On being provoked by John Barry

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John Barry – no not the John Barry the composergave the keynote address – labelled "a provocation" – on the final day of the GEEP Advisory Group Meeting.  As I noted yesterday, John is Professor of Green Political Economy in the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action at Queen's University Belfast.  He is co-chair of the Belfast Climate Commission, a member of the Committee on Climate Change’s Economics Advisory Group on Adaptation and Resilience, and member of the Sustainable Future Committee of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.  As fromage goes, he is quite grand.

I've heard him before, about 30 years ago at an environmental philosophy and ethics event organised by the late, regretted, Andy Dobson.  He was a local Green Party politician then and full of enthusiasm and rhetoric for his red/green future vision.  It must have been tricky being a Green amidst the febrile politics of Northern Ireland.  I remember saying to him after his talk that if he ever came to power, and had the chance to implement his policies, there would not be concrete enough in the world to build the gulag he would need to incarcerate dissidents.  He took it well enough.  I've always remembered the exchange, and wondered whether he had.

I also wondered how he had changed over the years.

Well, he's no longer a politician and looked all the better for it.  He's got a nice university niche from which to provoke – and good for him as academics should do this.  It's clear that he's a popular speaker with a good line in rhetoric and a certain flair for presentation.  Too many clichés for me though, but that's a matter of taste.  He looks a bit Old Testament, which helps, and always goes down well in Northern Ireland, I'm told.  One person I met afterwards said how she loved hearing him: "I could listen to him all day", she said.  Fair enough, I thought, but what do you do as a result?  I wish I'd asked.

John's talk was heavy on a diagnosis of the existential crises we all face; I'll not dwell on those as we're all familiar with the arguments.  I was more interested in the so what?  What are we to do – especially as educators – to help build a fulfilling, nature-rich life beyond carbon.  And all that was a bit thin: apart from overthrowing global capitalism, of course; that's a given – but not, it seems and as the great Peter Martin was won't to say, before our pensions are paid.

There were some great sound bites:  “optimism is a trap, but hope is central – although it needs agency”.  Dead right.  And I particularly liked this: "If he were here today, what would Jesus drive?".  A good trick question for the chattering classes along the Shankill Road I thought.

But as far as the central question of how we get from where we are now to this fulfilling, carbon-free, nature-rich life, there was no convincing answer.  John has no hope for capitalism or for technology, and he's not alone in this, of course, although his current well-paid good life is mediated by both.  He's prone to asking his students why it is that people are more readily able to see the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

At the end of the talk I proffered an answer which was that people cannot see any alternative economic system because nothing is available as either a compelling model, or a convincing road down which to travel to that end.  There is nowhere in the world where the non-carbon, nature-rich good life can be glimpsed, even if hazily.  That, I thought, is his challenge.

Actually, I think it's all our challenge as it's a low-carbon life that is heading towards us, and only if we are lucky will it be a fulfilling, nature-rich one.  From the perspective of most people in the room, it was education that has to be key to getting there, and I also asked about this.  Specifically I asked:

How can education, particularly in schools, help people understand the transition that we need to make and aid them to acquire the skills (viewed broadly) to work collaboratively towards this?

This is an important question and it is central to what the young people in the admirable Teach the Future say they want.  They want to help as well as learn; to be able to play their part in this grand and necessary adventure.  They see it as both an existential and hopeful challenge.  The most important we have ever faced.  It's surely glorious.

But John had no answer.  He responded with more of the same (for about 5 minutes) but said nothing about education and what it might do.

In the end, I thought, provoking people is all too easy but nowhere near enough.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • I never knowingly have met John Barry, But I have met several of his contemporaries of the same ilk. I agree, it's the so-what, and so-how that interest me. This rush to remove capitalism seems mired in a simple belief that all capitalism is the same. We need discussions that focus on other economic models not driven by a profit-only minded hierarchical system. As for net-zero, I still wonder what physics proponents are using to justify this gadarene rush to this action. If our academic institutions do not teach reality, where are people to get it from?