Review of Transitions Seminar on Lessons from the 1970s

Manchester Climate Monthly is an independent newsletter/magazine published on the first Monday of every month.  They have included a review of the recent transitions seminar. We have aslso posted this below and would like to thank Manchester Climate Monthly for such a constructive review – including useful pointers for how we could improve future events.

Event Report: “Low Carbon Transitions; Relevant Lessons from the 1970s crisis?”Posted on May 1, 2012 by

Attention Conservation Notice: MCFly got invited to an academic seminar entitled “Low Carbon Transitions: Relevant Lessons from the 1970s crisis?” at the CUBE gallery on Portland St, hosted by Salford University’s SURF. The format (more on that) was of short-ish presentations from – mostly – academics, with discussions at each table about those presentations that led to questions back to the presenters. This account is mostly a sentence or two (or four) about each of the presentations,and then some thoughts on missing concepts and possible format innovations. As such, it’s of interest mostly to those who were there, and/or insomniacs.

It started well. A chap from the Grauniad gave an entertaining account from his book “When the Lights Went Out”. He said he was skeptical of the idea that people in the 70s felt – as is now depicted in popular history books – that they were living through endless crisis. He gently derided the game that authors play of pinpointing “the date is all started to go wrong” (Altamont, the IMF in 1976 etc). He made the point that even in the worst years of the 1970s unemployment was lower than during the best years under Blair (and that the Tory PM Edward Heath had reversed economic policy when it looked like unemployment would rise above… 1 million). As he pointed out, the UK’s problems of the 70s – around the nation state, productivity, sluggish management and poverty – have not been solved by neoliberalism.

On the environmental crisis, he mentioned the best-selling and apocalyptic Blueprint for Survival, the BBC TV show Doomwatch. (the makers of which were invited to speak to the Tory cabinet!). He gave an entertaining and informative account of a state-sanctioned festival (Watchfield 1975). A report by civil servants afterwards said that it was a positive thing because it had “broadened personal experience through minor law-breaking.” He then spoke of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike and how it was broken by right-wing non-violent direct action (Operation Pony Express) [see John Gouriet obit here], and how these tactics were used in the 80s (Wapping,the Miners’ Strike). He pointed out that Thatcher’s plans to privatise council housing came from earlier work that the Callaghan government had started making.  This was followed by a q and a. Sadly, MCFly’s reporter was wearing the invisibility cloak that Frodo Baggins left behind on his last visit, so didn’t get to ask a question.  Some stuff on Adam Curtis and also on the birth of think tanks got mentioned.

Fred Steward, who was at Manchester University as the 70s started, and is now Professor of Innovation and Sustainability at the Policy Studies Institute (University of Westminster) was up next, posing the question “Does the alternative economic strategy of the 1970s have any relevance fo trhe 2010s transition to a low carbon society?”outlined some history. He said that there were three things that he wanted to highlight
a) there had been a sixties rebellion against technocratic modernism (He mentioned Illich and Schumacher. Marcuse and the Frankfurt School crowd fit too)
b) In the 70s and 80s there was the emergence of a new ecological paradigm [Stockholm '72, Lovelock, the Brundtland Commission, etc]
c) 70s labour movement response to capitalist crisis and exhaustion of Statist economic policy.

Prof Steward lamented that there had not been significant engagement between industrial (e.g. trades union) actors and those concerned with global environmental issues.

Tim Jenkins of “new economics foundation” then tried to cram an hour’s worth of slides (from what looked like his ‘basic overview for complete newbies’ presentation) into ten minutes. Blivit. Basic take home point – we’ve been telling ourselves that “efficiency” is the same thing as “resilience” and it isn’t. He also significantly over-ran his time, cutting into the limited time for discussion.

Patsy Healey, (professor emeritus at Global Urban Research Unit in the School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Newcastle University) was particularly interested in how cities and the urban are imagined and contested. Her final slides, on how a consultation process around regeneration influenced all the organisations that took part, deserves further unpicking (watch this space).

Aidan While of Sheffield (him of “Sustainability Fixes”)made the point that the term “crisis” (he prefers ‘shock to the system’) allows states to respond in certain ways, foreclosing some options because of the “urgency” of action. He also made the point that if you don’t say what policy-makers are hoping to hear, you tend not to get invited to their meetings. Who knew

Pat Borer of the Centre for Alternative Technology gave a useful comparison of “then” and “now”. He is of the opinion (which MCFly shares) that the green movement has failed and that the species is headed for disaster whether we like it or not.

Jenny Pickerill made the point that progress is always slower than we hope, that we continue to fail to learn from our experience or mistakes, but that a lack of visibility does not necessary mean a lack of progress in ideas and [among other points] that good ideas always get co-opted

Dave Elliott of the Open University looked at the “Alternative Technology” movement of the 1970s and today, pointing out that there was always a divergence within the movement between the diy and the social change views. In his opinion, Alternative Technology was destroyed alongside the Trades Union Movement.

Joanne Wade looked at the different local energy experiments then and now, with a sprinkling of central government cash going out via things like the Low Carbon Communities Challenge. She pointed out distrust of institutions has been building for a very long time. She is of the opinion that “intermediaries” (people tinkering between the household scale and the national) don’t get enough support or funding, and that local authorities need both more capacity and more obligation to get involved in energy production.

This seminar is one of a series, and the next one is in Nottingham in late June.

Shaking up the format

  • Could have pushed the tables aside and had spectrums (alright “spectra”) at the outset to find out how old people were, what their experience was with these issues, what they were currently working on
  • Could have used a smidgen of time to find out what books, films, slogans, songs etc that people know from the 70s, especially ones they think are useful tools for thought/have resonance with our current shituaton. This could have been an icebreaker on the tables, before they went into their appointed role of responding to each speaker (a format that, frankly, began to pall after a while).
  •  Could have done an “activation” phenomenon at each table – pairwise introductions (I.e. talk with the person next to you for a couple of minutes. You are then going to introduce that person to the rest of the group).
  • Could have mixed up the tables after the lunch break so people got to mingle more, instead of sticking to the same 6 or so people.
  • Could possibly have collected more information from each table, instead of just one or two questions directed at the speakers (though then how to collate and process the info – a problem given zero staffing)
  • Could have feedback forms. (MCFly has some. They’re creative commons, so just lift ‘em with a credit.)

What was missing?
There was a focus on theory and “hard” infrastructure. Only in the margins was there any discussion about the way that civil society has been hollowed out, and now exists – at best – as a rubber stamp for technocratic managerialism. From an activist’s perspective, that would have been the most useful discussion to have.

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