Thursday, 16 May 2013

Summer School 2013 begins

Group discussion on transitions and grassroots innovation
Our annual Summer School has hit the ground running, with 40 students from around the world descending on Sussex to hear and challenge the STEPS Centre's ideas on pathways to sustainability.

So far, we've had a mix of lectures and discussions on topics from the global political economy of climate change (with a guest lecture by the LSE's Prof Michael Jacobs on Monday night) to innovation and transitions at grassroots level. 

This morning, Ian Scoones gave a whistlestop tour of thinking on policy processes. Many of us think we would like to change policy - or perhaps make it - but have we thought of what it actually is, and how it is shaped? As policies are developed and evolve, narratives, politics and practices overlap and interact. 

You can see a couple of photos from yesterday's walkshop on the theme of 'uncertainty' through the Sussex countryside here and here. You can also follow highlights on our Storify feed and see participants' comments on Twitter using the hashtag #sss13.

We'll be posting video of Michael Jacobs' climate change lecture soon. There's also a chance to join in with the Summer School next Monday 20 May in Brighton, at a public debate on fuel poverty, climate change and social justice with Doug Parr (Greenpeace), Kirsty Alexander (Nuclear Industry Association), Jim Watson (UKERC) and Alice Bell (SPRU).
This article was originally posted on the The Crossing. Read more

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The GM debate should not be closed down to what is rational, but opened up to multiple rationalities…. A response to Chris Whitty and colleagues

By Stephen Whitfield, PhD student, Institute of Development Studies (Knowledge, Technology and Society Team)

Genetically modified rice / BASF
In a recent commentary published in Nature, Chris Whitty (chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for International Development) and colleagues rightly argue that the (ever-rich and seemingly-unending) debate over genetically modified crops should be premised on an identification of agricultural and food system priorities. But their suggestion that this would make for a ‘rational’ debate is problematic.

The authors argue that a GM debate that is based on societal needs in Africa and Asia should result in the emergence of a very different emphasis than that which is currently characterised in the GM policies of Europe, because of their (questionable) presumption that issues of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition are prioritised within these continents.

Actually, their prescription has long been taken up by the organisations behind on-going GM crop development projects, including those identified in the paper, in both continents. Public crop breeding institutions, pro-GM lobby groups, and private multinationals alike have been vociferously making the case within GM debates that food insecurity, poverty, malnutrition, climate change, etc. are the ‘rational’ bases on which their technological, ‘pro-poor’ solutions should be supported.

In the case of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, the justification for investment in, and development of, the technology is the climate change-driven threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and food security of Africans. This statement is taken from a WEMA policy brief

“Persistent incidences of drought in Kenya have continued to threaten the food security situation and subjected millions of Kenyans to starvation… modern biotechnology provides a major opportunity to address perpetual maize shortages that are now being compounded by new threats triggered by climate change.”

But the rationality of such arguments belies the denial of the alternative rationalities that it frames out of the debate. Benessia and Barbiero have recognised the tendency for GMOs to be pushed within ‘grand narratives of urgency based on the assumption of a morally binding necessity to bypass any delaying post-normal knowledge production and decision-making process, in favour of a silver bullet’ (p.84). 

Of course Whitty and his colleagues are not arguing that rationality does, or must, come from the transgenic crop development projects themselves, but rather from ‘policy-makers’. But the assumption that there is an arbiter of rationality that presides over the GM debate (singular) and makes a final judgement on it is to grossly misrepresent the politics of GM.  Crop development projects themselves often progress largely on the wind of their own their own rationalisation of the problems and solutions; they are, to some extent, the makers of their own policy, as are non-governmental organisations, lobby groups and (to a certain extent) farmers and consumers.

Policy debates focus on particular issues – biosafety, importation, labelling etc. – and are not about agricultural and food system pathways, but about regulation, and not about weighing up risks and benefits, but about particular risks and/or particular benefits. There are multiple layers and multiple locations to the governance of GM.

Within these locations, attempts by individuals, bodies, or organisations – both pro and anti –  to narrow down the debate to what is ‘rational’ or not ‘emotional’ (to adopt an equally problematic term used by the authors) belies the value base for their own position and essentially, and politically, acts to frame out alternative values. Arguments are perpetually made by the governments of GMO exporting countries, for example, that biosafety regulations should be ‘science-based’ and limited to a concern with issues of health and environmental safety, and yet the motivation behind their position is trade.

But even these environmental and health risks for which there is a conventional, ‘scientific evidence’ base (and of course the societal risks of GM are not and should not be limited to these alone) should not be void of debate about the completeness of knowledge, underlying assumptions and values, and interpretations.  The decision by the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health to ban the importation of GM foods, which the authors describe as an emotional decision, was in fact underpinned by an interpretation of a widely criticised (but nevertheless peer-reviewed) scientific study; highlighting quite clearly the ambiguities of the concept of ‘science-based’ regulation and the reality that there is not one objective evidence-based rationality, but multiple evidence-bases and multiple rationalities.

Similarly the relative and absolute benefits of GM crops are negotiable. Metrics of efficacy and preferences for alternative pathways are not easily categorised as ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’, but might emerge from different rationalities, experiences and evidences. As Dominic Glover, amongst others, has shown, for example, the idea that a technology is pro-poor is not a ‘rational’ evaluation, but is actually highly political and based on assumptions.

In considering the GM debate from the problem-based ‘end of the telescope’, as the authors make a case for, it is important to recognise that not everyone’s telescopes are necessarily the same or pointing in the same direction. The risks faced by smallholder farmers may not be limited to food insecurity, poverty, malnutrition and climate change and these risks themselves may be experienced in different ways by different individuals and in different locations. There is a prior set of debates to be had about the priorities for change in agriculture and these must engage with the multiple mechanisms through which contemporary challenges have been created (e.g. opening up beyond the environmental determinism of climate change-driven drought), and the multiple projections of future change (e.g. opening up to multiple directions of climatic change).

I would make the case, therefore, that DFID’s role in the GM debates is not simply to invest in the development of those technologies that emerge as appropriate, but to invest in the broader governance of agriculture, food systems, and technologies in both Africa and Asia, such that capacities for deliberation and debate around direction and appropriateness can be built. These debates are necessarily for everyone, not to be narrowed down to what is ‘rational’ but to be opened-up to multiple rationalities.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.

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Thursday, 2 May 2013

Bird Flu: Panic, Pandemics and Planning

A steady stream of reports about bird flu infection cases in China over the past month has given way in the past couple of days to panicked confirmations of deaths (27 as of today) and doom-laden projections about what may lay ahead. The new H7N9 strain of avian influenza in China is causing much conjecture about animal-to-human and human-to-human infection and how the spread of this deadly disease can be stopped. But, how might we have better planned for this outbreak in the first place?

"Preparing for flu is simply not just about flu; it is just as much - if not more so - about the interventions that we need to implement in order to manage a pandemic," wrote Professors Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach and Stefan Elbe in a recent blog entitled Pandemic Flu Controversies: What have we learned? for the Huffington Post.

Scoones, Leach and Elbe argue that a better understanding of the social, political, institutional and policy dimensions of pandemic control and preparedness planning can help us deal more effectively with new outbreaks.

A recent workshop attended by 50 top pandemic flu experts explored lessons learned from past outbreaks about how the complex controversies surrounding pandemics and preparedness plans could be diminished or even avoided.

The best possible evidence for policies, being open about unclear evidence, insistence on transparency, the inclusion of diverse sources and forms of cross-disciplinary and local knowledge and expertise, and ensuring that risk communication remains measured and proportionate, to avoid backfiring warnings, were among the recommendations.

As the current avian flu crisis in China is revealing, an approach that includes new ways of working and new organizational mechanisms for assuring global health is urgently needed.

A recently-published briefing, Zoonoses: From Panic to Planning, from the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium sets out recommendations for a new, integrated 'One Health' approach to zoonoses (animal-to-human diseases) which moves away from top-down disease-focused interventions to putting people first, advocating collaboration between disciplines and between local, national and global scales.

The STEPS Centre has been working on pandemic flu for several years and a range of resources on the website might be useful to explore this subject, including film and video, papers, briefings and books.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.
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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Mike Hulme on planetary boundaries and other metaphors

Spaceship Earth? Photo: NCC-1701-A
by tram_painter on Flickr (cc-by-nc-nd)
Prof Mike Hulme has a thoughtful post on the UEA's 3S blog today on how metaphors affect the way we think (about science and other things), reflecting on a recent talk by Johan Rockström packed with imagery about planetary boundaries, tipping points and other engaging ideas.

Prof Rockström will be coming to Sussex University on 16 May to speak about planetary boundaries and Sustainable Development Goals - part of our Spring mini-series of lectures and debates.

Prof Hulme writes:
"Metaphors abandon the pretence that we can describe things as ‘they truly are’ from a God’s-eye point of view.  Rather, they concede that we can only see the world around us and inside us from a human-eye view.  Consequently, metaphors are never innocent.

...This is as true of our understanding of the planet as it is of our own bodies.  Is the Earth a spaceship to be steered (by us?) on a journey, an Earth mother with whom we must bond or, as in the case of planetary boundaries, a dashboard with dials to be managed so that the indicators are kept out of the red zone?"
You can read the full post on the 3S blog.

(Related: my colleague Julia Day wrote a summary of the debate a few weeks ago between Melissa Leach, Robert Pielke Jr. and Victor Galaz on what the framing devices of planetary boundaries and the 'Anthropocene' might mean for democratic decision-making.

I've also blogged before about research from the USA suggesting how medical metaphors might affect decision-making in crime policy.)

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing. Read more