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Diving into “allocation and access” in Sweden

This week, almost three hundred researchers will descend on Lund University in Sweden for a conference addressing a complex question: How do we govern humanity’s connections to the planet in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty? In other words, how do diverse groups – from national governments down to neighbourhood associations – make decisions as the environment changes at an explosive pace and the divide between rich and poor grows?

The 2017 Lund Conference Earth System Governance, the most recent annual conference of the Earth System Governance Project, runs from 9 to 11 October. Its theme is “Allocation and Access in a Warming and Increasingly Unequal World.” Vasna Ramasar of the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies is chair of the event. The researcher, who sees herself as an interdisciplinary scholar, says that conference is more than just a chance to share the latest scholarship about governance – from research on how nations are combatting climate change to new thinking about laws that ban the use of plastic bags. It’s also an opportunity for researchers to discuss how their role in society is changing amid political and environmental upheaval.

In a recent interview, Ramasar spoke to Future Earth about the goals of the conference and why many researchers today are dipping their toes into political activism.

Earth System Governance is a global research project of Future Earth. To learn more about the 2017 conference, visit the event website.

DS: It looks like you have a packed programme for this year’s conference. What are your goals for these three days in Lund?

As an annual conference, it’s an opportunity for us to really gather people, bring the community together, for an intellectual exchange on the latest research that people are doing on these questions of Earth system governance. This year is particularly interesting because the project started in 2009. We’re starting to reflect on what almost a decade of work has achieved and what the new direction will be for our community.

We have introduced art installations along the lines of the conference theme to engage the delegates in alternative conversations. Art can act as both rupture and catharsis when dealing with the intense subjects of the conference.

DS: Who are you expecting to attend?

It’s mostly an academic conference, although many participants are directly engaged in policy. This year we are also trying to engage with activism and civil society, both in research presented about activism and civil society and through our invited speakers. I’m really pleased that we have someone like Stefan Mikaelsson, who is the former president of the Sami Parliament and has been very involved in advocating for Sami rights when it comes to resource use and development. He’ll be one of the keynote speakers.

We will also have Monika Griefahn, who has been a member of Parliament in Germany and is the cofounder of Greenpeace Germany. It is important that we are bringing together people from different backgrounds to talk about common issues.

DS: The theme of the conference is “Allocation and Access in a Warming and Increasingly Unequal World.” When governance researchers talk about “allocation and access,” what does that mean?

It's about how we govern. Some of the questions that scholars engage on include: Who decides on governance? What are the processes? But also what is the distribution of both costs and benefits in society in the use of resources? What overarching principles underlie allocation and access? How can allocation be reconciled with governance effectiveness?

So it really comes down to these fundamental questions of justice as we see it. But what’s quite important is that in our current context, we have to think about governing with the huge challenges that come from climate change and that come from trying deal with the continued and growing inequality in the world.

DS: Is that similar to another concept that comes up a lot – environmental justice?

Absolutely. Part of it is certainly to think about traditional questions of exposure to risks and access to resources. But we’re also looking at the implications of some of the proposed solutions to the sustainability challenges we have.

Take, for example, an initiative such as the REDD+ programme. How do we ensure that the most vulnerable, who are the people that these programmes are supposed to benefit, are receiving those benefits? So allocation and access is both connected to a traditional environmental justice struggle, but it’s also looking at governing the new challenges of the planet and critically thinking about the solutions we put forward, such as geoengineering technologies. What do they really mean for political legitimacy, social justice and effectiveness of governance?

DS: What are some of the main issues in allocation and access today?

Society and nature are always changing, but climate change is a potential game-changer, especially when coupled with growing inequality. We are reaching ecological limits where we are making changes that are potentially irreversible. We have to think about how we govern for this uncertainty.

Another is how do we negotiate when we have a smaller ecological pie – where the natural resources that we need to sustain life on the planet are diminishing? We’re seeing rapid losses in biodiversity. Fisheries are collapsing. This raises more questions of how then do we use these limited resources. Who gets access to them? How do we decide what is a fair and equitable distribution of these things?

DS: A big question that the conference is focusing on is “science and activism.” Is this something that researchers are thinking more about than they used to?

For me, it is one of the more exciting areas of deliberation for the conference.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways that people are entering this arena. One is very much a response to the current political climate, especially in the U.S., with the Trump administration cutting funding for climate change research, and even going so far as the Department of Agriculture banning the term climate change. In response to these post-truth politics, counter-strategies like the March for Science have emerged, which is something completely new. It will be interesting to see who has gotten involved in such initiatives, why they got involved and what follow-up develops from this initiative. 

Then there’s also another stream, which is that in the face of the growing inequality that exists in world, scientists and academics are seeing a different kind of moral obligation and a need to take a stance. Social movements are emerging as a global force for social change and democratisation, and the role of research and researchers deserves our attention. This begs questions, such as what is the role of science in politics. How do we engage, and what role do we play in activism?

DS: That brings us to another major focus, “Earth system governance in turbulent times.” What role do researchers have in such a fraught period?

It’s such a big question because I think we are all sitting in our offices shaking our heads. The things that we thought could not possibly happen are actually coming to fruition. The growth of conservative right politics in Europe and the U.S., this so-called post-factual era, and how it’s fundamentally shaping both governance and science is significant. From an environmental perspective, each year we’re seeing new records for Earth’s warmest months, experiencing more extreme weather events and Arctic and Antarctic ice sheet losses at rapid rates.

I think this shifting landscape is a challenge in and of itself, but I also think it’s an incredible opportunity for new forms of governance, new innovation and more agility. It also calls on us as researchers to be more flexible and responsive than perhaps we have been in the past.

DS: You seem to suggest that being in turbulent times can be an opportunity, not just a problem. Do you think this era is creating pushing researchers to be more creative and relevant?

I think it has. I will preface this by saying that I think there is flourishing research to address global environmental change, and we can always do more. But, certainly, what this current uncertainty has allowed for are ideas and collaborations that might not have happened in the past. Social science has a crucial role to play in this arena, and networks like the Earth System Governance Project are already engaging in environmental change research from various perspectives.

This creates a space for creativity. I think the urgency of these challenges and the quick changes means that we must take ourselves out of the disciplinary boxes that we are in when in university departments. Social scientists working on the implications of geoengineering, for example, are suddenly engaging with engineers that they haven’t really had to interact with before. Conversely, those engineers may not understand what the most effective governance architecture is or how geoengineering solutions affect justice and fairness. Collaborative interdisciplinary research is needed now more than ever.

DS: As you mentioned, the Earth System Governance Project is nearing its 10th anniversary. What are your next steps as you approach this milestone?

The Earth System Governance Project was set up as a project of IHDP [International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change] in 2009. At that time, we ran a comprehensive process to develop a science plan that would speak to the wide-ranging community that work on governance and global environmental change. But it is always important to take stock of progress and see what we have learned – to improve and remain relevant in a changing world. So we are in the process of “harvesting” the good work that has been carried out to date and growing the project by developing a new science plan.

DS: How are you doing that?

Earth System Governance has the New Directions Initiative, which was launched in 2016. We’ve tried to get a diversity of different viewpoints from across the network to participate in this process. The intention is that by next year, we will have a new science and implementation plan, and we will have new leadership for the Earth System Governance Project, giving an opportunity for new voices, new ideas and new perspectives to guide the network.

Personally, I think this is something that is really valuable because it’s about refreshing and regenerating Earth System Governance Project so that we continue to be relevant, diverse and inclusive.

DS: What would you say is the project’s most lasting legacy?

The inclusiveness of the Earth System Governance Project is really powerful in that it has been able to bring such a wide range of social scientists together to engage on governance questions and sustainability challenges, sometimes from very different perspectives. That inclusivity has created a fantastic platform for sharing.