Best Black Friday deal ever: people don’t trash the planet just because they get richer

Press release from my latest paper written with Tomáš Kostelecký, and Petr Jehlíčka


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Pleasures of the Czech table, Tereza Černá

A paper published today in Geoforum finds that Central and Eastern European societies point to how we can make some parts of our food system more sustainable. ‘Quietly Does It: Questioning assumptions about class, sustainability and consumption’ shows that despite the middle classes of Poland and the Czech Republic getting considerably richer over the last twenty years they still want to find the time to grow and share home produced food.

The standout statistic is that around 40% of all social classes – urban and rural – in Poland and the Czech Republic grow up to 40% of their own fruit and vegetables. Crucially, they aren’t doing this to ‘save the planet’ but rather because they enjoy it, they trust it and they like to share stuff. Hidden in these facts lies a gemstone for discussions of sustainability: people don’t necessarily trash the planet just because they get richer.

The paper notes that officials in the region often consider these practices to be happening ‘in the wrong place and the wrong time’. These growers aren’t following the script in terms of western expectations of patterns of development. And this is a lesson that could be of far wider significance as the middle class grows across the Global South. So, it turns out that sometimes, progress towards sustainability is more like gardening than rocket science.

The article is freely available until the end of January from:

After that time a pre-publication draft can be downloaded from

Contact: Prof. Joe Smith, Dept of Geography, The Open University,

00447879056481 /

@citizenjoesmith /

Cite as:

Smith, Joe, Tomáš Kostelecký, and Petr Jehlíčka (2015) Quietly Does It: Questioning assumptions about class, sustainability and consumption, Geoforum 67 223–232

A five minute audioslide summary of the paper is also available.

One of the team, OU geographer Petr Jehlíčka, presented a keynote based on the paper in Prague this July working to the title: The Invisible Gardener: Why Key Sustainability Lessons from the East are Being Ignored.

Some quotes from the paper:

‘Our exploration of what we frame as the practice of ‘quiet sustainability’ amongst middle classes in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is intended as more than a modest correction: we believe it helps to nurture a more accurate, and in some senses more optimistic, account of how progress can be achieved towards more sustainable societies. It poses an important question: need it be assumed that periods of rapid economic development, and the related expansion of middle classes, in emerging economies necessarily follow a Western pattern of development, with (attendant) high levels of consumption?’ (223)

There is evidence of entrenched views about the relations between class, development and consumption that inform policy directions, but also underpin pessimism about achieving more sustainable human inhabitation of Planet Earth. This framing in terms of a class–sustainability–consumption conundrum ensures that any discussion of economic development is tightly bundled with hazards that reach far across time and space. It is assumed that climate change, biodiversity loss and resource depletion are all intensified’ (223)

We want to note that the simple pleasures and virtues of food self-provisioning and sharing beyond any reference to market techniques or logics have gone on under the noses of one of the most assertive and fast paced insertions of a market economy, and attendant development of a middle class, that the world has ever seen. (224)

‘The ‘wrong’ time, the ‘wrong’ people and the ‘wrong’ place’: Prior to our research the main explanations in the policy and research literature for high levels of FSP are that these are ‘survival strategies of the poor’. It had been assumed that the emergent middle classes would fall into line with their western cousins and pursue primarily supermarket-supplied food provision. The most attentive listener at any of our presentations of this work consulted for Tesco…

‘(T)hese practices matter not because they represent an alternative economic system, but rather a significant (in terms of both environmental and social sustainability) parallel system to whatever the political-economic frame of the time is – be it state socialism or market capitalism. As such it offers an interesting comment not just on discourses of sustainability, but also of resilience.’ (227)

‘Our research demonstrates that a significant proportion of the middle classes of Poland and the Czech Republic have behaved in an ‘unexpected’ way. Despite the increasing wealth and diversification of leisure opportunities for the rapidly expanded middle class of CEE many of them continue to grow and share a sizeable proportion of their own food, and tend to do so in an environmentally beneficial manner.’ (230)

‘These emergent middle classes are demonstrating that the everyday lives of people who have achieved what, only a few years earlier, would have been considered unimaginably high levels of mobility, security and choice relative to their own and/or their parents generations’ prior experience, continue to want to grow, eat and share their own food. As our discussion of class in post-socialist CEE showed, the postwar experience of state socialism means that the middle classes in this region are in an important sense newly-formed. But while many of their new life experiences of, for example, leisure, travel, work and shopping, are part and parcel of an identity that ‘fits’ with what social scientists and marketing analysts anticipated, the dogged commitment of a significant minority to FSP qualifies western assumptions about the course of development.’ (231)

‘we have found that it is in the relationships around the nurturing and sharing of produce and skills as much as in the getting and consuming of food that the significance of these practices lies, both for the practitioners and the world beyond.’ (231)

‘…attention should be given to virtuous and ‘civil’ behaviour that doesn’t set out to be considered as such.’ (231)

‘The middle-class food self-provisioners of post-socialist CEE have been defying the expectations of government officials, marketeers and researchers. Roughly forty per cent of them are producing roughly forty percent of some types of their own food (e.g. potatoes; soft fruit; eggs). These consumption practices are happening ‘in the wrong time and the wrong place’. In terms of assumptions about economic development, class formation, and anticipated behaviours, they are being practised by the ‘wrong people’ (that is, by all social classes, by urban and rural, and across all age groups). From the point of view of the architects of post- socialist transition the fact that the middle classes continue to grow their own food almost has the status of deviance.’ (231)

‘Far from being a ‘survival strategy of the poor’ FSP helps practitioners to nourish and represent their own identity, and to tend to their family and friendship relationships and networks. The environmental benefits are rarely considered explicitly by the practitioners of FSP, though they are tangible. Scaled across all developed societies, and supported by some appropriate parallel policies (e.g. surrounding land use and transport planning, access to and rights over land for growing and the support for access to skills and tools) Poland and the Czech Republic show how FSP can make a significant contribution to food security, public health and social cohesion. These practices generally result in reduced resource consumption and pollution. While they are linked to frugality and thrift (Crang and Hughes, 2014), they are not necessarily related to virtues of necessity but rather of abundance, enjoyment and exuberance – or, in short, of the ‘good life’. The food self-provisioners of post-socialist CEE have sustained a linked set of values, practices and purposes that carry environmental and social benefits. These continue outside the market, beyond the state, and with almost no reference to the formal institutions of civil society. This quiet sustainability is equitable, impactful and carries multiple benefits, while requiring no state or market interventions.

The case demands that the research and policy communities take more notice of these quietly significant aspects of everyday life, and invites consideration of what might be achieved by paying more attention to the everyday practice of quiet sustainability. This requires sensitive attention to people’s experience of pleasure, sharing, challenge and the demonstration of skill in a range of fields. This opens up possibilities for nurturing sustainability in new ways in some key areas of environmental impact such as how we get access to what we need and want (transport), how we dress (consumption) and how we make our homes comfortable (energy). It also helps support a sense that sustainability is not so much a future state to be achieved as a strand of lived experience that already exists in the past and present.’ (231)

Quotes and references from previous articles coming out of this research project:

One of the first findings was that

(m)ainstream political discourses both within these countries and the EU have tended to see the trajectory of CEE countries as fixed – locked into a linear temporal and developmental trajectory towards a Western neo-liberal modernity. This modernity rests on comforting assumptions about the symbiotic relationship between democracy, economic development and the expansion of a prosperous electorate (figured as middle class). (Smith and Jehlíčka (2007) 395)

We concluded that

‘(t)hese biographies demonstrate self-determination that is beyond the reach of a narrow account of a transition to a prefigured Western economic and cultural form. These everyday food practices either revise, or are independent of, Western-style corporatized food systems. They… assert a food culture, politics and hence economy that is more than purely capitalist-economic, other than ‘transitional’; one that is diverse and open to change’. (Smith and Jehlíčka (2007) 408)

It was important to test our hypothesis that the dominant explanation of food self-provisioning was faulty. We found that:

‘far from being a coping strategy of the poor, food self-provisioning in the post-socialist context can be a multifaceted activity for which its practitioners (who are quite evenly spread across income groups with the poor slightly underrepresented) have a diversity of reasons for participating in this practice, with hobby/recreation being the most important one.’ (Jehlíčka, Kostelecky ́ and Smith (2012), 221)

We coined the term ‘quiet sustainability’ to try to put a name to something subtle but important that both economists and ‘alternative food networks’ researchers seemed to be missing:

‘The quiet sustainability of Europe’s food self-provisioners, and the extensive networks of sharing that spur from their work is not a programme to be implemented, a future ambition for society or an exceptional contrast to the norm. Rather it is a quiet but purposeful parallel to the market economy of food. It inhabits family and friendship, work and neighbourhood net- works, rather than seeking to challenge or mimic economic institutions. This may go some way towards explaining why FSP in CEE has received so little attention from those scholars and activists who seek examples of sustainable food politics and ethics that do not ‘contribute to the production of neoliberal subjectivities’ (Guthman, 2008, 1181)’. (Smith and Jehlíčka, (2013), 155)

‘(t)he value, power and reach of these practices seem to lie precisely in the fact that they allow parallel and overlapping narratives about families, networks, competencies and relations with nature. They are not a replacement or an alternative to the mar- ket economy of food, or a response to its environmental or social failings, but rather a vivid demonstration that that is only part of life.’ Smith and Jehlíčka, (2013), 155)

References for previous publications related to this project:

Jehlička P., A. Tickle (2004) Environmental implications of Eastern enlargement: the end of progressive EU environmental policy? Environmental Politics, 13 (1), pp. 77–95

Jehlička P., T. Kostelecký, J. Smith (2008) Food self-provisioning in Czechia – beyond coping strategy of the poor: a response to Alber and Kohler’s ‘Informal Food Production in the Enlarged European Union’, Social Indicators Research (2012)

Jehlička P. and J. Smith (2011) An Unsustainable State: Contrasting Food Practices and State Policies in the Czech Republic. Geoforum 42 (3) pp. 362–372 doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.01.005

Jehlička P. and J. Smith (2011) An unsustainable state: contrasting food practices and state policies in the Czech Republic, Geoforum, 42 (3)), pp. 362–372

Jehlička P. and J. Smith (2012) Shelf Life: Food and Sustainability after Socialism.” In R. Tyszczuk, J. Smith, N. Clark and M. Butcher Atlas: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World, pp. 56-63 (London: Black Dog Publishing)

Smith J. and P. Jehlička (2007) Stories around Food, Politics and Change in Poland and the Czech Republic. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 32 (3) pp. 395–410 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2007.00258.x

Smith J. and P. Jehlička (2013) Quiet sustainability: fertile lessons from Europe’s productive gardeners, J. Rural Stud., 32 (2013), pp. 148–157


See the articles themselves for full acknowledgements of funding and research assistance.

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Learn and Live


Open University graduation ceremonies always choke me up, but this was certain to be a big one for me. Last October my mother, an OU student, learnt that she would die within a year. She was magnificent about it. Life is terminal as they say, and her last breath was on 30th December after an odd but surprisingly happy Christmas with all generations of the family around her.

She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a paper mill town in Ontario. There were four dependents hanging off her mother’s three part time jobs, and some other very difficult experiences thrown into the mix. School didn’t go so well for my mother. But she always loved reading and always wrote a really great letter. So in her mid seventies she quietly ordered an OU prospectus and signed up for the Humanities foundation module. Her objective, sixty years after leaving school, was to scrape a pass. This she achieved (despite there being a little too much feeling in her Stalin essay). She had always derived enormous satisfaction from the progress of her family, but never paid much attention to her own.

Passing just one OU module transformed her sense of herself and her own intellectual worth. A few days after she learnt of the terminal nature of her illness I asked if there was anyone she’d like me to be in touch with at the OU, such as the Tutor of her second module… (the rest of my sentence would have been, you know, about having her studies disrupted by imminent death…). She interrupted me – ‘yes actually could you do that? There’s no way I’m going to get the first Assignment in on time with all this going on’. I’m certain she had a better quality of death because of the confidence she gained from studying.

I went to a university that despite an 800-year history has only recently permitted women to hold full degrees. Yesterday’s graduation ceremony saw our new Chancellor Martha Lane Fox give an Honorary Masters degree to Jenny Dawson, social entrepreneur and founder of Rubies in the Rubble, for her services to ethical business. Martha and Jenny both enthusiastically praised the achievements of the graduates and their families. The hand-blistering clapathon saw the packed Barbican theatre congratulate, amongst hundreds of others, a mother of nine children, a fifteen year old young man (youngest ever graduate at the OU), some people of my mother’s vintage and plenty of people in between.

The heckles are always the best bit, from a child’s ‘I’m proud of you Dad’ through to a loving but heartfelt ‘about time too’ from a long-suffering OU spouse. It remains Britain’s biggest and most diverse student community by a very long chalk, and the OU plays a huge role in building people’s confidence, skills and capabilities. A combination of quality and openness is at the core of these thousands of life changing experiences.

I’ll return to work with a spring in my step. But these are threatening times. Everyone in the OU is working to uphold our core principles, but the current policy and funding environment presents massive challenges. So here is a plea to the UK’s political leaders at a critical hinge point in higher education policy: recall the imagination, creativity and boldness that created such a brilliant institution as the Open University. Instead of creating huge headaches for us, work to find ways to invest in learning that is guaranteed to be open to everyone.

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Less climate – more action

Less climate – more action

These slides form the basis of my contribution to the Sheffield Green Commission’s session on communication etc. I aim to put together a post based on this if time allows to pop up here.

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What’s stopping us? Acting on climate change will make life better

see you tomorrow © steve russell oil on tablet map background 98cm x 98cm

see you tomorrow © steve russell

Here is the text of an email interview exchange with Daniela Klebis, who is Executive Editor of a new Brazilian Magazine ClimaCom. The Portuguese version appears here, but I’ve pasted our exchanges (unedited) below. Daniela got in touch after reading essays in our Culture and Climate Change: Narratives book. When time allows I’ll trim down my essay into a post.

DK: We observe an overwhelming presence of climate crisis being present on media, arts, politics. However, it seems that suddenly people just become static, as if the problem is bigger than their possibilities. Too much talk and little action. What story about climate change have we been communicating? And why are these stories no longer having effect?

JS: Opinion polling shows that all over the world most people know about climate change, are aware that scientific research sees humans as largely responsible, and they are mostly concerned or very concerned about it. This level of awareness and concern is a great achievement of the media. But the story has become static when it comes to actions. And too often we try to  motivate people with fear. That tactic will not motivate people any more. It is important to connect climate change actions – whether to mitigate or to adapt – to other daily concerns people have. So we should be talking about making travel easier by getting cars off the road and supporting other ways of getting access to what we want; we should be talking about improving housing and workplaces to make them more comfortable (cool or warm) while using less energy. We should be talking about how designing cities, towns and buildings to cope with extreme weather can make them better places to live in any case.

DK: Could you talk a little about your work on the cultural politics and the six inter-relating features that structures the climate change stories? How can we turn down the volume and get everybody to talk?

JS: If we see climate change as a risk problem rather than a debate about facts then we can all come together to debate whether we are willing to take big risks and do nothing, or whether we will give permission to politicians to protect us and future generations from major risks. For a city like Sao Paolo there are some huge risks.  climate change and deforestation of the Amazon are interrelated. That sounds abstract to most people, but in Sao Paolo that means something very real: the water supply being cut off for a city of 20 million people. So people need to engage with stories about protecting forests, about using water wisely, about having fair water supply systems. And Brazilian people might reasonably expect to be rewarded by the whole planet for looking after the global air conditioning unit that is the Amazon.

DK: How can we make a communication that is able to generate new affections and problematize the importance given to concepts as adaptation and mitigation when it comes to climate change?

JS: Climate change is shifting the boundaries of ethics and politics: for the first time in human history we are starting to make policies and laws that represent future generations, and the non-human world. But the policies and laws are just the visible expression of what I believe is a much deeper process, whereby we are inviting future humans and also natural habitats and species into our ethical and political community. Obviously we can’t do that literally, but I see signs that we are starting to do that in other ways – including in the arts and popular media. Just to say to your kid or your granny in a joking way ‘turn that off to save the planet’ is to represent distant others in a new way.

DK: The reports published by governments and scientific institutions – the IPCC is the most well-known example -, should be considered as a relevant element for the research networks on climate change; their divulgation to the general public generates expectations as they have had plenty of space in the media.  How to think of them in terms of their effects and potential for communication and engagement with the issue?

JS: Science reports don’t make good news stories – even these important summaries of the best available knowledge on climate change struggle to capture the imagination. But I think we need now to recognise that the science has done its job: it has delivered a risk assessment (and that assessment hasn’t changed in its headline messages for 25 years). Now the stories need to focus on risk management. and those stories should not be ‘stories about climate change’ but rather stories about housing, taxes, about whether businesses or political leaders are doing their job or failing us in terms of having good energy, water, transport or biodiversity policies. In this sense the best thing is not to see more climate change stories, but rather to sense that climate change is embedded in many more ‘mainstream’ stories.

DK: The science of climate modelling  is a story of uncertainties, a science that tries to find some order to explain one moment  in a world in constant change. Why is it so hard to communicate these uncertainties as part of a process of understanding of our environment? 

JS: Climate change is one of the most complex intellectual challenges humanity has set itself. Nevertheless the headline responses from the science community are remarkably consistent. We should allow the science to be just interesting – it shouldn’t be seen as controversial. The political decisions are a different thing: we need controversy around all that – we need many more people to feel willing to debate and challenge whether our actions to decarbonise, to reduce methane from agriculture, to make our settlements more resiliient are the right ones.

DK: I’d like to ask you the question you propose at the beginning of the publication Culture and Climate Change: what new narratives about climate change might need to be nurtured? How can we frame climate change and engage the public with what’s effective real in the world without appealing to dramatic certainties and drastic images of polar bears dying in the melted arctic?

JS: The most important thing in my view is to convince people that action on climate change will take us to a better place than the place we are now. Fossil fuels have made us lazy in the way we live with technology. For 60- years fossil fuels have  given us: traffic congestion; a food industry that results in obesity; badly designed houses, offices, factories and cities. Climate-friendly buildings, cities, travel and food systems can give all of us a much much better quality of life. What is stopping us?!

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Stories of Change TippingPoint event in Oxford 21st/22nd September


Photo: Alison Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle; Gunjan Parik of C40, Jo Walton of Ashden; Karen O’Brien of University of Oslo and Juliet Davenport, Good Energy talk energy transformations in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Photo by Gorm Ashurst @gorminator

This post will go up shortly over at the Stories of Change project blog too.

One hundred and fifty people from the arts, media, policy and research came together to explore the linked issues of energy, transformation and climate change in a range of ways – creative, didactic, exploratory and more. It is very early days for the project, but the event was a great way to kick things off.

We have a wonderful photo essay by Gorm Ashurst (of designers Bullet, who are working on some of the design elements of the project) that gives a flavour of the event. Gorm captures the sense of energy, debate, fascination and (as appropriate) hilarity. Plenty of handy portrait photos for participants to download too. You are welcome to use any of these photos, but please use:
Credit: Photo by Gorm Ashurst @gorminator

Many participants contributed to a photo booth project devised by photographer Tim Mitchell and artist Clare Patey that got three people at a time devising questions they wanted to ask about energy and climate change, and taking photos of each other with the questions floating above them in the clouds. This fits very nicely with a project rooted in the idea that more plural and dynamic conversations about energy futures will help us debate and decide in the present. Again you are welcome to use the photos anywhere, but use:
Credit: Photo by Tim Mitchell |

Take a look here:

And finally:

Stephen Peake’s extraordinary talk on the history of our life with energy, told through light from tallow candles to LEDs, including the unique toilet roll based 3D powerpoint display can be found on Vimeo here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

And the film editor whiled away a quiet evening splicing it into an energy rap, CO2 emissions inclusive. Some kind of world first to be found here:

Credit: Jeremy Bristow, John McIntyre

All the material is under Creative Commons-Attribution Only, but do please let us know where you use these images or video. We will be drawing much of the material developed through the course of the project into an online Stories Platform in due course. Our friends in the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute are working this up currently.

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Stories of Change: arts and social sciences support energy transitions


Feast on the Bridge, London, Tim Mitchell 2010

This post outlines a new research project I’m heading up, funded by the AHRC. It’ll run for the next three years. The post will appear in a couple of newsletters and blogs here and there. Its a great team and we all feel the project has really interesting potential. Do email if you want to keep in touch with its development.

A new three-year research project led by The Open University is set to challenge the terms of public debates about energy issues. “Stories of Change: Exploring energy and community in the past, present and future” has received nearly £1.5million in funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to examine areas of conflict, make space for more diverse voices and support a more open public conversation about change. The project will explore energy transformations of the past, present and future through an innovative mix of social science and humanities research, digital storytelling, short films, and other creative work. It will also be generating a publicly accessible collection of ‘stories of change’.

Societies the world over are faced with pressing shared challenges about future energy choices, particularly in relation to climate change. At the heart of the UK Government’s Climate Change Act of 2008 is a cross-party commitment to cutting carbon emissions. Polling points to wide acceptance that actions will be required to reduce demand and cope with future environmental hazards. But new developments and measures to manage or reduce demand can generate conflict. Research shows that many people feel disengaged from or even hostile towards the changes needed to meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets. Public and political conversations about energy have stalled and we aim to return some momentum by looking in a new way at its past, present and future. Our project seeks to make space to work through the areas of conflict and identify elements of a collective vision. One of the dominant features of current energy debates is that it is difficult for society to imagine a system that isn’t fossil fuel based. Amongst other things we want to remind people that relations between social and energy systems have been very dynamic in the past. We are approaching this by sketching out these historical transformations, but also by drawing on the lively imaginings of possible futures that appear in everything from the latest sci-fi to recent manifestos, to the work of pamphleteers of the more distant past.

Community is an important term in our work, and we are exploring energy transitions in three contexts via three ‘Stories’. ‘Industry Story: Future Works’ is rooted in the English midlands, and seeks to unearth fresh accounts of the long relationship between energy, industrial making and landscape, and explore where it might go next. ‘Everyday Story: Life Cycles’ engages with the role that energy resources have played in shaping communities and everyday life in south Wales, from migration, for example from within Wales and as far as Somalia to work with coal, to new movements of people and things that support one of the UK’s largest new wind arrays. ‘Policy Story: Demanding Times’ gathers and connects the mix of communities of interest around energy policy at local, national and international levels, and generates new accounts of energy policy and politics past, present and future.

If you want to explore the complexities of the past, present and future of energy transitions an interdisciplinary approach is vital. Hence the team includes architects from the University of Sheffield, leading digital storytelling experts from the University of South Wales, geographers from Birmingham University and the Open University, literature specialists based at the University of Bath and a historian from the University of Exeter. The team also includes leading IT researchers who will support meaning-making across the mass of material we are gathering via new digital tools. The arts organisations TippingPoint and Visiting Arts have also joined the team to help build strong partnerships with creative practitioners. The project is rooted in a body of ambitious partnerships, including government departments, business, NGOs, museums and community groups. Creative partners include a mix of poets, puppeteers and other theatre makers, filmmakers, writers and artists. All of the creative partners involved are experienced in helping to give voice to people and/or things that are often unheard.

We are working with stories because they offer a popular and engaging route into thinking about the past and present and imagining possible futures, and also because stories, narratives and narration are concepts that people from a range of academic and creative disciplines can gather around. History, digital storytelling, fictional narratives, and scenarios of the future all communicate different ideas about the consequences of change for everyday life, and explain different perspectives and attitudes towards change. But in the development phase of the project we have been surprised to find how much the more technical and policy-oriented communities welcome the idea of looking at their concerns through the lens of stories. To put in simply: we all love to listen to and tell stories.

The project, and its interest in stories, is in part inspired by the example of the Mass Observation movement’s gathering of accounts of everyday life in the UK, above all in the 1930s and 1940s. Their work combined a desire to give ordinary people a voice, radical innovations in social research and bold new ideas about media and the arts. It has inspired our three objectives. First, we want to listen to and give a platform to more diverse, often unheard, voices, including voices of the past and future, and to try to find ways to give voice to the interests of the non-human world. Second we want to mobilise change through humanities and social science research and the arts, and demonstrate that they are much more than a ‘nice to have’, but rather provide essential means for deliberating and acting on challenging new knowledge such as the natural science of climate change. Thirdly we aim to innovate in our use of digital media with our Stories of Change online platform. The platform will hold hundreds of individual pieces of content, ranging from proto-industrial conflicts over the rights to use rivers for power prior to the industrial revolution that have been identified by our historian, through to nature writing across the centuries, and science fiction depictions of future energy utopias and dystopias, gathered by our literature specialists. It’ll also hold excerpts from major energy research and policy documents, as well as interviews with key players. Next to them will be digital stories told by communities that have been formed by their relationships with energy production. We will hold all of that material on an intuitive and approachable platform, but also make it available as linked open data so that others can do their own work with it.
But we will be adding whole new layers of meaning through the stories we decide to tell. Some of these are stories we will curate and present, in collaboration with our arts and design colleagues. But we will also equip any user of the site to create their own journeys through the content, and share them with others. We think that this feature will be particularly useful to teachers and learners engaging with energy and environment issues at higher school and university levels, as well as lifelong learners.

The academic team is also developing academic articles and a book, policy briefs and popular materials. The communities, our creative partners and the research team are also collaborating to produce a mix of creative writing, songs, short films, performances and museum and festival shows. In order to scale up the impact of the work we are doing we will also be looking for media collaborations. We want to catalyse new approaches in mainstream media storytelling about environment, society and energy. We want to help them to move on from stale, incomplete representations of conflicts or static accounts of energy systems. It is always hard for researchers to get heard, or to maintain the integrity of their work when they engage with the media, but early interest, ranging from news journalists to comedy producers, suggests we may be onto something with our ‘stories of change’ approach.

Although we don’t hold our own position on what energy futures to pursue we do take our lead from the incredibly ambitious de-carbonisation targets found in the Climate Change Act and the work of the institutions created around it. We want to create greater awareness amongst policy makers of the range of responses to and ideas about low carbon transitions, but also to support them by pointing to the past and present evidence of capacity for energy system change. The work will be rooted in the kind of rich account of the diversity and dynamism of humanity’s life with energy that an interdisciplinary mix of history, literature, design, arts and geography can provide. One of the distinctive contributions we want to make is to remind the policy community, the media, and wider society that however high the obstacles may seem to be, change isn’t just possible, it is inevitable. That in turn invites the question ‘what kind of change do you want?’  

Dr Joe Smith is lead researcher on the Stories of Change project and Senior Lecturer in Environment at The Open University. If you want to find out about or engage with the project please email


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An open letter to Nigel Farage (and offer of a pint)

The right kind of wet. Defunct Derby brewery ad, Cambridge Blue pub

The right kind of wet. Defunct Derby brewery ad, Cambridge Blue pub

Dear Nigel

I was concerned for you on Channel 4 News tonight. I’ve never seen you looking uncomfortable in front of the camera before. Answering questions about climate change with water all around you left you short of breath and a bit panicky I thought. A pint in your hand would have helped settle the nerves. I’ll buy you one – it would give me a chance to talk through a couple of things (I’m with you on the straight glass thing by the way).

You said to the journalist: ‘I have no idea whether CO2 emissions are contributing to climate change’. I’m an Open University academic – a social scientist who also works with climate scientists and technology specialists, and can help you with that one. In the mid 1980s it was agreed by governments and the top science institutions around the world that humans might cause changes to the climate, and that we’d better look into it. That’s when the IPCC was born: a massive review of all the relevant science. The first report said that some uncertainties would decrease and some would increase over time. For sure some uncertainties have increased. But they have got much more confident about the role of humans in climate change with every report.

But this is difficult stuff to hear when everything we do seems to depend on fossil fuels. The result has been that many people with an interest have turned climate change into a truth war. Personally I find it much more helpful to instead think of climate science as a risk assessment, and climate policy as risk management. No sides, or battles, just different appetites for risk. The IPCC risk assessment came in years ago, with absolute clarity: the message was ‘don’t risk the future for the sake of cheap oil and coal’.

But you might say I’m missing your point: those contrarians who do think there is something in the science say the cure is worse than the disease – right? Wrong. Board members of some of Britain’s biggest companies, including auto, consumer goods, energy and water industries, can point to no regrets tech progress in key sectors that have been driven by commitments to act on climate change and pursue resource efficiency. They’re delivering better products to consumers, reducing bills and gaining market share. They’re fitter to compete globally too.

You and I also care about the quality of everyday life for those oft-mentioned but oft-neglected ‘hardworking ordinary British people’. But again I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Things like green transport and housing policies can help to make people healthier, happier and richer across a lifetime, and reduce tax burdens around health care and welfare. T-shirt version: ‘climate action = better lives, lower taxes’. So long as the policy people start early and learn as they go.

But what if the IPCC are wrong? What if the maverick naysayers are on the nail? The most convincing (to me) climate contrarian arguments are rooted in the idea that we’ll be ‘lucky’, in other words, that climate sensitivity will be at the lowest end of the range of scenarios. This line is nicely summarised by the climate contrarian’s mascot scientist Richard Lindzen in his contribution to the UK House of Commons Climate Change Committee hearing on the IPCC’s latest report: ‘it is entirely possible there is no problem.’

But… Luck. Chance. Optimism. Hope. A bet. A gamble. A roll of the dice. How did that go with banking?

Yes. It is entirely possible that there is no problem, but almost all the good evidence available to me points in another direction. Happily most of the things that are likely to be required can, if well thought through, carry some huge benefits to ‘honest hard working British people and British businesses’.

Lets have that pint. Straight glasses. Cask ale. And talk more about the weather.



PS: the next time TV journalists do that thing where they make you stand in a flooded street and ask you about climate change you can say that the IPCC would stress that the capacity to directly attribute extreme weather events directly to climate change is years away, if its even possible. But if you do borrow that line of argument do please promise to read some of the other things they’ve got to say.

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