The Pacific Exchange - Road to my PhD

Governance, Resilience, and Planetary Power Grabs

by Carina W
Governance, Resilience, and Planetary Power Grabs

Having just spent a week with a bunch of nerds eating cheese, drinking wine and navel gazing about resilience, seems like I should justify this pleasure by reflecting on the academic side of the conference.  In a busy week there is a lot to reflect on, but I’d like to focus in on the some of the discussion about governance and knowledge co-production and the connection (or lack thereof) between the two.

Many of the governance sessions I went to emphasized role of institutional dimensions to understanding and managing social-ecological systems. While not a particularly novel statement, people were starting to really think about what that means. Some sessions were great, some were terrible, but that is the way of conferences. I was less inspired by those who parroted the “collaboration will save the day” narrative, but was impressed by those who were discussing the need to provide empirical evidence for claims about the connections between modes of governance and environmental outcomes. There were the usual platitudes from this community about the need for governance to be cross-scale, multi-tenure, multi-actor etc – in plenaries – some of this was addressed in the parallel sessions, some of it was not…

Melissa Leach and Johan Rockstrom’s plenary (the only one that was really worth getting out of bed for) inspired a great debate on the use and efficacy of the planetary boundaries concept for governance. An excellent summary of this plenary has already been provided by Joern Fisher here, so I won’t bother with  another rundown. Other than to make two comments.

First, I was impressed and inspired by Melissa Leach’s presentation and felt that she was evidence to the fact that the conference organizers should have found more female plenary speakers (one out of eleven is beyond appalling). Second, I was a little astounded by Rockstrom’s comment that calling planetary boundaries a discourse is dangerous. This to me suggested that he hadn’t really been listening to the whole point of Leach’s talk about the ways in which science, when communicated in policy and practice, forms particular narratives and stories which framed, interpret and reinforce particular attributions and and policy prescriptions.

The next resilience conference would do well to have a focus on critical realism and ways to support dialogue between diverse knowledges in the plenary. There was a lot of great discussion on this in the sessions, but seems that the philosophy of science needs to take center stage at interdisciplinary conferences like this.

The debate about the social and institutional implications of the planetary boundaries continued in a continued in a session titled “Whose Planet? Whose Boundaries?” Much of this debate centered around the question as to whether or not planetary boundaries thinking is being used to justify planetary power grabs as people search for a mechanism for global governance. Victor Galaz pointed out that there is actually a great diversity of approaches being discussed within the debates about modes of governance to enable society to stay within the planetary boundaries. The unfortunate reality is that while what he says is true, these debates tend to become polarized in the public discourse and create an environment where the Tony Abbotts of the world start to frame the debate as taking away rights and liberties of individual governments. Galaz acknowledged the conclusion of his talk by invoking Churchill to say never before have so few discussed something so important, urging form more people, perspectives to participate in this debate.

The challenge, as many of the speakers identified, revolves around developing  pathways that enable us to move towards a more nuanced debate that supports dialogue between a plurality of different perspectives. Interestingly, one of the last comments in this session on planetary boundaries attributed problems with the  concept to its development by scientists largely isolated from the policy communities that are now struggling with what it means in context. This poses the question of how to undertake research in a more open place that will support legitimate knowledge production through the input of various different perspectives. Here began a short conversation about the role of science and scientists in transformational change – a discussion which I would have like to see more of at this conference, patricianly focused on the ethics of what it means to advocate for science-based transformational change.

Here we come to the discussion so knowledge co-production (which I have discussed on this blog here, here, here, here, and here). The best parallel session I attended was titled “ the modalities and politics of knowledge integration and knowledge co-production.” In this session, the presenters had been encouraged to reflect on the meaning and empirical implications of knowledge co-production/co-construction, and to focus on the various scales of integration as different political contexts of knowledge co-production. The session kicked off with an excellent presentation from Marcela Brugnach, who discussed the ways in which goals of managing for the multiple objectives central to resilience thinking requires a focus on the capacities, knowledge and experiences of people seeking to manage ecosystems in an integrated way. Like many of the other speakers in this session, she urged us to see that the relationships among actors are as important as the substance of knowledge. Other speakers discussed their experiences and thoughts on an array of different tools and approaches that seek to find commonality across these ways of knowing to support alternative ways of engaging across different epistemologies.

I was particularly impressed by Maria Tengo’s work outlining the ways that folks at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have been using a dialogue based approach to connect knowledge systems in a legitimate, equitable, and salient way. Their ‘multiple evidence based approach’ views different types of knowledge as contributing to developing a more holistic picture of a problem. Using this approach, they see co-production as involving three phases: co-defining a problem; mobilizing different knowledge and sources of evidence to create a rich picture of the problem; and joint analysis and validation of different knowledge systems. Tengo proposed that we need to move away from the idea that knowledge needs to be integrated towards an approach that mobilizes the knowledge of different actors within decision-making.

It is here that I come to my final reflections on the conference, and the subject matter of my own presentation (which you can view here). My current fixation in this debate is a seeming gap in the connection between discussions on the co-production of knowledge and new modes of decision-making. The conference highlighted an array of different approaches in both these domains, but the conversation of how to connect said co-produced knowledge to novel decision-making processes remained largely absent. Current conversations on co-production emerged to overcome the issues that currently plague connections between knowledge, policy, and practice. Yet while we only focus the lens on reconfiguring how we produce knowledge we are missing part of the picture: how that knowledge is mobilized in decision-making.

Until we understand science and governance in relation to one another debates about the socio-political consequences of discourses like ‘planetary boundaries’ will always be an afterthought once the scientists have gone about doing their thing and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. By considering the socio-political consequences of such a concept from the outset perhaps the framing would have been different, the narrative more inclusive of diverse perspectives and may avoid becoming marred in the current debates about the planetary power grabs.