Melissa Leach: Pathways to Sustainability: Environmental social science and justice in a complex, dynamic age
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in...5

Like this? Share it with your network


Melissa Leach: Pathways to Sustainability: Environmental social science and justice in a complex, dynamic age

Uploaded on

From NESS 2011 (The 10th Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference), June 2011....

From NESS 2011 (The 10th Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference), June 2011.

Video at

More in: Education
  • Full Name Full Name Comment goes here.
    Are you sure you want to
    Your message goes here
    Be the first to comment
    Be the first to like this
No Downloads


Total Views
On Slideshare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds



Embeds 0

No embeds

Report content

Flagged as inappropriate Flag as inappropriate
Flag as inappropriate

Select your reason for flagging this presentation as inappropriate.

    No notes for slide
  • I will start with a basic problem of mismatch. This is NOT between ‘business as usual’ capitalist economic growth and development vs. aspirations to ‘greenness’ and sustainability – and to that extent this talk is preaching to the already converted that the latter is important – but between environmental ‘business as usual’ and emergent understandings of the world. For while there is a growing recognition of complexity and dynamism – intercoupled social, ecological, technological systems; non-linear, cross-scale dynamics; uncertaintiesGrowing recognition of diverse knowledges and ways of knowing, values, perspectives, prioritiesWe also see in many quarters a growing search for technical-managerial solutions premised on a far more static, consensual view of the world – solvable problems, achievable stability, controllable risks……A mismatch - cycles of ‘failure’ as dynamics undermine assumptions of stability; emerging backlashes from nature, politics; mires of disagreement; those who are already vulnerable and marginal often lose out What are building blocks and emphases of pathways approach in addressing these contradictions?
  • The first building block is a way of thinking about sustainability.This is a term with a history, moving from its first use in an environmental context in 1712 to until the 1980swhen ‘sustainability’ came into much wider currency. With the birth of the contemporary environmental movement in the late 1960s and 70s, and debates about the ‘Limits to Growth’ (Meadows, 1972), environmentalists were keen to show how environmental issues could be linked to mainstream questions of development. The commission chaired by GroBrundtland, became the focal point for this debate in the mid-1980s, culminating in the landmark report ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987 (Brundtland, 1987). This offered the now classic modern definition of sustainable development: From the 1980s there was an explosion of academic debate about these issues, as the terms were projected onto the centre stage of policy debates globally, particularly in the run-up to Rio in 1992. By the 1990s, then, we had multiple versions of sustainability: broad and narrow, strong and weak, and more. Different technical meanings were constructed alongside different visions of how the wider project of sustainable development should be conceived. Each competed with each other in a vibrant, if confusing, debate. But how would all this intense debate translate into practical policy and action on the ground? The 1990s saw an exponential growth in planning approaches, analysis frameworks, measurement indicators, audit systems and evaluation protocols which were to help governments, businesses, communities and individuals make sustainability real. But the simplistic managerialism of many initiatives labelled ‘sustainable development’ left much to be desired , and meanwhile many Rio targets went unmet. This has led to a discrediting of sustainability in many quarters. It is now the keyword for Rio plus 20; will this be more of the same?
  • I suggest no – there are clear opportunities to insert it into research, policy discourse and practice in new ways. But this will require ‘sustainability’ to shed its managerial pretensions and be recognised as a political term.This in turn requires more concrete clarification of what is meant by sustainability. beyond colloquial usage in which ‘sustainability’ simply refers to being ‘capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level’ - inherently conservative and not dynamic.  But also beyond the usage in the post-Brundtland, post Agenda 21 debates on sustainability, where the usage is normative, referring to a broadly identifiable, but often poorly specified, set of social, environmental and economic values. We go further, to distinguish amongst normative views of sustainability, recognizing that there are multiple sustainabilities which need to be defined quite precisely for particular issues and groups, relating to the particular properties, flows of goods and services, and goals that they value. Thus – and to introduce an example I will pick up later – amidst CC related drought, is sustainability of farming and seed systems to be defined in relation to national food security? Livelihoods of dryland farmers? Or gender justice – related to women’s and men’s crop varieties and control? Rhetorical appeals to sustainability can be, and often are, used to obscure complex or contested interpretations and interests around such particular versions of sustainability. Digging beneath such rhetoric, and uncovering particular interpretations and their links with particular goals and interests, is a key task. In this way sustainability becomes a contested, discursive resource – that facilitates argument about diverse pathways to different futures. This brings sustainability firmly into the realm of the political, where debates around ‘justice’, ‘democracy’ and ‘citizenship’ have been for centuries. 
  • But central to the pathways approach is the addition of a reflexive dimension, drawing on methodological constructivism in the social sciences. That is to recognise that there are multiple ways of understanding and representing a system; and that all analysis of a system involves framing.Framing involves not just choices about which elements to highlight, and how to bound the system, at what scale, but also subjective and value judgements. Such framings are produced by particular actors – whether different local people, scientific, policy or business actors, and co-constituted with their particular institutional, political and life settings.
  • Let us look briefly at some stylised examples.In the case of energy – there are different narratives around how to move to a low carbon economy; from government departments, electicity utilities, regulators and asosciated professionals one often hears the first bounding the system nationally, with the goal of delivering centralised energy to passive consumers; while from govt environment departments, renewable energy producers and certain NGOs among others one hears the second, adopting a more local framing, with a diversity of distributed options linking producers with more active consumers.Or in the case of food in East Africa, seed companies, certain plan biotechnology firms and funders and government departments often frame the system and goals at a national scale, focused on crop productivity increases – vs. an alternative narrative, associated with certain farmers, NGOs, agricultural researchers and social scientists, emphasises diverse context-specific responses towards sustainable farming livelihoods
  • Or a water example – drawing on with apologies for stylisation Lyla Mehta’s rich work in dryland Gujarat - where narratives not only frame the system and goals differently, but allot culpability for ‘the problem’ in contrasting ways – certain politicians, engineers and elites stressing ‘nature’ or perhaps aggregate population, in contrast with the alternative narratives of dryland farmers and pastoralists, certain researchers and NGOs who stress the manufacture of scarcity by greedy elites – in contrasting ways.Of course in practice, narratives are often much more varied and diverse, and complicated – and often implicit, tacit, buried – but digging them out and unpacking them is itself a revealing exercise.How do different narratives prioritise and approach the inherent dynamics of the systems they address?
  • As in these examples, narratives about actions aiming to promote sustainability involve assumptions about the nature, or ‘temporalities’, of changes – are these seen as short-term shocks or long-term stresses? And the styles of actions that are envisaged. Is the aim to control the causes or drivers of change, or to respond to them? - reflecting the distinction between more conventional control-oriented management and responsive, adaptive management.Thus we might ask, within any given narrative: are intervention strategies aimed at exercising control in order to resist shocks (stability)? Or is there an acknowledgement that there may be limits to control, and thus that interventions should resist shocks in a more responsive fashion (resilience)? In other circumstances, the system may be subject to important stresses, driving long run-shifts. In this case, interventions might attempt to control the potential changes – aiming at durability. Alternatively, embracing both the limits to control and an openness to enduring shifts would suggest strategies aimed at robustness. These are important practical distinctions that are often elided or ignored in existing analysis for policy-making on sustainability.
  • Unpacking them is important, because these properties suggest very different strategies. Thus in the case of dealing with water shortages in dryland India, one can see different narratives clustering around these different properties and associated strategies:Thus short-term shocks have been responded to through engineering systems with an emphasis on water control through dams, pipes and pumps. The definition of sustainability therefore is centred on the maintenance of stability of supply. However increasingly, water supply engineers and managers are having to confront long-term secular shifts in rainfall and hydrological patterns as a result of climate change. Again, control-oriented strategies are linking engineering solutions to long-term predictions of climate-related stresses – for instance building dam infrastructures with margins to accommodate extra water or to operate with less – for durability.  In many instances, though, the tractability of the drivers affecting water supply and hydrology is understood to be limited, requiring more response-oriented strategies geared to resilience in the face of droughts or floods. These might include building on local understandings, techniques and technologies – such as tank systems, water harvesting and so on, or strategies for pastoral mobility or inter-annual shifts in crop mixes. Water engineering for resilience requires inbuilt flexibility, and an ability to manage flows in a responsive and adaptive manner.  Strategies to ensure robustness of water supply for users would need to respond to long term changes in water supply and its use – for instance through longer-term shifts in land use, in agricultural practices, in crop types and varieties, and in the overall dependence on rain-fed agriculture in people’s livelihood portfolios. This is a live area of debate and experimentation in India and beyond.
  • These four properties may therefore be seen as individually necessary and collectively sufficient elements of sustainability. ‘Sustainable solutions’ are thus those that offer stability, durability, resilience and robustness in specified qualities of human well-being, social equity and environmental quality. Yet the relative emphasis on each of these dynamic properties of sustainability will also depend on how the system is framed (its structures, elements and relationships), and on the associated policy goals and objectives. Analysis for sustainability thus involves more than just a technical assessment of the dynamic properties of stability, durability, resilience and robustness. We must ask: What is the system? What are its purposes, functions and meanings? What is to be sustained and for whom? Resilience or robustness of what exactly? Who is to define each of these things and how? All such aspects are inevitably contested.
  • Closing down in two senses: towards singular narratives and pathwaysAnd towards a focus on stability, whereby ‘the problem’ and possible solutions come to be seen in terms of controlling shocks to maintain a stable situation – leaving other properties are left unaddressed or underplayed. We see this in many of our cases.
  • A range of institutional and political-economic pressures is involved in encouraging such ‘drift’. Perhaps most fundamentally, power dynamics inevitably encourage and enable incumbent institutions to pursue strategies that maintain the status quo. A focus on planned equilibrium, emphasising stability, relates to deeply-rooted styles of thinking and cultural about ‘balance’ in human-nature relations as a normal and desirable state.  Yet it is the ways in which ideas and discourses about stability and equilibrium become cemented into bureaucratic, administrative and institutional practices and routines that make them so ‘sticky’. Such ideas in turn can acquire powerful political-economic backing – as in the Indian case where planned equilibrium is supported by the dam-building industrialists, politicians and the particular elite farmers who stand to benefit from such water control-oriented approaches. As Mehta (2005) describes vividly for the Kutch area, these processes interplay powerfully with popular knowledge and subjectification amongst residents who have embraced the litany of a water scarce region that will be ‘saved’ by a dam as a means of expressing their sense of the area’s political marginalisation. 
  • There are multiple alternative pathways which differ in a number of ways; relative reliance on maize and low or high input – but also in their value, feasibility and implications for socially-differentiated farmers, in relation to criteria that are important to them.Opening-up means making explicit such alternatives, who they might work for any why, and to expose and debate these – in this project’s case through a variety of means, from deliberative fora to appraisal methods to the use of video to expose those in power to farmers’ realities.
  • Thus in thinking about and acting on opening-up, we have been experimenting with governance approaches, drawing insights from various approaches to deliberative and reflexive governanceWe have had a major stream of work on designs, exploring roles for new appraisal tools and methods – such as participatory MCM that has been used to good effect with farmers and policy actors in the Kenya maize caseBut a politics for sustainability also involves practical political engagement: two areas we have particularly focused on include influencing policy processes , within a conception of these as non-linear and involving discourses, actors and interests;And addressing scope for citizen action and engagement of various kinds in different contexts – and how micro-movements may link through networks into broader pushes for change.And – relating to our communications work – contributing to the shaping of information and communication flows in a multi-media knowledge landscape.Part of this opening-up is also reflexivity amongst ourselves as researchers on our own positionality and the ways in which our knowledge-making might engage progressively with political processes, recognising that this may involve confrontation as well as consensus
  • So this brings me to a final, but large and very relevant, question for us and for this conference – what kinds of knowledge-making are important, and who are they for? How should environmental social science orientate itself amidst wider practices of knowledge making and communication in society? Here I draw on a schema proposed by sociologist Michael Burawoy in 2005, which recognises four distinct types of knowledge-making – which he calls sociology, and for our purposes we might term environmental social science - which would answer these questions in very different ways.One type of knowledge is for instrumental purposes, whether to inform and solve puzzles for academic audiences (professionalized knowledge-making) or to solve problems for policy-makers, practitioners or groups of activists (policy knowledge-making). In recent years there has been much discussion about how to engage research more effectively with this policy dimension, transferring instrumental knowledge from professional academic settings to those in which it might have influence and generate IMPACT – the buzzword of the moment in the cash-strapped UK community and beyond. These include considerable investments in information services, as well as approaches for ‘getting research into use’. Yet such approaches often fail to problematize questions of framing and wider challenges of subjectivity and reflexivity in knowledge-making and translation. They often slip into the trap of assuming a linear relationship between research and intervention whereby ‘evidence’ is all that is needed to inform and change policy, or indeed guide activist movements. Yet as our pathways approach emphasises, reflexivity and dialogue about goals and values needs to be central to all processes of knowledge-making. This points to the importance of reflexive knowledge-making which engages critically with the foundations and directions of academic research (critical knowledge-making), and articulates with the wider public sphere (public knowledge-making).  A new environmental social science – and a new science for sustainability – needs, I suggest, to encompass all of these, and to be able to move nimbly amongst them.Seen in this way, knowledge-making and communication becomes integral to wider conceptions of society and democracy; and a politics of and for sustainability is necessarily a politics of knowledge, in which our own research, engagements and communications are deeply implicated.
  • We are continuing to develop, elaborate and take forward elements of the pathways approach in the Centre’s conceptual and project work, and in Phase II, for which we have an exciting programme planned. Some of the STEPS Centre’s ongoing interests and tensions are reflected in the conference themes, and the papers we have received promise many exciting and challenging contributions to take these themes further – whether around:Contesting and governing sustainabilities – and the potentials of various approachesFraming and narratives: ensuring practical connections with questions of justice, material political economy and ecologyDynamics and sustainability: navigating complexities, transitions and transformations, natural science engagements An ongoing tension that many of us face – certainly I do – is in marrying the big picture imperatives that ‘global greenness’ now demands with diversity of context, so that both have weight – without doing violence to the richness of human experience – something that recurs in our work on local vs. globalised narratives and that we will hear from Arun on tomorrow, put in a rather different and challenging way.I have offered only an outline sketch of some ways of thinking about these themes, which clearly play out very differently in particular, nuanced, real settings. So I am delighted that we have such a hugely rich set of panels that will ground pathways and other approaches in relation to a diversity of issues and places.


  • 1. Pathways to Sustainability:Environmental social science and justice in a complex, dynamic age
    Melissa Leach
    NESS Conference
    Stockholm June 14-16 2011
  • 2. Environmental challenges
    Rapid environmental change
    Complex dynamics
    Interlocked crises and ‘perfect storms’? (Beddington 2009)
    Scientific, policy and public concern – and politicisation
    ‘A new climate for society’ (and social science)? (Jasanoff 2010)
  • 3. In a (more) unequal world – across multiple (land)scapes
    Social, economic and political change – mobility and interconnection (at least for some), instabilities
    New complexion to core development challenges
    Poverty, inequity, (in)justice
    Shifting geographies of power and privilege, emergent social hierarchies
    Shifting governance scapes
  • 4. How might pathways to sustainability – that link environmental integrity with social justice – be conceptualised and built – in a complex, dynamic world?
  • 5. A timely moment?
    UNCED 1992 a landmark for environmental policy and politics
    (Convention processes, Agenda 21) – and environmental social science
    ‘Rio Plus 20 Earth Summit’ – social science ideas, concepts, agendas,
    ‘green economy’, ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’
  • 6. The STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’
  • 7. Contradictions
    Growing recognition of complexity and dynamism – intercoupled social, ecological, technological systems; non-linear, cross-scale dynamics; uncertainties
    Growing recognition of diverse knowledges and ways of knowing, values, perspectives, priorities
    Growing search for technical-managerial solutions premised on a far more static, consensual view of the world – solvable problems, achievable stability, controllable risks
    ……A mismatch - cycles of ‘failure’ as dynamics undermine assumptions of stability; emerging backlashes from nature, politics; mires of disagreement; those who are already vulnerable and marginal often lose out
  • 8. Sustainability
    A contested term with a history
    From 1712 forestry usage to wider currency in the 1980s
    Linking of environmental questions to mainstream issues of economy and development: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland 1987)
    Vibrant, committed debate at and around Rio 1992: economics and political science, broad and narrow, strong and weak, top-down and community-defined…. Technical meanings co-constructed with different visions for how sustainability should be achieved
    Through 1990s, growth in planning approaches, frameworks, measurement indicators, audit systems, evaluation protocols – managerialism and bureaucratisation
    Discrediting of ‘sustainability’? (empty rhetoric, failure of managerialism, conservatism, inadequacy of institutional and policy machinery)
    Yet sustainability is the ‘keyword’ for Rio plus 20 amidst complex environment-development challenges – more of the same?
  • 9. Towards a normative, politicised perspective on sustainability
    Beyond generalised, colloquial notions (maintenance of system properties in a general sense)
    Beyond broad and static normative connotations of Brundtland – focused on notions of (poor people’s) ‘needs’ and environmental ‘limits’
    To address specified qualities of human wellbeing, social equity and environmental integrity – as they relate to dynamic environments
    Normative concern with those properties that assist reductions in poverty and social injustice – as defined by/for particular people, contexts and settings
    Multiple, contested sustainabilities to be defined and deliberated for particular issues and groups
    E.g. African seed systems amidst climate-change related drought – sustainability in relation to national food security? Livelihoods of dryland farmers? Women’s or men’s crop varieties and control?
    Sustainability as a discursive resource to facilitate argument and action about diverse pathways to different futures
  • 10. A systems perspective
    Social, institutional,
    ecological and
    elements interacting
    In dynamic ways
  • 11. Integrating knowledge and values: Framing
    Dimensions of framing
    - Scale
    - Boundaries
    - Key elements and relationships
    - Dynamics in play
    Framings: Different ways of understanding or representing a system
    and its relevant environment
  • 17. Narratives
    Framings often become part of narratives – underlying storylines
    Produced by people and institutions
    Beginning – a system, framed
    Imaginary - futures desired or feared (what ideas, possibilities, values, goals?)
    Middle – a set of envisaged actions
    Construction of publics – who will act, who will change their behaviour, respond
    End – catastrophe averted, outcome achieved, ‘sustainability’ enhanced
  • 18. Creating narratives: Practices
    stating goals highlighting values assigning cause
    setting agendas defining problems characterising options
    posing questions prioritizing issues formulating criteria
    deciding context setting baselines drawing boundaries
    discounting time choosing methods including disciplines
    handling uncertainties recruiting expertise commissioning research
    constituting ‘proof’ exploring sensitivities interpreting results
  • 19. Narrative examples
    Energy and climate:
    ‘The challenges of dealing with climate change and energy security can only be dealt with through large scale, centralized systems like carbon capture and new nuclear build’
    ‘Appropriate reductions in carbon emissions are achievable by small scale, distributed innovations in technology, institutions and user behaviour, such as in smart grids, efficient use and micro-generation’.
    Food (e.g. East Africa):
    ‘Growing food deficits require massive boosts to agricultural productivity – modern plant breeding and genetic engineering can deliver solutions which need to be rolled out at scale’
    ‘Food insecurities are diverse and shaped by ecological, market, social and institutional contexts, requiring socio-technical solutions in which farmer knowledge and local innovations have central roles to play’
  • 20. Water (e.g. dryland India):
    ‘Major water scarcities are developing and undermining economic development; therefore the construction of large dams and investment in the infrastructure for water delivery must take place’
    ‘Water scarcities are often human induced by the greed and mismanagement of elites; for farmers and pastoralists maintaining livelihoods amidst uncertainties must be central, and can draw on local knowledge and historically-embedded practices’
  • 21. Strategies and dynamics
    style of action
    shock (transient disruption)
    temporality of change
    stress (enduring shift)
  • 22. Dealing with water resources in dryland India:
    Strategies and dynamics
    style of action
    shock (transient disruption)
    Adaptive responses and interventions geared to floods and droughts (e.g. crop mixes, mobility, water harvesting) ; local knowledge, culturally-embedded practices
    Control of short-term supply variability through dams, pumps and pipes
    temporality of change
    Response to long-term shifts in water supply and use (e.g. changes in land use, agricultural practices, livelihoods); variegated, flexible institutional and engineering arrangements
    Engineering solutions geared to long-term shifts in rainfall and hydrology (e.g. margins, reduced water levels)
    stress (enduring shift)
  • 23. style of action
    temporality of change
    stress (enduring shift)
  • 24. Pathways
    For any issue, we might identify an array of narratives
    For each narrative, we might ask:
    Who are the actors?
    How is the system and goals for change framed?
    Which dynamic properties and strategies for dealing with them are prioritised?
    Some narratives justify and become interlocked with powerful pathways – particular directions in which systems change over time
    Alternative narratives, hidden narratives, exclusions….
    Constructing pathways to sustainability requires recognition and deliberation amongst multiple narratives and possible pathways
  • 25. Governance
    Narratives and pathways co-constructed with governance
    Intersections of power, politics and institutions, including power-knowledge
    Shape which come to dominate, and which remain marginalised
    Often leads to ‘lock-in’ to particular powerful narrative and associated pathway, to the exclusion of others
  • 26. Governance and pathways to sustainability
    From government to networked, multi-levelled governance
    Participatory governance
    Governance in practice
    Politics of nature and technology
    Political cultures and contexts
    Politics of knowledge
    Governmentalities (environmentalities)
    Important to understand how ‘lock-in’ happens… and how it might be averted
  • 27. The politics of ‘closing down’
    Towards singular narratives and pathways
    Towards stability-focused interventions
    style of action
    shock (transient disruption)
    temporality of change
    stress (enduring shift)
  • 28. Governance pressures towards stability-focused interventions
    Incumbent institutions tend to favour strategies which preserve the status quo – and uphold political interests
    Deeply rooted ideas about equilibrium
    Institutionalisation of routine responses
    Financial and economic backing
    Professional, disciplinary and cognitive pressures
    Media and popular knowledge
    Disciplining and transformation of subjectivities
  • 29. From closing down to opening up
    Meeting sustainability challenges will require:
    Moving beyond singular views of ‘the problem’ and ‘progress’, to recognise multiple possible goals and values and their contestation;
    Moving beyond stability/control to embrace strategies that respond to ongoing change, with respect to sustaining the flows and benefits valued by particular groups
    Challenge dominant narratives/pathways; highlight alternatives
  • 30. Climate change, drought and maize in Kenya
    Understanding and challenging ‘lock in’ to the dominant pathway – breeding and commercialization of drought-tolerant maize, geared to ‘resilience in the seed’, towards farm and national food security goals
    Opening up to alternative pathways – especially for ‘low potential’ areas (e.g. Sakai), geared to resilience of farming livelihoods
  • 31. Multiple pathways –
    in and out of maize
    Local maize varieties predominate and are highly valued
    Important but under-recognised role of seed selectors
    In future – some farmers want drought tolerant maize varieties
    But many farmers are trying to move out of maize and into other crops – dryland staples and horticultural crops
  • 32. Multiple pathways –in and out of maize
    Low Maize High Maize
    1 – Alternative dryland staples for subsistence
    3 – local improvement of local maize
    2 – Alternative dryland staples for market
    5 – Assisted seed multiplication of maize
    4 – Assisted seed multiplication of alternative dryland staples
    6 – Individual high-value crop commercialization
    8 – Commercial delivery of new DT maize varieties
    7 – Group-based high-value crop commercialization
    9 – Public delivery of new DT maize varieties
  • 33. Towards a politics for sustainability
    Governance approaches: Deliberative, Reflexive
    Designs – roles for new appraisal tools and methods
    Political engagement –
    influencing policy processes and effecting policy change;
    citizen mobilisation, network and alliance-building
    shaping information and communication flows in a multi-media knowledge landscape
    Reflexive research engagements in which we take our positionality seriously
    May involve antagonistic confrontation and challenge as well as consensus-building
  • 34. Social science and the politics of knowledge-making
    After Burawoy, 2005
  • 35. Areas for discussion – and further worktowards Rio plus 20 and beyond
    Contesting and governing sustainabilities: multi-level, deliberative, adaptive, and movement-based approaches – and beyond
    Framing and narratives: ensuring practical connections with questions of justice, material political economy and ecology
    Dynamics and sustainability: navigating complexities, transitions and transformations, natural science engagements
    Addressing ‘big picture’ environmental concerns and analysis without doing violence to the richness and diversity of people’s experiences
    Grounding concepts and approaches in diverse issues and contexts:
    Climate change, water, agriculture, forests, fisheries, urban and peri-urban environments
  • 36. Join the debate