Cultural politics of climate change activism in the UK as public pedagogy (2005-2011) : direct action, relocalisation, and professional activism
McGregor, Callum Kenneth
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This thesis is a study of the cultural politics of environmentalism in an era of climate change and the public curriculum that it generates. Scientists and the policy elite alone are unlikely to solve the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change, even in the unlikely scenario that consensus was reached and concerted international action was forthcoming. Increasingly, it is recognised that institutional learning through technocratic refinements of the status quo are inadequate. Although there is widespread belief that anthropogenic global warming is an urgent problem, political action has not followed scientific knowledge, because we have been slow to recognise the problem’s cultural implications. A range of voices within the environmental movement (broadly conceived) have increasingly challenged technocratic policy framing, with new ways of thinking. By widening the debate these critical voices increase the possibility of learning to react in new ways, which increase the capacity for collective agency. Based on this assessment, the aim of this thesis is to explore the ways in which the cultural politics of particular activist milieus generate public curriculum, through catalyzing the relationship between the cultural politics of civil society and the political culture of the state. From the 1960s onwards, the environmental movement has undergone a process of differentiation and specialisation, such that distinct cultural formations – oriented around direct action, relocalisation, and professional campaigning – emerged. Different ideal typical modes of “climate change communication” – agonistic pluralism, public participation, and social marketing (Carvalho & Peterson, 2012) – can be mapped onto the public pedagogies of these activist cultures. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe (2005, p. 20) uses the term agonistic pluralism to describe a situation where the “adversary” is understood in a productive sense to be “a crucial category for democratic politics”: where this is denied, we/they relations are understood to be “antagonistic” in the sense that conflicting parties do not recognise the legitimacy of one another. This view recognises the power play and affective commitments that determine modes of political association. On the other hand, “public participation” views politics as constituted through non-partisan rational deliberation in legitimate public fora. Finally, “social marketing” approaches discard the notion of people as rational decision makers, but also discard the principle of public participation in favour of the notion that political communication can be improved through expert evidence-based interventions. Cultures of direct climate action tend towards agonistic communicative styles, characterised by contestatory moments and a public pedagogy of “defining the enemy” (Newman, 1994). On the other hand, this approach has been perceived as problematic by movement intellectuals in relocalisation movements, who have argued that the non-politicised experimental practices of local communities, which engage optimistically with a sense of the possible, may in the long run, be more productive of the kind of mass cultural value shift required in order to tackle climate change. More recently, reflecting their own situated organisational structures and actor-networks, knowledge workers in the professional campaigning sector have increasingly applied insights from social psychology, behavioural economics, and cognitive science in order to find ways that engage tacit cultural values and norms in their public pedagogical efforts. In seeking to ascertain the ideal conditions for communication, the ENGO sector aligns most closely with a ‘social marketing approach’ to public pedagogy. Working with the ‘agonistic’ discourse theory of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, I believe that all cultures of activism necessarily engage in a contingent politics of articulation, at the heart of which lies antagonism and hegemonic struggle. In this thesis, I construct an intertextual research model, capable of exploring the contingent processes of articulation within cultures of climate change activism, between them, and between the movement at large, and the wider public, as they engage (implicitly or explicitly) in hegemonic struggles that provide moments of educative potential to activists, bystanders and politicians. I argue that the public pedagogies of these cultures of activism cohere around the articulation of what Laclau (2005) would call “empty signifiers”, which link particular claims, interests, and identities through creating a frontier separating them from an outside, which partially constitutes the inside’s identity.