Session Overview

From Science to Action: What role do scientists play in activism?



Vasna Ramasar, Lund University


Emily Boyd, Director of LUCSUS, Lund University


Dana R. Fisher, University of Maryland

Patrick Bond, Wits School of Governance

Download the Slides here




In the era of ‘alternative facts’ and post-truth politics, arguably science has a more active role to play in engaging with political, social and environmental reforms. Social movements are emerging as a global force for social change and democratization, and the role of research and researchers deserves our attention.

However, the relationship between science and activism is not an easy one with vociferous voices for both greater action by scientists and contrastingly, more objectivity from science.  The role of science-citizen or science-activist in engaged scholarship has been deeply influential as evidenced by the work of Nobel laureate Dr Wangari Maathai. However, activism on behalf of “Science” has led to mixed responses.

Where and how do we engage? What moral obligations do we have and what consequences do we face as a result of our action? These important questions are confronted within the Earth System Governance community in the context of global environmental change in an increasingly warming and unequal world and are the basis of the semi-plenary on science and activism.


Dana R. Fisher – Science Activism in the American Resistance

Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, activism and protest have erupted around the United States. Scientists have taken to streets as part of large-scale protest events, as well as in their own event in April 2017. This piece looks at scientists as part of the broader Resistance—people working individually and in collectivities to challenge the Trump Agenda. Building on the analysis of data collected from a random sample of participants from the Washington, DC March for Science, which took place in April 2017, I explore how the March for Science was different from a broader sample of participants in the Resistance. Although there may be differences outside of participation in the March for Science, my findings show that there are few statistically significant differences. I  discussing the implications of these findings on scientists in the Resistance and science activism more generally.

Short Bio

Dana R. Fisher is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on environmental policy, civic participation, protest and activism more broadly. She has written extensively on activism and social protest in numerous peer-reviewed articles, as well as in her second book Activism, Inc. (Stanford University Press 2006). She is currently working on American Resistance, a Book-In-Progress with Columbia University Press. For more information, go to

Patrick Bond – Scholactivism’s challenges to multilateral climate policy

Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a preponderance of ecological modernization approaches – whether genuinely scientific or (mainly) pseudo-scientific ‘false solutions’ – crowded out activist initiatives known as Climate Justice (CJ). Even though experiments such as carbon trading and offsets mandated in the UNFCCC’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol consistently failed, CJ scholar-activist critiques and alternatives were ignored by multilateral policy-makers. By 2015 the Paris Climate Agreement had succumbed to realpolitik, thanks to negotiating sessions dominated by the self-interested U.S., European Union and BRICS regimes. The UNFCCC thus refused to adopt binding emissions reduction commitments; establish accountability mechanisms; incorporate military, maritime and air-transport emissions; apply carbon taxation; dispense with (multiply-failing) carbon trading and offset gimmicks; respect historical ‘polluter-pays’ responsibilities for the ‘climate debt’ covering ‘loss and damage’; and compel fossil fuel owners to cease new exploration (and most current extraction) and simultaneously revalue their assets accordingly. Thus in spite of wide media acclaim and some (non-CJ) NGO endorsements, the world’s best known climate scientist, James Hansen (2015), declared the deal was “bullshit.” Donald Trump’s 2017 withdrawal of the U.S. from Paris offers important openings for revived grassroots activism, municipal-scale policy and climate debt litigation.

Beyond micro-strategies, the ability of CJ activists to return to global scale with more power in future negotiations depends upon not only new alliances, in the mode of ‘This Changes Everything’ constituency linkage, as Naomi Klein (2014) suggests. Moreover, in praxis-epistemic terms (as explored in Cultural Logic, 2016), challenges to multilateral power systems are here generative of knowledge, especially when the reproduction of a dominant order is stressed by activists from below. Hence, as David Harvey (1996) has mandated, “the environmental justice movement has to radicalise the ecological modernisation discourse” so as to transcend current climate-catastrophic realpolitik. Examples may entail several highly politicised albeit technical strategies that scholactivists are exploring in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South (such as against the Dakota Access Pipeline):

  • reinvigorating demands for creative eco-social climate debt payments, as were originally inspired by activists in Yasuni, Ecuador;
  • insisting on divestment against fossil fuel companies and financiers;
  • promoting climate sanctions – starting with carbon taxes – against Trump and his corporate allies; and
  • utilising ‘natural capital accounting’ techniques as discursive tools against destructive extractive projects.

In each case, a strategic danger – environmental commodification – looms, for counting the ‘value of nature’ may ultimately lead to pricing and even marketization. But activists are capable of reframing neoliberal-nature realities into non-commodified, eco-socialist strategies. For reasons worth acknowledging, fusing scholarship and activism is often unsuccessful. Yet today, strengthened social movements demanding environmental justice urgently require the work of scientists (often even before they know they need it); and scientists even more urgently require society to demand the fundamental changes essential for planetary survival.

Short bio

Patrick Bond is a distinguished professor of political economy at the Wits School of Governance and honorary professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Built Environment and Development Studies where from 2004 until 2016 he directed the Centre for Civil Society. His books include BRICS: An anti-capitalist critique (co-edited 2015), Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis above, movement below (2012), Durban’s Climate Gamble: Trading carbon, betting the Earth (2011), Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society: Negative returns on South African investments (co-edited 2009) and Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, development and social protest (2002).


October 11 @ 09:00


– 10:30

Palaestra – Nedre

Dana R. Fisher, Emily Boyd, Patrick Bond, Vasna Ramasar