Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Friday, 3 August 2012

CLIMATE CHANGE, CONSUMPTION AND CONFLICT What inspires coastal ‘losers’ to protest, together, about their lot?


Where homes are to be lost to the sea as a consequence of climate change, sea level rise and related policy decisions, Defra has stated an intention to support affected communities in adapting to the physical, social and economic effects of change.[1] (p.19) 

Defra-commissioned guidance for local authorities specific to this purpose – ‘Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast’ - states that “communities that are most at risk to coastal change (sic) must be informed, engaged, and empowered to take an active part in what happens locally.”[2] (p.7)  CAPE has it that extensive engagement might be recommended where consultation is “characterised by (potential or actual) high conflict, controversy and uncertainty about the problem” although, again, this is “most likely to affect many.” (p.23) Here, the guidance appears to assume an awareness and capacity on the part of affected communities that might inform coherent and powerful protest – but on what basis, or bases, might we expect people in affected communities to act collectively with a view to influencing policy?

The social movement theorist Charles Tilly proposes that “The analysis of collective action has five big components: interest, organization, mobilization, opportunity, and collective action itself”, with ‘interest’ concerned with “the gains or losses resulting with a group’s interaction with other groups”[3] (p.7). Recent decades have seen reevaluation of ‘traditional’ structural interpretations of collective interest and action in the context of industrial societies. According to Della Porta and Diani, such interpretation made central conflicts between capital and labour. Key to this was the idea of a working class identity – and associated political behaviour – that was the consequence not only of its relationship to the means of economic production, but also to the concentration of workers in “large productive units” and in urban areas.[4] (2006; p.38) 

However, change has thrown the utility of this interpretation into question. Della Porta and Diani propose that a decline in industrial work in favour of administrative and service occupations and accompanying new middle class, a shift away from stable and protected forms of work, migration to the stronger economies and the entry of women into the labour force have all contributed to a muddying of the water in terms of class relations and conflicts, with the consequence that it has “affected lines of definition and criteria for interest definition within social groups, which were previously perceived as homogeneous.” (p.39)

The rise of consumption sectors

Potentially useful to us given the centrality of state decision-making to coastal change is Touraine’s proposal that the crucial cleavage now is “between the different kinds of [state] apparatus and user – consumers or more simply the public – defined less by their specific attributes than by their resistance to domination by the apparatus.”[5] (1981, p.6-7)
Taking up this theme, Taylor-Gooby describes the development of the state and its involvement in people’s lives as a “striking feature of the post-war political economy” and describes as important attempts to understand the relevance of these developments for political consciousness through “the idea of consumption sectors”[6] (p.592). This refers to “the division between groups in society who share common interests based on division in access to the means of consumption” (p.592). Saunders observes that “One obvious candidate for such a new fault line is housing tenure, for the decline of class voting seems to coincide with the growth of working-class home ownership”[7] (p.206) – again, this seems apposite given what is at stake for home owners who stand to ‘lose’ from coastal change.

In terms of the formation of political alignment and activity, Dunleavy writes that “Collective consumption…is typically concerned with services provided by the state apparatus…In exclusively individualized forms for consumption, location continues to be determined by household incomes…”. Collective consumption processes, he tells us, “create an inter-subjective-basis for the development of political action”, in part due to “the directly politicized context of provision”.[8] (p.418-9) I take this to mean that conflict is sparked by competing demands on collective provision which may not all be satisfied as a consequence of decision-making processes. So, has the UK’s becoming what Peter Saunders has described as ‘a nation of home owners’ surpassed traditional class effects in terms of people’s sense of self, political attitudes and willingness to work together to protest? 

Class or consumption as a predictor of social action?

Whilst Taylor-Gooby is of the view that “The consumption sector approach…appears to be relatively successful in explaining a range of political phenomena – from local party organization to voting behaviour in national elections” (p.593), Saunders is less clear – at least as to political alignments and motivations of home owners.  On the one hand, he argues that “In Britain and in other countries, home owners frequently act in concert against what they see as a perceived threat to their common interests” (p.256), whilst on the other he states that “To demonstrate that owner-occupiers share common material interests is to say nothing about whether and how these interests are mobilized politically.” (p.229). To cloud the picture still further, he cites Halle’s view[9] that “a class solidarism at work may go hand in hand with a tenure-based conservatism at home…we all occupy a number of different roles which give us different sets of interests to pursue or defend according to the situation…”. (p.256-7) 

Whilst home-ownership - by far the most popular form of housing tenure – is a prime example of individual consumption according the consumption cleavage thesis, the provision of sea defence which, despite recent reforms, continues to be funded principally by the state – is an example of collective consumption, and one that is politically contentious in that it’s benefits are not universally enjoyed. Put crudely, the majority living on the coast will have their individual assets (and means of welfare) protected by a collectively-funded and managed ‘good’ for the foreseeable future, whilst a minority will not.  There is potential, then, in our asking how the ‘interests’ of coastal ‘crunch’ communities might be structured by their consumption position and the effects of this on political mobilization – although not to the exclusion of consideration of traditional occupational class structure.



[1] Defra, 2009. Consultation on Coastal Change Policy.  London: Defra.

[2] Defra 2009c. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast, working paper, Scott Wilson/Defra 2009.

[3] Tilly, C. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. New York: Random House.

[4] Della Porta, D. and Diani, M. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction (second edition). Blackwell.

[5] Touraine, A. 1981. The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Taylor-Gooby, P. 1986. Consumption Cleavages and Welfare Politics. Political Studies, XXXIV, 592-606

[7] Saunders, P. 1990. A Nation of Home Owners. London: Unwin Hyman

[8] Dunleavy, P. 1979. The Urban Basis of Political Alignment: Social Class, Domestic Property Ownership, and State Intervention in the Consumption Process. British Journal of Political Science. Volume 9, 409-443.

[9] Halle, D. 1984. America’s Working Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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