Book Review: A Careful Revolution

David Hall, editor of A Careful Revolution: How to Survive the Low-Emissions Transition and his co-authors are to be congratulated for presenting a comprehensive set of perspectives on the daunting task facing us as we embark on a low-emissions transition.

The authors in this collection are mindful that this book, part of an ongoing series published by BWB, is intended for a general audience whose level of knowledge of what such a transition might look like will vary. The essays are succinct, clearly written and avoid technical jargon. They seek to both inform and provide a practical response to coping with climate change (e.g. see Sam Huggard’s contribution on a just transition). They also do not pull any punches. Each contributor clearly sign-posts the enormous challenge ahead of us.

It is also very refreshing to see material on climate change that is grounded in the social sciences and cultural perspectives. Insights from these differing disciplinary backgrounds have much to offer to both the lay reader and policy-makers. In the policy-world, debate and analysis has been dominated by techno-economic, biophysical and natural science arguments and evidence – as necessary as these are. The Productivity Commission’s report on a low-emissions economy is a recent example where the use of insights from the social, human and cultural sciences would have usefully added to the report’s analysis and conclusions. The natural sciences and economics can only get us so far. The kind of far-reaching change a low-emissions transition will demand requires knowledge of agency, structure and meaning.  How these things are put together and what might be done to intervene in the way people (at least in the Western world) live their lives are the meat and drink of the social and human sciences. As David Hall notes in his introduction: ‘our dependency on fossil fuels…will be overturned by force if not by price, by the demands of politics rather than calculations of economics’. Included in this collection are disquisitions on politics, ethics, cultural values, intergenerational justice, democracy for a low-emissions transition.  

It’s political

Politics is a thread which runs through all the essays in this collection. By politics the authors are clear that a significant shift away from our current reliance on carbon will potentially create winners and losers, benefits and costs, disruption and disjunction; in other word issues of power are never far away. Settled ways of living may be uprooted, customary practices and values up for contestation and reappraisal, existing jobs and employment may disappear. The authors agree that a low-emissions transition will more than likely involve emotional, and psychological anguish especially for Māori and those most dependent on certain carbon-based industries such as oil and gas as they find their customary practices jeopardised and their jobs being phased out.

The fact that a low-emissions transition will impact significantly on people’s lives and the need to move carefully and cautiously is clearly stated in the title to this edition: A Careful Revolution: How to Survive the Low-Emissions Transition. Careful here implies an ethics of care as well as being careful. As the contributors are quick to point out, careful does not mean that radical change will not be required. It does mean however, ensuring the particular is not lost in the distant gaze of the general; that individual lives count and must be accounted for.  The low-emissions revolution, as David Hall describes it, needs to work dialectically between individuals and the structures and institutions of which they are embedded to ensure that as far as possible a low-emissions transition is a just and equitable one.

Contributions …

It is perhaps unfair to single out some contributions over others, but the following essays have certain features which are particularly germane too Aotearoa/NZ.

Maria Bargh reflects on an aspect of a low-emissions transition unique to Aotearoa/NZ: The place of Māori/iwi and traditional tikanga. Bargh argues that Māori tikanga ‘tika’ provides a blueprint for a just transition. She presents a clear picture of what is at stake for Māori and the obligations and duties of partnership between the Crown and Māori and how this should play out in any low-emissions transition.

Kya Raina Lal presents a Pacific perspective (Fijian). Such a perspective is crucial as it reminds us that Aotearoa/NZ is part of a wider network of Pacific states and our obligation to recognise the diversity of Pacific peoples’ needs and aspirations.

In her essay, Judy Lawrence focuses on adaptation, an aspect of climate change which is often subsumed by a focus on mitigation. Lawrence reminds us that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, that it is not temporally distant, but happening now and suggests some practical steps which need to be taken.

Dave Frame argues trenchantly about how the effects of a low-emissions transition may well fall more severely on rural/provincial areas of New Zealand as this is where most of the green-house gases are emitted as the result of agricultural and extractive industries.  Frame also has some provocative comments to make on research R+D funding: ‘New Zealand’s research environment is not well-suited for transitions-based research’. It has a tendency to be backward looking, playing to its traditional strengths and largely ignoring research that is relevant to low carbon transitions. Such investment would help to create jobs and spread the benefits of a transition’.

Finally, the Editor David Hall’s essay: ‘On carelessness’ is an elegant and subtle piece which, rather haranguing the reader or potential policy-maker, traverses many of the human consequences of a low-emissions transition. Whilst noting that change is inevitable, recent political history in New Zealand clearly shows how revolutions can marginalise, alienate and shear-off opportunities for human development and the realisation of people’s capacities. Hall injects a salutary and cautionary note into the discourse, one that policy-makers and policy analysts should do well to heed.

Would have like more …

No single volume can encompass the full range of perspectives such a complex topic as a low-emissions transition entails and whilst the essays present a wide range of view-points there are several important aspects that are underplayed or are not touched on.


There are numerous references to democracy throughout the collection. For example, David Hall in his introduction raises the question ‘Is democracy an obstacle to climate action, or is more democracy required rather that less’. Dave Frame in his essay ‘Democracy and climate change’ discusses the role of the state and how climate policy is closely connected with electoral success.

More generally, all the authors argue that to succeed in transitioning to a low-emissions economy, the active involvement of a wide-range of actors; not just policy-makers, technocrats, and experts but ordinary citizens will be required. Unfortunately, what kind of democracy, if any, will facilitate a low-emission transition is ignored. Whether or not our current liberal representative form of democracy can help stimulate a low-emissions transition or if in fact it is actually acting as a handbrake goes unanswered. James Lovelock for one is not alone in suggesting that a more authoritarian form of government will be required. If it is necessary to change our technologies, our habits, values and even desires, maybe a low-emissions transitions requires a new politics, an updated form of democracy, one which is much more deliberative and participatory to really make some head way. (For some interesting ideas for engaging publics, see Anne Gibbon, Kaipo Lum and Wayne Pihema’s essay ‘Forecasting and Imagination’.) Further ideas about how publics can be encouraged to engage with low-emission transitions such as citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting would have added to the pragmatics of this book.


Another aspect that deserves fuller treatment is the question as to whether a low-emissions-transition can ‘be a revolution within capitalism or must this be a revolution against capitalism’. This question surely has immense ramifications as to whether the status quo market economies can deliver a low-emissions transition or whether we need to transition to another mode of production. All the contributors with the possible exceptions of Kya Raina Lal and Maria Bargh tend to assume that the current economic system will remain business-as-usual. There is much useful debate on this subject elsewhere and some presentation of it here would have been helpful.

Generational perspectives

It is not possible from the essays to gauge the ages of the contributors, with the exception of Sylvia Nissen who writes on climate change as an intergenerational issue. The presence of some younger voices would have been welcome.

Limitations of techno-economic approaches

As mentioned above, one of the many pleasing aspects of this book is that it draws on insights and knowledge from the social sciences, the cultural sciences, philosophy and ethics, etc. For this reader, it would have added to the book’s overall contribution if more analysis and discussion had focused on the limitations of the dominant techno-economic approaches to a low-emissions transition. Given that this tends to be the dominant narrative, readers would have benefited from being exposed to the limitations as well as the strengths of these frameworks.

For example, we hear a lot of how pricing carbon correctly will provide the necessary carrots and sticks to businesses and consumers who will figure the best ways to reduce emissions. Carbon prices have a role, but market approaches have limits not least that, for most consumers, energy represents a secondary and largely invisible attribute of goods and services, thereby muting the response to price signals.  Also, the disciplines mentioned above focus overwhelmingly on individual consumers and neglect the interaction with other actors, organisations and institutions. Such disciplines have an individualist orientation and underrate the significance of the collective and structural factors that shape behaviour, guide innovation and enable and constrain individual choice.

Summing up

These are relatively minor quibbles and it is hoped that these and additional topics (such as how we get to a low-emissions transition) might follow in a future volume. This is another fine addition to BWB’s ‘short books on big subjects’. In bringing important societal questions to the public, BWB is fulfilling an immensely important role.

This book review was written by John Pennington, a Partner at Public Engagement Projects (PEP). In addition to being a leading NZ expert in deliberative democracy, John has expertise in socio-technical transitions and climate change.