POLLEN18 Roundtable: Can interdisciplinarity push disruptive junctures beyond business-as-usual reassembly?

Second Biennial Conference of the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN)

POLLEN18: Political Ecology, the Green Economy, and Alternative Sustainabilities

Conference CFP: https://politicalecologynetwork.com/pollen-biannual-conference/

Theme: Challenges for and pathways to alternative sustainabilities

Panel: Can interdisciplinarity push disruptive junctures beyond business-as-usual reassembly?

Convenors: Siddharth Sareen and Don Kalb

Panellists: Narasimha Rao, Patrik Oskarsson, Tarje Wanvik, Melissa García-Lamarca

Ruptures, openings for change, are all too often restricted in ways that recreate past power differentials and safeguard established interests through entrenched institutional logics. We have seen this throughout the history of land governance, and in accumulation through dispossession across various transient forms of capitalism. The same capture of ruptures for business-as-usual is increasingly evident in the current energy transition. Leveraging existing inequalities, well-positioned actors network nimbly, circumscribe policy, mobilise terms of portraying change through deft expertise, and swoop down to occupy old familiar roles in new strategic set-ups configured to reproduce inequitable resource flows through institutions with nominally different names. The masses, to the extent they are cognisant of this recurrent value-grab, rally desperately and celebrate hard-earned victories in discrete battles even as they lose the war, or are swept along with bewilderment complemented by a renewed sense of being disenfranchised and disempowered.

What promise does interdisciplinarity in research on these related sectors hold towards overcoming this vicious cycle? Can land governance concepts with their long lineage of attention to the role of power relations in land reform and land use changes as other kinds of transition inform unfolding scholarship on energy transitions towards securing sustainable outcomes? Can more structural political economic understandings of capitalism lend depth and perception to issues predominantly regarded as sociotechnical, given the emerging recognition within energy governance research that sectoral change trajectories demonstrate the key influence of political economic factors? If interdisciplinarity can deliver on its assumed promise for path-breaking contributions in any domain, the present energy sector rupture – driven by the ascendance of solar and wind power in concurrence with climate related concerns over fossil fuel futures – is a conjuncture for land governance and capitalism research to demonstrate the value of cross-fertilisation of ideas and analyses. This panel seeks to bring researchers from these three fields into conversation around the concrete question of what their analytical vantage points can contribute to the real-world governance of energy transitions. It will problematise and showcase how interdisciplinarity can push states of rupture towards radical reform beyond business-as-usual reassembly. We will thus reflect on the challenges for, and hopefully pathways to, alternative sustainabilities, with special attention to the implications for equity and justice.

Note: The panel will take the form of a 90-minute session moderated by the two convenors as a roundtable on the topic the abstract lays out. It is intended to serve as a live example of how to work towards harnessing the potential of interdisciplinarity. Panellists and audience members interested in further engagement will explore the possibility of a co-writing project. A panel convened by two participants – Sareen and Oskarsson – at the 1st POLLEN conference led to a co-edited special section published in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 40:4 (2017).

Panellists and points of entry to roundtable discussion:

Dr. Narasimha Rao holds an ERC Starting Grant for a project on Decent Living Energy that he leads at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. His research examines the relationship between energy systems, human development and climate change. He combines a focus on energy and emissions thresholds for providing decent living standards for all with investigations of income inequality, infrastructure, and climate policy. He will interrogate the roundtable topic with a view to identifying analytically tractable ways of incorporating politics into studies of transformation, something accomplished insufficiently by conventional research on socio-technical energy transitions, activism and journalism. Narasimha’s engagement is driven by an interest in the role scientific research plays in the overall political economy of climate policy, how it furthers (or not) transformative change, and how it can interface with other interdisciplinary research, policy and even activism. Methodologically, his inputs are grounded in household energy modeling, econometrics, input-output, and policy analysis, rather than in a formal study of the political ecology of reform.

Dr. Patrik Oskarsson leads a Formas Future Research Leaders project at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences on participatory environmentalism that examines the mobilisation of citizens to secure environmental benefits. His work combines a focus on land use and environmental change related to industrialisation and mineral development with how communities and movements work to ensure justice in these. His approach to the roundtable topic will be informed by experiences from work with activist groups to jointly explore complex problems and accomplish positive change in rapidly unfolding and uncertain situations. Patrik’s analysis of changes in land and resource uses and what these mean to rural populations in the Global South attends both to the natural resource base itself and to the politics of epistemic framings of large-scale projects. He is keen to address the role of spatial linkages in the energy and extractives sector in conjunction with material and socio-natural aspects of transforming land use and discourses and practices around it. His suite of methods include long-term ethnographic techniques, multi-sited fieldwork, participatory air pollution measurements and environmental health surveys.

Dr. Tarje Wanvik is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation based at the University of Bergen. He brings together professional competencies in communication, brand management, campaigning and advocacy with academic enquiry into urban transformation, corporate citizenship and responsible business practices. Conceptually, his approach is grounded in theories of power and place politics, and evolving engagement with assemblage theory. His work problematises the local effects of transnational corporate connections, organisational dynamics and their interface with decision-making on issues of public governance, and pathways towards sustainability. Tarje will juxtapose deliberative and top-down approaches towards transformative urban planning and development, problematising the panel’s concern with energy transitions in urban contexts. For this task, he will draw on significant engagement with ideologically contrasting actors who perform interlinked roles that are crucial towards driving and constraining change within urban structures and processes.

Dr. Melissa García-Lamarca is a postdoctoral researcher at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, based at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and is a housing rights activist. Her research considers the financialisation of housing and urban greening, the biopolitics of mortgage debt and green gentrification. She is particularly interested in untangling the channels through which political economic processes generate urban inequalities and how collective urban struggles can disrupt the inegalitarian status quo and open up new alternatives. As a contribution to the table, towards the topic of energy transitions, Melissa will bring several reflections including the value of connecting critical political economic and anthropological approaches/thinking; the interdisciplinary challenges of bridging critical geography/sociology with public health in green gentrification research; and provocations on the idea of ‘radical reform’ and critical interdisciplinarity.

Professor Don Kalb holds a Bergen Research Foundation Toppforsk grant and is establishing a group to research the escalating contradictions of global capitalism in China, Europe and the Global South at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Bergen among other appointments. He combines leading expertise in sociology and social anthropology with competence in financialisation. In his body of work, historical evidence complements field research to address issues of transformation pertaining to globalisation, labour and class through a political lens. The research group aims to analyse social relationships in relation to global capitalism and thereby identify trends in class relationships, politics, and capitalist urbanism in diverse yet interconnected regions. Don’s ambition with this panel is to identify ways to civilise, end or transform capitalism by harnessing insights from purposeful interdisciplinarity. He will steer the conceptual core of debate oriented at the case of governing energy transitions.

Dr. Siddharth Sareen leads a project on solar energy governance co-funded by the Bergen Research Foundation and the Akademia agreement at the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation based at the University of Bergen. He uses multi-scalar changes in institutions, accountability relations, and materiality as a lens towards comprehensive understandings of energy system transformation, wedding scholarship on socio-technical transitions, energy poverty and environmental justice. Siddharth’s intent with this panel is to work through awkward entanglements between disciplines and sub-fields towards boundary crossing research. He combines ethnographic techniques and multi-sited study of governance in natural resource and energy sectors with a theoretical grounding in political ecology, development studies and human geography. Solar energy uptake as a premise for energy transformation apprehends issues of the agency of infrastructure, political economies of transition, information flows and changing territorial logics within the energy sector. These concerns will animate his guidance of conceptual inputs towards relevance for energy futures.

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