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  • Writer's pictureErika Conchis

Presentation: From experiments to messiness: responding to the need for radical change

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Event: From experiments to messiness: responding to the need for radical change at the Climate Praxis Conference organised by Place-Based Climate Action Network

Speaker: Vanesa Castán Broto

30/09/2020 - Online

Record transcription of the presentation:


Now more than ever we face the threat of existential annihilation.

Now more than ever we face a form of solitude like no other, the responsibility to change our relationship with landscapes and other species.

Radical change is no longer an extreme political position but an absolute necessity.

The consensus around international reports such as the IPCC and the SDGs demonstrate the need for a change to address climate change alongside questions of inequalities and justice.

My question is, how do we achieve such change?

Three options

I think there are three options:

The first one emerges from an impulse to plan a massive change. We create an image of where we want to go and we build regulations and lots of investment to arrive there, from A to B.

For example, the EU is working to mobilise €100 billion for a Green Deal, including direct investment of €1 billion on research and innovation projects. This is laudable, and offers multiple opportunities for action. The Green Deal models intentions and behaviour. It mobilises resources and actors.

Forgive me if I say some words of caution.

In their recent book Dilemmas on Sustainable Development, Jonathan Metzger and Jenny Lindblad take a ‘view from practice’ to show the tension between efforts to order a desired future and the contestations that they provoke. Plans hardly account for the multiple lives of people in their everyday settings, for how people navigate multiple ‘official’ and subsistence economies, for the changes in their life trajectories and landscapes.

Both A and B are always undefined and open for contestation.

This leads me to option 2: experimentation. The idea that it is possible to identify experiments or innovations whose emergence makes it impossible to maintain the current order.

In my work with Harriet Bulkeley and Gareth Edwards we found two important insights about experiments. First, experiments do create change even when results do not look like expected. Experimentation delivers open-ended disruptions. That makes them very exciting because there is always the promise of a fundamental transformation associated to relatively modest interventions. Transitions theory, with its ideas about reconfiguration, has captured this beautifully.

However, we also discovered something disquieting. Experiments are inherently ambiguous. For example, we looked at experiments that attempted to address inequalities in cities (such as solar water heaters or ceiling retrofits) which at the same time enrolled people into new financialisation mechanisms and created new dependencies that reproduced, rather than changed, the market economy. Low carbon gains were not always perceptible. Experiments created injustices almost as often (or even more often) than they addressed them.

This story has come full circle as experimental approaches have become ubiquitous in environmental governance. A lot of work remains wedded to the potential for communities and individuals to develop experiments. But something else is going on.

With my friend Kevin Lo from Hong Kong, we have studied China’s style of governance of ‘experimentation under hierarchy.’ Our work showed that experimental ideas of addressing poverty using solar energy installations in remote rural areas were promoted by China’s central government but local governments were left alone to figure out how to make it a reality with questionable degrees of success.

Some examples of government appropriation are positive. Finland’s attempts to develop an experimental state have fostered place-based initiatives, such as for example a sustainable indoor skate park built by skateboarders themselves that I visited in Tampere.

In contrast, the UK has suffered of an authoritarian wave of experimentalism, whose ideal is a data-driven society were misfits deliver disruptive ideas. Political scientist Alan Finlayson argues that the experimental approach of the UK government is a permanent campaigning strategy with endless experiments to shape and form political attitudes. This approach is a perversion of the ideals of bottom-up learning-by-doing that inspired me a few years ago.

Experimentalism has become for me a shape-shifting monster. Who knows what absurd ideas can be mobilised under the guise of experimentalism?

Messiness in Tuzla

So that brings me to my third option: engaging with messiness. What if the question is not how to build and deliver ordered authority over this reality that is escaping through our fingers, but rather, engaging with the messy nature of reality, use ‘mess’ as a portal to a radically changed society?

Back in 2005 when I first travelled to Bosnia to work on my PhD, I found a group of communities in Tuzla protesting about the coal ashes that a coal-fired power plant was dumping in their valleys. Like other environmental justice groups, communities in Tuzla carefully documented all the transgressions of their environments, the lost land, the dust in their houses and gardens, the practices of cleaning. They would even conduct epidemiological studies by visiting and recording deaths in graveyards and surveying the local nurses and doctors.

Mary Douglas famously defined dirt as matter out of place. Dirt and mess are perceived as a danger to the social order and that is why such transgressions are countered through policies and rituals. In my research I showed how the communities in Tuzla explained the dangers associated to the material transgressions that the pollution represented and how they tried to eradicate them.

But I got it wrong. Those communities were not trying to remove the mess; they were making it visible. As Douglas herself explained, danger is associated with great power. People avoids mess because it threatens the institutions and practices that sustain our social edifices.

What those communities sought was not cleaning out the pollution- fifty years of coal ash disposal cannot be undone. They wanted to transform the social and political system that made it possible: democratising and socialising the power plant, reconfiguring the role of the expert- so that experts would have to engage with their evidence too, and rethinking the role of the local government as a mediator. Those communities were saying: this new capitalist order is not for us.

The communities in Tuzla only made very modest gains, but some change happened. However, is that sense of incremental change in the context of climate change enough?

Drawn by a sense of urgency, I have indulged in a daring hypothesis: What if engaging with mess is a strategy for radical change?

Three forms of mess

My work on mess is still in progress but let’s depart from Foucault’s theorisation of social order in relation to three order-making aspects: power, knowledge and bodies. Now, let’s mess this up. If we start to mess up with power, knowledge and bodies what do we get?

Thinking power: in looking at a cookstove improvement programme in Maputo, local

development officers described a very orderly process whereby large international NGOs were able to access international finance. But when I visited the workshops were people made cookstoves I found that many local NGOs were engaged in diverse aspects of the cookstove improvement programme. The programme was not successful because of the number of cookstoves distributed across families (which in the end would be only be a fraction of those who needed them) but because of the multiple skills that were developed and passed across workshops, markets, and NGOs, shaping new standards in a very disorganised manner.

Thinking knowledge: there has been a rush in recent years to systematise our knowledge in terms of actual emissions reductions, tangible within the urban environment. There is a lot of emphasis on big infrastructure projects and less emphasis on the local, place-based initiatives that make a difference to people’s lives without exacerbating urban inequalities. What would it mean moving away from that compulsion of the aggregate? How could we recognise the disordered impact of changing life practices?

Thinking bodies: Caroline Criado-Perez has shown in her book Invisible Woman that the middle-aged white men is the unit of measurement for almost anything, from government policy to medical research. And also for sustainable development. Intersectionality perspectives focus precisely on the uniqueness of every body. My wonderful colleague Andrea Rigon, with whom we have been exploring this question in a forthcoming book on Inclusive Urban Development, told me how a participatory design experiment for a street in Beirut focused on the needs of people with reduced mobility. By addressing the needs of those who were disabled they also addressed the needs of children, the elderly, women with caring responsibilities and everyone. Everybody benefited from a collective design that messed standards up by focusing on the needs of those who are most vulnerable.

Imagine doing that at a large scale.

So, what about messing up environmental governance?


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