Rapid Decarbonisation of Industrial Societies (notes from a workshop)

Dougald Hine
Jun 15, 2017 · 6 min read

For a hundred years, in an Italian palazzo transplanted to the shores of a Swedish lake, the Sigtuna Foundation has been hosting conversations where people from different worlds meet — artists, scientists, theologians, poets. So it seems an appropriate location for the meeting where I’ve spent the past two days, called by Kevin Anderson, professor of climate leadership at Uppsala University, and known (among other things) for being “the climate scientists who doesn’t fly”.

At his invitation, the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala (CEMUS) brought a group of twenty of us together to ‘develop and collate insights from the social sciences, humanities and the arts, with the purpose of eliciting a richer picture of the challenges facing rapid societal transformation’ to have a chance of reaching the commitment to limit global warming to 2° made at the Paris COP.

Kevin started out as an engineer in the oil industry — and he combines an engineer’s bluntness with an obvious excitement about collaborating with people whose ways of thinking and knowing come from radically different places, like my friend Emelie Enlund, a choreographer, who was another of the participants. His opening presentation, ‘Escaping the climate of fear: going beyond the orthodoxy’ laid out the situation starkly. Here’s what I took from it:

  • The Paris agreement has created an impression that we now have effective global cooperation to meet 2° or even 1.5° aspirations.
  • But this optimism is unwarranted, because the actual commitments made by countries fall well short of what would be required…
  • …and because mainstream policy-making and the scientific modelling which is feeding it relies on the assumption that Negative Emissions Technologies will play a major role in limiting warming — these technologies do not exist yet and to build our assumptions around them is relying on magic.
  • The models being fed to policy-makers rely on magic in the name of ‘realism’ — because without Negative Emission Technologies, the speed of the reduction in carbon emissions required for countries like Sweden or the UK or the USA is so great, it is hard to see how it can be compatible with economic growth. (This reminds me of a statement I heard ten years ago from a British government minister — ‘It can be done because it has to be done’ — one of the less reassuring pieces of logic I’ve encountered.)

Under these circumstances, Kevin argues, it’s necessary to challenge the dominance of technology and economics over the process by which knowledge about climate change is produced, assembled, interpreted and turned into policy. He quoted a passage from Laudato Si, in which the Pope writes that:

The alliance of technology and economics ends up side-lining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.

His challenge to us, coming from the arts, humanities and social sciences, is to (1) help understand how the alliance of economics and technology marginalises alternative visions, and (2) release latent opportunities locked inside “romantic illusions”.

The points that follow are neither an exhaustive nor a representative list of those made in our conversations over the past three days, but a combination of thoughts that struck me and comments which stuck with me. Some of them are sweeping generalisations, where the original statement was probably subtler — in which case, blame the messenger.

  • There was some questioning of the role of critique — and the way that critique as an end in itself can become a comfort zone, particularly within the social sciences.
  • Those working around climate change in the natural sciences tend to be more attuned to the urgency of the timeframe, but less equipped to notice or interrogate the assumptions shaping their work — while in the social sciences, this is the other way round, with greater awareness and interrogation of assumptions, but a lack of an appropriate sense of urgency.
  • Where are the people in the way that official conversations about climate change take place? Technology always seems to be the protagonist and humanity the problem.
  • There was talk about the absence of social science, humanities and arts perspectives in the IPCC process — specifically, in relation to Working Group III — and how even when there is a philosopher involved, it turns out to be an economist-turned-philosopher.
  • But to emphasise our marginalisation may be misleading — there are opportunities that exist and that we don’t take. Why is it so rare for social scientists to make submissions to select committees in the UK parliament, for example, when economists, natural scientists and engineers do so regularly? The obstacles to this are not external, but internal to the way we see our roles.
  • Should we make a challenge/commitment to each other and our various academic and professional communities to take up a more engaged role, proportionate to the scale and urgency of the situation? What is needed to make it feel safe(r) to speak out?
  • When it comes to the arts, there seems to be increasing recognition that the instrumental “message delivery” model of the role played by artists is not fit for purpose. In relation to this, I was struck by a phrase someone quoted from Kari Norgaard, that the problem is not that we don’t know, but that “we don’t know how to know”. This is one of the places where art comes in (as I suggested in ) — it can help us move from “out-there” knowledge to “in-here” knowing, where we no longer talk as if we can hold the realities we’re dealing with at arm’s length. Instead of looking for solutions from the point of view of our existing idea of ourselves, by letting the knowledge in, we allow ourselves to be changed (our ideas of ourselves are shaken) and as a result we see the world differently, including perhaps seeing possibilities that were previously hidden from us.
  • Given that there was a significant UK contingent, we talked quite a bit about recent political events — and found several points of relevance…
  • Firstly, the phenomenon of the Corbyn surge is an example of the kind of rapid and “unimaginable” change that it will take, if we’re going to have a chance of meaningful action within the timeframes necessary for meeting the Paris commitments (without relying on magic).
  • Secondly, if the breakthrough made by Corbyn’s Labour party represents a rupture in neoliberalism, such political developments may be a necessary precondition for meaningful action: we need to break the boundaries of what has been considered ‘realistic’ under neoliberalism.
  • Thirdly, it seems worth noting the lively role of social science within the movement around Corbyn — from public thinkers drawing on social science (e.g. Paul Mason introducing people to the work of Gramsci or Castells), to activists who are also social scientists (e.g. Aaron Bastani)—as well as social scientists beyond the movement itself, who draw on material from sociology, political theory, economic anthropology, etc. to think in public, providing readers with tools to make sense of what is going on (e.g. William Davies). There are models here for a more engaged role for social scientists in relation to change.

This is just one slice through the conversation over the past few days, others would focus on other aspects of what we talked about. But I want to add one final point — in these notes and in the framing of the event, there’s a strong emphasis on the urgency of our situation. Yet what marks time spent at a place like Sigtuna is a sense of leisureliness, the luxury of a convivial interdisciplinary encounter, with room for those of us who work outside of academic institutions. Likewise, as hosts, CEMUS do great work in creating such informal spaces in which to go deep together. I’ve written before about “the urgent need to slow down” — and I want to pay credit to Isak Stoddard of CEMUS and Kevin Anderson for creating a space which embodies that paradox. It was a privilege to be part of that gathering and I look forward to what comes next.

Dougald Hine

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Writer, teacher, culturemaker. Co-founder of a school called HOME. Originally from the north-east of England, now living in central Sweden.