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 | http://www.timmitchell.co.uk

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: http://vimeo.com/113506686

Part 2: http://vimeo.com/113507621

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 storiesofchange@open.ac.uk 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 storiesofchange@open.ac.uk.


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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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New Year – New Weather – Happy? On trends and variations

iceboatcopy_zps3fbe56ebJust received a message from an OU geography graduate, with the above photo, that reads:

‘Just a short note to wish you a Happy New Year with a short update.
Record levels of Antarctic sea ice, Summer and Winter and record low temperatures in parts of the USA currently, in addition to a recent satellite record low Antarctic recording.
Of course this is weather but with no Global Warming since 1998 it is on it’s way to becoming climate. (A cooling climate)
Perhaps we should be looking at Sun spots rather than man made CO2.  Or then again, just following the money?  Even the Guardian has become comedy reading!
Best Wishes etc.’

My reply reads:

Hi xxx

Happy New Year to you too

From the tone of your email I suspect you hold quite fixed views on the topic of climate change, but I strongly urge you to explore the best available sources on climate change research. The IPCC website contains various levels of depth but there are plenty of other resources too. I think you would quickly find that sun spots have not been considered a viable explanation for the levels of change that have been observed over the period.

You might want to consider this engaging little cartoon about the difference between trend and variation. I’ve chosen a site where its embedded in an article that expands on the different ways people read data depending on the assumptions they start with.

One thing I would say at a personal level: i’m puzzled why anyone would think that researchers want climate change to be true. Everyone I know working in this field would dearly love to discover that the conclusions almost every climate scientist’s work is pointing to are wrong. Climate change seems likely to bring significant waste and suffering, albeit highly unpredictable.

Personally I find it helpful to understand climate science as a risk assessment and climate policy as a risk management process in its wake. More on this at my blog (see link below). If it had been communicated in this way rather than as a ‘truth war’ as it has sometimes been, including e.g by Al Gore, then I think many of the people figured as contrarians/skeptics/deniers (I think the first term is the only one that works, though there are problems with all such ‘groupings’) would be happy to take at face value the hard work of investigation that is going on.

Best wishes


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