Zoom Video – Climate Change: How can our political systems meet the challenge in the time of Covid?

As carbon emissions from fossil fuels rise inexorably from the world’s greatest industrial powers, it is clear that on our present course there is no hope of meeting the zero carbon emissions target that scientists say is essential to prevent catastrophe. Although huge strides have been made in the search for carbon free power, it has so far proved impossible to reduce dependence on fossil fuels generally and coal in particular. Worldwide, governments have failed to deliver coherent programmes that will deliver the economic and social changes  required for zero carbon emissions; political institutions and  political elites seem unable to meet the existential challenge that faces us. 
Jacqueline McGlade is Professor of Resilience and Sustainable Development in the Institute for Global Prosperity at UCL and Professor of the Environment at Gresham College. A Marine Biologist and Environmental Informatics specialist she was Executive Director of the European Environment Agency from 2003 to 2013 and Chief Scientist and Director of the Science Division of the United Nations Environment Programme between 2014 and 2017. Over a long period she has worked at the interface of sustainable development, science, society and policy and her research on biodiversity, climate change, ecosystems, oceans and social dynamics has been of great importance. She will talk about the changes that will be necessary in political, economic and social systems to avoid climate catastrophe and how the current Covid pandemic may impact on bringing about these changes.

30th November 2020

Medical face masks, the chaos of COVID-19, & the scramble for the Golden Fleece

A few months ago, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of medical face masks took an alarming toll. We heard from health staff that they didn’t have the protection they needed. The frightening experience by mid-March of the mystery of where was the PPE, or the right PPE for the NHS, including face masks, left the impression that “just in time” production was not coming close to serving public health needs.  On an almost daily basis for weeks we were told: ‘It is stockpiled. Distribution is difficult.’ Was there an ingredient that was hard to come by? Where was the stockpile?

In May 2020 in a blog entitled  The story of the Golden Fleece: A study in political economy, Nick Pearce retold the story of  ‘melt-blown’, an extruded synthetic fibre, which was nicknamed the ‘golden fleece’ because of the valuable protection it offers front-line medical staff and its high demand the world over.

This very versatile polymer started life during America’s Cold War, pioneered in military research for monitoring nuclear tests, before moving on to oil giant Exxon for use in industrial processes. Soviet scientists used melt-blown to connect elements for marshland drainage; meanwhile the machines used to make melt-blown fabrics were produced in corporate plants by leading edge manufacturers. Family-owned German companies came into the story and currently manufacture most of the world’s machines for producing medical and hygienic non-woven fabrics. As COVID-19 hit, European producers of melt-blown, such as Innovatec in Germany, could barely believe the amounts which Asian buyers were prepared to pay – with scope for fraudsters and criminal cartels to become involved in the desperate rush to obtain supplies. Melt-blown production reached China after sparking a frenzy of Yangzhong manufacturing companies, with the majority initially producing sub-standard products and being shut down by the Chinese authorities. There are now state-sanctioned enterprises in China that have built vast production lines for face mask manufacturing, aiming to become the world’s biggest producer. “Nothing matches the velocity and sheer scale of Chinese manufacturing” according to Nick Pearce, “ [and]…nothing traverses the global economy quite like the story of the golden fleece.”

Nick Pearce is the Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy, based at Bath University. He has extensive experience in policy research and government policymaking and is an author and regular commentator on public policy. He was formerly Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), leading a team producing public policy research in the key areas of public services, economic reform, the welfare state, migration, energy and environment and politics and power. He was Head of the No10 Downing Street Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010, and has worked as special advisor in the Home Office, Cabinet Office and former Department for Education and Employment.

The Politics of Oil, Covid-19 & Climate Change: Opportunity or Threat?

Even before Covid 19 took full effect on the world economy, a ruthless oil price war involving Russia and Saudi Arabia had led to a sharp drop in the price of oil, and with the pandemic leading to a huge fall in demand, the price of oil has now dramatically collapsed. The consequences of this collapse are far reaching, not least in the US where the domestic shale industry is under severe pressure. However, it is by no means given that the current collapse of the oil industry will have a long-term beneficial effect on the reduction of carbon emissions and the development of alternative sustainable technologies. Paradoxically there is now likely to be huge political  pressure from large oil corporations to restrict the regulation of carbon emissions on the grounds that they hinder economic recovery. We face the very real danger of an emboldened and resurgent oil industry, positioned ever more centrally within our political and economic systems. Such an eventuality would be a disastrous outcome to this current pandemic.

Adam Hanieh is a political economist and a Reader in Development Studies at SOAS. His latest book is Money, Markets, and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East (Cambridge), which was awarded the 2019 British International Studies Association International Political Economy Group Book PrizeHis talk will look at the economic and geopolitical implications of the oil market crash and its potential impacts on the struggle to mitigate climate change.

29th June 2020



ZOOM VIDEO CONFERENCE- Homelessness: its social and economic causes and effects

Despite increased policy attention, and the implementation of strategies to halt it, homelessness is on the rise in most European states and remains at stubbornly high levels across developed nations. Its adverse effects on mental and physical health, crime levels, substance abuse, and general wellbeing are profound, and it is urgently necessary to devise means that will bring it to an end. Professor Nicholas Pleace is a globally recognised authority on homelessness, he is Director of the Centre for Housing Policy, the University of York Research Champion for Justice and Equality and holds a Chair in Social Policy at York. His work centres on comparative research, particularly across Europe and the Anglophone countries, and on transdisciplinary research that encompasses inequalities in health, life chances/opportunity and area effects in urban space with a particular focus on housing precarity and homelessness. He has led research for numerous international governmental and non-governmental organisations, and is a member of the European Observatory on homelessness, and of the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network.  He is also on the Editorial Boards of the European Journal of Homelessness and the International Journal of Housing Policy, and has written very widely on the subject of homelessness, one of his most recent publications being Ending Homelessness? The Contrasting Experiences of Ireland, Denmark and Finland (2020). Guardian article

16th March 2020

The Science of Motivation and its role in changing our lives

What convictions and desires form our choices, and motivate us to take action, personal, professional and political? What incentives, arguments or punishments might cause our decisions and behaviour to change? And where does the role of morality and identity lie in the process of motivating others to alter their views and judgements? These are crucial questions in a world in which we are subject to an overwhelming stream of information and persuasion, and where there is little time for reflection about how we should respond. Robert West is Professor of Health Psychology at University College London and an Associate of UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change. He is Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Addiction, and has published more than 800 scholarly works including books on behaviour change and addiction. His most recent book Energise: the Secrets of Motivation, was published last year, and was written in collaboration with his son Jamie West, a writer and musician.

17th February 2020

Voices of Resistance in the Gig Economy

One of the huge changes in today’s employment structure is the rapidly growing number of workers engaged in casual and precarious work within the so-called ‘gig economy’, a term applied increasingly in differentiated circumstances worldwide but also specifically to those who depend for their pay on insecure working arrangements which provide no benefits or protection: no holiday, sick pay, parental leave, pension rights or guarantee of job security. Millions of workers, from pizza deliverers and call centre operators to those engaged in limited forms of self-employment in traditional companies or outsourced public services find themselves without unions or other organisations to protect them from routine exploitation, the pressure of loss of work, or the proliferation of surveillance and control. But battles and strategies to unionise, organise and resist both physical and mental isolation and the ever-looming threat of work degradation in a global economy has grown and developed. Jamie Woodcock, is a senior lecturer at the Open University, where his research has focused on digital labour, the gig economy, and resistance, and he is currently involved in the Fairwork Foundation, a project about online labour platforms. He worked undercover in a call centre to gather insights into the everyday experiences of call centre workers, and this experience informed his book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, published in 2016.   His latest book, The Gig Economy: A Critical Introduction  provides an overview of the whole issue, and outlines four strategies that can produce a fairer platform economy that works for everyone.  Other publications: Marx at the Arcade is out with Haymarket. Working the Phones is available to download for free. All Jamie’s publications are available to read online

3rd February 2020

The Pharmaceutical Industry: Private wealth or public health? with Dr Panos Kanavos

While the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable in the world, over 2 billion people lack access to essential medicines. Although much pharmaceutical Research and Development (R&D) in part is publicly funded, companies habitually claim very high development costs as an excuse for the often exorbitant and, for the poor, unaffordable prices of drugs. Generic versions of these vital medicines can be made available, but when a new medication is created, it is understood to be protected by ‘intellectual property’ and can be patented for 20 years. 

Additionally, the practice of ‘evergreening’ is often used to extend these patents by repeatedly making minute modifications to the product concerned. Governments attempting to override them are met by huge resistance from the corporations concerned, while other governments are often supportive of their actions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, new drug approvals have increased significantly over the past few years, which is great news, but most of the new drugs are available at prohibitive prices and require health care systems to resort to extensive negotiations to ensure affordability. 

Dr Panos Kanavos will discuss this situation with us. He is Associate Professor in International Health Policy in the Department of Health Policy at the London School of Economics, and Programme Director of the Medical Technology Research Group, which administers the Programme on Pharmaceutical issues. An economist by training, his teaching role currently includes Health Care Financing and Pharmaceutical Economics and Policy.

20th January 2020