Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab- link to Roger Pielke, Jrs. blog


When we talk about how scientific information and scientists’ opinions should be used, we are part of a larger world of science and policy. And of course, climate change is popular for funding, so there are many more people to participate in discussions, which makes it interesting.

I thought this discussion on Roger Pielke, Jr.’s blog was appropriately current and relevant. If you haven’t been following the literature on planetary boundaries you can find some links. For me, as a person with experience with local land and people, it seems too abstruse to have any real world validity. However, it has triggered some interesting dialogue.. here are a couple of quotes.

From Melissa Leach, Director of the STEPS Centre at Sussex University:

This meeting – and many others like it in the run up to September – raise a significant question: Is there a contradiction between the world of the anthropocene, and democracy? The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and ‘hard’ environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions. It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages.

This is a far cry – as a South African participant pointed out – from some other worlds: on the ground in the global south and north, where people and social movements debate and contest their interests, values and desired futures; and the world according to democratic theory, in which such politics are worth acknowledging and respecting. In this world, there is a need to open up, make uncertainty and ambiguity and dissensus explicit, and foster diversity to cope with it.

From Nico Stehr:

Consensus on facts, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on politics. The constitutive social, political and economic uncertainties are treated as minor obstacles that need to be delimited as soon as possible – of course by a top-down approach. . . the discourse of the impatient scientists privileges hegemonic players such as world powers, states, transnational organizations, and multinational corporations. Participatory strategies are only rarely in evidence. Likewise, global mitigation has precedence over local adaptation. “Global” knowledge triumphs over “local” knowledge. . . the sum of these considerations is the conclusion that democracy itself is inappropriate, that the slow procedures for implementation and management of specific, policy-relevant scientific knowledge leads to massive, unknown dangers. The democratic system designed to balance divergent interests has failed in the face of these threats.

And this comment by Melissa Leach:

“Thanks for all the comments on Roger’s excellent blog; this is a vital debate and it’s great that it’s happening. Since he quoted me to kick things off, I’d like to throw in a few clarifications and thoughts.

I should make it clear that my Huffpost blog didn’t actually claim that there was anything inherently undemocratic about the concept of planetary boundaries (or indeed of the anthropocene). Rather, the focus of that piece was on the ways that the dynamics of a particular UN Expert meeting ‘closed down’ discussion of uncertainties, contestation, values and politics so that the end result was an apparently scientifically-authoritative/authoritarian set of messages conveyed to the SDG process. Nor am I claiming that the scientists involved in developing the concept are personally authoritarian in outlook. On the contrary. I know and work with many of them too. Indeed, as the longer version of the piece described, some were there at the Expert meeting and there was plenty of discussion in its early stages about uncertainties, politics, values, and the need for debate and dialogue, and bottom-up as well as top-down approaches. At least in part, the ant-democratic moves came in the ways the UN meeting managed and communicated its messages to the Open Working Group process.

Yet I also don’t think communication alone is to blame. There is a tendency for the concept of planetary boundaries to align rather neatly with approaches that are top-down not bottom up, set rather than deliberated, singular rather than respectful of diversity, privileging scientific over experiential expertise, global rather than local, control rather than response-oriented, and so on. It does so more than other candidate or related concepts – whether the ‘three pillars’, sustainability or sustainable development, or component dimensions such as climate change or biodiversity . There are plenty of reasons for this, and they relate to both scientific and political processes. But it does mean we have to keep a particular ‘watching brief’ on this concept-of-the-moment; one that is constructive and engaged, yet maintains the ability to contest and critique.

Ultimately, as our work in the STEPS Centre has often underlined, we need to be clear about means and ends; service and mastery. As long as planetary boundaries (like other technical concepts and frameworks) are seen as means to democratically-set ends; retained in service (rather than mastery) of political agency and used to open up (rather than close down) inclusive debate… then they’re part of the solution. And powerful parts at that. Otherwise, they risk confounding not only democracy, but the problems themselves.

But check out the post and the comments… there are some quotes by G. K. Chesterton and by Eisenhower.

I particularly liked Roger’s comment #12..

Thanks much … I guess that I see the proposals as more than think pieces. The scientists involved are actively working to secure a seat at the table and exercise influence based on their proposals — this from just yesterday:

My critique here has nothing to do with “relativism” related to truth — as you know 350 ppm and 2 degrees are political rather than scientific boundaries. Climate change is real, but that fact has nothing to do with whether we chose authoritarian or democratic responses.

Going back to our world, we can want to have sustainable forests and communities, but claiming inappropriate legitimacy for scientific information and scientists’ opinions, is, as Roger says for climate, a separate issue.

One more reflection on my week. I attended a seminar relating to a disease that a family member suffers from. The speaker said “no one supports research on (this chemical) for this disease because the pharmaceutical companies fund research and this is not their product.” Maybe it’s easier to see that what gets funded gets studied, and who controls the funding controls the ultimate information when you are in Health World. Hence the need for a People’s Research Agenda.

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