Draft Program of Work
The Taskforce on Conceptual Foundations of Earth System Governance will explore key ideas that are coming to frame international discussion of governance challenges in times of global environmental change and earth system transformation. It is concerned with understanding, critically interrogating, and refining concepts that increasingly provide the foundation for contemporary theory and practice in the environmental domain, including notions such as: ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘resilience’, ‘the green economy’, ‘sustainable consumption’, and the ‘transition to a low carbon economy’.
Major political and social change is typically accompanied by innovation in the thought categories we use to make sense of the world, frame arguments, organize collective action, and establish new institutional practices. Looking at things in new ways can allow us to do things in new ways. So at a time when human societies are placing ever greater stress on global ecosystems, and are only beginning to appreciate what it would mean to move onto a more sustainable development trajectory, we need to devote critical efforts to examining and further refining novel governance ideas.
The Taskforce is intended to contribute to:
- developing a deeper understanding of novel ideas shaping international engagement with problems of global environmental governance, including both their theoretical and practical implications;
- accelerating the critical development of new ideas and approaches required for society to come to terms with the complex and inter-related dilemmas of earth system governance;
- building capacity for research, analysis and innovation in this important area by encouraging collaboration among established and emerging scholars, across regions (especially between the global North and South), and between academics and practitioners.
Important elements of the Taskforce’s approach include:
- taking as its starting point the investigation of novel concepts — particular unit ideas — that can enhance understanding of the challenges, and help orient the practice, of contemporary environmental governance;
- examining the origin, development and practical bearing of these concepts; interrogating the different ways they are understood, promoted and/or criticized by different actors and communities; tracking how they are deployed in wider patterns of argument and practice; and assessing their contribution to reorienting thinking about environmental governance, and to altering policy processes, outputs and outcomes;
- welcoming the use of a variety of theoretical frames and methodological tools to examine the conceptual foundations of earth system governance; and
- developing an open and collaborative network of scholars and interested practitioners to encourage lively debate and exchange.
Critical and problem-solving
The research of the Taskforce is therefore intended to be both ‘critical’ and ‘problem-solving’. While its point of departure is concepts or ‘thought categories’, it will be concerned with how ideas are inter-linked with real social forces and interests, how they may illuminate or obscure particular issues, problems or power relations, and so contribute to different substantive and/or distributive outcomes. But the aim is not merely to reveal underlying relations, but rather also to engage in practical efforts to develop governance ideas and practices that are more suited to confronting concrete problems experienced by societies as they come to terms with changing patterns of social/ecological interdependence.
Individual projects and collaborations will be developed by working groups and subgroups of taskforce members. Particular research questions will vary somewhat in relation to specific initiatives involving particular concepts, clusters of concepts, or synthetic and cross-cutting themes. The core set of research questions relating to specific concepts include the following inter-related dimensions:
• Character, origin and development: What core idea does this concept embody? How did it emerge? What insights does it provide? How does it differ from established understandings? To what ideas is it most closely related or opposed? What trajectory has it followed since its initial emergence? What groups have played a critical role in its development and propagation? What motivated the development of this particular idea? Has its core meaning evolved over time?
• Uptake, influence and practice: How has this concept been employed in political argument? How has it been incorporated into wider patterns of discourse, theory, or ideology? To what extent has it begun to achieve an institutional embedding in governance practices and organizations? Has it been understood differently, or adopted preferentially, in different sectoral contexts, national political cultures, within the global North or South? Has this idea been linked to actual changes in policy or the processes or structures of environmental governance?
• Tensions, cleavages and contradictions: Are there unresolved tensions and ambiguities or critical fault lines related to the understanding and use of this concept? What are the particular epistemological and ontological assumptions it embodies? Are there issues that are obscured rather than illuminated? Are there perspectives, approaches, groups or interests that can benefit or gain differentially from its deployment? Has its trajectory or evolution been affected by resistance or critique? How does it relate to established perspectives on governance, including key ideas related to democracy, accountability, rights, justice, representation, efficiency and so on.
• Significance and potential: How significant has this concept been for the development of new governance approaches to managing social/ecological interactions? What assessment can be made of the impacts on argument, policy processes and structures of earth system governance? Could this concept be further developed, adjusted or extended to make a more substantial contribution? What can be done to adapt this idea to make it better suited to contemporary governance challenges and or to encourage further fruitful innovation.
These questions focus on understanding how these novel concepts are actually contributing to the development of more adequate patterns of earth system governance. And on what might be done to further sharpen or otherwise modify them, or encourage the emergence of other novel ideas to enhance governance innovation. The goal is to start from the interrogation of these innovative ‘unit ideas’ in order to illuminate more general challenges and solutions in the environmental governance domain.
It is anticipated that the work of the taskforce will advance on two levels. The first will be built up from the examination of individual concepts, engaging with questions such as those listed above and exploring the character and impact of these core ideas. The second will focus on common and cross cutting themes relating to the conceptual foundations of earth system governance including, for example: the nature of conceptual innovation in the global environmental governance domain; the way various concepts relate to the problematic science/policy/pubic interfaces; their different engagement with the structure/agency, public/private and market/state dichotomies, and so on. Exchanges on such cross cutting themes (and the identification of priority areas for more detailed work) are expected to develop over time. In the first instance, however, all members are encouraged to participate in the working group on at least one specific concept. These groups will provide the basis of the initial work of the Taskforce and the foundation on which other activities will be built.
Initial priority concepts
The Taskforce has established a short list of high-visibility concepts which have attracted interest among scholars and governance practitioners. It will use collaborative investigation around these key ideas as an entry-point to wider sets of related concepts (for example, sustainable consumption may lead to consideration of ideas such as of ‘green consumerism’ or ‘voluntary simplicity’, etc). Participants can, of course, set up working parties on other unit ideas that interest them. Which concepts actually receive attention will depend in large part on the choices of our participants. So while there is an attempt to establish priorities, there is no move to divide the research space into a hierarchy of approved and unapproved concepts!
The initial list of priority concepts includes the following:
Planetary Boundaries (and related ideas: tipping points / safe operating space, etc)
Low Carbon Transition (and related ideas: low carbon society; decarbonization, carbon-free, etc)
Earth System Governance
Environmental Policy Integration / Mainstreaming
It is expected that groups working on particular concepts will share their interim findings with the broader Taskforce. Researchers may also come together in wider groups to explore interconnections and interdependencies among related concepts. For example, the notions of the Anthropocene, Planetary Boundaries, and Resilience are closely linked. The Green economy, Low carbon transition, and Sustainable Consumption form another such group.
Over time the taskforce will organize activities and events including conference panels, webinars, workshops, and so on, around specific concepts, groups of concepts, and synthetic or cross cutting themes. It is anticipated that early research outputs will take the form of conference papers, with the 2015 Canberra Conference on Earth System Governance: ‘Democracy and Resilience in the Anthropocene’, acting as a focal point for initial contributions. Members are encouraged to combine in various ways to produce a range of research products including conference papers, articles for academic journals, policy briefs and articles for broader circulation media. We expect that outputs generated through such collaborations will make some acknowledgement of their origins in Taskforce activities.
Members are encouraged to seek outside funding for particular subprojects and activities. We hope that a number of funding sources and mechanisms will be explored by various combinations of researchers to achieve distinct elements of this research program. Taskforce members and working groups should discuss potential bids with the Convener so that we may facilitate the coordination of overall activities and avoid duplication or multiple competing bids to one funding authority.
Initial activities for the Taskforce will include:
- Establishing concept working groups.
- Launching the Taskforce website.
- Launching a Webinar series.
- Planning for Conferences including the ECPR in Montreal (August 2015); the ESG Conference in Canberra (December 2015); the ISA Annual meeting in Atlanta (March 2016).
To get working groups off the ground the Taskforce convener will invite some relatively experienced scholars to assume the role as provisional ‘concept leads’, to pull together other researchers interested in exploring specific concepts and to develop activities of their group. We anticipate a ‘self-organizing network’, where participants join activities closest to their interest and expertise, and collaborate in different combinations to develop knowledge, and attain the core research and outreach goals sketched out in this document. Initially Taskforce activities will be coordinated by the concept leads, the convener, and facilitation group which prepared the launch, with help from the ESG secretariat. As the work develops consideration can be given to establishing a more formal governance structure.
Participants with suggestions for Taskforce activities including conference participation, fundraising, and broader outreach are encouraged to bring them forward.
This work plan is regarded as a living document and will be periodically revised and upgraded as the research and outreach activities of the Taskforce gain momentum.
15 December 2014