New Project Blog Launched Today

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My new blog is launched today. This blog will report on the work I am carrying out on a ESRC funded project on neuroliberailsm. So if you like the content here you may want to check it out here

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Green Government Versus the Corporate State

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I recently came across this excellent video, which succinctly explains why the privatisation of the state is a generally bad thing:

http://www.onlinemba.com/blog/video-why-government-should-not-run-like-a-business

Watching this video reminded me of two excellent books: George Monbiot’s Captive State (in which Monbiot explains the ways in which the British state has been forced to serve corporate ahead of public needs) and Thomas Frank’s The Wreaking Crew (in which Franks describes the construction of an increasingly incompetent state – which is unable to effectively regulate corporate-environment relations).

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Riding the Keeling Curve: Indifference and Round Number Theories of History.

 

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Do you remember where you were when you first heard the news? I was invigilating in an examination with a physical geography colleague. About halfway through the examination my colleague was consulting his iPad when he turned the screen to me saying, “this is not good!” I felt strangely relieved when I saw the headline that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had passed 400 parts per million. My sense of relief was, however, immediately replaced by a feeling guilt: why did this seem less troubling than the news of a terrorist attack, earthquake, or nuclear accident I had expected? There are, of course, some well established psychological paradigms that explain my initial relief. The basic psychological make-up of human beings appears to be poorly equipped to respond to the real and present danger of climate change. Paradigms suggest that we routinely ignore the threats of climate change precisely because we do not perceive it as either a real or present danger. For many living in More Economically Developed Countries, the real threats of climate change are associated with distant locations. For others throughout the world, climate change is seen as problem not of the now, but of the (near) future (Jones, et al 2013).

In these contexts, it is perhaps unsurprising that reaching levels of 400ppm of CO2 has been met with high levels of indifference. Following the 400ppm announcement on the @Keeling curve Twitter Feed of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (on 4th May 2013), the only major national newspaper in the UK to carry the story on its front page was The Independent (the Financial Times reported on corrupt bankers, while the Daily Mail revealed the sale of drugs on Amazon) (Simms, 2013). In the context of this apparent apathy, I want to use this short review to consider the questions does 400ppm matter, and, if so, why?

400: a round number in the history of the atmosphere.

In a strange way there are some interesting parallels between the 400ppm ratio marker and the millennium celebrations (see Gould, 2011). As a society we appear to be drawn to round numbers in history and feel obliged to commemorate or reflect upon them in some way (Simms, 2013). It is thus clear that while scientifically there is no particular reason we should fixate on 400 as opposed to 401ppm, in psychological terms it is obvious why the transition from 399 to 400ppm seems to matter. As Neil Smith observed (in relation to society’s decidedly divided views on the significance of the year 2000), the fact that people appear to feel more ambiguous about the portentous nature of round numbers (such as 400) may be a popular indicator of the rise of a distinctly postmodern worldview (1999). I tend to concur with Ralph Keeling (son of Charles David Keeling), however, when he recently observed that the significance of 400ppm was that it appeared to represent our collective entry into a new atmospheric era: as we leave behind the relative stability of the 300-399ppm range and enter the more troubling 400 era (Montaigne, 2013). The fact that 400ppm also lies at the midway point between 350ppm (the concentration levels James Hansen suggested we need to achieve to ensure environmental stability) and 450ppm (the level of CO2 concentration the IPCC equates with the dangerous increase of global average temperatures beyond 2 degrees Celsius), cements its symbolic and material significance.

 

Atmospheric Histories of the Present and the Global Scientific Gaze.

It would appear that one of the implications of 400ppm has been an increasing desire to historicize the climate change debate. At one level, this historicization has occurred in relation to the suggestion that we may be entering a new era in atmospheric history. At another level, there has been a renewed desire to position our current situation in historical context. It has consequently been widely discussed that the last time the planet’s atmosphere contained 400ppm of CO2 was during the Pliocene, some four million years ago. There are, however, other historical comparisons we can make, and which appear instructive to our assessment of the significance of 400ppm. We could, for example, compare the 4th May 2013 with the London Fog disaster of December 1952. This was an atmospheric disaster that took thousands of lives and saw London come to a grinding halt for several days. The impact of this atmospheric event resulted in the passing of the Clean Air Act of 1956 and a transformation in the ways in which governments throughout the world regulated air pollution. It is clear that 400ppm lacks both the tangibility and immediacy of the London Fog Disaster. We also already know that 400ppm will not result in any new forms of climate change legislation or regulation. Comparisons with 1952 does, however, raise another reason why 400ppm may be significant. The fact that we collectively knew, in real time, that we had (admittedly briefly) passed 400ppm indicates the significant changes that have occurred in environmental science and monitoring. In 1952 monitoring devices were clogged-up and under-funded atmospheric scientists and medical experts were unclear for months why the fog had caused so many deaths (see Whitehead, 2009). Perhaps the long-term significance of 400ppm lies in the very fact that we knew so quickly we had reached this arbitrary, but strangely significant, point in atmospheric history. The question, of course, remains as to whether we will use this knowledge to good effect.     

This piece is being published in the journal Society and Space as part of  a series of interdisciplinary reflections on 400ppm. 

References.

Gould, S.J. (2011) Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (Harvard University Press, Harvard).

Jones, R. Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. (2013) Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of Psychological State (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham).

Montaigne, F. (2013) ‘Record 400ppm CO2 Milestone ‘feels like we’re moving into another era’ Yale Environment 14th May 2013.

Simms, A. (2013) ‘Why did the 400ppm carbon milestone cause barely a ripple?’ The Guardian 30th May 2013.

Smith, N. (1999) ‘Nature at the millennium: production and re-enchantment’ in Braun, B. and Castree, N. (eds.) Remaking Reality: nature at the Millenium: 269-282.

Whitehead, M. (2009) State, Science and the Skies: Governmentalities of the British Atmosphere (Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford).

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“There were once two planets” – Martian Chronicles for the Anthropocene

“There were once two planets, new to the galaxy and inexperienced in life. Like fraternal twins they were born at the same time, about four and a half billion years ago, and took roughly the same shape […] They were “Goldilocks planets,” our astronomers would say: just right for life” (Bilger, 2013: 65).

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Quite by chance, I was recently reading two reflections on our nearest planetary neighbour. On one day I commenced reading Ray Bradbury’s melancholic, 1951 novel The Martian Chronicles. Set in a distant future, when humanity has successfully established colonies on Mars, Bradbury’s novel reflects on the peculiar forms of human experience that emerge in this alien landscape. On the following day I read Burkhard Bilger’s Reporter at Large piece for the New Yorker, entitled ‘The Martian Chronicles: a new era of planetary exploration’ (2013: 64-89). Bilger’s piece offered an in-depth account of NASA’s successful Curiosity Mission to Mars. His highly engaging narrative focused on two characters: Adam Stelzner (leader of Curiosity’s entry, descent, and landing team) and John Grotzinger (chief scientist for the Curiosity Mission). As Bilger pointed out, ‘[O]ne man wonders how to get to Mars, the other what we’ll find there’ (ibid: 69). What I found most fascinating about this article was the backstory it provided on human exploration of the read planet. This is a history that encompasses Giovanni Schiaparelli’s first astronomical mapping of Mars in the nineteenth century; the grainy images of the planet that were sent back from NASA’s Mariner 4 probe in 1965; and the forty odd spacecraft that have since been sent to Mars in the hope of unlocking its secrets.

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 What appears to connect Ray Bradbury and the Curiosity Mission is not a desire to better understand Mars per se, but to grasp more fully the nature of life of Earth. Just as science fiction reveals collective truths about the nature of human existence through the exploration of extreme socio-technical scenarios, the exploration of Mars appears to reflect a collective desire to comprehend Earthly ecologies. In this context, Mars appears to be an important, if perhaps unexpected, place in and through which to consider the nature of the Anthropocene. While the Earth and Mars appear so similar they have, of course, taken very different geological and ecological paths. As Bilger observers, ‘By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago […] Mars had been suffocating for a billion years’ (ibid: 66).

Literary reflections and scientific explorations of Mars are about opening up the dialectic of life and death that both connects and separates it from the Earth’s own environmental history; it is about the (re)construction of a geo-ecological  hypothetical; a what if things had been different! In relation to the Anthropocene the red planet thus looms menacingly: a salutary lesson in the contingency of the Earth’s life giving potential. But the Curiosity Mission, with its elaborate Sky Crane and mind-blowing budget, is also suggestive of technological solutions to our current ecological predicament: the off-planet future that Bradbury was so keen to explore.

The news is now full of accounts of Curiosity’s latest findings as it forages and drills on the Martian surface. As I read the updates on the mission I am reminded that finding life on Mars is a difficult task. It is for this reason that it is such an important place to think about the nature of the Anthropocene. Mars appears to be a place that is both furthest from and closest to our own ecological experience; as such, it may provide an extraterrestrial promontory from which to develop a new appreciation of life on Earth.

Reference:

Bilger, B. (2013) ‘The Martian Chronicles:  a new era of planetary exploration’ The New Yorker April 22: 64-89.

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New Book – Changing Behaviours

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Our new book on behaviour change has just been published (much thanks to my excellent co-authors Rhys Jones and Jessica Pykett). The book explores the impact of behavioural psychology and economics on the design of public policy in the UK. The book is framed by the notion of neuroliberalism, or the idea that neoliberalism may be taking a neurological turn. The idea of neuroliberalism lies at the heart of a new global study of behaviour change policies we are commencing in September. This study is being funded as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Transforming Social Science programme. 

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Special Issue on Urbanization and Climate Change is out now!

While, A. and Whitehead, M. (2013) ‘Urbanization and Climate Change Special Issue’ Urban Studies 59(7).

There was a recent magazine advert that was developed by the energy company Total that I found strangely compelling. Under the banner headline ‘Common Interests’ (the Co was in a different colour font), was the image of an imposing iceberg floating serenely on the ocean. What was arresting about the advert was what lay beneath the ice. Where there should have been the ice there was instead an inverted city, replete with brightly lit skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs. In many ways this image serves as an appropriate visual metaphor for our special issue on Urbanization and Climate Change. Just as this image makes a clever connection between the changing climate and what is going on in our increasingly urbanized planet, this special issue brings critical perspective to the complex relations between urbanization and climate change.

It addition to its overall visual impact, what I found most intriguing about this image was the area of interfaced connection that it constructed between the city and the ice. In many urban contexts, the climatic impacts of cities are felt in places that are distant from the metropolises themselves. But this image brought the environmentally distant into the immediate proximity of the city, and it made me think deeply about the varied connections that exist between urbanization and the changing climate. At one level, these connections are fairly obvious: urban areas are, after all, responsible for two thirds of all of the greenhouse gas emission that enter the atmosphere every year. In addition to being the villains of the climate change process, however, many cities are also the victims of the effects of a changing climate. Flooding, extreme weather, tidal inundation, and water shortages are now threats that face many cities around the world. In this context, cities are now key contexts within which climate change adaptation practises are being developed and implemented. Cities also have their own particular climatic challenges. The urban heat island effect, makes cities much more vulnerable to the impacts of increasing temperature than other geographical locations. At the other end of the spectrum, the palls of aerosol pollution that surround many cities appear to insulating urban centres from the full heat of the increasing in global average temperatures we are witnessing.       

This special issue explores all of these themes in a range of different geographical contexts. In exploring these themes, the papers in this special issue develop a critical account of the urban climate agenda. This critical perspective seeks to better understand the political and economic nature of the urbanization process, and the ways in which this process conditions urban climate change impacts and policies. This critical perspective is also about utilizing the urban as a context within which to understand the uneven spatial develop and distribution of climate change policies and regimes of responsibility throughout the world.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the advert I was so drawn to was created by Total, I might suggest that it was an icon for this special issue. Having said that, it is clear that the advertising of big oil companies has become a lot more sensitive to climate change in recent years. Against the backdrop of a imposing glacier, one Humble advertisement once proudly boasted that each day it “supplied enough energy to melt 7 tons of glacier!”

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Degrowth Special Issue Out Now

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This new special issue on Degrowth contains some interesting reflections on the movement and it philosophical underpinnings.

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