Friday, 30 November 2007

New Direction

Most of my blogging effort recently has been going on at a new website I've set up for the evolving local foods research project which is the focus of my postgrad study at the moment, so if you're interested, click here...

Friday, 12 October 2007

Nature Society Configurations

I'm just going to do this one in pictures for now, maybe write about it later...

Option 1: nature and society as two separate realms

Option 2: nature and society as largely separate but with some fuzzy overlap

Option 3: nature and society as a single hybrid realm

Option 4: society as a part of nature

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Linking Sustainability, Scale and Place

This piece, as the next in the process of defining my research area, is rooted in a phrase used by Nina Leopold Bradley and Wellington Huffaker in their foreword to a book entitled Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience. This collection of essays, in Michel Soulé’s words, helps us interpret Leopold’s relevance to today’s social and environmental changes. The foreword suggests that:

The authors of these essays reveal the need to regain a sustainable relationship to place, community, and the natural worldto the land that supports all life (2002: ix).

For me, this phrase at once simplifies the complex task of attempting to define and operationalize sustainability by casting it as a characteristic of the way in which we relate to place (place being a conveniently geographical concept). Over the past 20 years, a distinct approach has emerged in geographical thought which advocates relational perspectives on place, in the context of views of space, place and scale as socially constructed. Through examining how we construct places, how they are inter-related, and how we relate to them, we might be able to move towards more sustainable relationships with the places where we live.

One aspect of our relationships to place is that they operate on multiple scales. In terms of my place identity, I could describe myself as resident (or belonging) to the village I come from, or the nearest city, the region, or the UK, or Europe, or even in some contexts, the planet. And geographers have worked to illustrate how these scales are socially constructed in their character and the ways in which they are operationalized. A significant element of my relationship to place is constituted by the material resources I take from various other places – food, fuel, other material goods. In obtaining these resources, I am entering into relationships with the places where these goods have come from, and with all the places they have passed through en route to me. My relationship to place is also constituted, in a less material way, by the spaces, people (and their places) over which I exert influence – material or otherwise, and also by the places which exert influence over me – a clear example being the places which exert political power over me. It is in investigating the dynamic construction of, and relationships between, the scales at which these multiple relationships operate, that the phrase ‘politics of scale’ has been used geographers.

* * * * *

There is a strong current within the social and environmental justice movements today to cast activity at a ‘local’ scale as inherently ‘good’ activity. This is particularly apparent in the alternative food networks movement – the implication being that if we make our relationships to place more predominantly local, then our overall relationships to place will be more sustainable.

As outlined above, geographers have established clearly the socially constructed nature of scale, and the suggestion in some of the alternative food networks literature is that this ‘localism’ is often unreflexive and defensive. This position is described by Melanie DuPuis and David Goodman as follows:

Our own work certainly supports the view that global industrial agriculture has succeeded through the creation of a systemic ‘placelessness’, and that place has a role in the building of alternative food systems … Yet … we are cautious about an emancipatory food agenda that relies primarily on the naming and following of a particular set of norms or imaginaries about place … an ‘unreflexive’ localism could threaten a similar romantic move to the ‘saving nature’ rhetoric of environmental social movements (2005: 360).

The suggestion here is that in the contemporary world, a retreat to an unreflexive, defensive localism as the main element of our relationships to place will not be sustainable, for reasons wrapped up in the politics of scale implicated in the unreflexive construction of that local scale. It is important to remember that in searching for routes to building more sustainable relationships to place, we cannot simply cut out our relationships to the global, any more than we can cut out our relationships to our immediate local surroundings. As Rebecca Solnit has stated succinctly

the question is about negotiating a viable relationship between the local and the global, not signing up with one and shutting out the other (2006).

So in conclusion, for now, this train of thought leads me to ask whether more reflexive localism could form a significant element of a more sustainable relationship with place?

Friday, 28 September 2007

Understanding Sustainability

Sustainability is a term that has exploded in recent years, both in terms of frequency of use and breadth of meaning. As such, finding (and defining) my own coherent understanding of what it means to be sustainable is an essential first step for my research. I see two potential problems in defining sustainability, the first being theoretical – how to form an abstract definition of the sustainable. In addition to this, a second problem is to form a definition that can be successfully operationalized – a term which can be applied to real situations as an achievable goal.

To illustrate briefly current discussion around the meaning of sustainability within geographical literature, I would point readers to Sally Eden’s discussion of the meanings and measurements of sustainability, and to Colin Williams and Andrew Millington’s introduction to the common extension of sustainability, “sustainable development”. To illustrate the wildly varying contexts in which ‘sustainability’ is operationalized, I would point readers first to the definition of ‘sustainable agriculture’ published by National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA), and then to the use of the term in Monsanto’s explanation of the need to expand the use of biotechnology, genomics and molecular breeding to allow farmers to achieve sustainable productivity gains.

Many commentators trace the emergence of the term sustainability to the publication of the report entitled Our Common Future by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (the Bruntland Commission) in 1987, in which ‘sustainable development’ was defined as:

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Unfortunately, this definition – which has since been taken as the starting point for many discussions of sustainability – linked the term to the project of ‘development’, itself a highly contested term. However, the Bruntland Commission definition also highlights usefully the temporal aspect of sustainability. A key feature of that which is sustainable is that it takes into account the future, although I think that phrasing this is terms of the needs of future human populations is not always the most helpful way to express the core meaning of the term. In my view, the temporal aspect of sustainability can be more simply expressed as the ability of any given activity to continue in its present state ad infinitum. In this sense, the activity must be using resources only in a way in which the activity will continue to be possible in the future, avoiding discussion of who specifically we are ‘saving’ resources for in the future, and avoiding some of the explicit anthropocentrism of the Bruntland Commission’s definition.

More importantly, I feel that a common perception is that sustainability is about the environment, and therefore only accessible and relevant to those with sufficient disposable time and income to take interest in issues beyond personal and family well-being. I believe that sustainability is fundamentally concerned with both environmental and social justice in equal measure, and that sustainable environments and communities go hand-in-hand. Unless we have durable communities in which well-being is a priority, environmental sustainability will not be possible, and unless we take a sustainable approach to our interactions with our environment, these strong, durable communities will likewise not be possible.

It is in this point – the nature of the interactions and relationships between human communities and their environments – that I see the true definition of sustainability. The term relationship implies a two-way process between us (as individuals) and the places in which we live (comprised of both our human and physical communities). This sustainable relationship to place can be conceptualised as finding the balance between expressing our rights to take resources from these places (from the community and from the environment) and expressing our responsibilities of stewardship over these places (both the community and the environment). Thus, I would argue that I have a right to take certain resources from the place in which I live – for example, food, fuel, support from neighbours, use of local facilities – but in exchange I have the responsibility of stewardship over those same resources, in order to ensure that their use is sustainable. So for the examples given above, I would have a responsibility to ensure that my supplies of food and fuel were from sustainable sources, and that I return as much support to my neighbours as they offer me, and that I contribute to the maintenance of the local community facilities which I use. This is my answer to the first problem of definition: the abstract theoretical element.

To operationalize this term is much more difficult. The central problem in applying a definition of sustainability of this type is that in our ‘modern’ society, the trusted authority on the state of our environment (both human and physical) is science (both social and physical – divided on Descartes’ advice). Yet science can only describe – it can collect facts in as objective a way as possible (!) and attempt to describe for us the well-being of the places in which we live – in terms of the human community and the environment. Science cannot, however, tell us what we should do about it. As Eric Freyfogle states, “[science is not] a tool for passing normative judgements on the goodness or badness of various landscapes”, continuing to remind us that normative judgements come from people, who have adopted a set of values.

This leaves the key question in my mind when exploring sustainability: how do we make the link between knowing that our current practices are unsustainable, and deciding what to do about it? Who is qualified (and for whom) to make that normative jump from the ‘”is” to the “ought” statement?

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


This blog has returned from its summer vacation (as have I), and will continue to be used in the coming months as a space in which I can explore new ideas, and expand upon them in a written format - partly for my own gain in clarifying the direction of my research, and partly to gain any feedback from those that read what is posted here. I hope these thoughts prove interesting to those that come across these pages, and I would welcome comments, criticism, advice and links to related resources/people out there...

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Human impacts on or in the environment?

Another thought which illustrates for me the inadequacy of a division between the nature and unnatural, or between nature and society. This one was triggered by a passage from Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature, which is quoted in a Rough Guide to The Earth as suggesting that:
we could let human activity alter the climate so that a hotter-than-before day is essentially a human artifact. But if we take steps to stop altering the climate, a normal cool day is also an artificial event which we have decided to create (Ince, 2007: 272).

Thus, by actively choosing to mitigate global climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions we are still creating a human-altered/influenced/managed environment. Through our very presence, self-awareness and power to effect environmental change, whatever we as a species choose to do represents a choice of type of impact in our environment, rather than a choice of level of impact on the environment. This is especially the case given the level of global awareness which has emerged in the past half-century.

This is illustrated on a smaller scale by the management of nature reserves and national parks, which ranges from hands-on management to hands-off 'un-management', and with varying degrees of intervention in between. All of these types of management represent active choices to effect a certain outcome which we have determined is best. And the same is true on the global scale in the case of climate change. Trying to view nature or the environment as a separate domain in which we can choose our level of impact is clearly unrealistic - because of our presence, self-awareness and power to effect environmental change we are always choosing our type of impact. Some form of environmental impact will always result from our actions as a species, since we are a part of our environmental system, not a separate unnatural or social domain.

The question: whether breaking down the division between nature and society in our thinking would lead to a better understanding of the effect that human activity has within our environment?

Friday, 22 June 2007

Are there any natural landscapes left?

When the prevalent dualism of nature vs. society is applied to landscapes, it creates another dualism - landscapes are divided into natural landscapes or man-made landscapes (aka anthropogenic, human, social ... landscapes). Then building on this often-unquestioned dualism of landscapes, many of our environmental movements have an explicit focus on preventing the 'natural' landscapes from being influenced by society/humans, and thus becoming 'man-made' landscapes.

Examples of this type of environmental organisation include the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council, all of whom call for the protection of 'wild places' or 'wilderness' - our 'natural' landscapes.

While I would tend to reject these categories based on the nature/society dualism, it is clear that of the variety of landscapes on earth today, the level of direct human influence does vary. Yet I would disagree that a landscape can be characterised as either natural or man-made. And perhaps global climate change, what some would describe as the ultimate environmental challenge, will finally destroy this landscape dualism. I suggest this because global climate change presents anthropogenic environmental change on a truly global scale, thus affecting all landscapes, whether they were previously 'natural' or 'man-made'. Perhaps, for better or worse, the onset of anthropogenic global climate change will put an end to the idea that any landscape can be truly pristine and natural, that a Garden of Eden might still exist in the wilderness which can be preserved and maintained through careful management.

But where does this leave those environmental organisations? Do we simply have to choose what to protect in a different way, or does this herald the rise of a completely new approach in for the environmental movement?