The future of this blog and issues deserving greater attention in 2015

Over the past few days I’ve been pondering the future of this blog, including whether to continue writing next year. Ultimately, I think a blog can be a useful “clearing house” for half-formed, half-baked and generally in-progress ideas and a useful part of one’s ongoing thinking and reflection processes and for this reason I will continue writing it. But I do intend to make a few changes, in particular focussing on some core themes and topics. Here are some of the topics I plan to address in 2015:

Climate action and the use of climate knowledge: the problems of agency, anticipatory action, and institutional inertia

The problem of agency is, in many respects, the central problem of sustainability science and practice. This is because questions of social change, of how and when (under what conditions) actors or sets of actors can contest established ways of doing things, are central concerns. If sustainability is viewed as an ongoing process (and not a fixed ideal and/or fixed state to achieve and maintain) – which is how I see it – then this is even more true. We see this in climate action, focussed on decarbonisation and adaptation processes. (For examples of process perspectives on sustainability see here, here, here, here).

Increasingly I think theories and models of action need to have a much stronger sociological grounding, often with a focus on the meso-level. For example, sustainability thinkers and activists often emphasise institutional change. Much social scientific theory aims to explain how actors to produce, reproduce, and transform institutional arrangements. My own PhD research draws on sociological models of action and the general issue of agency is one I will continue to think and write about further in 2015.

The related problem of anticipatory action is also one that I see as being central to sustainability science and associated practices. Related to this I’ve written about worst case scenarios, the social-psychological aspects and theoretical foundations of prospective practices, the concept of ‘anticipatory interventions’ (and its discontents), uncertainty and sustainability, discourse theory perspectives on participatory scenario exercises, rhetoric Vs reality in the use of scenario-based exercises, and key issues in – and “wake up calls” for – futures thinking. I’ll continue to monitor interesting research and work in these areas, as well as posting some of my own evolving thoughts informed by my PhD research.

The problem of anticipatory action is an important aspect of both climate change adaptation and mitigation in multiple arenas — e.g. in the arenas of public policy, strategic management, and community-based change. Adaptation ought to be both proactive and reactive. The production, dissemination and use of anticipatory knowledge can be important in climate change mitigation too. For example: investment decisions are influenced by investors’ expectations about the future (Chang, 2014); and public policy can be influenced by anticipatory knowledge (e.g. mobilising support for policy proposals), although epistemic and psychological difficulties are also at play (Nelson et al, 2008).

Building on my paper on ‘climate change and futures epistemologies’  I will also continue to explore issues associated with the production, dissemination and use (or misuse) of climate knowledge, such as issues regarding the status of knowledge claims about future climate and what shapes this.

Sociological perspectives on prospective practices, expectations and “strategic foresight”

This is a topic I intend to keep writing on in 2015 from three perspectives: 1) opening the black box of anticipatory knowledge-making, attempts to advance and increase the credibility of such claims, and the impacts of such claims; 2) developing a “social” view of actors and how “social” aspects of human actors shape the use and impacts of such practices; and 3) further considering the STS insight that knowledge-making practices are configured by the social worlds they inhabit (i.e. sociology of knowledge).

Such inquiry can hopefully contribute to a better understanding of the use and effects of prospective practices (including insights relevant to practitioners wanting to enhance the impacts of such practices), and also contribute to a better understanding of the social and political dynamics of expectations (a topic I explored in my Master’s thesis and that’s championed by sociologists like Alan Petersen).

Environmental politics and anticipatory interventions

Environmental discourses are bound up in political practices and provide “grist for political disputes” (Dryzek, 2013). Additionally, an interesting line of inquiry is to ask: how do adherents to different discourses approach and conduct anticipatory interventions? For example, adherents to the limits discourse may argue such interventions should be solely focussed on motivating actors to embrace and adopt “descent pathways” (e.g. see this special issue of the journal Foresight), or preparing for future breakdowns – with some form of collapse seen as the most likely short- to medium-term future – as Oliver Markley argued in the Journal of Futures Studies. In contrast, adherents to sustainability discourses often focus on potential decarbonisation pathways (e.g. see the reports produced by the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project run by UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network) and seek to mobilise greater adoption of such pathways. I see much scope for continuing this line of inquiry in 2015, including considering the contribution of such interventions to associated political disputes.

Neoenvironmental determinism and its discontents

An important area of environmental expectations is the discussion of global “tipping points” and related planetary “boundaries”. It has been interesting to observe the rise of these concepts over the past five years along with subsequent critiques of these ideas being articulated by other environmental scientists (e.g. here, here, here). In a paper published in On the Horizon I explored some of these ideas.

In some respects these concepts are a re-statement of the limits discourse in new terminology – indeed Alan Peterson might consider them to be an example of reiterative practices (Peterson, 2011).

One way that this connects with my own research agenda is that it’s an example of how expectations can strongly shape actors’ behaviour and, potentially, also social arrangements and priorities.

It also connects with my interest in the social responses and actions that expectations trigger – for example, the idea we’re crossing natural boundaries (hard environmental limits) from which there is no return could, for example trigger despair and inaction or greater activism. Scholars like Richard Eckersley have explored this. Additionally, Erle Ellis worries that the concept of global tipping points “suggests that below some threshold nothing serious will happen, but after that all will be lost” and that “[h]olding such a view risks breeding complacency on one side and hopelessness on the other”. These are issues that deserve much more scholarly attention and will also be addressed further on this blog.

References

Chang, H.-J. 2014, Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican Books (Penguin Books).

Dryzek, J. 2013, The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses Third edn, Oxford University Press.

Nelson, N., Geltzer, A. & Hilgartner, S. 2008, ‘Introduction: the anticipatory state: making policy-relevant knowledge about the future’, Science and Public Policy, vol. 35, no. 8, pp. 546-50.

Peterson, A. 2011, The Politics of Bioethics, Routledge.

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