How Radical was the Radical Emissions Reduction Conference really?

In this article about the Tyndall Centre’s Radical Emissions Reductions Conference I want to write the things that I wanted to say in this conference but was unable to.

First of all though I want to say why I was not able to say these things. The reason was that this conference was organised in such a way that I had no opportunity to say them. It was organised almost entirely in plenary sessions with no break out discussions at all. Those of us who were not speakers could put our hands up but when we did get the opportunity to speak it was only for at most a minute or two. The result was that, even when we did get an opportunity to say something that chance was so truncated that I probably gave a misimpression of my true views were – I probably appeared to be too radical!

By the end of the conference I was becoming extremely frustrated about this and wanted to make a point about the conference organisation. The final conference session was organised, we were promised, as a chance for people to express views that had not come out during the proceedings and I had my hand up all the time to speak. I was not called however – there was not time.
But why was there not time? Again the conference feedback was in plenary session but not only that. The other reason was that on the platform were the “stars” of the climate change movement. Many of them had already spoken but they got time to first of all sum up the conference from their point of view AND THEN comment on all the comments from the floor as well.

The way one organises things carries an implicit message. In the case of this conference the message profoundly undermines the spirit of grassroots democracy: a spirit that, quite apart from its intrinsic worth, also happens to be essential to any effective action on climate change, as I’ll argue below.

One colleague of mine to whom I showed this comment in draft has said that while he partly agrees that I must also be “wary of falling into a classic trap of progressive politics. That is to reserve the fiercest criticism for other factions of one’s own side, the effect being primarily to create and reinforce divisions” and he recommends that I “acknowledge first that there were some radical things about it, for example having Naomi Klein as one of the keynote speakers, a number of talks emphasising the importance of political economy and a recognition of the disastrous and venal nature of current government policy, particularly Caroline Lucas’ interventions on the lobbying bill and deregulation bill.”

He is of course right on those things but there is something personal in all of this. It is also about human to human relationships. When I had my hand up time and again and was not heard it was because the process was designed in a particular way – and that way was insulting to me and to many other people because there was a set of assumptions built into the process about what contribution we could make. For the same reasons I found the process deeply undemocratic.
Some might think, all well and good, but practically speaking is there really any other way that such a conference could have been organised? Is it realistic to expect a conference of this nature to be democratic? I believe the answers are yes and yes. Further down I’ll discuss a widely-used alternative model for organising a conference which I’ll argue would have been vastly more effective in this context.

I do not know for sure but my guess is that the conference organisers would say that they could not afford to organise break out and discussion rooms for this event. After all it was being organised at the Royal Society, just off Pall Mall, in heart of the centre of political and economic power in London. More rooms would mean more money and nowadays budgets are tight. The Royal Society is a very prestigious building and I spent a lot of time looking at the painting of Isaac Newton on the wall and admiring the plush carpet. It was also very warm. (It became obvious as soon as I entered this building that, wearing a vest and long johns, which I do at this time of year, I would sweat like a pig in this conference – so I had to disappear into the gents loo to take these off and stuffed them into my rucksack).

Well…to resume the argument – I don’t accept the idea that a lack of the physical space precluded break-out discussions as I have been in conferences in rooms that size in which lots of people sit around lots of tables and have lots of separate discussions. It could have been done, even there.

What is more, financial cost matters too. While there is a case for holding a conference like that close to the centres of mainstream power I don’t think I am convinced by it. The whole endeavour was certainly expensive for me and the Cap and Share Campaign. To get there for an early start meant taking the most expensive train to London: about £100 at that time of day. An overnight stay was another £100 because I have grown tired of staying in cheap and dingy hotels – I’m sorry, that was a self indulgence. Then there was the conference fee itself which was £300. I would normally charge £100 a day for my own time for something like this because I’ve got to live too and last year my income was £7,000 when you included in the working tax credits. On this occasion however I don’t think I can charge the Cap and Share Campaign £200 and an extra £100 for spending a day creating our poster because I’m already asking for £500 just to cover the expenses of being there and we actually have very little money.

So one thing that I conclude from this is that to build a movement for Radical Emissions you don’t organise meetings in the Royal Society. I don’t know how much they charged but it was expensive for me and my campaign and probably part explains the format. Further to that to hold the conference there was to implicitly adopt the value system of the power elite, embodied in the building’s status displays, its marble architecture and its oil paintings. The conference was trying to impress with the geographical location in a way that the real power circles will always be able to outclass. That’s because by powering the ripping apart of the world with fossil fuel powered devices they have buckets of money. As Nick pointed out to me, the very next day EDF energy had another meeting at the same place.

So what did I get for our £500? I got lectured at – over and over and over again. I don’t mind lectures. I’ve done a bit of lecturing myself. However, like most people, I’m reasonably intelligent and am capable of contributing meaningfully to discussions. Lectures have far more potential to break new ground and resolve disagreements when there is scope for expressing the latter, not to speak of adding an idea or an angle to what a lecturer has said in a way that does not leave one cut off by a chairperson because “there is not enough time”.

And most attendees never got that in this conference. We did, of course, have an opportunity to meet and discuss with people informally which, as everyone recognises, is where the most interesting things happen….and there was, of course, some opportunity for this in the so called Poster Session – particularly as Nick Bardsley and myself had produced a poster on Degrowth.

However, the problem of standing by one’s poster at a poster session is that you lose the opportunity to go around and discuss other people’s ideas. And it is no substitute for a chance to be able to express one’s disagreements and reservations when one has been lectured at by the great and the good. This is particularly because in the academic world to present a poster is to be an also-ran in the intellectual status hierarchy, somewhat lower down in the pecking order. One of those persons that has not yet earned enough kudos to be on the stage and be teacher while everyone else plays being the class.

These were some of the things that I reflected on as I listened to multiple speakers considering how a climate movement might become a more popular movement.

So what was the conclusion of these reflections? Forget it if this is how you are going to organise. Not many people will want to endure the implicit put down of it being assumed that they have nothing worth saying enough to displace the right of the movement stars to have yet another chance to opine.

Despite this, as I said, I did have some great informal chats.

The idea that the best parts of conferences are always the informal chats has led elsewhere to conferences being organised largely with an agenda set by participants in a process called “Open Space”. The last conference that I went to, before the Tyndall centre conference, was organised in Cologne by a group of activists from environmental NGOs and what I wanted to say at the end was to contrast the way that they had organised their conference with the Tyndall one. So I will do that now.

The Cologne conference was about how “smart civil society organisations” could organise more intelligently for “the great transition”. It could not have been more different from the Tyndall Conference at the Royal Society.

For a start the Cologne Conference was in a community centre, which I think was a converted fire station. It was almost entirely organised in an ‘open space’ or ‘world cafe’ format – a process of small groups discussing a range of topics which they largely chose for themselves. I had thought that these formats were fairly well-known in the UK because the Transition Movement has been using them for years and they are explained in texts like the Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins. Sadly I have been shown to be wrong as regards the Tyndall Conference.

In Cologne though it was very different. There was very little plenary. The collective wisdom that everyone contributed in small groups got written up in imaginative ways and in the process of the event I met and talked with a larger proportion of those there – because the format was designed to ensure that everyone listened to everyone else. A further difference was that a great deal of effort was put into finding and presenting ideas through narratives because it is personal stories and group stories that people in society understand and relate to more easily than conceptual presentations. By contrast, while there were some personal stories and personal journeys in the Tyndall Conference, which I will refer to later, there were not many.

That is not to say that there were no plenary presentations at Cologne. There were “Pecha Kucha” power point presentations. Pecha Kucha is an idea that comes from Japan. Each Pecha Kucha power point presentation consists of exactly 20 slides presented for exactly 20 seconds each. That is 6 minutes and 40 seconds per complete presentation. The speakers at Tyndall got 10 minutes – unless the chairperson was indulgent to them or unless they were a star. Pecha Kuchas free up time for discussion too. One way to think about them is to do no more than to give a thumbnail sketch of some issues. Then the main discussion can follow up later with people who want to engage with that particular speaker on that particular issues in more depth – or who want to form a smaller group for discussion. A Pecha Kucha is, if you like, a kind of abstract for a presentation but without a substantive presentation to follow.

To conclude then. Things can be organised differently. It is possible for things to be structured to ensure that all listen to all. That way a group can harvest its collective wisdom, network far more effectively, operate democratically. Such a structure also avoids the risk of insulting people by lecturing at them continually and then telling them that there is “no time” to hear what they have got to say – even when they have substantive critiques of the content of the lectures.

Part 2: Leading Lights and Moving Spirits

This conference was mainly for leading lights – but there were a few moving spirits there. Two that sprang to mind that gave markedly different kinds of presentation were Charlie Baker of URBED in Manchester and Neil McCabe, the Green Plan Manager of Dublin City Fire Brigade Training Centre. It was he who, for my money made by far the most useful presentation of the conference.
Before going further though, what is the difference between a “leading light” and a “moving spirit”?

The distinction, which I first heard Tony Gibson, a community leading light and moving spirit in one, make is as follow: a leading light is one of those people who gets all the attention because they are very knowledgeable and very articulate whereas a moving spirit is someone who actually organises things, ensures that things get done. The ‘leading lights’ are people like academics, politicians, media personalities, journalists and generally members of the commentariat who, in the UK, often live in the London echo-chamber, and are called upon by the media to speak. The leading lights usually get the material for what they say by studying what the moving spirits have done and achieved, turning these things into research or media projects for which they get copious amounts of money, and then speak about them very fluently and turn them into pdf file reports with colourful title pages that hardly anyone actually reads.

Moving spirits are rather different. They know that for things to happen people have to be inspired to work together but not only that. They know that rooms have to be booked or rented on a long term basis. Constitutions have to be written, bank accounts opened, book keeping and budgets organised, job descriptions written and people hired, mini-buses organised with safe drivers, sandwiches made and meals organised. They are also the people who learn from experience how to grow projects and wrestle with what management arrangements work, grapple with the management of complexity and maintaining a strategic direction. They are confronted with issues of practical democracy, participation and organisation in doing these things. Further to that, if they come to have the level of experience of someone like Charlie Baker, for example, they have learned that, to quote from his abstract to the conference, “self learning systems and monitoring can speed up evolution of best practice”.

Now one of the things that I want to say is about the relationship between leading lights and moving spirits. Leading lights can indeed have a useful role…sometimes…but too often, and this conference was an example, they get in the way of the moving spirits. They drain the money away, they drain the attention away – because it is the attention to how things are actually done practically that is most useful of all. It is most inspirational for moving spirits and it is actually far more useful for moving spirits than all the eloquent speeches about what needs to be done and what can be done.

Let’s take example of the Kilbarrack Fire Station and the Green Plan for the Dublin Fire Brigade as explained by Neil McCabe. We could in fact more usefully have spent an entire conference drawing out the implications of what he has done. Such a conference, mainly organised with moving spirits in mind, would have looked in depth about what can be learned from the Dublin Fire Brigade process. This would have been so that these lessons could be replicated where possible, perhaps in forms adapted to different circumstances and settings, by other moving spirits. Another aim of such a conference, the radical emissions conference that never was, would have been so that policy implications could be drawn from this – to evolve complementary ideas about what the leading lights should be trying to achieve in the policy advocacy sphere to support this kind of process at the level of local and national government.

To get a flavour of the Kilbarrack initiative suffice it here to quote from a much longer piece in the conference abstracts:

“I work full time shift as a Fire Fighter (including working nights) and I keep all my projects running live. I have a very strong team around me in Kilbarrack Fire Station where I am based and I have Green Plan advocates all over the Dublin Fire Brigade in every Station. These people help me to get the message out that reducing energy saves money, that money can be reinvested in the Dublin Fire Brigade and support jobs, while lowering our carbon footprint and affecting Climate Change.”

Neil mentions his projects here – there are 300 of them in the Fire Station at Filbarrack alone while his Green Plan is being rolled out across the Dublin Fire Brigade and in other Dublin City Buildings, including swimming pools and leisure centres.

Detailed learning about how this sort of on the ground process is done should have been a major part of this conference. Among other things what it shows is that responding to climate change does not have to be something to wait for politicians to act on before we are able to get on with it.

Neil’s contribution also said something to me far more profound that this – something that was otherwise almost entirely absent in the Tyndall Conference. It also shows that the crisis of public services, the crisis of jobs and of the economy brought on by the problems in the debt based money system – these can also be addressed in a totally different way. Indeed with enough moving spirits helping each other and given rein, we don’t have to wait for politicians and the bankers to say that we are allowed to do the job. We don’t always either have to wait for them to give us the money to do it. There is a further point again that it is possible to connect the agenda of climate change to many other agendas in society that many people are desperately keen to see resolved – far more than they are interested in climate change.

Over twenty years ago while working in the voluntary mental health services I visited Berlin shortly after reunification and came across a project there that interested me. It worked with young people who had had psychiatric breakdowns and/or drug addiction problems and it trained them in wind energy, solar energy, ecological building and the greening of neighbourhoods. The project, Atlantis, inspired me to go back to Nottingham where I discovered a group of people who wanted to set up a Nottingham Alternative Technology Association and others who were permaculturists. We joined forces. Naturally the mental health services were bewildered by the idea of an environmental project for people with mental health issues but after a few years developing a successful community garden they finally got it. People whose lives had fallen to bits found a place they could start to put themselves together again – a regular place that was pleasant to be, where there were meaningful things to do, a completely new social network, new interests and involvement with people, environmentalists, who were mostly open minded and non stigmatising. We had created several elements of a new lifestyle package for people. Over time the same project attracted artists, alternative technologists, people interested in promoting healthy eating, and professionals interested in promoting more exercise in peoples’ lifestyles.

The different lifestyle package that we practically evolved showed people many things that they could do that reduced emissions but it was above all because it was a package of multiple elements that made it attractive. What was lacking in many of the presentations of the Tyndall conference was the way that action on climate might become a part of a larger package. I think a number of people who were there got this – Jane Hindley from Essex for example, and I think Larry Lohmann who was trying to say something like this. However most of the conference was designed to focus in on climate change, paradoxically, in too specialised a way.

So what we need at the local level are the creation of processes that re-package and evolve services in a multi functional way. We need, I think, to help people to develop new lifestyle packages and new service packages out of their needs to respond to the crises in their lives and the crises in their services and employing organisations. That is, I think, how to attract people as the crisis of our society deepens. It involves therefore giving thought to what people can do when they are being forced to change because their lives are being radically disrupted by the nature of the crisis we are living through. Because this crisis involves more expensive food it involves helping people help each other to grow it. Because it involves energy it involves helping people find ways of saving it and generate it together. Because it involves a soaring cost of living it means helping people organise sharing and pooling resources more, including tools and workshop spaces. And it involves doing this with the very people who are under attack by the corporate and financial elite and being made scapegoats for the crisis which the elite are unable to control, a crisis for which the elite are in large part responsible. Moving spirits help bring people together as a practical response to the crisis in ways that address climate change but many other things at the same time. That is how to do it.

This crisis is not just a climate crisis. There are many other crises at this time too – not the least a moral and cultural one. We are at a turning point in world history because we are at the end of a period of 200 years economic growth. The result is that future growth, as conceived by the carbon elite and their allies in the banking and finance sector, involves more costs than benefits, more destruction than construction, more death than life. As such the task is not solely about climate change it is much bigger task – we have to reconstitute society as a whole and we have to find the ways to do it together, from the bottom up.

And if it does not come from the bottom up then it will not happen at all. If it does start at the local level then it will never occur anyway. That does not mean however that the process of change can solely be achieved at a local level. Clive Spash criticised that idea and I agree with him – the issue is, however, how to find the right relationship between the local level initiatives of the moving spirits and national level developments and the political drive to new policies.

Thus Andrew Simms talked at the conference about a Green New Deal for jobs – and yes, of course, he is right to speak about connecting the issues of the economy, energy and the financial sector crisis. However, the last time that this idea was promoted by a small group in London, it was almost entirely ignored. So what kind of conditions are they in which national and global politics will really evolve in a positive direction, in which we will have created a force that is too powerful to be ignored and which will represent our collective will?

To get a sense of the issues I think that Charlie Baker of URBED gets it right when he says (and I quote from his abstract) “We are failing to get adequate speed of change because we are appealing to decision makers before we have got their constituencies to demand it”. Getting the constituencies to demand things is not primarily about media presentations or training MPs – it is about doing practical stuff, as he does, for example, retrofitting people’s homes.
It seems to me that to get that we will need many local level initiatives and campaigns that are federated and networked for mutual support in order to build up and gradually claw back the political influence that we currently lack.

That brings me to my comment, made at one point, that we do not live in a democracy that got cut short by the chair of the session before I could properly outline my full viewpoint. What I certainly did not mean to say is that we should for ever give up on the political processes of representative democracy. What I wanted to go on to say is that conditions will have to change considerably before we can really think of ourselves as participating in a democratic process. That means we need new ways of thinking about what democracy is. Democracy is actually not a noun it is a verb. We need to stop thinking of it as something that we authorise other people to do by voting for them but as a much bigger process that we all do together. It is the ability to participate in a real way in the collective management of society and the representative democracy in parliament will always be an empty shell of democracy without mass activity in society. Jon Stuart Mill had an idea or two about this when he wrote:

‘We do not learn to read or write, to ride or swim, by being merely told how to do it, but by doing it, so it is only by practicing popular government on a limited scale, that the people will ever learn to exercise it on a larger.’ (On Liberty)

He meant by that that people had to be able to participate in organizations like workers co-operatives. For centuries people organized the local economy together through the commons but the elite stole the commons from them in the processes of enclosure. Now the descendants of the same thieves are sneaking through parliament changes to the mineral rights of land so that they can claim the right to frack under people’s homes. To protect ourselves against these noble thieves we communities have to come together to protect their water and land as a whole, just as they need to come together to recreate public services and lifestyle packages in new forms as I tried to explain above. But by mobilizing to do this, and by creating a solidarity economy, and then by federating it we can breath new life into democratic politics too.

That is what is so important politically about getting the organisational forms for our conferences right – and the organisational and management forms of the projects that we organised a local level. It is what will change the political landscape more than anything too.
I can imagine some people who were at the conference saying – but we do not have the time. Perhaps we don’t, I do not know, but I suspect that the financial crisis will be back upon us sooner than we think. Thus many people will be in turmoil looking for practical problems to solve their life crises sooner than we might think. Also, if an economic turn down leads to another decrease in emissions in the meantime it might, just might, give us a little room in relations to emissions.

As a matter of fact there are arguments that the whole problem of peak oil and gas, that has been apparently suspended by the “success” of fracking in the USA and brought down energy prices there, will soon re-emerge with a vengeance. If so it won’t help stabilise the financial markets. That is connected to the idea that the shale gas boom is a bubble – and/or that this boom can only be made profitable by a ferocious and vicious attack on peoples right to clean water, clean land to grow food on and protection against air pollution. Such an attack will create massive conflict and it opens up questions about political rights. It will help mobilise a movement where there is currently apathy and that movement can be won for action on climate as part of the process.

Nevertheless let us get real about the political context that this climate debate is actually occurring in. Because energy supply is a societal “hub interdependency” that has to be kept running, stabilised and, as the elite see it, kept growing, it is inevitable that all aspects of the energy sector should have a tight integration with governments. Everywhere one looks in the world either the state owns and controls the energy companies or the other way round. The relationship runs through multiple aspects of state policy and through multiple institutional arrangements. For example in an epoch where a huge amount of energy is traded internationally there is not just a relationship between the energy companies and the energy departments of government, but also between energy companies and foreign ministries too, not to mention military and security policy departments. This means that over time personal relationships form between the personnel of the energy companies, the politicians, the officials, and senior military and intelligence staff. They get used to working together. They form peer groups sharing the same assumptions and world view. It should not therefore be a surprise that, if one watches the film Gasland 2, there is a section in which it is described how state level politicians in the US found to their horror that former members of the military, with “psychological operations” experience gained in Iraq, were being employed to use the same tactics to quell “insurgency” as it was described, on communities in the USA who did not want fracking.

We can be sure that similar processes will be used against us too. The evidence is all too clear.

Thus, I have described a process in which local level initiatives might start to create new approaches to the public sector and the economic crisis. I have attended many conferences over the last few years in which there is much discussion about how these kind of processes can be networked and federated to create a “solidarity economy”. But it is a race against time, also because this is not a process which will watched entirely with favour in high places. And the sociopaths in high places will not simply let it happen.

We have not got long and a federated movement will have to adopt and then try to impose some tough policies in the other direction – as I hope in conditions of different power relationships, against corporations and individuals who are incredibly powerful. These people will not like to see their current dominant position challenged. In this respect, last but not least, we will really know that we have arrived only if and when we can impose tough policies at the national level.

That is why that, at some points in the conference, I wanted to get up to say this too: since fossil fuels are so dangerous selling them should quite simply be banned unless producers have a permit to do so for the carbon in them that will be released as CO2 when burned. We know already that a global level each year need to have 6% less permits than the previous year. Or if in national scheme in the UK this figure needs to be 10% less than in previous years. To make this equitable the fossil fuel suppliers should buy these permits and we should make sure that the money from selling the permits goes to the people of the world on an equitable basis. (That is cap and share by the way).

A policy like this would complete and drive almost all of the recommendations that we heard at the conference. It would prevent rebound – and it would drive the de-growth process which needs to be a bottom upward package for the complete transformation of society. However, it will obviously take a huge amount to achieve because what really stands in the way of this are the political and economic power structures of the modern world.

It can be done though. David did slay Goliath and we can kill the carbon beast if we are able to inspire enough people with a story for the future of society which enables them to see what they do at the local level is a vital part of a much bigger story in which they feel passionately involved and fully committed in order to play their part.

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