Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Alice in the Age of Austerity

Originally written in February 2011. Heartfelt apologies to Lewis Carroll. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

To be honest, it took me all morning to realise that he was a robot. In retrospect his overuse of the word 'synergies' in the 9am meeting should have aroused my suspicions, but I was too busy coaxing the coffee pot. When he stood up and opened fire with a pencilgun it was quite a surprise, and the bullet-proof boardroom glass suddenly seemed like a wise investment. We all dived under the table in time, although Councillor Q's ear was clipped by a bullet, sending him into a somewhat hysterical state. Between us, J and I managed to wrap a laptop cable around the robot's ankles whilst he was reloading and take him down.

The Strategic Infrastructure Community Kickoff meeting thus irrevocably disrupted, we dosed Councillor Q with brandy and tied our cyborg infiltrator to the Chief Executive's posture chair for interrogation. More than likely it was sent by Human Resources (recently and ominously renamed Meat Assets) to destroy us all, thus saving money on redundancy payments. Unluckily for them, we actually read our contracts, noticed the 'waiver in case of death by robot' clause, and put in place appropriate procedures. The robot had little of interest to tell us, other than the name of the company HR had rented it from, so the admin team deprogrammed it and repurposed some circuits to enhance the water cooler. I flipped a coin with D for its natty leather briefcase. None of us were exactly sure how the pencilgun worked, so I filed it under 'Programme Management procedures' where it is unlikely to ever be found.

That little incident resulted in the Termination Threat Level in the building being raised to Mauve, which will be somewhat tedious if I end up leaving the office last, as I'll need to release the war termites. At least I never arrive first; those little menaces are harder to gather up than set free. Threat Level Mauve also means random DNA, personality, and Voight-Kampff tests, which generally mean learning more than you ever wanted to know about your colleagues. I'm still trying to forget the extent of enhancements that P has had.

After lunch I wrote up minutes, hesitant as to whether 'Homicidal robot attack' was best noted under Action Planning or Any Other Business. The Chief Executive gathered us together to give a pep talk, which was well meant but made me think he was taking the whole thing a little too seriously. There wasn't really any need to wave an AK-47 around, even if it was neatly embossed with our corporate branding. We don't have the budget for military training courses, so he suggested push-ups during team meetings. The idea wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm, but the AK-47 impeded serious debate about it.

Once all that had settled down, it was my turn to sweep the fire escape for mines. I found 3 cheap Tesco minelets and a delux Waitrose tank-buster, which is usual for the middle of the week. Dropped them off in the specially-reinforced recycling bin; hopefully they'll be turned into something more useful. A couple of phone calls followed, on such flimsy pretexts that I suspect they were checking whether the robot had been successful. I mean, who phones local government to ask what the time is?

Donned helmet and knuckle-duster fingerless gloves for the cycle home, although unfortunately I left my greaves at home. The Local Army of Local Arbury have been setting up roadblocks, which don't appear to serve much purpose beyond reminding those passing through that they still exist. I think Arbury took it a bit personally when the council decided to strategically ignore areas with lower than average house prices. After a initial period of chaos and warlord-ism, though, their big society bin collection service has become a lesson to us all. The lesson being, 'Don't throw anything away that you wouldn't want thrown back at your face'.

The pothole slalom in Chesterton continues to get more exciting. I zig-zag raced some guy on a red mountain bike; he won by a whisker after very nearly crashing into a van. Several people outside the pub applauded. A bus driver beeped, but I don't think that was meant to be appreciative. No call to use the brass knuckles this evening as the motorists seemed peaceable, probably as a result of the ceasefire on the A14. I gather the lorry drivers have agreed to hold talks and start clearing the razorwire off sliproads.

I had to show my Neighbourhood Identity Tag at the top of the road, and picked up this week's local vegetable vouchers. The People's Community Market had a nice selection of potatoes, but no onions at the moment. It's a pity that I don't like beetroot as there's quite a glut. Perhaps I could use beetroot juice to dye the curtains magenta?

It was my turn to make supper, which I successfully managed under strict supervision. The herb garden on the morning room roof is flourishing nicely, it was definitely worth shoring up the whole structure with pallets (which also make it more defensible). A troupe of Jobless called round at about 8 to ask if we had any odd tasks. They looked so sad that I got them to sort my bookshelf by colour, in return for some stew and cups of tea. Apparently they have a big encampment on Coldham's Common and are considering taking over the empty retail park. Sounds like a good plan to me, those empty units are havens for wolf-cockroaches at the moment.

The powerdown was scheduled for 10pm, and we just managed to get the washing up done by then. As it was a warm night, we sat outside around a campfire, telling stories, making up new obscenities, and playing the Yes and No game. There were some stunning shooting stars to be seen - although L insisted they were Girton weapons tests rather than astrological phenomena. If so, their range has markedly improved.

Slept peacefully until 3am, when some raucous students flew over in a helicopter, flinging oyster shells and laughing in a distinctly horsey manner. Their hilarity was soon curtailed when the Neighbourhood Order Billet deployed nets. The colleges should really secure their helicopters better, or at least stop teaching first-year engineers how to hotwire them. The rest of the night was quiet, or at least not loud enough to wake me. The morning news (who was apologetically late; apparently his alarm clock broke) said that refugees from Chittering started a bar fight at about 5am, but were soon subdued and thrown in the river.

I fed the frogs in the shed and checked my emails when our internet ration came through at 8am. Lucky that I did, as the Chief Executive had decided on a dispersal strategy and told us all to work at home, in an email sent at 2am. That's all very well for his part of town, but down here if you're found at home and healthy during the day you get press-ganged into tasks involving shovels. Usually digging or repelling invaders. The simplest thing to do was to volunteer as a lookout, which is definitely more fun than joining the argument about the Neighbourhood Plan. It has become increasingly esoteric and focused on tangents of dubious usefulness, like specifying a regulation neighbourhood beard length.

The lookout post is at the apex of the pedestrian railway bridge, which forms the current boundary with our adjacent neighbourhood. The border isn't in dispute, so lookout duty mostly involves spotting dangerous wild animals, tasering Wisbech stowaways, and tagging the odd tourist. There's a gazebo with a two-way radio, and you can usually get some hoodie kid to fetch coffee for a small fee. I read a couple of lengthy legal documents, but reflected that they have little relevance as long as the police continue their siege mentality on Parker's Piece. I hear that their defensive emplacements look rather beautiful from the air, but make them totally unreachable by anything but carrier pigeon. Even those are unreliable since the latest Jamie Oliver cookbook became popular.

One of my colleagues who lives nearby wandered over at lunchtime and kindly shared a cheese sandwich. We discussed the current state of the job market; she's considering going for an IT job that only pays in pumpkins. I think she'd be better trying for employment at the University. They may insist on microchipping and an equity share of your children, but at least their currency can be exchanged before it goes mouldy. We agreed to keep each other updated, then she had to go and take over as Head Mistress at her neighbourhood school.

In the afternoon I drafted a Board paper and after some complex calculations caught up on the house energy bills. We're currently ahead, but must use less electricity next month otherwise the difference will need to be made up in plasma donation or nursing time. I do pity the neighbourhoods with no medical facilities, but having a treaty with Addenbrooke's is a double-edged sword. At 3pm the next shift began and I tried to slip away and get home. The Neighbourhood Order Brigade were having none of that, though, and I was planting saplings and felling traffic lights until nightfall. There was carrot soup and toast on the table when I got back; I love my housemates.

There was also a letter from my parents waiting for me, addressed in Celtic as well as English so that the The Ancient Kingdom of the Iceni (formerly Suffolk) postal service would accept it. Mum says that Dad has been promoted to Wise Old Man on the Parish Council, after telling a historic anecdote that lasted 47 minutes without repetition or hesitation, but plenty of deviation. I'm so proud. Mum is already an official Wise Old Woman, although she isn't too keen on the title. Their alpacas are doing well, and Mum says she's making me a jumper with their wool. The debate about whether tiled roofs are evil and should all be replaced with thatch continues to rage; it seems that a growing minority consider caves to be the preferable alternative. No more noise from Norfolk (or Them Up North, as Mum puts it) although constant vigilance is being maintained. It sounds like both parents are happy and enjoying the picturesque local sport of 'throwing rocks at the Landrover'. Neither of my cousins have returned from their quests yet. They occasionally phone home on stolen iPhones to let us know they're OK. My aunt has started breeding quails.

By the time I'd finished reading this missive it was raining pretty hard, so the campfire was a no go. We checked the sandbags and seagull-repellent, then trekked over to the local pub, which had some rock band and a scrabble tournament. They also have enough independent PV on the roof to avoid powerdowns, so the lights barely even flicker when the neighbourhood grid goes down. Wading home was a little tricky, as the puddles were full of eels. I swear Fenlanders are deliberately introducing the slimy buggers for nefarious purposes. One of them nearly chewed my bootlace off (an eel not a Fenlander, on this occasion).

The house was pretty cold and the mould staging a comeback, so to cheer ourselves up we constructed the community trampoline. Otherwise known as jumping up and down on a pile of mattresses. This confuses the neighbours, which is always fun. They've quietened down a lot since the Neighbourhood Order Brigade discovered they were students and put them on sewer-digging duty. The volume of puddles suggests they're slacking off a bit, I have to say.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow, as it'll be my turn as Neighbourhood Mayor and walk the boundaries, carrying a big stick and giving orders. I intend to ensure that the Neighbourhood Plan must be in haiku, tax tabloids for every capital letter that they use, and outlaw bacon in all its evil forms. Viva Big Society!

Au Revoir

I haven’t written anything here for eight months and therefore think I should officially label this blog abandoned. Although I have had ideas for posts and even begun the odd draft, nothing has materialised for a few reasons.

Firstly, the original impetus for this blog has gone. When I was working in the public sector and constantly horrified by the ill-considered and counterproductive policy changes the coalition was forcing through, I wanted an outlet. Whilst in a local government organisation, the work I produced had to be politically neutral and acceptable to local councillors. When I found this intellectually frustrating, the blog provided a space to say what I really thought. Since being made redundant nearly 14 months ago, I’ve been a postgraduate student and have had all the intellectual freedom I could want. That need for an outlet is no longer there.

Secondly, writing variations on, “I told you so,” would be tedious, as well as boring for you to read. The issues my colleagues and I raised with housing, economic, and planning policy changes are all manifesting, and being brushed aside by the government. (Keep up with this via The Guardian and Telegraph.) There seems no value in constantly repeating the same points when doing so will change nothing about the situation.

Thirdly, my focus is now on in-depth research of a specific area of environmental policy. Although I still try and keep up more broadly with planning, housing, and economic issues, the idea of the PhD is that I become an absolute bore about one very narrow area. Although I sometimes toy with the idea of blogging about that process, I think it would be very onerous to read and have only a tangential relationship to the Age of Austerity.

Lastly, I did begin a series of posts on climate change, but am disinclined to continue them mostly because contemplating carbon emissions at the moment is deeply depressing. Even today, PWC released a report reiterating how far we are from a relatively safe emissions trajectory. The frequently-quoted target of two degrees is now essentially impossible and we are heading instead for six. Human civilisation as we have come to know it wouldn’t survive that for long. I don’t think the blogosphere needs another person ranting angrily about how humanity is failing as a species and should probably save the more constructive comments for my studies.

I might pick up this blog again at some point, but it’s hard to say when. I am not the public sector worker I was when I started it and I both think and write differently as a result of being back in the academic world. For instance, I have a saved list of potential blog post topics, some of which I thought up years ago, such as state capitalism in China, what the fall of the USSR can tell us about the US, path dependency, what fairness means, and infrastructure in the UK. When I was a public servant I would have felt qualified to write something on such subjects, on the strength of having read one or two books about each, kept up with the Economist’s commentary, and thought a bit about them. Now my standards have changed, and from an academic perspective I don’t have anywhere near the background knowledge and depth of understanding to comment to a satisfactory standard. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions, of course, they are just qualified with, “As far as I know”.

There is something I heard at an economics seminar recently and would like to share, though. It would seem that the macroeconomics establishment is currently trying to integrate banking into their models. Incredible as it may now seem, when I was taught macro the banking sector wasn’t considered worth making a variable in long term economic growth. Anyway, a professor demonstrated his new model, which was immensely complex and I didn’t follow all of. What struck me was in the Q&A at the end, when he commented that the growth prospects of the UK economy in the short and medium term depend on our current output gap. This is the currently unused capacity of the economy, which is just waiting to be used again when demand/confidence/both rise. Government economic forecasts rely on the existence of a significant output gap, which would allow economic growth to pick up rapidly. The interesting thing about the output gap as a variable in a complex macroeconomic model is where the data on it comes from; a qualitative survey of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). That’s a lot flimsier than it initially appears from the seemingly authoritative graphs and tables.

This isn’t the final entry, however, as I’ve unearthed a silly thing called, ‘Alice in the Age of Austerity’ that I wrote years ago in honour of Lewis Carroll’s birthday. I will post that soon. Moreover, don’t expect me to shut up on twitter. Indeed, perhaps I’m just being lazy? 140 characters are far less effort than a detailed blogpost. But I am expected to be lazy now, being a student.

I hope that something I’ve written here has interested you at some point. Thank you for reading Welcome to the Age of Austerity.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Don't think about it

Whilst trying to get my thoughts about climate change in order, I came across a book, ostensibly about transport and mobility, that clearly expressed several points that I was inarticulately groping for. It's always wonderful when that happens. The author is a Danish academic called Malene Freundenal-Pedersen. She examines transport choices from a sociological perspective, which provides a very interesting contrast to the predominantly technical, pseudo-objective approach transport planners use. But more than that, she describes some important general characteristics of 'late modern' life in the developed world:

  1. Individualisation. (Emphasis on individual choices and the need/entitlement to create your own lifestyle that expresses who you are as an individual.)

  2. A disassociation of time and space. (Technology allowing communication, work, and leisure pursuits to take place practically anywhere.)

  3. Reflexivity. (This is a single word for the fact that we are aware of the society we live in, and are both influenced by it and influence it. The term implies a self-consciousness and need to substantiate or legitimise the conditions of society.)

  4. Risk awareness. (Linked to reflexivity, as we are constantly re-evaluating risks based on a constant flow of new information.)

But the most important, to my mind, is the fifth: Ambivalence. This can be seen as a response to the first four factors, which in combination tend to produce insecurity and anxiety. A mass of information, a deluge of risks, a cavalcade of apparent contradictions, and an onerous set of expectations are hard to handle; unless you choose to ignore or deprioritise certain things. This is everyday ambivalence. For example, on a daily basis I'll contemplate which of my library books are close to being due back, whether I need to buy more peanut butter, and what I need to prepare for the next day. At the same time, I know but choose not to dwell on, for example, the facts that women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours but only earn 10% of the income, that China's economic boom is causing environmental catastrophe, and that there are approximately one billion people in the world without enough to eat. Overwhelming, unpalatable information of this kind abounds in the media, but usually loses the competition for attention with minutiae of life. As Freundenal-Pedersen puts it:

Ambivalence can have an overwhelming impact on everyday life and result in paralysis if not dealt with through routines.

As I understand it, ambivalence helps us get around the guilt that should result from awareness of the damage our comfortable lifestyles wreak. Thus, climate change is a phenomenon mired in ambivalence. Although the scientific consensus is unequivocal, we can't feel or touch climate change as such, struggle to fit it into our risk assessment frameworks, and cannot reconcile it with our individual lifestyle choices. The implications of this initially seem extremely gloomy, as it seem that before we even try and remake our economic and political systems to respond to climate change, we have to somehow overcome our collective social mindset and dominant culture.

I've said previously that I think imaginative, utopian thinking about the future is necessary to address climate change. We need to imagine a better world, and Freundenal-Pedersen neatly points out what that is so difficult in today's society:

Modern society has shaped us into individuals, with no room for utopian visions or communities shaping these visions. As individuals, we are too preoccupied with creating our own individualised picture and reality of the kind of life we wish to inhabit; a life which focuses on unlimited freedom and possibilities and opportunities to buy whatever we desire...

Without imagination and aspiration another, more real and significant menace is born when these imaginings, dreams, and utopias disappear, and we subsequently forget how to play and live life beyond the frames already existing...

We are getting swept into a cocktail of freedom as an individual good, with guilt becoming the regulator for how free we can actually act.

Things are not hopeless, though.

Many of the individualised citizens in late modern everyday life still dream about and long for strong communities, close connections, and less fear of the future.

How do we address our ambivalence? By telling new stories, contemplating better lives, and designing utopias together. Freundenal-Pedersen terms this 'social learning', which could be as simple as discussing collectively what you think would make the world better. We use narratives, often generated and reinforced by the media and advertising, to justify our daily choices to ourselves. These are changeable. Indeed, arguably reflexivity and constant access to information via technology allow narratives to evolve relatively quickly.

Now, I enjoyed this sociological theory, but it's only useful if the implications can be used pragmatically. In reality, do social understanding and norms shift slowly or abruptly? Conveniently, there is a striking example of an abrupt, institutionally-induced shift observable right now. It occurred shortly after 11th May 2010. Prior to that date, UK politicians spent their general election campaigns ducking the prospect of government spending cuts. Once the coalition government was in place, the emergency budget appeared and suddenly significant across-the-board cuts were presented as essential. The media, which has pounced on any mentions of cuts during election campaigning, appeared to turn upon the public sector. It was painted as bloated, wasteful, unnecessary, and an impediment to growth. Public services, including the welfare state, were without exception presented as unaffordable, overgenerous, and in need of reform. I don't think the scale of this shift in public consciousness has been adequately acknowledged. Prior to the election, talk of cutting benefits was basically taboo; now this is taken for granted. David Cameron has taken very effectively taken advantage of the UK's ambivalence towards the public sector.

In a slightly perverse way, the successful sale of of the austerity story to the British public gives me hope that a similar shift can occur in relation to climate change. Ambivalence can be exploited to drive through huge institutional change without the need for a public campaign, or even widespread public acceptance. You could even use the 2008 Climate Change Act as an example - it got widespread public support, but was subject to a virtually unprecedented level of political and media consensus. How many people really thought through its implications for their own daily lives? Would it have gained the same support if The Daily Mail had claimed, not without justification, that it would raise petrol prices? (I realise that this train of thought isn't giving much credence to democracy; how that interacts with climate change deserves and will get its own post.)

Freundenal-Pedersen suggests a renaissance of utopian thinking in civil society is necessary to slowly overcome ambivalence. Much as I like this idea, I consider it neither sufficient, nor fast enough. Reawakening utopian dreams is important, but most people will likely remain ambivalent about the infrastructure underpinning them. To have any hope of radically reducing emissions, I think we must also look to institutions.

All quotes from 'Mobility in Daily Life' (Malene Freundenal-Pedersen, 2009).

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Social Science Fiction

The future is intrinsically fascinating to me and fiction presents it more vividly than most non-fiction. I will admit to something of a fondness for dytopian literature. Utopias are compelling too, but well-written ones are much harder to come by. So here is a slight digression from my climate change posts, a list of dystopian fiction recommendations. What issue most concerns you? These are all futures that we should try to avoid; pick your poison.

Acute housing shortage? Strikingly depicted in Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. New York is stiflingly overpopulated, the oil has run out, anyone is entitled to squatters rights over the tiniest empty space and abandoned cars are prized as homes. I strongly suspect this book was written as an extended argument for the better access to contraception.

Endemic pollution destroying human health? Try The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, a master of the genre. Constant food contamination scares and outbreaks of disease steadily push down American life expectancy and promote political instability. Overconsumption has poisoned the basic essentials of life. This novel has a particularly memorable, distinctly dark ending.

Capitalism gone to extremes? I give you Market Forces by Richard Morgan, in which Naomi Klein's worst nightmare manifests itself and civil wars offer the best investment opportunities. Über-macho traders duel with cars and kill anything in the path of profits. Although written prior to the credit crunch, probably reads more plausibly in light of it.

Dependence on the internet and obsession with celebrity? Gwyneth Jones' Bold As Love series is less depressing than most dystopias, but still depicts the collapse of civilisation and regression to subsistence-based feudal squalor. The catalytic event is the destruction of the internet, and events that follow include a civil war with armies led by pop stars.

Desertification and a precipitous fall in agricultural productivity? Earthworks by Brian Aldiss uncompromisingly shows the starvation and hopelessness resulting from inadequate food and crippling inequality. Unusually, it is centred on Africa, which adds to its punch.

Ground war in Europe with 21st century weaponry and guerilla methods? Kaleidoscope Century by John Barnes brings it to life. This novel is notably uncomfortable to read, in part due to the nature of the narrator. This is a Europe wracked by the horrors of failed states; war crimes and endemic AIDS.

Extreme weather triggered by climate Change? The Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd is to my mind the most immediately plausible of the bunch. It realistically explores how carbon rationing would work, through the eyes of a teenage girl. The tragedy is that it is already too late and climate change has taken hold. The discomfort of reducing your carbon footprint is neatly compared to the terror and danger of droughts, storms, and floods.

Withdrawal of public services and urban ghettoisation? The most effective depiction is a French action film, Banlieue 13 (District 13). Although predominantly an action flick, one of my favourites in fact, the premise is excellently realised. A deprived neighbourhood is walled in and has all public services withdrawn, as politicians no longer want to have to deal with it. Naturally, heavily armed drug dealers take over. To my disbelief, I recently read a US planning commentator recommend this exact approach, couched as allowing poorer areas to embrace the benefits of gated communities.

What I think characterises all these novels, as well as the dystopian genre in general, is the sense that things will only get worse. As I've said before, I think this mindset must be overcome in order to make progress in tackling climate change. Dystopian novels try to make a point and act as a warning, it isn't often that they propose a solution to whatever terrible situation humanity finds itself in. Wallowing in disaster is not a luxury that non-fiction, and reality, can afford. The vividness of dystopian novels is deceptive; the real world is much more complicated and ultimately interesting.

If you would prefer not to contemplate hellish theoretical futures, I suggest a recent, wonderfully snide novel of the banking crisis called Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright. Much too gentle and of the current moment to be a dystopia, it nonetheless dissects our relationships with banks and money beautifully. The old certainties of the banking system are dying. This novel could be read as a eulogy.

Friday, 3 February 2012

What do we want? When do we want it?

The first set of questions that occurred to me when considering climate change concern the future. What sort of future do we expect? What do we want the future to be like? Do we value the future less or more than the present? How far into the future do we consider it worth planning? How much risk to our desired future are we willing to tolerate? To what extent do we consider events beyond our lifetime as beyond our influence or interest?

Do we have a duty to future generations? I believe we do, as we should as species take responsibility for the problems that we've created. That's a grand statement, but translating it into policy is incredibly difficult. It's also easy to state that life is expected to improve as time passes, and that we should invest resources now to try and ensure this is the case. The counterargument generally raised to this is the current egregious state of inequality in the world. Billions still lack clean water, food, and basic bodily security. This is encompassed by the Millennium Development Goals, which are as follows: end poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, child health, maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability, and global partnership. Climate change isn't explicitly mentioned, even under the seventh goal. Is it more important to meet these goals first, before we contemplate emissions reductions? Should our lack of willingness to solve today's problems be an excuse to dismiss those of the future?

In my view, it is deeply unwise to separate climate change from other long term global problems. Clearly climate change is already impeding the achievement of the Millennium Development goals and will continue to do so. Notably, the countries worst effected by climate change are those who have contributed least to it. Subsistence farmers will starve before subsidised agribusinesses notice much of any change in productivity. It is a horrible irony that the United Kingdom, where the Industrial Revolution began, will likely remain attractively temperate whilst millions are displaced from Asian coasts and equatorial Africa. This raises the ethical question: when we contemplate an abstraction of the future, are we really considering the welfare of our whole species? Do we just care about our own children, or those of our own country?

If we in the Western world genuinely believe that reducing our greenhouse gas emissions today is too expensive and would involve sacrificing too much of the comfort and convenience to which we have become accustomed, then so be it. However it is not acceptable to presume this without considering the full ethical ramifications. If we put off reductions in emissions, we are tacitly assuming that the future will be more dangerous, that currently entrenched problems will become more difficult to solve, and that our own wellbeing is both more important than that of future generations in general and those of developing world in particular. If we are to be that selfish, we should at least be honest with ourselves about it.

In the UK we have the 2008 Climate Change Act, a piece of legislation that commits successive governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels, before the year 2050. This is an extremely important thing, as it provides the first inkling of a vision for the future. Although it in no way ensures that the target will actually be met, setting out a framework for the future that is desired, expected, and planned for is a powerful step. The aim of the Act is to prevent each government from deferring action on climate change until the following term of office. If it can survive the current coalition intact, the Act will have started to do its job.

When the Climate Change Act was passed, it demanded consideration of what we expect the UK to be like 42 years in the future. Now 2050 is 38 years away. Consider how much has changed in the last 38, let alone 42, years. In 1974, society, technology, and politics were very different. The rate of change seems only to have accelerated since. Within the constraints of an 80% emissions cut, what do we want from 2050? Personally, I want greater equality, lower consumption, and a fundamental reassessment of economics. I want fossil fuels to be seen as quaint and outdated. I want understanding to be valued above ownership.

From a less idealistic angle, we could simply require security and prosperity in 2050. If ignored, climate change will diminish or even destroy both. A future of rapid warming and dramatic climate shifts is unlikely to be attractive to anyone. And yet approaching the future in this way, as something to be feared, seems to promote paralysis and short-termism. Climate change becomes something too terrifying to contemplate; might as well enjoy life and waste energy while we still can. It seems to me that getting to the point of meaningful action requires greater thought. Once you've accepted that the future will be different, it is vital to consider how you want it to be different. In the current trajectory of increasing emissions and floundering economics, I see a huge failure in imagination. Things won't stay the same. If we value the future at all, we have to consider how we want it to be. In the UK we at least have the Climate Change Act as a starting point.

Friday, 27 January 2012

What is climate change to you?

This term's lectures have got me thinking about climate change as an abstraction and about how we individually try to make sense of it (or not).

I've spent a fair amount of time reading and thinking about climate change, but have always had the sense that there is more I could investigate but choose not to. For instance, I haven't watched 'An Inconvenient Truth' as I assumed it was meant to convert doubters and so wouldn't be so relevant to me. Whether that's true or not is rather beside the point, it was a rationalisation I made as a result of thinking I knew enough about climate change. Essentially, I thought that knowing more would just depress me. I was being, perhaps rationally, a coward.

I get the impression I'm not the only one who has done something like this: avoided reading or hearing any more about climate change because it is just such a vast and terrifying concept to process. Individually, such avoidance seems rational as individually we can do relatively little to alter the scale of climate change, even if we can imagine it. But collectively humanity has caused a quantity of greenhouse gas emissions that are altering the climate. In theory we must, as a species, be able to deal with this. There are a vast array of obstacles preventing us from doing so, and the first is understanding what climate change is.

I do not mean the science. (If you want a crash course on that, try here.) I mean the translation of that science into understanding, into policy, politics, culture, and everyday life. Climate change is a process, it has no fixed beginning or end. It is not directly priced, it has uncertain timescales, and it forces us to confront many difficult questions outside the objective sphere of science, about the future of our species, how we live, and what we value. It is intangible and locationally unspecific. It can be seen as a controversy, as a justification for specific policies, as an inspiration for the reinvigoration of civic society, or as a threat to security. Analogies can be drawn with terrorism or the hole in the ozone layer. Commentators from scientific, policy, economic, legal, and ecological fields interpret it very differently. Different sections of the media frame it in a variety of ways, to fit their particular agendas and narratives.

I am trying to overcome my previous complacency and come to my own understanding of what climate change means. What is certain in that humanity is emitting greenhouse gases at an accelerating rate. We are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and our climate scientists agree that this is changing the climate. Our current economies, lifestyles, and cultures are dependent on such emissions. If we are to reduce our emissions as radically as science tells us we need to, then the process of change in the climate will need to be mirrored by a process of transformative change in humanity.

There is as yet no popular narrative, no story or metaphor, that adequately explains this. Indeed, our popular culture and zeitgeist seem averse to any change that isn't technological. The developed world seems to expect that the current economic, political, and social rut will continue, except with better iPads. Perhaps the first step to confronting climate change is accepting change, full stop. The future needs to be different to the present, very different. I wonder to what extent the denial of climate change and attacks on climate science are provoked by a fear of any change.

I intend this to be the first in a series of posts discussing difficult questions about climate change, to try and clarify my own thoughts as much as anything. Here is the point from which I start, which will doubtless colour everything else I might say on the subject: I believe that anthropogenic climate change is the greatest challenge faced by humanity. We are collectively capable of summoning the intelligence, vision, and resources to confront it, but are equally capable of not doing so. And I agree with George Monbiot that, 'If we fail in this task, we fail in everything else.'

Friday, 30 December 2011

The City and the City

The most striking and entertaining academic writing that I came across in 2011 was by Rem Koolhaas. I found an extract from his book 'S,M,L,XL' in the innocuously titled 'Urban Design Reader' and loved it. Much of the planning literature I've read has been about the process and its aims, whereas Koolhaas makes sweeping, judgemental statements about what already exists. It makes a refreshing change. Also, he's very funny.

Rather than make my own inevitably depressing predictions for the year ahead, I give you the abridged Generic City. It seems like a 2012 sort of place to me.

Identity is like a mousetrap... The Generic City is the city liberated from the captivity of centre, from the straitjacket of identity... The Generic City is what is left after large sections of urban life crossed over into cyberspace... The dominant sensation of the Generic City is an eerie calm... The Generic City is fractal... Its main attraction is its anomie... [airports] are on the way to replacing the city... The in-transit condition is becoming universal... The great originality of the Generic City is to abandon what does not work... The street is dead... Housing is not a problem... [sites] are like holes bored through the concept of city... The roads are only for cars... The Generic City presents the final death of planning... Its most dangerous and most exhilarating discovery is that planning makes no difference whatsoever... It is open and accommodating like a mangrove forest... There is always a quarter called Lipservice, where a minimum of the past is preserved... Tourism is now independent of destination... Shrimp is the ultimate appetizer... The only activity is shopping... Close your eyes and imagine an explosion of beige... Voids are the essential building block of the Generic City... Postmodernism is the only movement that has succeeded in connecting the practice of architecture with the practice of panic... Bad weather is about the only anxiety that hovers over the Generic City... The architecture of the 20th century needs unlimited plane tickets, not a shovel... The new infrastructure creates enclave and impasse... In each time zone, there are at least three performances of Cats. The world is surrounded by a Saturn's ring of meowing.

Whether you agree with him or not, Koolhaas paints quite a vivid picture, doesn't he? His writing reminds me a lot of William Gibson, somehow. Happy new year.