Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

14 May 2009

How to Make a New Generation of Coal Sexy, and Lessons for Promoting Transition

You won’t believe this one. How do you make a new generation of coal, traditionally seen as dirty and decidedly unglamorous, not to mention the fact that it is climate suicide, attractive again? Riding to the salvation of the coal industry is Carbon Capture and Storage, a marvellous technology the puts all the carbon dioxide produced safely underground somewhere. Only problem is that as a proven technology it still barely exists, and you need to burn a third more coal in order to power the thing. Still, doesn’t stop the coal industry (in this case GE Energy) using the oldest tricks in the advertising book to convince us the our future lies in coal.

Isn’t that fantastic?  No matter the fact that their claim that the US still have 250 years worth of coal is absurd (an illusion Richard Heinberg’s new book will shatter), what fascinates me is the ad itself.  If this approach can be used to sell something as abjectly rubbish as coal and a technology that is being used as a pretext for a new generation of coal before the technology has really proven itself, might those of us usually too politically correct to consider such an approach now see some value in this advertising approach?

I would love to see a series of adverts promoting relocalisation, simpler living, energy descent and local food production done in this way.  What is the problem that getting the nation growing food and powering down again has?  Its just not sexy enough… and as for insulting the loft, forget it.  Could we not have an ad that opens with someone opening their front door one misty morning just after the milkman has been, and is startled to see a group of about 30 gorgeous male and female models (a la coal film) in skimpy workman’s dungarees, who then proceed to makeover their house, while the homeowner stands and gawps in astonishment?

Draught proofing is lovingly and suggestively unrolled around doorframes, insulation is passed up the stairs and rolled out into the loft where it is laid out and patted down, rather like someone making a bed.  Up go the solar panels, in goes the double glazing.  Out in the garden the raised beds are installed and planted up.  Then, as soon as they arrived, they are gone, the last one out giving the person a kiss on the nose.  How would that be?  Sales of insulation up or down?

I’m so convinced its a winner, that I am even prepared to offer my own services.  I am having my chest waxed in the morning and am ready to help out where I can.  This is like a war effort remember, we all have to play our part.  The two other thoughts I had watching the film were firstly what George Orwell would have made of it (hardly ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ is it?) and just how crushingly disappointed anyone would be who had decided to be a miner on the back of this film would be when they actually got down into the mine…  “another product of pure eco-magination at work”… hmmmm.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


14 May 8:22am

…wot – not many hunky/sexy male miners for us gals….? Oh well……so much for the memories some miners have from the 1980s dispute – of many of them having been provided with all “home comforts” when they went touring off round the country gathering support ..more like dinner parties accompanied with wine in my part of the country….

14 May 9:20am

I want to know more about the benefits of ‘insulting the loft’ – what’s that loft done to deserve it? what are the best (sexiest?) insults to hurl at a loft anyway?

that aside – wow – yeah, let’s embrace the thought-crime of advertainment and bend it to transitional purposes – after all, if its the public cognitive dissonance around the issues that we need to engage with, maybe there’s a case for using the tools of that very distortion as a kind of homeopathic remedy? Frankly, with GE and friends spinning this pneumoconiosis of the soul at us to direct us to burn ourselves up in a death-smog of limit-refusal, anything is worth a try.

Shaun Chamberlin
14 May 1:45pm

I’ve been rather enjoying some of the counter-advertising on ‘clean coal’:

Shaun Chamberlin
14 May 1:50pm

Oops, didn’t mean to post that yet! Maybe someone would post those links above to the GE Energy Youtube video’s comments section? I have never been able to leave comments on Youtube for some reason.

Btw, if you can’t wait for Richard Heinberg’s book, much of the info on the true state of global coal reserves is given here:

14 May 2:21pm

Much of the work against the clean coal lobby has already been done in the good ole US of A.

Follow the link below at where there is much more about it.

The Reality: There’s No Such Thing As Clean Coal (Video Clip)

You can also see more excellent stuff here

And here at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So how do we harness the good work already done in the US for ourselves here in the UK? My suggestion would be to see if the newly launched Transition US cannot build some bridges for us here.

Can you make it happen Rob?

14 May 4:30pm

Could we do something along the lines of the ‘Atheist Bus’? That was essentially a group of people who felt strongly about something contributing a small amount of money each to fund an ad campaign to spread the message. Quite grassroots-y, though might seem too commercial for something like Transition. They needed £11,000 for the bus adverts (a sexy telly ad would probably cost loads more than that), but raised loads more through donations. Sure it could be done, though. I’ll chip in a fiver!

14 May 6:10pm

Coal mines are hellholes.

Those of you in the UK should take a tour of the Big Pit museum in Wales –
I was horrified during the underground tour;
and that experience only firmed up my resolve to reject coal proposals and projects.

Visiting that museum — and wider Wales — also left me with a sense of how mining can get entrenched in a society and in history (in culture, and so on).

Apparently the miners in Wales (if not elsewhere in the UK, or even elsewhere in the world), became very attached to mining because of an underground comraderie that they formed. Someone compared those bonds to connections between soldiers in combat. As hellish as the mining working conditions were, the miners apparently felt attached to their jobs — well beyond the paycheques.
The Big Pit museum is staffed by former miners, so they’d know more about all of this.

Some former miners might find the ad particularly appealing.

As for mining museums elsewhere in the world –
I don’t know what’s out there.

In Wales, former coal miners are remembered and (in some ways) honoured (even as they are belittled as well) in tourist industry products; here’s one photo of those –

There also are miner statues in Wales; here are a couple of photos –
I expect that there are similar statues elsewhere in the UK;
but former coal miners seem to get more recognition in Wales — in part, because of the relative scale of the mining operations there.
Conversely, in the rest of the UK it seems like there wasn’t much awareness that Welshpeople were like mining workhorses.

The ad obviously doesn’t convey what coal mine work actually is like.

15 May 5:08am

On the portrayal of the local in contemporary media, there’s an article well worth reading : Janine Marchessault (2009) The Value of the Parochial: Film and the Commonplace. Media Tropes 2.1: 24-36.
It fits quite nicely with the video of tree planting in Kilkenny and some of the others on this site, examining the place of the intensely local in the globalising media.

As regards selling sustainability, the trick is to have a product to sell – after all, that seems to be what advertising is about. But that thought leads beyond the ‘frame’ of advertising to the context in which it takes place. The true message of advertising is not ‘buy this product’ but, ultimately, ‘the only way of representing anything is as a commodity’.
We need to decide how far down that track we want to go.
There’s probably room for more green ideas to be turned into products to sell to people (insulation, books about the decline of coal and oil etc) , but at some point the whole thing starts to undermine itself. It’s interesting how the ad for General Electric is re-framed as an embedded YouTube video inside a blog entry that offers a link to a new book for sale by Amazon. In this way the advert for clean coal becomes part of an advert for it’s supposed ideological opposite. But since Amazon and the Internet as a whole burns up a huge amount of energy, it’s not entirely clear that this really amounts to opposition.

As for coal mining, Gresford Colliery, where my grandfather and his brother worked, wasn’t exactly like the ad. My great uncle took a shift off on the night before his wedding and thus inadvertently saved himself from death, unlike 266 others.

Farewell, all our dear wives and our children
Farewell, all our comrades as well,
Don’t send your sons down the dark dreary mine
They’ll be doomed like the sinners in hell.

Having said that, the knowing looks the models give one another and the camera at the end of the ad, together with the use of the word ‘imagination’ in the final caption, strongly suggest the ad makers at least are fully aware that ‘clean coal’ is nothing more than a fantasy.

15 May 9:32am

I think is it possible to get ‘media obsessed’. “My offering on youtube is bigger than your offering on youtube”.

15 May 1:01pm

I’m not sure the ‘media obsessed’ comment works as we’re not talking You Tube (Huw Tiwb – for the Welsh among you ;o) lol ) but TV counter-advertising to the same market versus the rich & powerful British coal lobby.

There is much to be said for the work that has already taken place in the USA (and coal is a very powerful lobbying group there) and little needs doing to reuse much of the work.

One needs to be concious of cost and reuse is one of a number of ways to minimise it.

If funds can be raised then the Welsh mining and other experience could be used, but I do think conditions for miners is a pretty weak argument when there are stronger environmental messages to get across. (I have been down Big Pit and visited some sites in N Wales where I live).

15 May 1:06pm

Sorry Shaun, didn’t know you had already posted some of the links in my earlier post – I expect it’s internet lag!

15 May 1:10pm

P.S. Shaun’s Book The Transition Timeline is brilliant – a must read!

15 May 2:44pm

That advert really is the pits….

15 May 3:34pm


15 May 7:30pm

With respect to comments about working conditions in UK mines, it is surely true that people fled from their lives on the land to work in coal, steel, shipbuilding and other heavy industries because they felt they were ‘better off’, i.e. not starving perhaps. Also the last great working class protest in the U.K. was actually to keep the coalmines open.

15 May 11:02pm

“I do think conditions for miners is a pretty weak argument when there are stronger environmental messages to get across”

Clearly environmental issues are your main concern, but how many people out there share those priorities?

Here are some statistics that suggest that global warming isn’t a major concern for pretty much everyone out there –
There are other polls out there.
Just imagine how much concern there would be about oil & gas depletion — as opposed to global warming, which has received a lot more mainstream media attention.
(Of course, those mainstream approaches to global warming are limited in various important ways though.)

Why not highlight all of the positive sides of the Transition approach?
If the Transition way of life is set against coal mining, it will look a lot more appealing — and rightfully so.

The Transition movement has a lot to offer — well beyond proactive responses to environemtal problems.

As important as those mounting ecological problems are, I expect that most people will be drawn into the Transition movement because of other messages
e.g. about saving money (by growing food, bicycling, etc)
e.g. about community ties
e.g. about enjoyable gardening

Anyway, the particular ‘PR’ video we’re commenting on is about workers; so responses to the video that don’t raise working condition issues are far from adequate. The video’s message about sexy, laid back miners strutting around (like Ben Stiller did in a mine in the movie Zoolander) would be left intact if points weren’t raised about what working in a coal mine is like. (It’s a lot darker, for instance.)

Here’s a piece in which I criticized drive-thru, fast food lobbying ‘PR,’ while highlighting environmental problems, working condition issues, and other concerns –
“Drive-Thru Truths”
(In Anglo North America, the Transition movement will have to grapple with more drive-thrus — and more strip malls, and more sprawl…… and I certainly could go on.)

Basically I think that people who mainly come to the Transition movement with concerns about environmental issues nevertheless can and should highlight other problems and opportunities around the Transition approach.

(in Canada)

15 May 11:06pm

By the way –

Part of the U.S. opposition to coal has occurred under a “Green Jobs” rubric. I think that “Green Jobs” message has some noteworthy merits, and some important limits.

Anyway, here are some photos from a protest at the U.S. national capital — where anti-coal messages were linked up with those “Green Jobs” messages (and others) –

16 May 7:02pm

I think people were pushed off the land by the gentry rather than leaving of there own accord. I think its not so much that they felt they’d be better off but that they had no other choice. In addition modern coal mines are likely to be open cast and these will employ far fewer people than the traditional pits. Most miners back in the day didn’t want there kids to end up down the mine but did realise that without work their community would have no future.

17 May 11:15pm

In the context you set them TB, environmental messages are not my main concern and never have been, your assumption is plain wrong and you’ve misread my intended message. Apologies for misleading you!

I will not be drawn into some flame war so enough said!

17 May 11:41pm

I basically was focusing on one statement in one other comment from you. It seems that I read to much into that one statement.

Anyway…. I don’t want to be part of a flame war either, so I’m with you there.