairbands, tennis ball and a headless Mr T doll were largely paper-based hand-made items which were in some ways deeply ephemeral but really brought out the sheer boredom of a lot of school. Paper planes, rubber-band balls, notes kids have passed each other (one heartbreakingly, “Sarah, do you like me? Yes or No” with the “No” box very clearly ticked), a magnificently chewed biro and an entire hand-drawn pack of cards.

And then we get to the weapons. Because childhood can be really, really shit and kids arm themselves, sometimes very resourcefully. There was a glue spreader impressively sharpened to a point, an axe made from a stick and a bit of flint, the old breath freshener and lighter turned flame thrower trick, some olbas oil that had been used in an eye attack (and caused a child to be hospitalised), some computer mouse balls stripped down to act as missiles and a toilet handle fashioned into a knuckle duster. Also ingeniously weaponised were also pieces of a shopping trolly, one of those hanging handgrips there used to be on tubes (with the ball at the end), a taped up table leg, a door knob and a fire extinguisher pull. And some bullets. The most inventive was probably the deconstructed Rubik’s cube which had been turned into a missile.

Overall the exhibition was quite unsettling. But in a realistic way. It’s not an image of London childhood I always like to remember, but it was one I still recognised.

Confiscation Cabinets. 9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014. Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. 10.00 to 17.45 daily Closed 24-26 December and 1 January. Free.

Science Museum: The best bits

This was first published in the November edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including a column from me on science comedy.

Science Museum electric cab

Science museums are fascinating bits of the world, full of the artefacts of old ideas of what the future might bring. A hodgepodge of moments in human discovery and invention. Some of these moments are long gone. Some are still with us. Some float back and forth into fashion or utility. Here are my top fifteen exhibits in the London Science Museum. Use them as a guide for your next visit, or as a virtual tour.

1. The Watson and Crick Double Helix

In some ways, the very idea of a science museum is a bit silly. How do you display the worlds of the very small, the very big, the very fast, the very slow or plain invisible which science manages to perceive through application of maths, theories, specialist equipment and years of measurement? You can put a law of motion a case. You can’t hang a theory on a wall.

So science museums get devious and, for example, the London museum wanted to display the great British discovery of DNA, and came up with the ingenious idea of using the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. The problem was that the people in the lab had, quite sensibly, taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was taken. So the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them off and rebuilt it. So it is a mockup, albeit an official one. It’s also very beautiful, displayed almost as abstract art, perhaps with too little explanatory text.

2. 1926 Kelvinator Gas Fridge

The technology side to science museums – which arguably dominates – can be as hard to display as the science. Often, the same thing that makes a technology iconic is also why it’d be a bit weird to expect someone to visit it in a museum. You don’t need to go to Exhibition Road to see a mass-produced product like a biro or an iPhone or a Yale key. It’s in your pocket, or at least someone else’s near by.

One option is to display technological routes not taken. Which is the case of the ‘Kelvinator’ gas fridge, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery. The battle of gas versus electric fridges is a classic tale in the history of technology, one that helps explain why fridges hum, but also reflects the ways in which hype and the alignment of particular business interests can move us in one path over another.

3. Apollo 10

Another option for displaying technology is to go with firsts, and there are many in the museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery. It’s maybe not very patriotic to pick one of the American icons in a gallery full of the stars of British industry, but really how can any of them compete with a spaceship?

People got inside of this object and went on a trip around the moon. All the way back in 1969. It’s not futuristic, it isn’t fiction. It doesn’t even look very modern. If anything, it’s a bashed-in old idea of the future.

It will simultaneously make you feel powerful to be part of the human race, and incredibly humble. As all the best science museum exhibits should.

4. Hiroshima Bowl

Another problem with displaying technology is the sheer size of it. The museum has purpose-built galleries for fitting large objects, but even it struggles with planes and ships (largely going for bits of them or just models). Moreover, it’s not always the technology itself that’s of interest or importance, but the broader social context/ environmental impact around it.

With both of these issues in mind, how do you display an atomic bomb? There are many ways museums around the world have found to answer this problem but I really love the decision here, of a humble bowl found in Hiroshima after bombing in August 1945. You can see the sand fused to the sides of the porcelain.

A small exhibit, especially as it’s surrounded by the large machines of Making the Modern World, but possibly one of the more affecting.

5. Turbine blade

Hiding up against the side of a wall on the Wellcome Wing, a cynic might say it’s hard to spot because it’s part of a Shell-sponsored climate exhibition, and fossil fuel companies would rather we avoided talking about renewables. But equally we might argue there is something very pro-wind about how unobtrusive it is, considering turbines are often criticised as a blight.

It’s also interesting to see a turbine on display on a national gallery, considering the politics surrounding climate activists’ attempt to “gift” one to the Tate last year.

6. Handcuffs

These are easy to miss amongst the trains, trucks and spaceships, a rather anonymous pair of handcuffs makes up part of the “technology in everyday life” section of the Making the Modern World Gallery. Next to rollerskates, some bits of cutlery, a typewriter for the blind and a few bikes.

The handcuffs are noteworthy as an example of a technology of control; something the museum could make more of. I remember reading about an exhibition on plastic bullets put on in Brixton in the mid 1980s by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. It would be interesting to know why the Science Museum itself didn’t at the time, and if they would think of something similar today.

It’s also worth considering the particular take on the history of technology which keeps bikes on the side in a gallery where cars are given pride of place in the central thoroughfare. The last few times I’ve visited the museum, friends have remarked “why isn’t there a massive gallery filled with bikes?”

7. Iron baby

One of the many pieces of art dotted around the museum is a small statue of a newborn baby by Antony Gormley. You can found it snuggled away at the side of a case on first floor of the Wellcome Wing. According to museum mythology, when staff researched visitors’ reactions to it, girls would bend down and stroke the baby whereas boys kicked it. I don’t really care if that story is true, I just like it (I also find the exhibit very kickable).

8. Advertising on the stars

Hidden at the back of the George III gallery of 18th century science is a globe displaying charts of the stars mapped more earthly spaces. Above the Northern hemisphere you can see familiar characters of Greek astronomy; animals and heroes and the like. But bend down to the Southern hemisphere and you can see the makers of the globe were more puzzled as to what to put. So they used this map of the skies to chart pictures of the other products their company made; lab benches and other chemists’ equipment. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and more modern science, and also an early example of the connections between science and advertising.

9. A smile machine

The cases in the Who Am I Gallery are a treasure trove of ephemera and other interestingness relating to the broad and diverse science and technologies of being humans. See if you can find the Swearing Association Challenge Cup, a penis packer used during gender realignment, the freeze-dried mouse, the knitted telomeres, the white peacock and a smile machine.

The ‘smile machine’ is a slight misnomer, it’s actually an electrotherapy machine, but as the museum label points out, in the 1860s, physiologist Guillaume Duchenne used pulses from such devices to provoke twitches in patients’ faces to explore how we formed expressions, concluding truly happy smiles use the eyes as well as mouth.

10. Snuff boxes

Running alongside the big steam machines in the main front to the museum, and just before you get to Watt’s workshop are some of the more domestic sides to the Industrial Revolution. This includes a ‘Power, Products and Prosperity’ display which reflects, quite plainly, how much of this period was about the rise of shopping. A slightly uncritical display of consumer culture, arguably, but the cases are a real treasure trove of 19th century stuff and, as the museum label notes, this reflects new the power of the emerging middle classes: “Some saw it as a new democratisation of taste.” There’s a great collection of snuffboxes, including one shaped like a harp, as well as buttons, toys and a urinal next to a custard cup.

11. The building itself

Like many old purpose-built museums, the building itself is an exhibit, reflecting some history of how we have thought about science and technology.

It’s roughly split into three parts. The first from 1928, delayed because of WW1 but finally finding a permanent home for galleries which had been in and out of various prefabs since the Great Exhibition of 1851. The central galleries are an extension dating back to the 1950s, partly linked to the Festival of Britain. Finally there’s the Wellcome Wing, part of a swathe of science museum and galleries (or rebuilds of old ones) for the millennium.

It’s worth having a look around the outside of the museum too and exploring some of the history of South Kensington. What is now the Science Museum used to share space with what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is still the odd marker to this in the V&A building. Look out for scientists’ names on the door of the garden, and the Science and Art corridor near the silver gallery.

When I take people to the museum, I also get them to look at the sponsors sign at the front too. A thanks to supporters but also a declaration of conflict of interest of sorts, and reflection of the groups who have an interest in the way we display science and technology (or at least those groups with money to spare).

12. A Victorian electric taxi cab

We might think of electric cars as futuristic, but the Science Museum has one from 1897. In some ways it is like the gas fridge, a route of technology we didn’t take, but it’s also a steampunkish reflection of how hopes for the future can return in new and different contexts, even seem a bit retro.

It’s currently on temporary display in the entrance to the Wellcome Wing. I sometimes wonder where they’ll put it when that exhibition ends. I’d like to see it moved into the Making the Modern World, disrupting that gallery’s chief narrative of linear progress. Because the history of technology isn’t linear, the Science Museum should know this better than most, but somehow still often perpetuate the myth.

13. Antarctic ice core

This is one of the few objects from the natural world in the Science Museum (their definition of science has always been “stuff that’s not in the Natural History Museum next door”). Hidden at the back of the climate gallery, it shows evidence of the scar on the planet made by those machines of the industrial revolution so proudly presented at the front of the museum. Beautifully – albeit depressingly – haunting.

14. Rotation Station

The hands-on Launch Pad takes a play-based approach to science education. This approach – and many of the blueprints for the gallery’s exhibitions – stems from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, although this itself drew inspiration from the London museum’s Children’s Galleries, first developed in the 1930s.

My favourite exhibit here is the Rotation Station. An attempt to explain the conservation of angular momentum, the visitor is invited to climb on, hang on and spin. If you stick your bum out as you spin you make a larger circle which it takes more energy to travel along: stand up straight and you go much faster.

It is an approach to explaining science which takes the idea very far out of any social context, and often criticised as such. But such decontextualization is both clear and reflects an approach to science. Also, the bum-controlled spinning is lots of fun. Best avoided when hungover though.

15. 1933 Electric door

Currently tucked in the middle of the Secret Life of the Home gallery is an electric door you press a button to open. Initially displayed to show off the wonder of new technology, the museum’s archives contain some great old black and white photos of school children playing with it with wide-eyed delight on their faces. For the last few decades, however, kids just stand there waiting for it to open, bemused that you have to press a button for a door to open. The exhibit itself hasn’t changed in any material sense, but changes in the world around it transforms it entirely. There is something incredibly beautiful about that, and it reflects the way the museum itself is part of the same history of science and technology it aims to collect.

Book review: The Burning Question

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke (London, 2013: Profile Books). This review first appeared on New Left Project

We used to worry we might run out of oil or gas. That’s one of the reasons why we talk of ‘peak oil’ and refer to various energy choices with the word ‘renewables’ and non-renewables, rather than focus on low or high carbon. But this is a relatively old frame for the problem. Now we’re more aware of the problem that we might actually try to burn the oil and gas we have. Moreover, new or improved technologies such as fracking mean we can access materials we’d previously thought unobtainable, or at least too expensive to bother extracting. And we can’t burn them. Or we can’t burn them if we care about climate change.

You might be forgiven for forgetting this, seeing as how little climate change gets mentioned in media coverage of energy. But it’s a key issue; many would argue the key issue.

So, now, instead of ‘peak oil’ we increasingly hear the term ‘stranded assets’ to talk about fossil fuel reserves we could use in as much as they are there for the burning, but we shouldn’t if we want to avoid even more global warming than we’re currently set towards. We are probably going to have to get used to talking about this because it looks like it’s going to dominate a lot of the debate about taking action on climate change. Just as action on CFCs was mobalised around the then new idea of a ‘hole in the Ozone layer’ in the 1980s, ‘keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of aspects of the green movement in recent months. Bill McKibben’s article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math became a viral hit last summer, with a wave of campus activism of following it.

It is also what Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke’s new book The Burning Question is about. An explanation of a slightly different concept of ‘peak’ oil, and how we should consider fossil fuels as stranded assets. As their sub-title puts it ‘We can’t bun half the world’ soil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?’

The book has received a host of warm reviews and comes baring endorsements from George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson and Al Gore. It even made the list of books MP like to tell people they are reading over the summer, heartening maybe considering most of the other titles were simply about other politicians. I can recommend it too. Berners-Lee and Clarke provide a great overview of why this stranded assets issue is both important and so intractable a problem. It reflects a mature and evidence-based approach to energy policy. It has some strong, explanatory prose and is refreshingly short, with a tightly plotted, clear structure. Titles like this could all too easily be one of those great tomes you feel you should read but, textbook-like, really can’t be bothered to get much beyond the first chapter. But something about the coherent, lively prose and the sense of urgency sitting in the background keeps you going. I should also add that this book isn’t hectoring. It’s passionate and urges action, but any more strident campaigning is largely left offstage.

Berners-Lee and Clarke give their readers a host of useful metaphors and some clear graphs, both of which are simplifications in their own ways – giving particular lenses on the larger issue – but both incredibly useful too. In a field whose discourse often places contingencies and uncertainty above all else, it was refreshing to read such clear prose. Some may well find the book too simple and clear in places, and it is worth remembering that most ‘simplification’ tend to include some personal take on the issue. Such personal takes might not be bad – indeed, they can reflect a lot of prior thought – but not everyone will agree what the essential points are. The book offers the idea of reframing peak fossil fuel for climate change I started with, as well as an image of saving energy as like ‘squeezing a balloon’ to explain the often esoteric ‘Jevons paradox’, repeating Myles Allen to talk about ‘loading the climate dice to flood, or that if we talk about being addicted to fossil fuels, we should start looking at the dealers, not users (a line I’ve since seen Naomi Klein use in talks). These are all great explanations, but they won’t please all.

Still, Berners-Lee and Clark are very open about the complexity, reflecting a sense of climate as a multi-layered ‘perfect storm of money and power, science and politics, technology and the human mind’. The book offers you the big picture and then if you want detail, look to the endnotes. They leave the various ends untied for you to unravel if you so wish. We maybe spend too much time thinking about how intractable climate change and energy policy are. Yes, it is complex, but lots of things are complex. It’s also riddled with a lot of uncertainty, but again so are many other things. A strong sense of the complexities and uncertainties at play are crucial for scientists to help them think about new ways to learn more but is not exactly useful for getting things done. Clarity is rarely scientific. It washes over all the contingencies and possibilities of thorough work. But if it’s not your job (or simply favourite hobby) to work through the details of the issue, they become a barrier for involvement. Where as simplified versions of many other areas of science and technology are readily available as introductions for non-experts, there is somewhat of a dearth of explanatory materials for climate change. All in all, I felt this book is welcome as a contribution towards filling that gap.

One of the reasons it isn’t hectoring in its style is arguably because it doesn’t really advocate any strong suggestions. For all that the book is subtitled “We can’t burn half the worlds, oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” but that question was left rather unresolved. It offers frames and questions and information which may well help us towards better conversations to deal with this question, but it is a long way from providing some itself. I also finished the book unsatisfied that they didn’t seem to want to dig into deeper political issues or really challenge the systems at play.

They do ask us to think about ownership of resources and the book ends with an answer to the question “What can I do?” which I’m personally quite strongly behind. Namely, rather than just small individual actions at home like recycling, remember you are part of a global social system which runs the larger infrastructures at fault and put pressure on politicians and business leaders to change.

Many of us feel that we’re too insignificant to make a difference, but the social and political ripple effects of our efforts may be more powerful than we’d expect. After all, human society is every bit as much a complex system as the climate itself. Everyone is influenced by everyone else. And most of us are only a few degrees of separation from someone in a prominent role. Every helpful action or comment lubricates every other; every unhelpful action is a brake on progress

Nice sentiment. But this point is a scant three pages long. It may well be all that point needs – say it, then put the book down and get on with it – but I’d have liked a bit more reflection on how power is expressed and might be unpacked to run throughout the book, and think this conclusion could well have been extended with some examples.

The discussion of stranded assets – which comes largely via the Carbon Tracker Initiative – frames the debate very much within financial systems. This is useful, and helps open a new and important area of activism. At the very least, it focuses public attention on a form of social infrastructure which all too often gets to fester away unnoticed. Similarly, McKibben likes to juxtapose the difference between the huge challenge of changing the financial system with the even bigger one of changing nature. This is an important juxtaposition, I think; one that has sat behind much environment politics for decades and is only likely to become more obvious in years to come as we debate it more in the context of new technologies such as geoengineering and more philosophical frames like the anthropocene. Why should money, not nature, be the limiting factor? Money is just something we made up to help us make society run more smoothly. Why should we let this make-believe tool rule us to the extent we endanger our planet? When did we get more scared of this thing we made up called economics than the planet we were born to?

Still, there is something about the emphasis on the idea of stranded assets that leaves me uneasy. I don’t think we should necessarily give in to seeing the planet in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think the issue is as simple as that. People sometimes talk about a new industrial revolution – a green one – which will transform the way we live to a more sustainable future. It’s another one of those simple analogies which can be very useful. But as ever, beware of the spin on reality it takes. Because it’d have to be a very different form of industrial revolution from previous ones. No one will make gazillions of pounds from find new technologies we didn’t realise we wanted/ needed. It’s not about making markets. If anything, it’s about closing them. And that’s a hard sell (so hard we use the word ‘sell’ as a way to even talk about it). Because it is not just about changing finance rather than the planet, it’ll require a host of cultural and social changes too, and the rarefied graphs of Much of the Burning Question, like McKibben’s insistence that we just need to ‘do the math’, is in danger of loosing a sense of that, even if they also offer some really important starting points.

The Burning Question offers a very clear introduction to questions of energy and climate change but, as with any expression of clarity, it’s a slight spin on things. If you think it’s the way we do capitalism which is at heart of the climate change problem, you’ll probably enjoy its more normative points. However, if you have larger economic questions and more revolutionary aims in terms of the sorts of changes required (for more than just the climate) you’ll probably find its prescription a bit of a sticking-plaster. Much I’d recommend this book, I can see why politicians felt comfortable being seen to read this book: It doesn’t really challenge them much.