By Dylan McGarry
Dylan McGarry recently participated in two very exciting meetings in the UK exploring environmental Justice and conflict transformation, just two weeks after the TKN meeting in Delhi. Spending more time with out sister network ACKNOWL-EJ and the Global Environmental Justice Group, has been really insightful in what the wider research agenda in transformation is starting to look like, here are some short reflections he has had after this journey.
A new word for justice
“We need a new word for Justice” sighs Rupert… “Justice oftentimes excludes ecology, nature and non human-beings. Most forms of ‘justice’ is aligned with development, there is a major political bias in ‘justice’… We have to be careful to not privilege justice over care, and care practices….
Leah responds: “I agree, but sometimes there is such a urgent and blatant absence of care, that justice emerges over care, out of necessity …”
Rupert spends some time ruminating until he replies: “Let me put it this way: Does a mother consider justice or care when raising her children? … I would argue she relies on care, not justice”
… touché I think, a mother’s actions are surely based on care not justice, and our actions towards the environment should be in this primacy of care, until Leah extends the metaphor:
“… what happens if our hypothetical mother has 30 children to nurture, lead and educate? Under the pressures to keep the peace, manage all diverse children at once, would her care give way to justice?”
These questions, and this plea for a new language in environmental justice and beyond justice, became a constant theme in a ‘think-tank’ that was later affectionately referred to as the ‘drink-tank’ (thanks to Ashish Khotari), as the meeting took place in a cozy room beside a typical English pub. The tank was hosted by the Global Environmental Justice Group, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich UK.
Rupert Read mentioned above is a reader in Philosophy at UEA, who examines ‘post growth localization’ and is an active member of the Green Party. Leah Temper is an ecological economist and environmental justice researcher/activist who co-established the Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org) and leads the ACKNOWL-EJ transformative knowledge network, essentially the sister Transformative Knowledge Network (TKN) network to our ‘t-learning’ commons.
Leah and Rupert were two of many other extraordinary voices in the tank, traveling from Lebanon, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, Costa Rica, India, South Africa, U.K., USA and Turkey. Despite this intimate global village of bright souls we didn’t quite find a new word for justice. A tall order in two days, however Dimitris Stevis from the Colorado State University did offer: “Just transitions”, which he explores in his fascinating paper “Green Transitions, Just Transitions? Broadening and Deepening Justice.”
While we let the new words dwell on the tip of our tongues, what we did agree on is that ethics of care needs to methodologically and pedagogically fleshed out and explored. Leah refers to this process as ‘political rigor’, and we are currently working on a collaborative paper around these questions.
Between the t-learning, the greater TKN and the think tank discussions there seems to be a collective conscious call for new language and methods that allow us to push beyond the traditional orthodoxies of research. Those that hinder our capacities to intervene, for the common good and move beyond the regimented-static-world of obsessive scientific objectivity. As Dimitri quoted one of his friends: “I’m an objective researcher, but I’m not neutral”. What does this mean for researchers who are activists; who are mercurial beings that are intentionally aim to change oppressive systems for the common good?
The displacement of justice
Two weeks prior to our submersion into the thinking drinking tank, we found ourselves carrying similar questions through the thick orange smog of New Delhi, at the Transformations to Sustainability, Transformative Knowledge Network meeting. The meeting was interrupted by a stream of Trump news splashed across our screens, a grinning winner of some absurd reality TV show that is 21st century democracy. Outside we saw families on motorcycles with their customized colourful dust masks to breathe through the smog, and the front page of the newspaper revealed images of a two meter thick toxic industrial foam clogging the nearby river: considering this it was abruptly evident that a new kind of justice and care was needed in the height of the anthropocene (or should I say the ‘Capitalocene’ or perhaps just simply obscene). Our screens were so occupied with Trump that it took a few days for the World Economic Forum report on Climate Change to surface. Revealing that climate change is seen as the biggest potential threat to the global economy in 2016, according to a survey of 750 experts.
In the height and wake of these crazy days, what struck me most is something Leah spoke of in both meetings, the ‘displacement of justice’. Where sustainability processes and ‘transformations’ are often times movements that shift the status quo, while seemingly sustainable are merely an old form of oppression and colonization wrapped up in a shiny new ‘de-colonized’ disguise. We explored how sustainability can fall into the trap of reforming an already broken or failed system and not a transforming the system itself.
Conflict emerges in depths of environmental justice movements, and usually the reformation of the system is a product of how uncomfortable we are with conflict, in our eagerness to resolve it, we fall into the trap of reforming, instead of transforming the status quo. Iokiñe Rodriquez (Venezuela/UK) and Franklin Paniagua (Costa Rica/USA) sifted out the transformative power of conflict, where conflict is aspirational and potentially positive. Conflict opens up spaces for inter inter-culturality (bridging cultures), and our conversations progressed to explore the powerful relationship or spectrum of emotions we feel within environmental justice processes, particularly the circular spiral of indifference-empathy-indignation-anger, and the role these emotions play in transforming conflict and helping us avoid reformation and resolution. What is interesting for the t-learning research I feel, is examining conflict transformation processes, and aligning this to our work with ‘optimal disruptive’ processes that is emerging in some of our case studies.
Confluence of Alternatives– “Vikalp Sangam”
One such powerful disruptive process within conflict transformation is the expression and development of alternatives that emerge from communities and from the process of resistance. Kalpavriksh in India (www.kalpavriksh.org) have developed a really beautiful and comprehensive “alternatives framework” from their work with the Vikalp Sangam (www.vikalpsangam.org), or the ‘Confluence of Alternatives’ with communities (you must check out their amazing website, such a powerful resource). The Vikalp Sangam is a powerful social learning, and potentially transgressive learning movement, that we should definitely investigate further. Getting back to the Alternatives Framework: It brings together political, ecological, cultural, economic and spiritual/worldview elements in assessing if an alternative is transformative or not. This would be something really useful for our work in developing indicators for t-learning, and to also consider when are alternatives transformative and when are they transgressive?
Epistemic violence and the De-colonial movement
The think tank began to bubble and boil with a heated discussion around who gets to identify as the “de-colonizers” and why? This is particularly sensitive for Palestinian researchers in the group who are currently politically occupied. This very literal occupation of their land and natural world drives a very particular de-colonial movement, with a very unique identity, that resonates and echoes the occupation of indigenous communities.
A big question emergent in the think tank is: can projects from previously colonizing countries such as the UK for example adopt the ‘de-colonizing’ identity? (where they see themselves as decolonizing from capitalist imperialism and therefore see their movements joining the fray of de-colonizing global-south and indigenous communities who are leading the ‘de-colonial’ movement). Can this adoption by the north be in itself another form of colonization and epistemic violence? Does other Environmental justice movements that consider themselves de-colonial when they are not indigenous, previously colonized or currently occupied dilute the de-colonial movement? Or as Leah asked the provocative question: is it important to join these movements to the meta de-colonization that Habemas’s calls “the colonization of the life world”? Do we have to all ‘un-learn’ our enculturation into capitalist imperialism? Is this the same fight, and how do we maintain the nuance of these de-colonial identities.
A clear danger or area of caution highlighted by Rania Masri form Lebanon (which re-directed this steamy discussion) is: “who gets to dominate and colonize knowledge emerging from the de-colonial movement?” There are very clear emergent networks of resistance and contentions of power and where they come from, is very important. Through this process of what Martha Chaves referred to in the Delhi meeting as: “resistance transforming into re-existence” can create new histories and a ‘re-imagined historical memory’ (Neil Coppen, 2011). Is there something to be said about decolonizing our imaginaries, internal occupation and the nested internal layers of colonialism in individuals, in institutions and in the state… as Leah put it: like Russian babooshka dolls, nested within each other.
Is this ‘claiming or reclaiming’, ‘resisting and re-existing’ also a process of establishing an inner and relational autonomy, within solidarity? Sometimes indigenous communities for example may adopt a colonial historical identify that does not align with the de-colonial movement, and it is their freedom to choose outside narratives as their own if they wish? Does this mean non-indigenous communities could do the reverse?
While indigenous communities might be fighting colonialism within their communities, Neema Pathak Broome from India raised the issue that there are other forms of oppression such as indigenous or local forms of patriarchy for example, that is also trying to express itself and needs to be disrupted. These nuanced nested realities of oppression within movements that are fighting outside forms of oppression, needs to be understood in our transgressive learning research, and something that would be very interesting for Million, Injairu, Sibongile’s and my own work.
Localism & Dwelling
Another interesting discussion around post growth local movements emerged, that examined transforming communities and local economic and political systems through localism, and other transformative processes. It made me think of the work in embodied ecological citizenship (Reid & Taylor, 2000), and how there is a huge danger for localism processes to be just another reformation and not true transformation. Where local projects become merely micro realities of the larger broken system. There were some beautiful discussions around the need for massive paradigm shifts, and ways of being in and being with natural systems, and new social systems. Also within working in the space of politics from the inside out. I also explored in this conversation the power of dwelling and embodiment in the place you live, and the role phenomenological transgressive learning could have in creating truly transformative localism.
Worldviews and reframing the narrative
A really big part of the discussions was the power of worldviews, transforming narratives, and shifting historical memory. Here Leah and I discussed the idea of Researcher as storyteller or myth-debunker and/or myth-maker? The creation of worldviews and re-framing the narrative (as we refer to it in the t-learning commons) is vital in transgression and transformation. Processes of re-framing narratives and creating meaningful worldviews are in themselves powerful disruptive, where as Martha’s quoted in Delhi the indigenous image of progress is to walk backwards, always drawing from their ancestors lessons. There was a strong consensus toward prioritizing worldview development in our research networks, and the Indian team raised how important thi sprocess in creating alternatives and also driving conflict transformation.
The spiral spectrum of transgressive emotions
Just before coming to this meeting I read a fascinating paper critiquing the role of empathy in moral development, and something emerged from this meeting raised by Franklin Paniagua (Costa Rica) when he brought us back to the role of inner personal feelings as well as relational feelings that drive transformative and transgressive change. Both in the paper, and in my personal discussions with Franklin, we felt that there is a clear cyclical spectrum of emotions that drive agency, and can drive transgressive acts, and could be vital in understanding t-learning. There is a cyclical spectrum of indifference-indignation-anger-outrage that can transform to empathy and compassion. I am curious to explore these further and to see what it means to value these equally, and understand the role of what traditionally ‘negative’ feelings play in driving t-learning and transgressive transformation.
Some really exciting discussions emerged around wild jurisprudence, earth democracy, rights of nature and the Universal Declaration for the rights of Mother Earth. Of particular interest to the big questions around t-learning and scale, is the work of Saskia Vermeylen (Scotland) where as environmental lawyers/researchers they are attempting to disrupt legal systems to move beyond language and written law which is a powerful dominating force in current legal action, and move towards embodied plural forms of knowledge and genres used to embody laws, such as Dance, music, folklore, fables and “sacredness” as a new concept that could trump concepts such as ‘legal’ and ‘lawful’. There were some beautiful examples connected to Saskia’s work as a lawyer with the Xam! Bushman and hoodia bio-piracy, as well as up coming research in India and Mali. The Haig is creating an environmental justice space, and an international environment court that tries cases that violate the rights of nature, and this would be an interesting area to explore transgressive learning within law. Legal education and transformation is something that should be considered in the t-learning group, what forms of transgressive learning could emerge in legal education.
Emergent Research Areas
I think there could be some really exciting collaborations with some of our researchers and the researchers in the Global Environmental Justice Group. This meeting was also the first brainstorming meeting to see what form this group could develop into, and could possible become a Centre or research commons, that would be a very strong ally and sister organization in the coming future for many of the different groups within the t-learning family. Four major research areas emerged from the think tank that could be useful for the t-learning group to connect with:
- Re-framing (worldviews, social-ecological re-framing, re-framing conflict transformation and justice, debating natures value, and rights for nature).
- Education & Capacity Building (pedagogies for transformation, decolonial pedagogies, Black lives matter and environmental justice links)
- Cross-learning for action (case studies? not sure I understood this one)
- Confluences/confluencia/ Vikulp Sangam: Alternatives and conflict transformation.
It was extraordinary to be immersed in a group of people working in this field of environmental justice and conflict transformation, to be in this think-in, drink-in, dreaming space with people from South, North and Central America, from Western and Southern Asia, Africa and Europe. Despite such regionally specific projects some clear commonalities emerged, and I was utterly inspired by the event.
I also had the privilege of staying on for another two days to sit in on the ACKNOWL-EJ group meeting, and their work around further developing their theory of change. It was really fascinating, and to see their work on power analysis, and the very interesting insights emerging from conflict transformation. There were also very exciting discussions for a theory of change in academia and ways in which we could utilize the larger TKN network in developing a strategic transformative process to change academia’s role in shifting worldviews around earth democracy and other vital areas needed for true transgressive and transformative change.
We certainly need a new word for justice, and I think if there is a group that might help us find it, it would be this profound group of people I have met, now they just need to meet the t-learning family, we could make magic. I really look forward to seeing our two networks grow together.