Sedative consumption of science

Limits, boundaries & thresholds. Real or constructed. Motive for action, or a power grab by elite scientists? The concept of planetary boundaries has become a somewhat heated polarized debate, which you can read more about from Victor Galaz on the Resilience Science blog,or Robert Pielke Jr’s blog, or Melissa Leach in the Huffington Post.

Erle C. Ellis wrote in the New York Times this week that ‘Overpopulation is Not the Problem.’ I am part of a global sustainability group, called the Balaton Group set up by Donella and Dennis Meadows (authors of Limits to Growth) in 1982 to discuss planetary issues in one of the few places where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scientists could meet in the 1980s, on the shores of lake Balaton. The op-ed by Ellis has sparked a lively debate amongst this heterogeneous group of scientists. We have our annual meeting later this week to discuss “Technology and Transformation—Meeting human and planetary needs.” I will present on Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability: Equity and sustainability in the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Many, on the planetary boundaries side, might say that this debate distracts from actually doing something about the challenges we face. On the other side, there is great discomfort about the top-down science that the concept of nonnegotiable boundaries promote.  I think the interesting challenge here is how can critical pluralism, as Andy Stirling calls it, lead to positive action? This seems to be the challenge we face: to maintain a diversity of alternative options in a democratic open space. We seem to be all too willing to give into the seduction of clean, clear boundaries that call for the change we ultimately all wish to see.

Ellis: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Stirling: As knowledge can be power, so power tries to shape knowledge – including green knowledge. And few oppressions are more forceful than closure of imaginations. So, for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies. Despite pressing constraints, the great strength of green politics lies in its critical pluralism. This means hope-inspired democratic choice, not fear-driven technical compliance.

At a local scale, this is how I, with Frederik van Oudenhoven proposed igniting local imaginations for alternative futures:

We propose to “abandon the professed neutrality of pseudo-scientific paradigms in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

In a development context, in one that I know well, have a read of our article on how development organizations erode the very pathways they try to build, and the subjects of development become exactly that, subjected to development. So the real challenge in creating a sustainable future is to maintain diversity in imagination.

Memory… Cambridge’s double edged sword

I’ve been at Cambridge a week– packed with punting, scone- and tea-drinking, Bop-going and trying to figure out how to navigate an archaic system. My first lecture at Cambridge was in a little room set up to hold 100 students– 200 students showed up and we sat on and under the tables. It was a Course on Institutions.

It is widely stated that this is the Number One University in the world. 61 nobel prizes. Newton, Bacon, Darwin, Watson and Crick…the list of course goes on. The memory engrained in this institution in truly incredible. A condensed 800 years of academic brilliance. It makes me wonder whether innovation can be transmitted through old stone walls…

I was told today by my Senior Tutor that Academic Excellence at Cambridge is not because of the Institution, but in fact, despite of it.

  • Self-check out at the library? How would librarians ever keep track of where books are if students could check out books themselves?
  • A unified online student account management system? Nope. 6 user ID and passwords later…
  • Power point lectures? No such thing, but do expect hundreds of sheets of paper (generally not posted online) with the professor’s notes.
  • Sign-up for a discussion group online? Please find sign-up sheet outside room 8A East Wing of CRASSH building.
  • Looking for stimulating events? Twitter or Facebook hasn’t made it here yet, but don’t worry, your inbox will be filled with 50+ emails a day from different student societies.
Yet this is place where ground-breaking discoveries are made. I’m interested in environment, ecology, development, international relations, innovation, resilience…  how do I find out about the lectures? Speaker series? Dialogues? I’m told I don’t… I’m assured they do exist, but one has to happen to find them. In the pub, or in a hidden corner. I have my feelers out. I am looking.  I have to learn how to make the history work for me, dive into old books (and actually read them from start to finish), forget about the fast ever-changing exciting variables on the brink of research, and focus on the slower variables. A long talk with an astro-physicist about galaxy evolution over a pint might be a place to start.

Our new economy (22 years ago); and a look to the future through food

“There is a principle specific to environmental ecology which states that everything is possible–the worst catastrophes, or the smoothest developments.”

I just returned from a self-imposed ‘writing recluse’ with my co-author for the little book Bo dastoni khud – With our hands: A book of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs.  There, in a lovely Swedish summerhouse on the Baltic Sea, I found the space to read a few long- overdue classics– including The Three Ecologies, by Guattari.

Guattari wrote this paper in 1989. This week, as I found myself in tightening thought circles writing about the apparent ingenuity gap of the Pamir people after the fall of the Soviet Union, I found myself in an even tighter circle thinking that Guattari wrote these words when I was two years old. And well, it was one of those slightly disconcerting moments where I was reminded that I’ve been spending my entire life trying to articulate thoughts which have already been succinctly and firmly stated before I could even speak.

Many of the discussions we have on the recession and economic growth are spent questioning alternative growth mechanisms within the current economic paradigm when Guattari stated 22 years ago that we should use “our expanded understanding of the whole range of ecological components to set in place new systems of value.” Guattari told us that Capitalism could be challenged, or at least made to incorporate methods of valorization based on existential production. He called for an active offensive, rather than a mere defence of nature. A future in which we fashion ethics appropriate to a future which is at once fascinating and terrifying. (Thank you to David Barry and others, who have recently opened a socially equitable, environmental community bank (E3 bank in the US) against all odds.)

Guattari blames much of the inaction on reductionism that necessarily accompanies the privileging of information which supplants story-telling. So, now, I am going on a bit of limb from my otherwise overly pragmatic self, and am writing a book based foremost on story-telling through which we hope to detract from the abstract, and focus on a memory with a strong sense of self and to form an identity to form a base from which to look forward to the future. The culture of food is a link from the past to the present and beyond. The question is how to maintain that culture—that sense of Pamiri-self—and move forwards. We hope our book creates such a bridge. To invoke memories of the past, record the present, and help provide a rich context for the future.

The question I’m currently tangled up in, is what the future of this region looks like to Pamiris? And what is their ability  to imagine the future, because perhaps even more severely than most, their memories have been eroded by history. In a time of transforming lifestyles and landscapes, our book presents food as a powerful lens through which to invoke visions of the future rooted in memories.

In a recent post in the Resilience Science Blog a quote from Andreas Hussyen’s book states

“At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.”

Over the coming weeks, and months, I’ll be posting recipes, stories and photos here to give a taste of the coming book!

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