Thriving in an ever-changing world: from technocratic control to emancipatory care?

This is the fourth and last in a series of blog posts on the climate by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, under the heading: ‘Controlling a stable planetary climate – or caring for a complex changing Earth?’ Read part 1 / part 2 / part 3

The first three in this quartet of blogposts explored whether prevailing framings of ‘climate change’ are – both in name and action – recipes for failure.

In particular, the challenge was posed of whether catastrophic climate disruption is made more (rather than less) likely by growing delusions, at the highest political levels, that the Earth’s climate should be regarded as an object of control. Even environmentalism itself, was argued to have been smitten by this potentially disastrous pathology.

In this final post in the series, I will grapple with some key practical political implications. In seeking to do this, I must acknowledge that nothing is new in debates as longstanding and diverse as these. Although language and details may be different, these posts are far from alone in calling for shifts  from ‘technocratic control’ to ‘caring struggle’. And what this might all mean will of course depend not only on context, but also on perspective – with many possible game-changing ‘devils in details’.

But despite all this, the big picture remains clear – and important. What I mean by ‘technocratic control’ is the familiar hegemony of industrial modernity refracted ‘downwards’ through structures like the IPCC and Framework Climate Convention. Despite the best intentions and good faith – and with no necessary adverse implications for any individuals involved – this is (in aggregate political terms) a top-down power-concentrating vision aiming to stabilize planetary conditions through global regulatory control based on technical elite science and blinkered quantitative modelling.

Social and political challenges are addressed here in sometimes manipulative and authoritarian ways, more often presuming than challenging incumbent patterns of privilege and power. For instance, people are understood less as civic actors in their own right, than as targets for action. Prominent in this are the conventional instruments of social control: media orchestration, celebrity endorsement, communications campaigns informed by ‘divide and rule’ psychologistic segmentation models and driving towards paternalistic ‘nudging’ of ‘behaviour change’.

What I mean by ‘caring struggle’, by contrast, are pressures exercised ‘upwards’ from citizen participation, collective action and democratic deliberation. This is about caring for a naturally changing climate, rather than controlling global average temperature. Less mediated by expertise than by values, action is more political than technical. This aims directly at the climate disrupting interests, infrastructures and practices themselves. So incumbent patterns of privilege and power move from presumed means of control over others, to being targets for action in their own right.

Picking up a theme from the second post in this series, what this involves is resisting climate disruption in a broadly similar way to that which won so many victories in other past environmental struggles. All of these were fought primarily on the basis of explicit political values. All involved considerably more ground being won in each field, than has been gained in many decades of fighting climate disruption.

In these past environmentalist engagements, science played a key role – but always secondary and supporting of values generated more in other areas of culture – like music, the arts, literature. Past imperatives were not to ‘do what the science says’ (a slogan on too many contemporary banners). Instead they were more often about open dissent against an academic scientific establishment that repeatedly proved itself as susceptible as other areas of modernity, to expedient fallacies of control.

In short, environmental progress in the past was won more by pluralities of values, than engineered scientific consensus. Successful alternatives were espoused more through enabling bottom-up social innovations, rather imposing top-down technological solutions or ‘nudging’ of ‘behaviour change’.

These struggles depended less on ‘evidence based policy’, and more on highlighting how often it is that political power shapes what counts as evidence. They were driven by scepticism more than trust. Their effectiveness arose not from being ‘invited in’ to orderly ‘participation’ by incumbent interests presiding over established institutions, but from (sometimes unruly) uninvited dissent.

In other words, an approach to climate disruption based on caring struggle rather than controlling authority, would also treat this issue as a matter for emancipatory (sometimes agonistic) democratic politics, rather than consensual expert science. And with democracy understood as “access by the least powerful to the capacities for challenging power”, this throws into stark relief a final crucial general implication of a focus on care, rather than control.

For what is also arguably deeply undermined by a climate discourse skewed so strongly towards technocratic control rather than emancipatory care, is democratic struggle itself. And this is not only a grave threat to the efficacy of particular actions needed to cut climate-disrupting emissions. It also threatens the seedbed for all kinds of social progress – including environmentalism as a whole.

This is not an abstract concern. Driven especially by the ‘climate control’ agenda, it is actually too often environmentalists themselves who – very sadly, like James Lovelock – frame democracy as an ‘enemy of nature’ to be ‘put on hold’. This self-destructively erodes the precious political spaces that have been so essential to environmentalism.

This undermining of democracy also erodes the basis for other progressive causes – like unfinished movements against slavery, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, class snobbery, sexual bigotry and other toxic prejudices of many kinds. As the Black Lives Matter movement teaches so powerfully, all these struggles are deeply connected.

And here at the end, there emerges a further possibly-crucial lesson from the current Covid-19 crisis. Although clouded by huge complexities and variabilities – and with full implications remaining to be seen – one key question has so far been neglected. What patterns are discernible, across differences of privilege around the world, in the abilities of different kinds of societies to recover and flourish?

Aside from the undoubted value of effective public health, what roles in this messy resilience have been played by qualities of democracy (more than oligarchy), equality (more than stratification), mutualism (more than hierarchy), cooperation (more than competition), pluralism (more than dogma), diversity (more than homogeneity), solidarity (more than fragmentation), precaution (more than calculation), wellbeing (more than affluence)?

Whatever the (inevitably complex) answers, it seems clear that scientific expertise, material affluence and global power have been unreliable indicators of success in averting the worst effects of the pandemic. And whatever the circumstances – time and again – technocratic control rhetorics have been revealed to be less about directly solving problems and more about cloaking other interests.

Indeed, it is arguably exactly these kinds of overbearing expertise and concealed elite agendas that have helped provoke the notable recent turn to populist authoritarianism. Why else than through such a worldwide driver, is so much xenophobic nationalism unfolding in such globally-synchronised ways across so many otherwise disparate settings? Is this ‘plague of experts’ parochialism, itself (at least in part), a backlash against the entrenching – democracy-subverting – globalising technocratic hegemony so strongly exemplified in planetary control fallacies?

Is this, in fact, a key implication of the pandemic for resisting climate disruption? Climate salvation has been elusive through ostensibly precise predictive modelling driving assertive top-down control. Across different political systems, what seems to have flourished more instead are mutualistic actions by ordinary people for each other – based on values of equality and care not superiority and control.

Of course, to espouse any one approach to the total exclusion of another would itself be controlling. The point here is not that there exists no place whatsoever for pivoting, ratcheting and consolidating progress in formalised structures. Crucial roles have always been played in progressive struggles, by enlightened scientific (and other elite) expertise, cultures and institutions.

Likewise, just as in routine use of machines, relations of control can, of course, still have their place. The point is rather one of context, balance – and of what leads what. The Earth as a whole is not an appropriate focus for control. Current resistance to climate disruption, massively overemphasises planetary-scale ‘stabilization’ and ‘control’. Environmental causes have always been most successful as political struggle led by mobilising values of care, rather than by any technical calculus of control.

So at the end, we come to a crucial underlying question. How can movements against climate disruption emancipate global societies from technical distractions and focus more rigorously instead on the political interests, forces, values and practices that are actually driving the problem? In this quartet of blogposts, I have tried to argue (with many examples), how the answer lies in a shift of emphasis from controlling authority to caring struggle. This means regaining the formidable former energies of environmentalism – and of emancipatory social movements more generally.

The responsibility to protect the Earth’s complex, ever-changing climate is not something to counterpose or trade off with other progressive aims. Just like so many other continuing struggles with which it shares so much, caring for the Earth’s own agency is an emancipatory imperative in itself. And in this political commonality lies its hope.

Perhaps it is by relinquishing fantasies of control that beings may be more equal, lives more free, societies more convivial, and Earth more flourishing. If this enlivening prospect cannot be grasped at a time like this, then when might it ever be realised?

Other posts in this series

Is the naming of ‘climate change’ a dangerous self-defeat? Andy Stirling, 9 July 2020

Does the delusion of ‘climate control’ do more harm than good to climate disruption? Andy Stirling, 10 July 2020

Betraying the climate? Has environmentalism succumbed to a modernity it hitherto resisted? Andy Stirling, 14 July 2020

Our theme for 2020: Natures

NaturesNature is all around us, but there are many ways of seeing different kinds of ‘natures’, and many efforts to involve it in forms of control or domination.

How is talk of crisis shaping nature and people’s views of it? How can colonial forms of knowledge, technology and power be challenged, and what might it mean to ‘decolonize’ the study of environmental change? What do alternatives look like, and how can we explore, nurture, imagine and live the relationships we might want for the future? 

Find out more about our theme for 2020 on our Natures theme page.


  1. Andy mentions the importance of context within the big picture perspective he offers and I hope—I suspect he does as well—that future work from that perspective becomes more differentiated in terms of scale and time.

    Any such differentiation, I think, contextualizes and narrows Andy’s focus and thereby changes the register of his discussion.

    So with apologies, I’d like to recommend that a productive first step to differentiation is a more granular focus on real-time operations of key critical infrastructures within a regional context—particularly if your concern is as environmental as those that drive the Anthropocene:

    • Granular because risk and uncertainty are always with-respect-to specific failure or accident scenarios—and, to echo Andy, the devil is in the details of the failure scenarios;

    • Real-time operations because the measure of effectiveness is to manage effectively now, not just in some undefined “later”;

    • Operations of key infrastructures because the reliability and safety of these large socio-technical systems—think critical energy and water supplies—are not only vital to society, right now as you read these words, but are often based in ecosystem services mandated for restoration, if not sustainability; and

    • Within a regional context because global climate change interventions increasingly accept the region as a key unit and level of analysis. (High-resolution models using LIDAR data and other GIS approaches already exist that provide climate-related flooding and wildfire information useful for large socio-technical systems when it comes to their nearer-term cycles, e.g., for investment and emergency response purposes.)

    In case it needs saying, I do not see the bulleted items as the special realm of some kind techno-managerial elite.

    Decisions over which with-respect-to scenarios, what “real time” is, what are “key” infrastructures, and just what is the region of concern with respect to what scenarios and real-time infrastructures must be those of the people there.

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