Monday, May 18, 2015

Give me a narrative and I will change the world

On March 10 The Guardian dedicated its Letters to the editor page nearly entirely to comments from readers about climate change. These were triggered by the paper’s divestment campaign and addressed various issues related to options for practical action about climate change, be they individual or on the level of public policy.

The letters show a rich variety of recommendations, all coming from a readership that is convinced by the narrative that climate change is a serious problem and needs urgent attention. Below I summarize these letters in bullet points, the interested reader can view them in full here, here, here, and here
  • ·      We need population control
  • ·      We need a global level regulator to implement emission reductions
  • ·      Instead of divestment campaigns (shaming) we should adopt a positive stance and support progressive companies
  • ·      We should re-direct £6bn worth of global subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy
  • ·      We need to reduce our own energy consumption drastically
  • ·      Role models like Naomi Klein should lead by example (air travel!)
  • ·      We should adopt a vegan lifestyle which would reduce GHG emissions by 50% (stop eating meat and dairy products)
  • ·      We should lead a simpler, but happier life
  • ·      We should implement carbon capture and storage, and geo-engineering—these can be financed while higher energy prices are politically not viable
  • ·      Capitalism is the real cause for catastrophic climate change but cannot be changed
  • ·      The market cannot solve the problem of climate change, only public investment can
  • ·      We should not alienate the political right, fighting climate change is more important than fighting capitalism.

(I am sure the Guardian received other letters praising the usefulness of nuclear power, of fracking, of sleeping naked, of smart grids, or some other solution).

These letters and their messages need to be taken seriously and it is surprising how little note has been taken of them, and of similar other examples. What they show is how different options are put forward that not always go together. In fact, the important point is how people convinced by the official message of potential catastrophic climate change tend to disagree about solutions for the problem. Imagine a government trying to put into practice the above options as part of one climate policy.

One wonders how important it is that the public should sing from the same hymn sheet as the scientists (assuming for one moment that the scientists are actually doing anything like that). Despite the best efforts at establishing an all-encompassing science assessment which drives policy, it would tell us pretty little about what to do next.

In this context it is interesting to take a quick glance at a recent public discussion in Germany. At the ‘Ladenburg Dialog’ Ortwin Renn, one of Germany’s foremost risk sociologists, said that without a convincing story radical measures for the protection of climate would not be attractive. While we have narratives that emphasize economic opportunities, ecological dystopia, justice between rich and poor countries, or the end of capitalism, we do not have an over arching message.

According to Renn we are lacking convincing narratives about climate change.

Compare this to Anthony Giddens’s recent intervention in which he supports the storyline that has become appealing to many people concerned about climate change, and what I call the dominant discourse on climate change. Its protagonists are activist climate scientists, left leaning commentators and journalists, some politicians, green activists, and social scientists. The storyline says: the scientific case for climate change has become much stronger over the past years, but the public endorsement has become weaker (no prizes if you guess who the culprits are). The IPCC consensus view is likely to underestimate potential climate risks so we should be assuming that worst case scenarios are more likely than mild climate impacts. Recent extreme weather events are a manifestation of climate change. Climate change is multiplier of many other risks.

(watch the video of Giddens's speech here
from where you can also download the transcript).

This leads us back to the beginning of this blog post. What do we gain by constructing ONE story about climate change that is so appealing that we all accept it? And that we welcome whatever it takes to combat climate change? Renn thinks the narrative needs to be found, Giddens thinks he has found it, but the committed public (the Guardian readers) show how both are being contradicted by the facts. The facts are not scientific constructs, but real facts on the ground (the concerned citizens), which are normally more influential when it comes to policy formulation.

So what follows from this, and how can we give meaning to the title of this blog post?

Suggestions welcome!


Hans von Storch said...

Reiner -
do we have a history of narratives, which were thought to have the power of changing the world?
Could we discuss the crusades, the (Christian) narrative of which is still powerful, as a relatively innocent/distant example?

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Hans, I am not sure the Christian narrative is innocent or distant. But your question raises the interesting question of how we look at narratives. In the 1980s postmodern philosophers (JF Lyotard) proclaimed that the condition of postmodernity signified an incredulity towards meta-narratives. Or in plain English, that people did no longer want to hear stories about heroes, origins and historical goals.

Meanwhile we have seen how much alive such stories are, and the desire to hear them. Climate change may be an example of providing meaning to a disillusioned and otherwise deeply skeptical audience. But the problem is that it does not work as you would expect. A narrative should summon the supporters and inject some sense of purpose and urgency, towards the same goal. With climate change it seems to become less and less clear what the goal is (just look at the letters in the Guardian).

But perhaps the meaning of 'narrative', as used by our social scientists in the above post, has not much in common with Lyotard. Perhaps it has more in common with policy experts' terminology where you need a storyline to mobilize supporters for a short term goal.

So it would be more of a party manifesto and not a blueprint for history.

Hans von Storch said...

Sure, the crusade narrative was never innocent, but it is past, and for most people in the west, at least, it is no longer moving.
I wanted ot poiunt to the past ussage of narratives for suppporting social movements, which are no longer considered "good".

It would be more difficult to point to the narrative, which was used and adopted by many in Germany in the years 1933-1945, mostly.

Le Coiffeur said...

Bravo Hans von Storch. You liken a social movement for climate protection to the Crusade and the Nazis already in comment #3. That surely is worth archiving. It's just communism still missing now, right?

Karl Kuhn said...

A "social movement for climate protection"?

To a small part perhaps. I can't help feeling that most of those who advocate 'ascetic' solutions (less production/consumption, simpler lifestyle) do not really care about climate. They represent the same drive towards self-restraint as countless other ascetic movements (social or elitist) throughout history. They advocate an end (today 'climate protection', in former times 'getting closer to God') to justify their means, which are the real end.

Those advocating for technical fixes are more likely to really care about the problem. Not least because self-restraint by consumers has never ever solved fundamental resource problems in human history.

Werner Krauss said...


ich glaube, was Du meinst ist eine Geschichte des "Milleniarismus", der Heilserwartungsbewegungen. Es handelt sich dabei um die Erwartung der Wiederkehr des Messias, den Anbruch eines Goldenen Zeitalters oder eines tausendjährigen Reiches, oft verbunden mit Endzeitvorstellungen. Dieser Milleniarismus findet sich natürlich in vielen Religionen, aber auch in säkularen Bewegungen mit teleologischem Geschichtsverständnis (teleologisch = die Geschichte verläuft auf ein Ziel zu). So z.B. im kommunistischen Manifest oder in der Erwartung des tausendjährigen Reichs bei den Nazis.
Elemente davon finden sich auch in vielen sozialen Bewegungen, in der Umwelt- und Esoterikbewegung mit ihren Apokalyptikvorstellungen zum Beispiel - und Spuren davon auch in den Leserbriefen im Guardian.

Man sollte sich allerdings davor hüten, Wissenschaft als das Gegenteil zu millenaristischen Vorstellungen zu sehen. Vielmehr finden sich gerade in den Naturwissenschaften immer wieder solche Vorstellungen. Spuren davon finden sich sicherlich in der derzeitigen 2 Grad Debatte (unter ganz ernsthaften Menschen). Erst jüngst wies Steve Rayner anlässlich der "tippping points" auf millenaristische Tendenzen in den Erdsystemwissenschaften hin; das derzeit kursierende eco-modernist manifesto mit seinem teleologischen Glauben an Modernisierung und Technologie ist ein anderes Beispiel. Bei Klimarealisten wie auch bei vielen Skeptikern sind Geoengineering, GMOs, Nuklearenergie oder andere "technological fixes" oft ebenfalls mit solchen messianischen Vorstellungen verbunden = der Siegeszug der wissenschaftlichen Aufklärung wird Armut, Krankheit und Kindstod abschaffen und Wohlstand, Energieversorgung und Gerechtigkeit bringen, weltweit.

Aus dieser eher ethnologischen Perspektive eröffnet die Begegnung mit den auf den ersten Blick so esoterisch anmutenden Leserbriefen neue Einsichten über die Verfasstheit des eigenen Standpunktes und kann als Aufforderung zur Selbst-Reflexivität dienen. Ich glaube nicht dass es darum geht, solche Vorstellungen abzuschaffen (dazu ist der Mench irgendwie nicht geeignet), sondern mit ihnen bewusst umzugehen lernen.

Hans von Storch said...

dem " Ich glaube nicht dass es darum geht, solche Vorstellungen abzuschaffen (dazu ist der Mench irgendwie nicht geeignet), sondern mit ihnen bewusst umzugehen lernen. " stimme ich gerne zu, Werner.
Eigentlich wollte ich auch auf genau diesen Punkt hinaus. Wie gehen wir damit um, da wir wissen, dass sich ab und zu aus solchen Narrativen Wirkungen ergeben, die so nicht intendiert oder erwartet wurden.

Werner Krauss said...

Es ist zum Beispiel interessant zu sehen, dass die Modernisierung und der Siegeszug des Kapitalismus in vielen asiatischen und afrikanischen Ländern mit einer teilweise rasanten Zunahme religiöser Erwartungsbewegungen sowie des Geisterglaubens einhergeht. Wie bei manchen hiesigen sozialen Bewegungen scheinen diese das millenaristische Fortschritts- und Modernisierungsversprechen verzerrt oder mimetisch wiederzuspiegeln. Jerry Ravetz hat neulich in einem verblüffenden Einwurf hier auf die Bedeutung von "lore" (volkstümlichen Wissen) als antidot zu wissenschaftlichen Fehlentwicklungen hingewiesen.

Karl Kuhn said...

Off-topic ...

Hey guys: again you slip into German - why the hell - is English sooo difficult for you? This Klimazwiebel-typical habit turns off your international audience. In the real world, do you also start a discussion in English with colleagues from abroad and then slip into German - this would be considered as highly impolite, and rightly so. I suggest to conduct discussions in the language the post author has started with; everything else is a mess.

jorge c. said...

Mr./Herr Karl Kuhn: WELL SAID!!!!

Werner Krauss said...

Karl Kuhn,

sometimes thoughts develop from inside, and my inside primarily speaks German. And please do not forget those native German speakers we exclude when arguing in English. So no morals please; instead, I recommend using 'google translate' (that soemtimes bridges these language issues pretty well). And in case it does not make sense, please, dear English speakers, don't hesitate asking me.

Werner Krauss said...

So here my translation (including some alterations):

I think what you mean is "millenarianism". This means the expectation of the return of the Messiah, the dawn of a Golden Age, often associated with end-time ideas. Millenarianism is part of many religions, but also of secular movements with teleological understanding of history. Examples are the Communist Manifesto or the expectation of the “1000jähriges Reich” of the Nazis. Millenarian elements are also found in many social movements such as in certain forms of environmentalism or in New Age movements with their apocalyptic visions; and traces are found in the letters to the editor in The Guardian.

However, one should be careful imagining science as the opposite of millenarian ideas. Rather, sciences easily carry them (without necessarily violating CUDOS!). See for example the current debate about the 2 degree target or about the "tippping points" – Steven Rayner pointed out the inherent millenarianism in the Earth System Sciences; the currently circulating 'eco-modernist manifesto' with its teleological belief in modernization and technology is another example. Sometimes, climate realists as well as skeptics present geoengineering, GMOs, nuclear energy or other "technological fixes" as a kind of messianic ideas = the triumph of scientific enlightenment will abolish poverty, disease and infant death and bring prosperity, power and justice worldwide, climate protection inclusive. From this rather anthropological perspective, the letters to the editor in the Guardian are no longer the esoteric “other”; instead, the confrontation with them invites for self-reflecting one’s own position. The problem is not to place science as the 'other' of these ideas; instead, I argue that they are part of the human nature and we have to learn how to deal consciously with them. Some scientists find God in details or things; other scientists find traces of human existence in the global atmosphere. We have to learn treating these phenomena consciously and productively. This is where truly integrated science might have a start.

Werner Krauss said...

And my additional idea was the stunning phenomenon that in many African and Asian countries modernization and capitalism go hand in hand with the rise of Pentecostalism or the belief in spirits. Rationalism and spiritualism do not necessarily oppose each other; rather, it looks like complementary forms.

Jerry Ravetz recently shared here some thoughts about the complex relationship between science and 'lore", with 'lore' somehow both mimicking science and providing its necessary correctum (to be extended....).

Karl Kuhn said...

@ Krauss

"And please do not forget those native German speakers we exclude when arguing in English."

You hosts of Klimazwiebel should compare two scenarios. If discussions slip into German, hundreds if not thousands of no-German speaking readers will give up reading, let alone posting ... or all of them would have to translate the stuff. By contrast, if discussions start and are kept in English, I am not aware of any German reader here who cannot at least keep on reading. Some may struggle a bit with formulating English comments, that's all (and sometimes that may help to sharpen their answers). So just to make commenting (not reading) for two or three German guys a bit easier, you would be willing to turn off practically all your international readers and discussants? Not a good deal. The Klimazwiebel is one of the few international climate discussion platforms where a good balance between the camps is found, thanks to the admirable attitude of its hosts. I would not compromise this too easily. If you want to have a discussion in German, start your post in German ... about 30% or so of new posts are indeed in German, but they should then also be targeted at a German audience. When started in English, it is just not sensible to switch to German if you do not want to descend into obscurity.

Werner Krauss said...

Dear Karl Kuhn,

as you can see above, I already translated my German comments into proper English. But thanks again for reminding us to be consistent, you are perfectly right.

Hans von Storch said...

We introduced the rule that commnication can go in all languges, which are known in Hamburg. Dansk er kendt, deutsch auch, werner hat auch schon mal auf Portuguisisch gepostet - Karl Kuhn, mit dem schönen österreichischen Namen, das werden Sie aushalten. But if you do not like it, fine as well. You all continue as you like, wie Euch der Schnabel gewachsen ist - som I har lyst til.

But, why don't you come up with a nice comment in Austrian?

Karl Kuhn said...

HvS, I guess this is not about rules, but attitudes and behaviour which contribute to the effectiveness of communication.

Kuhn is a family name that originates from Switzerland/South-Western Germany. Or do you think Karl is Austrian?

Werner Kraus, sorry for not appreciating your English translation, really.

Hans von Storch said...

Karl Kuhn, sorry, my ability to discriminate between southern German-speaking people south of the Elbe.
I would agree to your position, if it would be a technical symposium, aber es ist ein offener Austausch. Actuallly German is a more precise language than English, so that conveying subtleties is manchmal einfacher. Faktisk er Engelsk a blanding a Latin/Fransk, Tysk og Dansk, eller hvad synes du hvor ordet "again" comes from?

Karl Kuhn said...

"Actuallly German is a more precise language than English, so that conveying subtleties is manchmal einfacher."

(In der Tat ist deutsch eine präzisere Sprache als English, so dass das Rüberbringen von Subtilitäten sometimes easier is.)

That's mal a steil thesis here.

Greetings from Dunkeldeutschland ... pay a visit.

Hans von Storch said...

Very nice, thanks, Karl!

Werner Krauss said...


Giddens providing a storyline? Funny idea - he is really not a very sexy storyteller... But I like the letters; all good things come from below (and many issues from population control to divestment were discussed here, too). Remember the origins of the environmental and the anti-nukes movement; out of a great diversity of interests and storylines finally evolved a powerful movement, and scientists, administrators and politicians finally had to follow (against their will, mostly!). Why should it here be different? I find it rather embarrassing when people like Giddens try to find coherent "storylines" to lead people somewhere he wants them to (and those who ever read him know that he actually is not a really gifted storyteller -:)

Anonymous said...

"...sind Geoengineering, GMOs, Nuklearenergie oder andere "technological fixes" oft ebenfalls mit solchen messianischen Vorstellungen verbunden = der Siegeszug der wissenschaftlichen Aufklärung wird Armut, Krankheit und Kindstod abschaffen und Wohlstand, Energieversorgung und Gerechtigkeit bringen, weltweit."

Wobei man hier sagen muss, dass bestimmte Gruppen nur bestimmte technologische Lösungen bevorzugen. Dabei ist hier ihre Gruppeneinteilung fast schon seltsam ist. Naja... die gewählte Art der technologischen Lösung hat nicht ausschließlich mit der Position in der Klimadebatte zu tun. Ich kenne Leute, die glauben, dass es keinen Klimawandel gibt und alles nur für eine Propaganda der KKW-Betreiber halten. Andere glauben, dass der Klimawandel größere Probleme verursachen wird und bevorzugen Kernkraftwerke als Lösung. Man stelle sich vor, in D hätte man die Braunkohlekraftwerke anstatt die KKWs abgeschaltet...

wieder andere glauben einfach, dass der Klimawandel nicht so schlimm ist, weil sie konservativ sind. 99% der "Skeptiker" sind so.

Auch soziale-gesellschaftliche Bewegungen können sehr technologie-getrieben sein. Und umgekehrt sind technologische Revolutionen sozial-gesellschaftlich ermöglicht werden. Das ist doch oft sehr schwierig zu trennen, meiner Meinung nach.

Nehmen wir das Beispiel 2000W-Gesellschaft oder 1-Tonne-CO2-Gesellschaft. Diese Idee der ETH klingt, hm, als sozial-gesellschaftliche Initiative, ist aber hauptsächlich Technologie-getrieben. Es geht dort nicht um die Einschränkung des Lebensstandards, sondern um's Energiesparen, hauptsächlich durch Technologie ohne Einschränkung des Lebensstandards in allen Ländern. 2000W Dauerlast pro Person war der Durchschnitt 2006 in der Welt. Der Durchschnitt soll gehalten werden, ohne den Fortschritt in den Entwicklungsländern aufzuhalten. Hmm, ist ne Idee.

Diese Idee kann man nicht wirklich in eine Schublade packen. Die Idee ist radikal, benötigt Revolutionen in vielen Bereichen, hat aber nichts mit Verzicht zu tun.

Deswegen finde ich den Einwurf Milleniarismus sehr gut. Wobei auch nicht jede Idee, so groß sie auch ist, mit einer Heilserwartung einhergeht. Zumeist ist es einfach nur pragmatisch und wird von Kritikern einfach nur diffamiert.


@ReinerGrundmann said...


Giddens is not only the social theorist who wrote books that are complex and perhaps not always easy to read. He is also member of the House of Lords and part of the British elite. He coined the slogan of the Third Way for New Labour. You may not find him a sexy story teller (what do you mean by that exactly?) and maybe his influence has waned (also in connection with the Libyan connections of the London School of Economics). what I wanted to emphasize is that he repeats a story line that is being pushed by the activist branch of climate science and their supporters in the media.

Werner Krauss said...


sure, you are right. My comment was somehow ill-conceived; thanks for clarification.

Anonymous said...

Spock would have said "Faszinierend"

To provide an individual answer to Hans von Storch - the science of story telling is called 'Narratologie', in German 'Erzähltheorie'. And of cause Religion and Mythology are among the strongest examples, from Job and Jeremia, the Exodus till the Song of Songs.

For a related WP article of mine, have a look on Ralf Junkerjürgen and his concept of Spannung – Narrative Verfahrensweisen der Leseraktivierung - it sounds like 'suspense' was something climate change continues to lack and the Ozon hole delivered. I am not sure someone will be able to shift that story.

Geographical storytelling has been scrutinzed by Geographer Gerhard Hard - start with the rezension of Hans Jürgen Böhmer, Zur Integrität der Geographie

Quote: Der (aktuelle) dramatische Wissensverlust – bereits 2005 von
Paul Keddy treffend als Alzheimerisierung („Alzheimerization“) der Wissenschaften bezeichnet – hat Folgen. Manche Journale füllen sich mit methodisch versierten, inhaltlich jedoch redundanten Arbeiten zu längst umfassend abgehandelten Themen. Weitreichende
Schlussfolgerungen, etwa zum Klimawandel und seinen möglichen Auswirkungen, werden auf – gemessen am eigentlich verfügbaren Kenntnisstand – marginaler, allerdings numerisch
exakter Grundlage gezogen. Übrigens unterstelle ich den ... euphorischen Kollegen weder Absicht noch Nachlässigkeit. Sie leben wohl wirklich in dem Glauben, etwas Neues entdeckt zu haben, da es ihnen eben neu erscheint.

Nehmen wir als Beispiel ... Thuiller et al. ... 2005 ... Climate change threats to plant diversity in Europe7
. Demnach werden bis zum Jahr 2080 dramatische
Veränderungen der Areale von 1350 Pflanzenarten in Europa vorhergesagt (inklusive hoher Aussterberaten). ...Diese
Untersuchung ... erzielte große Aufmerksamkeit auch in den deutschen Medien. Zur Erinnerung: In pflanzengeographischen Lehrbüchern wird mindestens seit dem späten 19. Jahrhundert ausgeführt, dass die Verbreitung von Pflanzen ... nur zu einem Bruchteil von großklimatischen Parametern bestimmt wird. .... Demnach kann die zeitgemäße Inszenierung Thulliers und seiner Mitstreiter gar keine Aussage über die tatsächlichen Areale im Jahr 2080 treffen. Es handelt sich um eine empirische Spielerei, deren begrenzte Aussagekraft bewusst verschwiegen wird.


Anonymous said...

PS.: I deliberatedly posted a part in German. Hans Jürgen Böhmer quotes various cases, where English speaking scholars proudly present a groundbreaking new fields of e.g. ecological research, which basically had already been introduced e.g. by Carl Troll and his followers as early as in the 1930ies. Same (my enWP experience now) for the Hockney–Falco thesis in history of art. Thats the Alzheimerization of science - people forget what happened in the past and reinvent the wheel.
Cheers Serten