16th Nov 2010, Marek Kohn, Can we rise above a warming planet? Climate change, democracy and human nature

If you tried to design a human problem to be as difficult as possible to solve, it would probably look a lot like climate change. Demanding agreement and co-ordinated action at all levels from the global to the individual, raising questions about the responsibilities of the rich to the poor and of the living to generations yet unborn, exposing the limits to our ability to imagine the consequences of our actions, climate change tempts some to suggest that it’s too much of a challenge for human nature and democracy. That is overly dramatic, but our social and political responses to climate change are as important as our technological responses, and they need the same things – development, innovation, urgency and commitment.

Marek Kohn is an author and journalist. His latest book is Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles Will Change as the World Heats Up (Faber, 2010); the previous one was Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good (Oxford University Press, 2008).

18th Jan 2011, Kate Soper, Democracy, Climate Change and Consumerism 

The market driven ‘consumerist’ lifestyle has long been defended and promoted as an agent of ‘freedom and democracy’ and the advancement of generally progressive agendas on race, gender and sexuality. But it is also widely condemned for its social exploitation, and now increasingly for its environmental destruction and unsustainability. Affluent societies are thus entering upon a cultural moment of unprecedented disquiet about unchecked consumption. The upshot is the emergence of consumer culture as a site of new forms of democratic concern, political engagement, and cultural representation.

In addition to the environmental and ethical reasons for this new concern, there is the evidence of growing disaffection over the negative legacy of the ‘consumerist’ lifestyle for consumers themselves. The ‘alternative hedonism’ implicit in these forms of consumer ambivalence will be analysed with a view to disentangling its outlook on human needs and fulfilment from both earlier leftwing critiques of commodification and from postmodernist celebrations of consumer culture as a resource of ‘identity politics’ and self-styling. ‘Alternative hedonism’ is presented in this context as the impulse behind a new ‘political imaginary’ that could help us to move towards a fairer, environmentally sustainable and more enjoyable future. How, it will be asked, can this new outlook on the ‘politics of prosperity’ be best promoted and represented; and how might consumption now come to function as a pressure point for the relay of political changes needed to secure a sustainable economy.

Kate Soper is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in ISET, London Metropolitan University, and Visiting Professor at the University of Brighton. Her more recent writings include What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Blackwell, 1995), To Relish the Sublime: Culture and Self-Realisation in Postmodern times (with Martin Ryle, Verso, 2002); Citizenship and Consumption (co-editor, Palgrave, 2007) and The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently (co-editor, Palgrave, 2008). Her recent study on ‘Alternative hedonism and the theory and politics of consumption’ was funded in the ESRC/AHRC ‘Cultures of Consumption’ Programme (www.consume.bbk.ac.uk). She is a former chairperson of European Nuclear Disarmament and has been a member of the editorial collectives of Radical Philosophy and New Left Review, and a regular columnist for the US journal, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.

1st Mar 2011, Kelly Rigg, Climate Change: Perception, Discourse, Action

The first NGO campaigns on climate change were launched around 20 years ago, following the October 1988 “Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere” where governments and scientists first sounded the alarm. Two years later, the IPCC released its first report suggesting that 60-80% cuts in CO2 emissions would be needed.

NGO campaigns have largely focused on raising awareness about the problem, providing roadmaps with solutions, and establishing a moral and ethical rationale for addressing what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time. Several questions of morality and ethics feature repeatedly in the discourse:

1) Intergenerational equity: this is embodied in the very definition of ‘sustainable development’ – development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

2) Climate Justice: Supporting vulnerable countries and communities who have done the least to cause the problem, but who will suffer the most

3) Equity: the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is enshrined in the Rio 1992 agreements, including the UNFCCC: parties should act “on the basis of equality and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

Yet 20 years on, the science of climate change is still under attack by vested interests, the climate negotiations are going in circles, and significant segments of the population are disengaged. One of the reasons for this may be that the science and policy community, which has been primarily responsible for trying to move this agenda forwards, has paid too little attention to understanding the mechanisms of public perception and discourse, and thus the political consequences of climate communications.

The talk will examind these issues, including some of the underlying factors which motivate public perceptions and action – as voters, as consumers, and as members of families and communities.

Kelly Rigg is the Executive Director of the GCCA, a global alliance of 250 organizations cooperating under the banner of the tcktcktck campaign. She has been leading international campaigns for nearly 30 years on climate, energy, oceans, Antarctica and other issues. She was a senior campaign director for Greenpeace International during 20 years with the organization. After leaving Greenpeace she went on to found the Varda Group consultancy providing campaign and strategic advice to a wide range of NGOs, and led the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition’s campaign to protect the high seas from destructive bottom fishing.

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