Participatory and collaborative environmental governance – just symbolic exercises to sustain unsustainability?

By Jens Newig

No matter if it’s about siting new landlines, declaring protected areas or developing water management plans: Citizen panels, stakeholder roundtables and deliberative decision-making have become commonplace in Western democracies. While great hopes have been placed in such participatory and collaborative forms of governance to advance environmental sustainability, the debate is now more nuanced and partly skeptical as concerns both their democratic and their sustainability-oriented benefits. Ingolfur Blühdorn and Michael Deflorian from WU Vienna add an interesting facet to this debate, building strongly on Ingolfur Blühdorn’s earlier work on simulative politics and democracy. Their thought-provoking article entitled “The Collaborative Management of Sustained Unsustainability: On the Performance of Participatory Forms of Environmental Governance” was published just two weeks ago in Sustainability.

What makes this an interesting read is its broader sociological perspective. Rather than asking how governance does or should function to achieve normative goals, the article investigates why participatory and collaborative forms of governance are proliferating and which societal functions are served through these. The authors start out by arguing that collaborative and participatory forms of governance are neither (1) particularly democratic nor (2) likely to be effective in the sense of their transformative potential towards sustainability. This, they argue is because (1) collaborative and participatory forms of governance are typically coopting citizens or selectively empowering only some actors who do not have a clear democratic mandate, and (2) because “their proliferation has, as yet, not taken modern consumer societies much closer to the great socio-ecological transformation”. This, the authors speculate, is “perhaps because the prevailing forms of decentralized and collaborative governance are explicitly designed not to disrupt the established order and are, therefore, structurally unable to deliver the kind of change that scientists and environmental movements demand.” If this is so, then why are collaborative and participatory decision-making processes becoming so prevalent?

The key to understanding this apparent puzzle, the authors argue, lies in the performative aspect of governance. Referring to the title of our 2018 paper on conceptualizing the “performance of participatory and collaborative governance”, the authors re-interpret the notion of ‘performance’. In a nutshell, they distinguish

  • performance as delivery of outputs – both in a “democratic” and in a substantive (“systemic”) sense – from
  • performance as theatrical display, enactment or illusion in the sense of symbolic or simulative politics.

It is this second perspective that the article focuses on, proposing “that these new modes of environmental governance have become so prominent because they actually correspond very closely to the particular dilemmas, preferences, and needs of contemporary consumer societies—notably the desire to sustain particular lifestyles and understandings of freedom and self-realization, which are known to be socially and ecologically destructive (unsustainable)”. Hence, new modes of environmental governance, “if assessed from the perspective of these contemporary dilemmas, preferences, and needs, they do actually perform exceptionally well. More specifically, they provide contemporary consumer societies with a practical policy mechanism that helps them to reconcile the widely perceived seriousness and urgency of socio-environmental problems with their ever more visible inability and unwillingness to deviate from their established societal order, patterns of self-realization and logic of development.” Put simply, while we cannot achieve sustainability and at the same time continue the established logic of consumption, participatory governance helps us to at least symbolically resolve this apparent contradiction. ‘Symbolic’ stems from the Greek term symballein, meaning to ‘throw together’ – here otherwise irreconcilable aims (I’ve written earlier about symbolic politics and legislation, as it happens in a special issue edited by Ingolfur Blühdorn). Hence, ‘performing’ collaborative governance gives us the feeling of teaming up for sustainability, while at the same time we do not give up on our unsustainable lifestyles. As a consequence, these collaborative practices contribute to stabilizing (rather than transforming) current systems of unsustainability – thus the argument of the authors.

While I find these lines of arguments illuminating, my main point of criticism concerns the lacking empirical grounding. The authors illustrate their points by three empirical cases, but these of course cannot be representative. We should be aware, therefore, that the performative functions identified here may apply to some cases of participatory and collaborative governance, but not to others.

Assuming we do strive for environmental sustainability, and assuming further that governance (by whatever mode) can play a vital, if not indispensable role in this – what insights do we gain from this article? In terms of normative guidance, this paper may leave us with a fatalistic impression that not much can actually be done, because – and so long as – societies embrace the “notions of freedom, self-determination, self-realization”, which are “firmly based on the principle of sustained unsustainability”. Having said that, I see three productive lessons we may take from the article:

  • First, the paper is enlightening for all those of us who either adhere to rationalist and instrumentalist models of decision-making, or who see decision-making through the lens of power-play (in which big business tends to ‘win’). Having read this paper, one can no longer claim not to have heard of the potential dangers of participatory and collaborative governance – not just because it may be ineffective but also because in a subtle, hidden, yet striking way it may serve to obscure its symbolic functions which result in sustaining unsustainability.
  • Second, these insights by no means imply an empirically grounded verdict! Despite its three examples, this is not an empirical paper. In fact, the jury is still out on how participatory and collaborative environmental governance actually delivers (to avoid the term ‘performs’) in both a democratic and a sustainability-oriented sense. What is required, more than ever, is solid empirical evidence of which modes of governance ‘deliver’ und under what circumstances.
  • Third, from a governance perspective, it is one thing to be aware about the potential deficiencies and misleading hopes of participation; it is another to ask: What is the alternative? Should we go “back” to strong state-based decision-making? Is there just too much governance and too little government? Arguably, we not only don’t know enough about the delivery of participatory and collaborative governance, but also we lack robust evidence on the role of expert-led decisions, the role of administrative capacities and of elite-networks in shaping decisions for environmental sustainability.

All in all, I highly recommend this enlightening article – not least for use in teaching sustainability governance courses, confronting students with sobering insights on the functions of participatory and collaborative governance, and triggering discussions about ways to effectively govern towards sustainability – including or not collaborative forms.

Starting today: Leverage Points 2019

Today, day 0 of “Leverage Points 2019 – International conference on sustainability research and transformation” is starting. If you haven’t made it to the conference, please check out the programme here (http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de/programme/). Throughout the next days, many from our research group will present their research on the governance of sustainability transformation, institutional change, the productive functions of institutional failure and decline, and on the effectiveness of different modes of research.

Day1

Day2

Day3

 

Food Democracy Now! The Second Networking Congress of German Food Policy Councils

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Annelie Sieveking

This blog post reports back from the second networking congress of German food policy councils, which was held this year, between 23rd and 25th of November, in Frankfurt, Hesse. This event brought together food policy council (FPC) initiatives from all Germany and its neighbor countries Austria, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland. The FPC initiatives from the German-speaking countries and regions met for the first time in 2017 (for more details see my blog on “The beginning of a new food movement in Essen” from November 2017). In the meantime, more FPCs were established, e.g. in the cities of Munich or Freiburg, and the number continues to rise. Currently we can talk about around 40 different FPC initiatives that are emerging in German-speaking countries and regions.

About 150 participants joined this event in Frankfurt with the aim of (1) exchanging experiences that they gathered in the…

View original post 1,206 more words

Sustainability Governance Working Group at 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference

by Stephanie Jahn and Elisa Kochskämper

Several members of our research group attained the 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference: Benedetta Cotta, Lisa Glass, Nicolas Jager, Stephanie Jahn, Elisa Kochskämper and Jens Newig. Here we would like to share some insights from the conference:

The conference is organized by the global Earth System Governance Research Alliance, representing the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. This research alliance aims at exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet towards sustainable and socially equitable development.

Our team had the opportunity to present the latest results and insights from different research that is all linked to this overall aim. We presented findings form the research projects Governect, MONA, EDGE and from Lisa Glass’ Phd project on Governance and the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as Elisa Kochskämper’s Phd project on Systematic Learning in Water Governance.

Organized in six overarching streams (Architectures, Agency, Accountability, Allocation, Adaptiveness and Theoretical and Methodological Foundations of Earth System Governance), the panels offered diverse views on how to tackle transformation from various disciplines. In order to gather these and further insights, the alliance launched their own journal during the conference. Papers can be submitted from now on.

Furthermore, the new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan was introduced by leading authors Sarah Burch, Aarti Gupta, Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue, Agni Kalfagianni, Åsa Persson to guide further research within the community: „Our vision is to understand, imagine and help realize just and sustainable futures by stimulating a pluralistic, vibrant and relevant research community.“

The new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan can be downloaded here.

The conference organization also opened-up space for visibility of and information on researchers participating, which was a welcomed initiative not that frequently used at academic conferences. Our group members Elisa and Stephanie were interviewed by the conference media team:

Other interviews of participants of Earth System Governace Conference i.e. Ortwin Renn, Oran Young, etc. can be watched on the Earth System Governance Youtube Channel.

 

Workshop on “Rethinking the governance of European Water protection” 

By Nadine Schröder

When:  January 8th-9th 2019

Where: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig

Organizers:

Nadine Schröder  (Leuphana University Lüneburg)

Barbara Schröter (Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF))

Frank Hüesker (UFZ Leipzig)

Content:

During this workshop we want to discuss on European Water governance and to address frameworks/ lenses/ concepts/ theories and methods to research water governance: Which factors, levels and scales do they focus on? Which roles play participation, sector integration and basin approaches? We draw conclusions how the governance might be improved in favor of better performance: Which factors may influence local, regional and national success or failure? Are best-practice examples identifiable empirically? Additionally, we critically reflect how the chosen frameworks and methods predetermine the findings of regulating parameters. We aim for joint products as results of the workshop, like e.g. a special issue, a book, joint conference panels, seeding joint projects, work on the science-policy interface, a manifest and so on, which is open to be discussed and depends on the interest of the participants.

You can have a look at the abstract and preliminary program here:

Preliminary Program

Abstract

 

Report

What is governance of global telecoupling?

By Jens Newig

Telecoupling challenges notions of environmental governance

Recently, a concept has been gaining ground in the academic discourse that is challenging our notions of environmental governance. This concept, which has emerged from global land systems research, is termed ‘telecoupling’ (see Friis et al. 2016). Roughly, telecoupling means that human-induced processes in one part of the globe impact in a certain way on a distant part (or parts) of the world. Another term for this is ‘global inter-regional connectedness’. What makes telecoupling a relevant concept is that it allows for the description of flows between globally distant places in a common language, and to problematise how these flows impact e.g. on the environment or local livelihoods. One example of telecoupling is that of commodity chains such as the soy chain between Brazil and Germany. Brazilian soy is fuelling German meat production, causing surplus nitrate accumulation in Germany, and tropical deforestation in Brazil (Lenschow et al. 2016). Other examples are the shipping of electronic waste from Europe to Africa, which contaminates local environments and jeopardises the health of communities. Or migrants from Nepal, working in the United Arab Emirates, who through remittances induce land-use change in Nepal (cited in Eakin et al. 2014). In principle, such global linkages have been described in the literature for quite a while. However, the new concept of telecoupling allows researchers to view these linkages through a common ‘systemic’ lens.

Why should telecoupling challenge our thinking on environmental governance? Well, currently scholars on environmental governance have been thinking either in terms of:

  • existing governance arrangements, such as global treaties – how they come about, and how they help to solve environmental problems; or
  • governance processes, such as participatory, networked or collaborative governance, and how this may benefit the environment; or
  • governance structures, such as multi-level or polycentric governance – and, again, how these my benefit the environment; or, finally,
  • particular classes of environmental problems, such as transboundary pollution, and how they can be tackled through bilateral or multilateral action.

From a slightly different angle, there is an established literature on global commodity chains. As commodity chains typically comprise private companies, there is also a literature on the private governance of such chains (Bernstein and Cashore 2012), as well as a critical literature on how individual consumers through their choices can help alleviate sustainability issues in distant places, or how generally transnational corporations should be more strongly regulated (Dauvergne and Lister 2010).

But what all these established literatures have seldom done is to address the particular sustainability problems caused by telecoupled linkages from a wider governance perspective. Only recently are we witnessing the emergence of a literature addressing the governance of telecoupling in particular (Challies et al. 2014; Eakin et al. 2017; Lenschow et al. 2016; Oberlack et al. 2018; Liu et al. 2018). Most contributions to this literature are developing from within the global land change research community.

Different understandings of governance

In two funded research projects (GOVERNECT and COUPLED), colleagues and I are working to apply a governance lens to telecoupled phenomena. Through this, we seek to link ‘established’ governance concepts with recent developments from within the land change community. Earlier this year I was at a highly inspiring workshop on “Governance in Telecoupled Land Systems” in Berne, Switzerland (mainly organized by Christoph Oberlack, as well as by Andrea Lenschow, Jonas Nielsen, Cecilie Friis, Julie Zähringer, and myself). Christoph did a brilliant job in bringing together researchers from several countries and research traditions in an effort to come to grips with the issues of governing global telecoupling. As is often the case when different research perspectives meet, understandings of what constitutes ‘governance’ in – or of – telecoupling, varied quite a bit, which is one of the outcomes of the Berne workshop.

Let’s take as an example the study by Hamilton-Hart (2015) on the governance of palm oil production.  Palm oil is a prime example of telecoupling because of the complex and long-distance commodity chain, the patterns of migrant workers involved, and the immense environmental and sustainability issues induced mainly in the producing region. The author observes that “[m]arket demand has driven the expansion of the palm oil industry in South-East Asia, but the industry could not have developed without a complex set of governance institutions and authoritative interventions. These institutions and interventions … involve both public and private actors. Together, they have developed a palm oil industry that is, in significant ways, regionalised. In contrast, regional cooperation to govern the negative externalities associated with palm oil production is at a very low level. The institutions that provide a degree of regulatory governance are largely transnational, often private, and very limited in their ability to constrain negative social, economic and environmental impacts. … [T]he failures of regulatory governance are rooted in the successes of the facilitating governance framework that has supported palm oil development.” (Hamilton-Hart 2015: 179, emphasis added).

What we can learn from this example is that two very different kinds of governance regimes are at work: One which has been facilitating the telecoupled system in the first place, and one which the author refers to as ‘regulatory governance’, aiming “to govern the negative externalities associated with palm oil production” (but which in this case is not delivering particularly well). Adding to this, governance which facilitates telecoupling may also be unintentional in this respect. For example, European Union Renewable Energy Directive, demanding a 10% share of biofuel in gasoline, has been driving unsustainable land use change in distant regions (Eakin et al. 2014).

To complicate matters, there is yet another kind of governance often mentioned in the literature describing telecoupled commodity chains or value chains (see, e.g. Gereffi et al. 2005; Challies 2008). This essentially refers to how chain actors (private companies, mostly) co-ordinate in order to maintain an effective functioning of a value chain – for example, whether and how chain relations are producer-driven, or co-ordinated in a network-like manner. In short, this kind of governance refers to how the telecoupled chain is maintained and organised from within.

Towards a typology of governance related to telecoupling

Taken together, we can hence distinguish three different types of governance related to telecoupling. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these ‘telecoupling governance’ types 1, 2, and 3.

  • In type 1, governance induces telecoupling. State-based or other governance interventions create the regulatory framework that enables a telecoupled phenomenon to develop. In the above-mentioned case, such governance interventions enabled the development of a palm-oil producing industry in SE-Asia, with all its negative externalities. Likewise, regional governance (e.g. EU biofuel policy) may show unsustainable sideffects in distant parts of the world. Type 1 telecoupling governance thus often creates unsustainability.
  • In type 2, governance co-ordinates telecoupled flows. Commodity or value chains are governed by (private) chain actors. Insofar as the telecoupled chain causes sustainability problems, governance of this type serves to maintain these problems. However, such within chain governance is increasingly paying attention to adverse sustainability effects, and how they might be alleviated by these very chain actors (Bush et al. 2015).
  • In type 3, finally, governance directs telecoupling towards sustainability. Or at least, it attempts to do so. Governance here seeks leverage points to ‘solve’ the sustainability problems created by telecoupling in either of the connected regions, or in spillover regions (Liu et al. 2018). This refers to state-based environmental governance, possibly including private and civic actors, as well as to non-state actor and multi-stakeholder initiatives (Lenschow et al. 2016).

These three types are ordered in a logical sequence of creating and facilitating telecoupling (type 1), maintaining and co-ordinating telecoupled chains (type 2), and alleviating the negative consequences of telecoupling (type 3). However, this order does not imply strict temporality. For example, chain governance (type 2) may have already started when state authorities consolidate an enabling regulatory framework (type 1).

From a sustainability governance perspective, type 3 may appear most relevant. Numerous forms of governance arrangements fall under this category. To name just a few, these include state policies such as financial aid, compensation payments, technological co-operation, trade barriers or mandatory product labelling; impact assessments and permitting procedures in producing regions; bi- or multilateral trade agreements, international conventions, as well as multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. Having said that, governance of type 2 is gaining importance for sustainability as private actors increasingly recognize their responsibility in alleviating adverse effects of their economic activity. Accordingly, recent papers on the topic have addressed the problems and potentials of governing chains towards sustainability, for example regarding coffee (Donovan and Poole 2014) or rubber (Dwyer and Vongvisouk 2017).

Ultimately, type 1 governance may bear the greatest potential for sustainability improvements. Rather than going by a ‘cleaning up’ mechanism (as type 3 governance may suggest), adverse effects of telecoupling should ideally be considered in advance. However, the mere application of a pecautionary principle, as it is well established in many more regionally-based institutions of environmental governance, is certainly easier said than done for complex telecoupled settings. Systematically incoporating considerations on telecoupling effects in major impact assessment procedures could be a start.

I thank my colleagues in the GOVERNECT project – Andrea Lenschow, Ed Challies, Benedetta Cotta and Almut Schilling-Vacaflor – for valuable comments.

 

Cited literature

Bernstein, S. and B. Cashore (2012) ‘Complex global governance and domestic policies: Four pathways of influence.’ International Affairs 88 (3): 585-604.

Bush, S.R., P. Oosterveer, M. Bailey and A.P.J. Mol (2015) ‘Sustainability governance of chains and networks: a review and future outlook.’ Journal of Cleaner Production 107: 8-19.

Challies, E., J. Newig and A. Lenschow (2014) ‘What role for social–ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?’ Global Environmental Change 27: 32-40.

Dauvergne, P. and J. Lister (2010) ‘The Power of Big Box Retail in Global Environmental Governance: Bringing Commodity Chains Back into IR.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39 (1): 145-60.

Donovan, J., and N. Poole (2014). Changing asset endowments and smallholder participation in higher value markets: evidence from certified coffee producers in Nicaragua. Food Policy, 44, 1-13.

Dwyer, M., and T. Vongvisouk (2017). The long land grab: market-assisted enclosure on the China-Lao rubber frontier. Territory, Politics, Governance, 1-19.

Eakin, H., R. DeFries, S. Kerr, E.F. Lambin, J. Liu, P.J. Marcotullio, P. Messerli, A. Reenberg, X. Rueda, S.R. Swaffield, B. Wicke and K. Zimmerer (2014) Significance of Telecoupling for Exploration of Land-Use Change, in Rethinking Global Land Use in an Urban Era, eds. K.C. Seto and A. Reenberg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 141-61.

Eakin, H., X. Rueda and A. Mahanti (2017) ‘Transforming governance in telecoupled food systems.’ Ecology and Society 22 (4): 32.

Friis, C., J.Ø. Nielsen, I. Otero, H. Haberl, J. Niewöhner and P. Hostert (2016) ‘From teleconnection to telecoupling: taking stock of an emerging framework in land system science.’ Journal of Land Use Science 11 (2): 131-53.

Gereffi, G., J. Humphrey and T. Sturgeon (2005). The governance of global value chains. Review of International Political Economy, 12(1), 78-104.

Hamilton-Hart, N. (2015) ‘Multilevel (mis)governance of palm oil production.’ Australian Journal of International Affairs 69: 164-84.

Lenschow, A., J. Newig and E. Challies (2016) ‘Globalization’s limits to the environmental state? Integrating telecoupling into global environmental governance.’ Environmental Politics 25 (1): 136-59.

Liu, J., Y. Dou, M. Batistella, E. Challies, T. Connor, C. Friis, J.D.A. Millington, E. Parish, C.L. Romulo, R.F.B. Silva, H. Triezenberg, H. Yang, Z. Zhao, K.S. Zimmerer, F. Huettmann, M.L. Treglia, Z. Basher, M.G. Chung, A. Herzberger, A. Lenschow, A. Mechiche-Alami, J. Newig, J. Roche and J. Sun (2018) ‘Spillover systems in a telecoupled Anthropocene: typology, methods, and governance for global sustainability.’ Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 33: 58-69.

Oberlack, C., S. Boillat, S. Brönnimann, J.-D. Gerber, A. Heinimann, C. Ifejika Speranza, P. Messerli, S. Rist and U. Wiesmann (2018) ‘Polycentric governance in telecoupled resource systems.’ Ecology and Society 23 (1): 16.

Job opening: Post-doc on public policy and institutions / environmental and sustainability governance

Our research group at Leuphana University Lüneburg is looking to employ a post-doc to support existing activities and to explore new research directions.

Tasks and responsibilities: Research in environmental and sustainability governance, contributing to the international visibility of the research group. Innovative topics and approaches are particularly welcome. Potential research themes and methods include:

  • Institutional change towards sustainability, potentially linking sustainability transitions research with institutionalist approaches
  • Elite networks for the production of public goods
  • Participatory and collaborative governance, from the local to global commons, with a potential focus on the global South
  • Knowledge, (adaptive) learning and experimentation in policy-formation and governance
  • Systems perspectives on governance and institutional design, e.g. leverage points for sustainability
  • Innovative methods for the cumulation of evidence: meta-analytical methods and the potential role of “big data” in governance research
  • Field experimentation on governance interventions.

Further tasks include:

  • Developing and collaborating in writing articles for international journals;
  • Supporting teaching activities on governance-related topics in environmental, sustainability and/or political science study programmes, with a teaching duty of four teaching hours per week during the semester;
  • Assisting with day-to-day aspects of facilitating smooth collaboration within the research group;
  • Preparation of a cumulative ‘habilitation thesis’ (or equivalent qualification) on a topic agreed with Prof. Dr. Newig.

Selection criteria:

  • Completed university degree (Masters or equivalent) with above-average grades in the social sciences, e.g. political science, public administration, law, planning, human geography, environmental or sustainability science, as well as a completed PhD in one of these areas;
  • Very good English language communication skills (written and oral);
  • Academic publication experience;
  • Experience in empirical research, and training in statistics, QCA or other formal comparative methods would be an additional asset;
  • Ability and willingness to teach relevant classes; some teaching experience would be an asset.

For questions, please contact Prof. Dr. Jens Newig (newig@uni.leuphana.de).

Deadline for applications is August 15, 2018.

To apply, please visit the university’s website here.