The Science Festival – what we would have liked to have done about it. #lackofcapacity

Core group member Dr Marc Hudson, writing in a personal capacity, produces one of his patented spittle-flecked rants, this time on the Shell-sponsored Museum of Science and Industry’s latest festival.

The Manchester Science Festival is happening. It’s about climate change. There are like a dozen public (online only) events.  And we at CEM are …. having to largely ignore it.  This sucks (for us at least – we’re not sure anyone else is feeling the loss!).

This blog post is about what the Science Festival “is” (at least in the eyes of the author of this post: it doesn’t represent any “official” CEM view), why the first event was a shocker, what the second was like (see first event), before asking “what would it take for the Festival to actually be useful?” and then closes with the broader question of our capacity to act and where we put our limited resources.

What the Science Festival “is” (a mildly cynical view)

I think the best way to start is by quoting myself (obvs) – here’s a tweet from the end of my live tweeting of the first event.

The Science “Festival” is largely (entirely?) there to make organisations that are taking fossil fuel money to feel better about it. (See this from 2018- Science Museum Actively Pursuing Fossil Fuel Sponsors Despite Climate Criticisms, Emails Reveal). It’s a strange dance, but one that we should all be used to by now, after 30 plus years of talking about climate change but not actually doing anything substantive to reduce human emissions (they are 65% higher than in 1990, which gives you some idea of how successful our “efforts” have been). These events are by and for (or at least attended by) those with economic, political and cultural power and privilege. That’s fine, but can we stop pretending that they are anything more than a chance to feel we matter, that we have some semblance of control, that we are somehow on the side of the angels because we say we would like the world to be slightly less disastrously run?

As I’ve gotten used to with these sorts of things, there is never any acknowledgement that there has been a 10 year local history (or 25, if you want to think back to ‘Local Agenda 21’) of grotesque policy failure. It’s not like this is a new issue. And there’s never any assessment, “do we actually have a low carbon culture? And if we do not, why not, because that was a publicly-stated goal in 2009? And who was responsible for trying to make all of that stuff happen? And what did they do and what didn’t they do?”

Those would be good empirical (one might almost say, “science” questions. But too awkward too, for obvious reasons. But as James Baldwin said – “not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

These “festivals” are not helping us face reality.

The first meeting (a shocker)

You can read the live tweeting here.

There was not a local person on the panel, (the Science Museum is embedded in international networks of mutual support/patronage, and has an eye to newsworthy names, naturally). It opened with a mangled description of climate change that would leave nobody who didn’t already know what is happening any the wiser. Then we went all round the houses. The framing “why should we care?” was (mercifully) ignored (such juvenile attempts to shock people into watching are really sophomoric and degrading). I could go on, but, well, the live-tweeting is spleen enough.

The second meeting (also a shocker, but at least a local shocker)

So at least the second event had “Manchester” folks.  A discussion that purported to be about inequality and being a good citizen involved these four:

  • Michaela Howell: With expertise in engaging stakeholders and communities, Michaela Howell joined Groundwork Greater Manchester in March 2019, having previously led a partnership to secure and deliver a £50m programme from The National Lottery Community Fund.
  • Zarina Ahmad: Climate Change Trainer at CEMVO (Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations) Scotland, and PhD at University of Manchester focused on sustainable behaviours in under-represented groups.
  • Paul Dennett: Elected Mayor of Salford in 2016, Paul Dennett has a long history of campaigning on social issues and has recently overseen the Greater Manchester Housing Strategy. Paul is currently leading on the Infrastructure Strategy and Plan for Homes, Jobs and the Environment for the city-region.
  • Sarah Lindley: Professor of Geography at University of Manchester.

There the improvement ended, basically. (You can watch it below, but I wouldn’t advise it.)

No intro about what inequality is, how it is measured (Gini co-efficient), why it is on the increase again since the mid-70s, why it is a bad thing for most everyone (not even a passing reference to Pickett and Wilkinson’s work was to be heard) and drives environmental destruction.

No mention of what it actually means to be a citizen (a word I don’t think any of the panellists used).

No mention of the importance of class (I don’t think anyone dropped the C bomb at all, though the Salford mayor did drop the other C-bomb ocassionally – capitalism

No mention of the importance of social movements, of social movement organsiations that are able to persist, to resist the temptations to become fig leaves for those in currently in charge.

As with the first event, you would surely have left no better informed than you went in, but an hour closer to your own death.

The end of it was particularly egregious – asking the panellists for their wish list from the year 2030, and then saying “If you’re the audience, you’ve got your to do list “off you go”. While this was meant jocularly, it was actually quite jarring. For the previous hour, there had been no assessment of why previous wish lists had not come to pass, and what we might NEED TO DO DIFFERENTLY TO GET A DIFFERENT RESULT.

But, you know, the box marked public engagement was ticked, so there’s that.

What would be needed for it to be useful to be actually useful (rather than the face-saving, soothing sham it is now).

This is a tough one, but if you turned it around, and said it wasn’t about prestige, and stoking the egos of those presenting/attending, but instead it was about creating/encouraging dense networks of local people and organisations capable of remembering last year’s shiny promises, and help foster the capacity of organisations to be hear next year to challenge the new propaganda that is designed to make you forget unkept shiny promises, then we might be getting somewhere.

Even a twitter hashtag (which has been de rigeur since about 2012) would be a start. But nope, nada.

But this is so alien to the motivations – and so far outside the skillset – of the sorts of people who put on these events, that you may as well chastise your cat for not clearing out its own litter tray.

Which brings us neatly to …

CEMs’ capacity to act

Here’s of my favourite Dilbert Cartoon

We as CEM have no money. We don’t, like some particularly useless groups, have well-paid (overpaid) people flitting from meeting to meeting, doing powerpoints and achieving… um.

The folks in the core group – and beyond – have limited time. We have to focus on the stuff that will make longer-term change. Right now, that is pushing on the Council. Soon (we hope) there will be new scrutiny structures in Manchester City Council, and we might be able to start pushing different boulders up different hills.

We would love to have covered all the Science Festival events. It might have given us more credibility, more connections. But, well, we are knackered from presenting at Resources and Governance, from covering the other scrutiny meetings and getting on with other important stuff.

We contacted various people we thought could make useful pre-contributions to the science festival. We got polite “too busy” messages (everyone is busy). So, original plans to live tweet the events, to challenge their silences and obfuscations, and to try to present an alternative case that addresses the actual urgency and need for real change… are not gonna happen. We just have other (better?) fish to fry. So it goes.

If you want to help us frying those fish (sorry to any vegans out there for that image), please do get in touch –


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