To Ottawa and back

I had a marvellous time in Ottawa, getting spoiled by my friends Andrea and Mehrzad, getting to know their newborn son, and getting some portraits for the growing family.

A few things are happening in the next week or so, but job #1 is to persist with my recruitment campaign for a new supervisor. A friend recently suggested that I should downplay the conventional metrics (similarity of research interests and methodological approach) in favour of looking into who has the best record of getting people through their dissertation quickly and reliably.

No clear time horizon

Here’s the converse of having fairly clear expectations of the future: suddenly having to start thinking about all sorts of long-term choices with no confidence about where in the world I will be after a certain date.

It may be that I will be leaving the PhD program and, in that case, I really don’t know what I would end up doing with myself.

When I was trying to leave Ottawa, I applied to jobs in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. When none of those worked out, I applied to a bunch of PhD programs. Coincidentally, I was already living in Toronto when I decided to attend U of T.

Toronto is quite a high-cost city, but I am also in a pretty fortunate situation here, with a very nice place to live which can be afforded on even a grad student’s income. Being near Massey College is another plus (as is feasible bus travel to Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and New York), though my five years as a junior fellow come to an end by September. Affordable housing would be hard to find in Vancouver, which would be a natural alternative home. It has been a long time since I have lived there, my family is there or nearabouts, and it’s a beautiful part of the world (where important climate activism is ongoing). A third option is another big round of job applications, with the relocation decision to be driven by what comes up.

Nothing is certain at the moment. It remains possible that I will complete my PhD at U of T. From the perspective of the research itself, I am strongly inclined to stay on. Having done so much to develop a method for studying all of Canada’s campus fossil fuel divesment campaigns, it seems a shame not to carry it out. Theoretically, I could recast it as an independent research project, and potentially seek funding from NGOs that would be interested in the results. It may also be possible to reach an agreement with the university to write an independent research project and use it along with my courseworks and comprehensive exams to award a lesser degree.

One option to handle the next few months is to try to apply for summer TA positions, complete my current teaching work and grading, and prepare for the two conferences where I am presenting in the next couple of months. By the end of August, it will be definitively settled whether I am continuing with the PhD.

Contentiousness in climate activism

Charley Tilley has studied social movements overall and activism specifically as a set of “contentious performances”, in which organizers choose from a “repertoire” on the basis of who they want to influence and what opportunities exist for doing so.

Repertoires which are familiar can easily become stale and ineffective, as Micah White discusses in the context of big marches, and as was also widely discussed in the context of various cities sharing strategies to effectively shut down Occupy encampments. The fairly clear failure of the huge People’s Climate March and Toronto’s March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate makes it frustrating that a group of Toronto activist organizations are preparing another march on the same model (with the same name!). Given the urgency of climate change, we can’t dedicate our energy to repeating failed tactics.

If actions like marches have become routine, and lost their ability to produce broad media coverage or political action, we should expect climate change activists to begin engaging in more contentious forms of activism like barricades. One risk – of course – is that with a complacent population that broadly tolerates the status quo such actions will reinforce rather than undermine support for the existing political and economic order.

Thesis update

I went into my thesis proposal presentation on Tuesday with the hope that it would meet with general approval and that I would soon be moving on to seeking ethical approval and beginning research.

Things have worked out dramatically differently, and I am now engaged in an intense effort to write an entirely new proposal on campus fossil fuel divestment — this time, fully structured around a particular theoretical framework from the literature on political science.

Academic agenda

I have assembled a pretty comprehensive to-do list for the next while.

I have assignments to grade for the environmentalism and social media course where I am a teaching assistant, and a coordination meeting with the other TA. Tomorrow, I am doing faculty and PhD student portraits for the department of political science. Saturday we are interviewing potential housemates, there is the U of T Judo annual general meeting, and I am performing a sketch with Trevor at Massey’s ‘Tea Hut’ talent show.

Most importantly, I am working toward a set of targets for completing my PhD proposal on campus fossil fuel divestment. By the 28th I am to submit the literature review and hypotheses. Then, select and justify case studies by March 8th, finish up methods by the 15th, and present the essentially finished proposal to my research design class on the 21st.

On May 5th or 6th I am presenting on Canadian climate change policy at the U of T Ethics Centre Graduate Conference, and I need to have my paper on Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway pipeline ready for the Canadian Political Science Association conference by May 23rd.

Peter Dauvergne on environmentalism as a social movement

Saying mainstream environmentalism now reflects the interests and concerns of the rich is like coming upon a river of spawning salmon and noting the colour red. There are naturally many shades of difference. Not all of the mainstream, everywhere, has to the same extent come to embrace markets, corporations, and technologies as solutions. Nor does everyone have equal faith in the value of economic growth, CSR, and eco-consumerism as ways to move toward global sustainability. And nor is everyone equally pragmatic, calling for “evolution not revolution.” Environmentalism will always be a “movement of movements,” with a great diversity of values and visions surfacing out of a turbulent sea of informal groupings and formal organizations. Environmentalists share a commitment to try to protect the environment, yet sharp differences even exist in the understanding of the word “environment,” from those who mean nature (wildlife and ecosystems) to those who really mean living spaces for humans (cities, towns, parks, and beaches).7 (p. 6-7)

7. The phrase “movement of movements” is more often used to describe the global resistance to capitalism and globalization than to characterize global environmentalism. I use the phrase, however, to emphasize the diversity of environmentalism, which itself overlaps with movements against capitalism and globalization (and for global justice). For a discussion of this phrase in relation to anti-globalization activism and alter-globalization campaigns (offering social justice alternatives to globalization), see Tom Mertes, ed. A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible (Verso, 2004). For a sense of the great diversity of environmentalism, see Further Readings, “Environmental Activism (“insider” critiques of),” “Environmental Discourses and Movements (varieties of),” “Environmental Justice Movements,” “Environmental NGOs and Transnational Networks,” “Environmentalism (developing countries),” “Environmentalism (overviews) and “Voluntary Simplicity, Localization, and Eco-Villages.” (p. 154-5)

Dauvergne, Peter. Environmentalism of the Rich. MIT Press; Cambridge. 2016.

Unions for fossil fuel divestment at U of T

I was surprised to get an email today saying that three unions (USW1998, CUPE3902 (my union), and CUPE1230) along with the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students wrote to President Gertler to endorse fossil fuel divestment.

The letter highlights how receiving financial benefit from the fossil fuel industry compromises academic integrity and how the industry harms indigenous communities. Notably, it doesn’t mention divestment from any entities targeted by other divestment campaigns at U of T.

It’s encouraging that organizations are still pressing U of T to act, though it’s also a bit troubling that these unions apparently don’t know that the campaign is no longer active, and those of us who were involved didn’t hear about this union initiative until now. In a way that’s probably relevant to my divestment research, it shows how the actions of allies can be uncoordinated.

Changing topics in year 5

My supervisors have been encouraging me to switch thesis topics. I find myself resisting because the proposed alternative topic has very little to do with the intersection between environmental and indigenous politics, which I judge to be the most important ongoing change in the contemporary politics of the United States and Canada.

At the same time, while I have made a significant effort to come to grips with indigenous politics in the context of climate change politics, I have also often felt contradicted and confused, unable to discern confidently which interpretation may be most robust and useful. It may well be that I just don’t know enough about them to make a PhD research project with that focus feasible to complete over the next two years.

If you look at my initial long proposal and my subsequent shorter proposal, you can see a few of the reasons why I think this intersection is so interesting and important.

I’m still thinking it through.

Writing my first book

Nothing about my PhD so far has been easy. As long-time readers may recall, my first comprehensive exam was only passed after two attempts and a lot of effort. The strike was painful, and has made me particularly question the quality of undergraduate education that U of T provides, in terms of class and tutorial sizes, the selection of professors, and support for and integration of teaching assistants into the learning process. I am now edging toward a formal research proposal for departmental approval and ethics review.

I originally wrote a longer document which talked more about methodology and many other things, but my supervisor encouraged me to write something more concise with the essential features of the proposed research project.

The plan now is to make sure the short document is a plausible nucleus for a successful PhD, including through a presentation to a brown bag lunch at the U of T Environmental Governance Lab on October 27th; to incorporate what has been left out in the older longer proposal; and to seek departmental and ethical approval before beginning first round remote interviews.

My supervisor has intelligently cautioned me about seeking too many critiques of these documents – a factor which has complicated and delayed my efforts so far, and which may be drawn from my experience as a civil servant. I have also been warned by Peter Russell that I am starting to write my thesis in the form of the proposal. So no comments please, unless they are strictly limited and focused on the process for making this proposal viable.