‘Green Transformations’, Leonard Cohen and the Elephant

Guest blog by Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

A lively debate about the near and long-term future of western civilisation took place [on Tuesday] in central London, at the launch of the book “The Politics of Green small_The-Politics-of-Green1Transformations”.  The edited volume based on work of the STEPS centre, was the centrepiece of an event at the National Liberal Club, and provoked a conversation about the nature of social change, economic interests, culture and the thorny question of what can (and cannot) be expected from the climate negotiations to be held in Paris at the end of the year. [Update 26th Feb – see this on Paris].

Despite following the traditional format of speakers followed by a Q and A, the launch nonetheless managed to create space for an exchange of ideas and perspectives. Michael Jacobs (former advisor on climate to Gordon Brown) spoke compellingly of the need for rapid and transformative action, and the need for governments to be pushed to act. Mariana Mazzacuto (Professor in the Economics of Innovation at the Science Policy research Unit at the University of Sussex author of well-received “The Entrepreneurial State”) challenged the use of terms like “the market” and green “deals” while pointing to the need for directed and directive investment in new technologies. Camilla Toulmin of the International Institute for Environment and Development emphasised the need to avoid high carbon lock-in for developing countries, and Andrew Simms (former New Economics Foundation lead) spoke on the efforts of groups seeking different ways of organising economies and sustainability.

Ultimately, despite differences over the advisability/possibility of growth, all speakers agreed that fundamental and very rapid change was necessary,for which an ‘enabling state’ would be necessary but not sufficient. And – ominously – none could see which “social actors” – business, government, ‘social movements’ or coalitions of subsets of these – was able to deliver this change in the extremely limited, and rapidly closing, window of opportunity that still remains to avoid a very much hotter planet. Michael Jacobs perhaps summed matters up best with his concluding comment that – “Not to be optimistic is to slip into fatalism, and fatalism is fatal. Pessimism is never a political strategy.

Some key concepts that were missing (to be fair – there is only so much you can pack into a 90 minute event!)

  • Green Confucianism [the danger that intellectual work simply leads to ‘better’ forms of (still unsustainable, and regressive) economic control – see this video]
  • The Theme Park of Radical Action (Ingolfur Bluhdorn) and the self-indulgence of some forms of social movement activity (aka “the smugosphere”)
  • Michael Porter “Technology Forcing Policies
  • The problem (for business) that regulation might actually work in some instances and be seen to work, undercutting the free market mythologies.
  • A sense that those who stand to lose from a ‘Great Green Transformation’ are highly class conscious, even more highly motivated and able to defend themselves (at this point I am contractually obliged to point the reader to Geels, 2014). For example, the world’s biggest privately owned coal company, Peabody, is funding a public relations campaign called “Advanced Energy for Life,” aimed at putting opponents of coal on the defensive (by implying they don’t care about electricity for the bottom two or three billion)

The tl:dr – smart people saying smart things while dancing around the increasingly unpalatable but unavoidable (?) conclusion that (a subset of) the species has been smart and lucky, but that smarts will only get you so far, and luck always runs out. The elephant in the room is that we may have left this too late, and that sometimes when you are reaching for the sky it is, as Leonard Cohen growled, ‘just to surrender‘.

What follows, for the obsessives and the masochists (?) is the closest to a blow -by-blow account as I can give. Video footage was taken of the speeches, if not the Q and A, and should be up on the STEPS website in due course. All mistakes of interpretation and deciphering of my hieroglyphics remain the responsibility of… the speakers. (cough cough.)

Professor Peter Newell opened the event punctually and briefly, situating it as a “timely debate” given the impending UK general election [with climate perhaps off the table?] and Paris climate talks at the end of the year. He explained that the book being launched had emerged from seminars held by STEPS that had looked at the politics of knowledge, of who gets to define the terms of debate, questions of innovation, the role of the state and the financing of ‘green transitions’, the role of civil society/social movements, questions of strategy. Authors were invited also to look at history and what (if any) useful precedents there might be for the (rapid re-) alignment of institutions. Importantly, he also pointed to disquiet over the traditional framing in policy and academic circles of pricing and markets ‘versus’ governance, both of which elide or ignore questions at a deeper political level.

Then it was into the four speakers (Michael Jacobs, Mariana Mazzucato, Camilla Toulmin and Andrew Simms).

Jacobs started by recapping the debate between the ‘growth impossible/undesirable’ versus mainstream economists. He said it was a long debate that had not gone away entirely, but had perhaps been replaced/subsumed by Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” which argues that capitalism is unsustainable [MH- tbh, I think this would surprise, say, William Catton, or Barry Commoner, who got there first by a considerable margin. For an excellent review of Klein, see here]. For Klein, said Jacobs, climate change is the final nail in the coffin, or is being rhetorically used as such by campaigners.

For Jacobs though, neither of these arguments is tackling what he referred to as the ‘real economy’ (in ways that perhaps overlap with the second speaker, Mariana Mazzucato).

For Jacobs, the degrowth/Klein perspective misses the conflict between high and low carbon imperatives, the real conflicts in politics and policy between the fossil fuel sector and the low carbon beneficiaries of (increased) regulation [the renewables sector, the energy efficiency sector].

This battle is mainstream, being fought out in organisations such as the World Bank, the OECD, the major development banks and up to a point in governments (e.g. in the planning system in China, with battles over air quality [talk about the politics of knowledge!!], water quality [See Mark Hertsgaard and Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone for more about this.]

Jacobs pointed [ruefully?] to work he had contributed to on a report called New Climate Economy released in September 2014, which looks at the semi-orthodoxy around green growth as a way of addressing questions of air quality, congestion [of traffic?] and inequality.

He pointed to the disjuncture of the UK government having signed up to the Climate Change Act (and the Tories haven’t abolished it!) while still going full steam ahead for fracking, with the CBI representing low carbon economy interests but also the oil and gas sector. There is, Jacobs said “real tension in the real economy”, and the politics of this are hard.

Jacobs felt that this was (therefore and too much) an elite framing and battle at present [carbon pricing and innovation policy not being doorstep issues, let’s be honest] before sounding the alarm that we have “15 years to determine any chance of keeping to two or near 2 degrees” with a need for “big changes in Business as usual” or we will be “locked in”

[See January 1987 testimony to US congress of Professor Verabhadran Ramanathan. See also Australian Climate Commission rhetoric over “the Critical Decade.” Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre will tell you we don’t have even that long to turn the supertanker…]

Jacobs, in language he returned to in the closing statements, pointed that “citizens have to make governments want to do this”, but that while Unilever might become progressive because of pressure from Greenpeace, and tightly-focused divestment campaigns might push holders of capital, there wasn’t the more diffuse pressure for social change, as per the first half of the 20th century, when social democrats had capitalist allies and were able to ‘make’ the welfare state. Now we lack an ‘agent of change’ analogous to the trades unions/labour parties of those days…

Next up Professor Mariana Mazzucato. She wanted to emphasize that talk of “green-ness” could be a way to change the (societal) conversation dramatically.

Urging the audience to read the book being launched, she pointed to the sterility of “top-down” versus “bottom up” around questions of finance and agency (as in, who can make things happen), saying that such binaries fail to help expose the fine detail (or “granularity”) required. Words like “bureaucracy” in relation to the state, or under-historicised words like “the market” can create more heat (and darkness) than light.

“The market,” she pointed out, is an outcome of decisions, actions and policies, rather than a preexisting thing. She urged a focus on actually existing institutions that make markets. Similarly she expressed discomfort with “civil society” – a “lazy term”. She pointed out that the mafia is a “bottom-up” institution par excellence.

Beyond relatively straight-forward questions of which technologies get funded, she pointed to the work of Carlotta Perez on the very direction of change of technologies (with mass production in the early 19th century). [See for example David Noble and Merritt Roe Smith on this]

She then turned her attention to the fact that in many areas the business community is in a stage of extreme financialised hoarding, with share-buy-back schemes (especially in the energy sector). She said it was not a coincidence that this was in areas where the state is very active (pharmaceuticals and energy). According to the work of Marcia Angell, 75% of the genuinely revolutionary drugs have been funded by the (US taxpayer-funded) National Institute of Health, and four big development banks (including EU and China) have invested 8 times as much as all the world’s venture capitalists [in Energy R and D, I think].

By not admitting that public actors are transformative, the debated is being devalued and debased. For example, the Department of Energy has been responsible for 90% of the R and D into fracking, but this is nowhere in the debates over “grandchildren paying debts [around taxpayer bailouts].

Finally, Mazzucato pointed to the word “deal” in green deal. She closed out by pointing that the “golden years” of innovation at Bell Labs didn’t happen by chance. AT&T set up Bell Labs under pressure following “tense negotiations” between government and business, and threat of more stringent state control/regulation.

[See also the work of Adrian Smith on technology [and my riff on that too?!], Karl Polanyi, Hilary Wainwright etc]

The third speaker, Camilla Toulmin pointed out that the IIED had in 1988 published “Blueprint for a Green Economy”. She raised important questions about how we (as in, the academic/activist/’civil society’) movement have been “naive in the debate” on the questions of politics and power. She cited the EU President Jean Claude Junke that every politician knowing what needs to be done but being afraid to do it”, and the push-back against ‘green’ rhetoric in the lead up to Rio +20 from countries that see carbon cuts as a developed world imperative [No change there then, in the last 25 years, except that the developed world has made and broken many promises…]. She pointed to some slight signs of hope, that once re-framed as ‘just development’ there was engagement on questions of water, land,forests, and money being put forward to fund projects. There were, she said “a lot of initiatives, almost too many”. She mentioned the usual alphabet soup of UNEP, World Bank, the Global Green Growth Forum, Global Green Growth Institute, Global Green Growth Knowledge platform, all of which are wooing multinational corporations.

Her own organisation’s goal is to go beyond this, and do capacity building;, via such avenues as the Green Economy Coalition.”She pointed to the systemic bias against the small scale, the trashing of ‘environmental goods’ and the vital importance of developing countries not getting locked into high carbon infrastructure. However, at present the balance of power is firmly with the incumbent high carbon companies/countries. She gave the example of Saudi Arabia, able to maintain production levels, sink the oil price and so endanger renewables investment.

Oil and gas companies remain hugely powerful, though with some nervousness over divestment campaigns and the ‘stranded assets’ rhetoric. She cited a (Shell) executive as saying (predictably enough) that “coal must stay in the hole”.[i.e. the fossil fuel lobbies are continuing the game of trying to push each other under the bus…

She concluded by saying that we are all deeply entangled (in systems of power) and that we’ve been naïve and optimistic, and need to be more combative and savvy, and to recognise the power of [potential] losers to be “blockers” [On this, see Sebenius from 1990]

The last speaker was Andrew Simms. He pointed to the simplicity of the “forces of darkness” able to say “privatise, liberalise, deregulate” while their opponents say “well, it’s complicated”. He followed this up with an observation that if we had as man activists as acronyms (GGGF etc), we’d already have won.

He pointed to the Oil and Gas industry representative of Radio 4’s Today programme seeking government handouts, and the lack of climate risk awareness among Big Business.

He grudgingly admired the architects of finance-led globalisation in being able to turn the threat (of delegitimisation in 2008) into further opportunities for power/money grabs [my terms]

He pointed to the lack of number crunching on just how deep and fast a transformation is required to give ourselves even a 50/50 shot of avoiding 2 degrees of global warming (the ‘unburnable carbon‘ stats of 33% of the oil, 50% of the gas and 80% of the coal being unusable)

After touching on the impossibility of growth in the absence of redistribution to lift people out of poverty, he turned to the inconvenient point that networking/social innovations can only succeed if there is a (very) favourable framework for it, and that technology on its own is not going to deliver (much in tune with the British Sociological Association’s study afternoon to be held Weds 26th). See for example Ozaki and Shaw (2014) Entangled Practices:Governance, Sustainable Technologies,and Energy Consumption. Sociology Vol. 48(3) 590­–605.

He gave a shout out to the food sovereignty networks in the south, to Buen Vivir, and – somewhat less convincingly – to the Transition Network. He quoted two dead socialists –

John Ruskin – “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”

Raymond Williams –  “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

While saying he’d not seen any work that showed continued growth in the OECD countries was compatible with staying under two degrees, he didn’t talk about the Impossible Hamster though. What that? This!

The Q and A

Questions were bunched, wisely. In the first round

a) If you had a time machine going back, when would you go to/what advice would you give. And using the time machine going into the future and looking back, what did we do WRONG in 2015 that we then regretted?

b) Isn’t the key entry point for green movement “inequality”, and can we frame the green economy as breaking with the establishment/incumbents?

The linkages of domestic and international politics and the differences between Copenhagen 2009 and Paris 2015?

d) Isn’t all this talk of low carbon/green growth missing the point, in that renewables etc have been additional to rather than in the place of traditional high-carbon investment?

Michael Jacobs agreed whole-heartedly with the fourth question, pointing to both increased renewables but also increased coal use in the EU (thanks in part to rock-bottom US coal prices). Jacobs then lamented the lack of an environmental movement with sufficient force. He pointed to 350.org and Avaaz, but admitted that it is very very hard to mobilise people on policy questions, and this is a real problem, one that worries him hugely because “we have so little time.”

He felt domestic/EU politics wont’ play a role on road to Paris, since EU is a bloc, and that the only thing that will raise EU and other countries’ ambitions is public pressure. The absence of public pressure will lead to a lowest common denominator agreement, which won’t drive investment.

For Jacobs the difference from Copenhagen is that US and China both now want (some form of) deal. If Paris concludes with a deal that economic actors (investors) don’t think is serious [e.g. is not a long, loud, legal signal] then this is something “we will regret of many years.”

Mazzucato felt that the biggest missed opportunity was the way that the financial crisis was framed as hedge funds etc versus the (otherwise healthy) real economy, without pointing out that the real economy is just as sick. She cited a recent Guardian story on the US meat packing industry, before pointing out that there has been little discussion on the Piketty graphs of post-70s increased return on capital. She felt that Piketty’s solution (a wealth tax) was misplaced and what is really needed is “a new theory of wealth creation.”

Toulmin felt that the NGOs had fragmented and failed to mobilise and organise, and that this needed to change in the lead up to UK General election and Paris, though the Lobbying Act might have a constraining/chilling effect. On the differences between Copenhagen and Paris, she said that the costs of inaction were more visible, the costs of adaptation and vulnerability increasingly felt, and governments better informed. “Will it be enough? We’ll see.”

Andrew Simms felt that there was a rough consensus on the need for stimulus spending, albeit not in the UK. The austerity agenda had then swept all before it. On a similar theme to Toulmin, he felt in 2008 that NGOs had missed the opportunity- the “inertia of 3 year campaign plans triumphed. We didn’t push the right buttons, pull the right levers.”

The second round of questions was even more interesting

The first questioner, Prof Andy Stirling, pointed out that amid the talk of metrics, theories and frameworks (all very cogent) what might be missing is culture, and the (oppositional/transformative) possibilities of, say decolonisation, women’s emancipation, anti-classism struggles.

The second person,Hubert Schmitz, simply asked “are we too optimistic, is the transformation even possible in the space of a few decades?”

The third asked some linked questions on is the “stranded assets” narrative a trap, and how can we think of the fossil fuel industry in more granular way in relation to the UK state.

The fourth questioner wondered about the need for and viability of technology transfer to what we call the developing world, to avoid high-carbon lock in.

The fifth question (and only one from a woman, though women made up about a third of the audience) was on the role of other actors – central banks, regulators.

The final question/contribution (see “A chink of sunlight” below) was on the question of culture again, and the ‘aesthetics’ of speaking differently to and about power, with the examples of Syriza, Podemos and Ecuador strongly in mind.

Time was by now super short, and responses were necessarily brief.

Simms said “yes” on the culture question, with the formulation that during/after the Weimar republic the Right succeeded because it aestheticised politics [which Susan Sontag famously wrote on] while the left failed because it politicised aesthetics].

Simms, as did Jacobs, stressed the need for optimism generally, pointed to oil industry fear of divestment, and believes that it is possible for the rest of the world to bypass high carbon energy in favour of micro/small scale energy [Hmmm, possible yes. Amory and Hunter Lovins have been banging on about this for 40 years. Likely? No.]

Toulmin stressed the need for empowerment of local people and knowledge with local interests better represented. She gave the example of the spread of solar panels in the Malawian village she visits. The international outcomes – it depends on energy exporter/importer issues. Importers becoming increasingly keen on increased energy security. She was fearful that other events could derail/distract/detract from necessary climate action.

Mazzucato stated that its not a question of culture versus control, and that there are always tensions in/between movements (what Polanyi called double movements).

She pointed to the need not just to create money (quantitative easing a-go-go) but also to direct it. She pointed to the difficulty that even Keynesians have in defending from the argument that the state “crowds out” other investment, that it’s hard to defend that you are creating a pie that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

[Two points here
1) “If we just enlarge the pie, everyone will get more”. This has been the imagery of Capitalist growthmanship since the end of World War II- and I once did my share in propagating it. But the growth of the pie did not change the way the slices were distributed except to enlarge the absolute gap between the lion’s share and the ant’s. And whether the pie grows, or stops growing, or shrinks, there are always people who suffer from the behaviour of the cooks, the effluents from the oven, the junkiness of the pie, and the fact that they needed something more nutritious than pie anyway.” Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism


2) “And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event.”

Finally, Michael Jacobs agreed that culture was indeed fundamental to the problem, but that environmental movements had not been able to lobby/capture the state in ways that, say, the women’s movement had, and that in some ways the environmental movement was weaker than it was 20 years ago, when it was smaller but stronger. The sense of hope that problems could be solved via state action has diminished, except in places where the crisis is sharpest. Syriza is up against very very powerful forces. Here in the UK we have to try to create social movements out of more “normal” times and to re-imagine how the state relates to the economy to create social change. He closed out by saying “you can never bee too optimistic. Not to be optimistic is to slip into fatalism, and fatalism is fatal. Pessimism is never a political strategy.”

A cynic might well shoot back “Well, yes, but neither is wishful/magical thinking”…

A chink of sunlight
At the very end something unusual and praiseworthy happened. A man whom the chair invited to ask a question said “nope, that woman in front should go first, since all the other questioners have been men, even if it means I don’t get to ask my question.” Bravo!!!

This tendency – of the sharp-elbowed/(over)-confident men (such as the author of this post, who asked the first question) needs to be dealt with the level of structure and habit, rather than individual self-abnegation. I dream of a world where chairs routinely say “before we go straight into a q and a, which will be dominated by the usual suspects, please turn to the person next to you/behind you and spend two minutes swapping names and impressions of the event. If you have a question, seek affirmation of it, and help in honing it. We’ll then have a show of hands, and I am going to prioritise gender and racial equity.” It’s a little thing, but it might be part of making a difference. #justsaying


On the plus side

  • None of the questions became too much a speech (always a danger)
  • The gender balance of speakers (2 and 2) was refreshing (see here for how they do things in Manchester. Six white men, one white woman…).

On the minus

  • Only the first speaker stuck to the “5 to 7 minutes” remit
  • All but one of the questions came from men
  • The audience was almost entirely anglo

On balance

Well worth attending.

Find out more

This blogpost was first published on Marc Hudson’s own website


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