About Andrew Dobson

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford University Press, 2003); (as co-editor) Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Green Political Thought (Routledge, 4th edition, 2007). His website is here

Articles by Andrew Dobson

This week's editor

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

The fiction of climate change

What is a climate-change novel, and what makes a good one? Andrew Dobson takes time from his day job as professor of politics to read the existing literature and emerge with suggestions about how to do it better.

Ecocentrism: a response to Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth’s journey from a degraded environmentalism to nature-centred ways of living and thinking has many echoes for Andrew Dobson, but also clarifies a difference of outlook.

James Lovelock: greenery vs democracy

Does the pioneer of “gaia” have a point: could democracy be an obstacle to planetary safety?

Copenhagen: climate countdown

The United Nations climate-change summit is a vital moment in the world’s effort to avert catastrophe. openDemocracy authors reflect on what needs to happen and how much Copenhagen can achieve.

10:10 and the politics of climate change

On 1 September 2009 a new climate-change campaign called "10:10" was launched at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The campaign aims to commit individuals, organisations and businesses in Britain to a 10% reduction in Co2 emissions by the end of 2010. 10:10 is the brainchild of Franny Armstrong, director of the climate-change film, The Age of Stupid.

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are Citizenship and the EnvironmentPolitical Theory and the Ecological ChallengeGreen Political ThoughtRoutledge, 4th edition, 2007). His website is ( (Oxford University Press, 2003), (as co-editor) (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and here

Also by Andrew Dobson in openDemocracy:

"A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

"A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

"Climate change and the public sphere" (1 April 2008)

"A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism" (22 October 2008) - with David Hayes 

Why 10%? And why 2010? The 10:10 campaigners' reasoning is that "Britain is committed to an 80% cut by 2050, and at least 34% by 2020. But scientists say it won't be possible to meet these targets without the right action now - and that means cuts of around 10% in the very near future."

The umbrella campaign

Two things about the initiative - heavily promoted by the Guardian newspaper - are immediately apparent. The first is that it has managed to attract great support, and from across the political spectrum. Within two weeks of its launch, as many as 15,000 individuals, 600 businesses, 100 educational institutions and 220 other organisations had signed up to its aims. These bodies include Cambridge University's Conservative Association, the Danish embassy in London, Downham preparatory school, a north London branch of the Trades Union Congress, the British Medical Association and Tottenham Hotspur football club.

The backers also include prominent members of the three main political parties. The Guardian announced on 3 September that "the entire cabinet" (in effect the Labour government as a whole) was now in the 10:10 camp; the Conservative Party's "shadow cabinet" soon followed, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was close behind.

Franny Armstrong celebrated the near-instant wave of support : "It's amazing that within forty-hours hours of the campaign's launch, the leaderships of the three main political parties have committed to cut their 10%. Who said people power was dead?" Indeed, a campaign that has managed so quickly to gather such an eclectic range of interests and viewpoints under a single, seamless banner is an impressive achievement.

This is a clue to the second notable aspect of the project: it is fundamentally apolitical. This is true in the trivial sense that it "transcends" party politics, which is why the leaders of Britain's three major parties (Labour‘s Gordon Brown and the Conservatives' David Cameron as well as Nick Clegg) can sign on the dotted line without demur.

But 10:10 is apolitical in a more profound sense too: in that its adherents are not required to act politically. Its core citizenship appeal is about lifestyle not agitation. The campaign advises individuals to fly less, drive less, wear more jumpers, eat better, and stop wasting food and water; and corporate bodies to focus on reducing electricity consumption, fuel-use, road-transport and air-travel. The focus of its efforts is to win a commitment from (mainly) individuals to make different personal choices rather than demand of governments and other power-structures that they change the conditions under which those choices are made. 10:10 is about changing lightbulbs rather than changing society.

The step-change model

There are good ideas, intentions and energies here. But the way the campaign is framed also builds in limitations. The extraordinary wastefulness of current habits and social practices makes it relatively easy for most households to achieve a 10% reduction by the end of 2010 (as indeed the campaign organisers themselves say). True, the difficulties in organising a collective response across the space and time that corporate bodies tend to occupy gives them a harder task (and the tendency to "free-ride" on the actions of others reinforces the problem of ensuring a positive outcome).10:10 campaigners recognise this too in saying: "For most businesses 10% is ambitious but achievable. It's the low-hanging fruit: eliminating waste, increasing efficiency, that sort of thing."

The (inadvertent?) use of this phrase raises the question: what happens when the low-hanging fruit has all been plucked? Much can be done in eliminating wanton wastefulness, but what is expected to happen in the next stages of the campaign reveals the limits to such lifestyle-changes.

By autumn 2010, the individual and organisational signatories will be asked to report on their progress. There will be no independent auditing, so a certain amount of creative carbon-accounting - and perhaps even a few over-fulfilled quotas - can be expected. It is likely too that at that stage the campaign will be declared a success. Insofar as there will have been some carbon-reduction as well as some consciousness-raising - so far so good.

The next stage will presumably be to change the shape of the campaign - to move from 10:10 to 15:11 to 20:13...and on to the ambitious, declared aim of 34:20. These next steps will become progressively harder - for as the buffers represented by systemic carbon irrationalities are approached, the returns on the effort put into behavioural shifts become smaller. No matter how hard individuals try, the way modern (and trying-to-be-modern) economies function guarantee a continued infrastructural residue of carbon-emissions. (Many carbon-calculators for individuals assume a two-tonne carbon-emission load whatever life the individual leads in a developed early 21st-century country - with one tonne generally regarded as the fair annual emission-level for sustainable living). At this point the limits of a campaign aimed at reducing carbon-emissions through individual lifestyle-change are unavoidable.

The 10:10 advocates could in principle accommodate this critique by emphasising the positive benefits of their campaign: that it is empowering, is an antidote to the despair engendered by the enormity of the problem, and gives individuals something to do rather than always wait for someone else to do something. They might even argue - touching more directly on the perspective offered here - that the problem must be tackled step-by-step: lifestyle-change and efficiency gains followed down the line by political action.

The danger, though, is that everything gets stuck at the first step. The Guardian's campaign launch included a centre-spread "eyewitness" montage photograph of dozens of individuals, each holding a piece of paper inscribed with their 10:10 carbon-commitment: fly less, cycle more, buy fewer clothes. If the 2015 photograph looks the same it means that little real progress will have been made towards dealing with catastrophic climate change.

The test of the times

What then should be done? It's almost certain that the required 80% reduction by 2050 will need transformative social and political - collective - change that in scale far exceeds the lifestyle-shifts envisaged by 10:10. The time for that to begin is the present. To that end, the celebrity authors, designers, artists and sportspeople who champion 10:10 might supplement their private pledges with some public ones:

* join and campaign for the party with the most progressive and coherent socio-environmental policies in the next general election (even if it's a small party)

* argue for a more holistic measurement of the health of an economy than is suggested by its gross national product (GNP) - as in the reports of the French-government-sponsored "commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress"

* attend the next climate camp

* oppose the privatisation of public spaces and public services.

This last pledge is fundamental. Climate change is a public bad, and there is an urgent need for citizens both to reimagine the public good and to relearn how to work together towards it. In current conditions, every new private solution to a public problem is a nail in the earth's climate-coffin.

The fight against catastrophic climate change can succeed only if it forges a permanent link with social-justice campaigns; if it is prepared to commit to an absolute reduction in the material throughput of modern economies; and if it accomplishes a comprehensive shift in political conditions and social relationships. The poor and vulnerable, within societies and across the world, contribute least to climate change and suffer most from it. The 4:1 ratio - the optimum high-to-low wealth balance in an environmentally and socially healthy community - should be as important as aspiration as any other. Any serious climate-change project today must rise to these challenges, or risk wasting the good ideas, intentions and energies that inspire it.

 

openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change, including the debate of that name (edited by Caspar Henderson) in 2004-05:

Stephan Harrison, " Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, " Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Simon Retallack, " Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, " Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Dougald Hine, " Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, " Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Tom Burke, " The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Saleemul Huq, Oliver Tickell, David Steven, Camilla Toulmin, Andrew Dobson & Alun Anderson, " Was Bali a success?" (18 Dec 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate security: the new determinism" (20 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, " Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)

Camilla Toulmin, " Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan" (11 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, " Climate change: rock the state, save the planet" (21 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, " Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

Simon Maxwell, "The politics of climate change" (15 June 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A new security paradigm: the military-climate link" (30 July 2009)

External Relations Authority, "Report on World 87" (20 August 2009)

Ruby Gropas, "The hot, flat, insecure world: a governance test" (21 August 2009)

Øyvind Paasche, "After glaciers: a new climate world" (27 August 2009)

Halina Ward & John Elkington, "International Democracy Day: work to do" (15 September 2009)

A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism

There are signs that the global financial crisis is giving some solace to forces of the political left. No wonder, for the left has been delivered a plausible story that also goes with the grain of much common-sense wisdom.


David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

It runs like this. The collapse of major banks and investment houses reveals the speculative house-of-cards on which neo-liberal capitalist economics has been built; the actions of governments around the world in bailing out and directly investing in these institutions show that an active state is essential to financial stability. The condition of the political right in the two major states most imbued with the market dogma of the age (the United States and Britain) suggests that an epochal shift may be underway - in which the balance between "private" and "public" is moving back in favour of collective, social and more inclusive (even egalitarian) solutions.


Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are:

Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford University Press, 2003),

(as co-editor) Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and

Green Political Thought (Routledge, new edition, 2007).

His website is here

Also by Andrew Dobson in openDemocracy:

"A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

" A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

"Was Bali a success" (18 December 2007) - part of a symposium "Climate change and the public sphere" (1 April 2008)

Indeed, the argument continues, the financial-sector's trading can now be seen to have imposed huge social costs, which states (and thus citizens) are now forced to carry. This confirms the folly of building a central part of the economy on a foundation of personal wealth-accumulation, recklessness and unaccountability. The only way forward is to restore to the centre of politics the long-derided idea of the "public" - and with it, associated notions of the public sector, public ownership, and the public interest. This can only be good for the left.

There is truth in the diagnosis - but the conclusion could be misplaced, and is almost certainly too hasty. There are three reasons to question whether the left's pheonix will rise out of the ashes of this crisis.

Whose revival?

The first is that it is not yet clear if measures such as the nationalisation of banks and building societies are going to work. The omens are at best mixed; even after the model designed by Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown was welcomed across the international political and media spectrum, stock-markets remain febrile, unemployment is rising (with much more to come), the strain of "negative equity" and repossession / foreclosure threaten house-owners, and the accumulated debts of the long consumer boom are still to be paid. These endemic problems are likely to make people more fearful and less hopeful - not a good foundation for a progressive politics.

The second reason is that it is hard for most citizens (who are also consumers, voters, taxpayers, welfare recipients) to see where the convincing leftist options are - apart from the worthy aim of bringing the state and the public realm out of cold storage. This aim is important, but it is a preliminary work of restoration rather than of radical change; moreover, it is shared much more widely, and thus cannot be regarded as unique to the left. The political left, qua left, has very little meaningful or distinctive to say about this crisis.

The third reason for scepticism about a revival of the left is that constant references to the precedent of the 1929 crash and the 1930s depression that followed are a reminder that such crises often create fertile grounds for a surge of the right. The first two elections in the global north since the financial crisis took hold saw victories of the centre-right in Canada and Lithuania (admittedly both leading parties are far from the extremes, and neither won an overall majority - though the advance of celebrity-populist parties in Lithuania may be an augur).

More worrying and immediate is what is happening at the far end of the political spectrum in several European countries. Stoke-on-Trent, the English city where one of us lives, is a case in point: here, the hard-right British National Party has already made advances in local-council elections (in the May 2008 elections, it won 24% of the vote in the wards it contested, and nine out of sixty seats). It is likely that much of the "white working-class" in the area (and its equivalents elsewhere) will rally behind it rather than any leftist alternative as economic recession collides with local discontents.

The limits of localism

Such caution about anticipating shoots of progressive recovery is often met by arguments that emphasise the energy and vitality of grassroots campaigns. It is true that local movements can often sustain an impressive standard of commitment even during a downturn. But there is also a problem in their political underpinning - in that activity aimed at coping with increasing levels of insecurity is ambivalent in its character and intentions.


Also in openDemocracy on the financial crisis and politics:

Ann Pettifor "America's financial meltdown: lessons and prospects" (15 September 2008)

Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)" (17 September 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The revenge of ideas: Karl Polanyi and Susan Strange" (24 September 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The week that democracy won" (29 September 2008)

Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)

John Elkington & Mark Lee, "Finance, politics, climate: three crises in one" (14 October 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)

The "transition towns" movement in England, which encourages local experiments in environmentally sustainable living and develoment, is a prominent example. This movement is to all appearances right where it should be: making climate change and "peak oil" the linked starting-point for its analysis of possible political futures. The central focus of the "transition" talk is about resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability, and its implications - including reskilling to cope with insecure supply-chains of goods and provisions as oil becomes scarcer, transport becomes more expensive, and the life made possible by oil recedes into the past.

This approach could in principle be empowering for local communities as they take their futures into their hands and do things that governments are unwilling or unable to do. The transition economy can invent new currencies, experiment with new methods of producing and consuming, and develop new ways of engaging and mobilising people in a community.

But where will the politics of resilience lead? It should be recalled that the progressive, inclusive politics of the past two centuries has been accompanied by a fossil-fuelled energy binge. As society powers down, what will become of the outward-looking social and political advances that have accompanied the age of energy excess? The transition-towns movement - and similar initiatives that are motivated by ideals of self-sufficiency, eco-community, and simplicity - seek to manage the shift from oil dependency to post-oil security. It is less clear that they offer anything to say about the equally difficult and equally necessary challenge of combining localism with cosmopolitanism.

When their security comes under threat and when a familiar order begins to break down, people generally look to their own before they look to others. A number of recent post-apocalypse novels has painted a bleak picture of life after environmental catastrophe has wreaked its havoc (Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee's The Ice People, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road among them). A politics of fear shadows this fiction, the signal (which imaginative artists are so often among the first to perceive) of a wider quality in the collective emotional temperature.

In an overheating world where already hard-pressed citizens are faced with new and prolonged economic difficulties, the avoidance of harm to self and family and "tribe" can come to supersede the preventing of harm to others. The scrabble for scraps can leave little room for cosmopolitan sentiment.

An echo of such warnings is evident in the comment of Will Hutton - one of the most acute analysts of the financial crisis - who speaks of the dangers of "fragmentation", where in times of hardship the temptation to blame (and the encouragement to blame) people or groups regarded as "other" increases. Hutton goes on to argue that "stories about why we should fragment are even more poisonous than the fragmentation itself".

The limitation of a politics of resilience is that it can so easily become defensive, reactive, insular (a characterisation that fits much of what remains of the political left as a whole). The whole point of the transition movement is to manage a move beyond - rather than merely respond to circumstances that have got out of control. This managed approach to change could in principle permit a soft, cosmopolitan landing in a world that is (in ways unimaginably different from the 1930s) globalised, connected, and plural. But to do so will require creating structures that can mediate between local initiatives, and a larger politics that can articulate these links. In the absence of such structures and politics, the sound of the wagons circling could drown out cosmopolitan sentiment.

The next horizon

That is why, if the management of change can't simply involve a return to the centralist-corporatist politics of the 1970s, it can't rely on a thoroughgoing localism either. As people seek security in troubled times there is a danger that the state will become overburdened, and citizen-based localism will struggle to fill the gaps. The chasm between expectation and reality could then be filled by a politics of disillusion - which is usually (in effect if not always in intention) a politics of the right which seeks to exploit the prevailing social sentiment for divisive and xenophobic ends.

The problem is that the space where people could organise their collective security in some key liberal-capitalist democracies - namely, the democratic public realm - has since the late 1970s been systematically eroded. This is especially true of the levels of government where social security (in its most general sense) is achieved (or not) on a daily basis: the local and regional levels. This democratic public realm is where the relations between citizen and state can and should be reformed. Every opportunity should be taken to revitalise it, and to fortify the democratic institutions that are the strongest bulwark against the chauvinism of which Will Hutton warns.

2008 is the year of a triple shock: the global food crisis (which made the realities of food-insecurity palpable), the global oil-price rise (which put localised transition on the agenda as never before) and the global financial hurricane (which gave the state as agent a new lease of political life). The long-term consequences can at present be only dimly discerned. At this stage, it can be said that together they do provide opportunities for the political left (in its broadest sense) which were barely imaginable at the start of the year. But it is also true that dislocating financial and energy crises offer promising ground for the political right.

The world is opening up to new possibilities and dangers. The future may belong to ideas that emerge genuinely out of this crisis, rather than to those (as it were) foisted onto it. Low-energy cosmopolitanism? Bring it on - but it will prove a tough nut to crack.


 

Climate change and the public sphere

It might seem a long way from public toilets to the politics of climate change, but there's an important relationship between what is happening to such public spaces and what is happening to the climate. As so often, it is one of the "rich" countries where the notion of the public realm has been most corroded by individualist, marketised ideology - Britain - that provides a vivid illustration of a more general international trend.

Was Bali a success?

A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state

The northern hemisphere's late summer began with a renewed period of global financial turbulence which - almost immediately - provoked massive and sustained intervention by governments and central banks to keep the system afloat. There are serious arguments over whether such intervention is the best way to manage an economic model fuelled by runaway debt, opaque or ineffective regulatory systems, and institutional practices remote from the daily lives of the citizens they are supposed to serve. But the fact of government involvement in the economy is central to this unfolding drama.

The reverberations of the financial crisis will be felt for months, perhaps years to come. As they come to be, it may be tempting to forget the departed summer of 2007 as just another phase of extraordinary - yet now routine - extremes in the world's weather systems: vast floods from England to Africa, devastating forest-fires in Greece, a seemingly never-ending drought in Australia, melting ice-floes around a greening Greenland. This combination - and many more examples could be given - provides further evidence for the prediction that climate change will play havoc with hitherto relatively stable weather patterns, in the context of a long-term, global rise in temperature.

But the temptation to forget should be resisted, and not just because these events are also processes - part of the permanent reality that is reshaping our lives, which we must understand and respond to if we are to survive. The reason to remember is also in the contrasting response by governments to these environmental crises: too often belated, provisional, and fragmented. If governments can recognise a cyclical financial emergency and in an instant move heaven and earth (and billions of dollars, pounds sterling and euros) to contain it, why can't they do the same in response to a permanent environmental emergency?

The space of politics


There is a range of possible answers to this question: institutional, ideological, interest-laden. A less obvious one touches on the way the public argument about the environment and climate change is now being conducted: who is included, who is excluded (or self-excluded), and what forces are seen as available (or not available) to make a difference.

A politics of global warming: the social-science resource

What kind of politics does climate change need? New understandings of the real drivers of human social behaviour can help provide an answer, says Andrew Dobson
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