Nathan Oxley

Nathan Oxley

Impact, Communications and Engagement Officer

Nathan contributes to the impact, communications and engagement work of the STEPS Centre. He is also a web editor for the Future Agricultures Consortium. He has worked for a specialist communications agency on sustainable development, and as a web editor for a national charity in the UK.

  • IPCC: should climate change debates be more political?

    Published on 31 March 2014


    The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, focusing on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, makes sobering reading. But it also situates climate change among a range of other challenges and uncertainties faced by society, especially poor people.

    IPCC reports always provoke a discussion about trust in climate science. But they should also make us look at the political choices in responding to climate change – choices which cannot be settled by focusing on the science alone. Responding to climate change, as with many other problems where humans and nature interact, involves making decisions on the basis of incomplete knowledge. But politics and uncertainty are an uneasy mix.

    The journalist Fred Pearce, a member of the STEPS Centre’s advisory committee, wrote last week in response to a draft of the IPCC report, noting that this time around, the authors are ‘more wary’ of making specific predictions of local impacts.


  • Food Sovereignty: a Critical Dialogue

    Published on 21 January 2014

    food sovereigntyOn 24 January 2014, the event ‘Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue’ will bring together sceptics and advocates of food sovereignty to discuss the future of this controversial idea in critical agrarian studies.

    Ian Scoones will be chairing the opening keynote session of this event, held at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Video from the event will be streamed live on the ISS website.


    The opening session includes a keynote address from Elizabeth Mpofu (Via Campesina), and contributions from Susan George (Transnational Institute), Olivier de Schutter (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food), Teodor Shanin (Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences) and Tania Li (University of Toronto).

    Other speakers include leading scholars and activists including Marc Edelman, Philip McMichael, Annette Desmarais, Jennifer Clapp, Peter Rosset, Eric Holt-Gimenez, Sophia Murphy, Phil Woodhouse, John Hilary, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Wendy Wolford, Sofia Monsalve and Nora McKeon. (more…)

  • Why we should embrace different stories in sustainability

    Published on 22 November 2013


    How can critical views of ‘stories’ help in seeking pathways to sustainability?

    I’ve recently got back from the Communicate conference where I talked about stories using examples from the STEPS Centre’s projects (see previous post). The conference strapline was “Stories for Change”, which taps into a growing awareness of the competing stories we tell ourselves – and each other – about people and nature. (more…)

  • Big stories, little stories

    Published on 14 November 2013

    This is the (slightly edited) text of my talk at Communicate 2013, in a session called “liberating stories”. The pictures are some of the slides I used. The brief was to provide some suggestions about the role of the social sciences in ‘liberating stories’ for environmental communicators, through memorable examples. I only had 10 minutes so had to simplify a lot of things, but I’ve provided links in the text below, which you can follow to read about the proper, full description of the research and its findings.

    We use big stories to make sense of a world that is increasingly complex and changing very fast and where everything seems to be chaotic. The climate’s changing, we need to feed more people than ever, demand for electricity is growing massively.  And I think sometimes big stories are used to reassure people that someone’s in charge.

    So we’re told we need to ‘tackle climate change’ by giving huge areas of land over to biofuels, or that questioning GM crops is ‘anti-science’ or ‘anti-progress’, or that large-scale industrial agriculture is the way to feed the world, and so on, and so on, and so on. There is a certain type of powerful story that likes you to think that it’s not a story at all.

    When we hear these big stories being repeated as fact, when sustainability is just presented as a technical issue, or a scientific problem to be solved by experts, I think a massive alarm bell should ring. A sustainability klaxon, if you like. (more…)

  • The Water Cookbook: Bhagwati Prasad’s strange and beautiful illustrations from peri-urban Delhi

    Published on 29 October 2013


    I’ve just come across a copy of The Water Cookbook which I was given by Lyla Mehta, produced by part of our project looking at water conflicts in peri-urban Delhi. It’s an amazing set of illustrations by Bhagwati Prasad of the Delhi-based research centre Sarai programme, which uses art and media to respond to and discuss urbanization.

    (Edit: the book is available to download free as a PDF. Thanks, Shilpi!) (more…)

  • Where branding and sustainability collide

    Published on 23 October 2013

    By Nathan Oxley, Communications Officer, STEPS Centre

    Peace Parks sound lovely, don’t they? I mean, who would be against the idea of creating a nature reserve across national borders to promote co-operation, development and conservation?

    Sign with picture of tortoise and caption saying "Caution"

    Sign in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa

    Bram Büscher (Institute of Social Studies), who gave a STEPS Centre Seminar last week, has been delving into the reality of this global phenomenon, focusing on a series of parks in Southern Africa (he also has a book just out). The basic idea is that you designate a zone across a national boundary (say, South Africa and Lesotho), and put particular effort into nature conservation, community development and tourism in those areas, building links between the countries. For example, the World Cup in 2010 was a golden opportunity for transboundary parks in Southern Africa to be promoted to a global audience – encouraging travel around the whole region.

    Despite the good intentions and effort involved, Büscher’s talk showed some of the difficulties of making such projects work for local people. There were a lot of ideas and interesting anecdotes in the talk which I won’t go into – the full audio on the event page is well worth a listen. But a couple of things leapt out at me.

    Where interests clash

    Throughout the whole story, there is the difficulty of doing conservation and community development at the same time – organising meetings with local people, whose own life experiences – sometimes traumatic or difficult – often intrude into the best-planned agendas.

    Local people also don’t always want the golf courses or other ‘developments’ offered by planners; or they might already use the land in ways that clash with the ideas of conservation embedded in the project.


    Büscher also offered a nicely-expressed summary of various types of ‘antipolitics’, which he defined as “constructing reality such that it seems not to be debatable but ‘taken for granted’ or the ‘logical choice’”. Beyond the particular scenario of Peace Parks, this idea is uncomfortably familiar, even among well-meaning promoters of ‘sustainable’ solutions and futures who present their agenda as a ‘no-brainer’.

    In his talk, Büscher gave two striking examples of antipolitics. First, plans and ‘grids’ (extensive tables in planning documents) are used instrumentally to iron out differences. You can see why this might be desirable, from the project manager’s point of view. The second example is the use of participatory processes. There are cases (though not always) where the ‘inclusion’ begins and ends with a participatory meeting or two.

    Marketing and the ‘win-win’

    Peace Parks claim to offer a ‘win-win’: one of these wins being for the local people, who are promised better economic links, and another for the plants and animals in the area. Other ‘wins’, like tourism and diplomatic relations, also come into it. You might expect some conflict and contestation between these things.

    But even when the planners of the projects Büscher looked at were aware of these conflicts, it sometimes appeared that their response was to take refuge in grand promises and marketing discourse. It’s not that conflict is ignored – rather, it’s swept up in the marketing exercise which promises to address it.

    Getting swept up in the brand

    Beyond Peace Parks, what does this mean for marketing and sustainability in general? I’m going to offer an idea of how this could work in any big project with a grand plan to change the world. Here’s what can happen: the brand pushes in two directions, internal and external.

    • Internal: the ‘brand’ and the ‘story’ is internalised (it becomes more real, as an idealised vision, for the project’s partners than whatever’s happening on the ground)
    • External: the brand and messages are marketed to the outside world and take on a life of their own, beyond the project’s direct control, as they are taken up and responded to by different audiences. We are in the realm of public expectation, media coverage, even (perhaps) public protest and resistance, and so on.

    For anyone involved in the interface between branding and sustainability, this is a cautionary tale. In my limited experience of that world, this is a known problem, even if it’s not expressed in this way. Branding agencies that take sustainability seriously are – to greater or lesser extents – aware of the possibility of getting swept up in the grand narrative, and take action to mitigate against them. For example, they might emphasise the importance of honesty in a project and make extra efforts to keep in touch with what is happening on the ground.

    Ambition and excitement, so important in big projects, is hard to control. Ironically perhaps, I think this is a particular problem for so-called ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ ventures – especially in tourism and other land-based ventures.  But anyone involved in creative communications about sustainability should know the risks here. There are plenty of examples where this has gone wrong, despite good intentions.

    Abandoned ticket office, Earth Centre

    The abandoned ticket office at the Earth Centre, UK

    Big stories and little stories

    What about the rest of us? Grand narratives are all around us like an invisible web. Of course we use stories to make sense of the world, it’s part of being human. One way to deal with this is to shine light on the stories themselves, to dismantle them and refashion them.

    Also – to put it simplistically – there are big stories and little stories. People on the margins – what they want, and the different possible futures they see for themselves – are as deserving of our attention as the grand narratives that shape our lives.

    Images: Watch out for tortoises by wildlifewanderer on Flickr / Earth Centre ticket office from

  • Good & evil: two articles on closing down the debate on GM crops

    Published on 15 October 2013

    goldenriceIs it right to call opponents of GM crops ‘wicked’? In a recent interview, Owen Paterson denounced in starkly moralistic language people whom he sees as holding up progress on Golden Rice and other genetically modified foods.

    In a piece for the Guardian’s Political Science blog, Andy Stirling argues in defence of scepticism and democracy in science.

    “The issues go far beyond GM. What lies at threat more broadly, are both science and democracy – and their crucial interdependencies. [...]

    Rationality is not a kind of fairy dust that rubs off simply by invoking ‘science’. And science itself is not a cargo cult, magicking into being single self-evident ‘solutions’ that brook no question. The real issues are about choices – both within and beyond science-based innovations. And as any real respect for science must show, the most important factors to explore will always be uncertainty and ambiguity. Here, the greatest assets are scepticism and democracy.

    Choices between technologies are not about ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whatever the loudest voices assert uncompromisingly as ‘progress’.”

    Meanwhile, in a piece for the New Humanist blog, I’ve suggested that the rhetoric may close down important debates on how food is produced and consumed.


    “Are you in favour of “rolling out” GM crops, or do you want little children in Bangladesh to die? In an interview for the Independent, Owen Paterson, the UK Environment Secretary, has called opponents of GM technology “wicked”, and accused them of “casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world”.

    […] If you join the dots in the way Paterson has done, it’s almost impossible to see GM as anything other than a battleground for the life and death of the world’s poor, with Paterson on the side of the angels; and anyone who questions this narrative with feet firmly planted among the infernal legions of Satan himself.”

    Read the full posts here:

    Photo: Golden Rice grain compared to white rice (3)-19 by ricephotos on Flickr

  • Framing impact: a simple word for a complex beast

    Published on 8 October 2013

    car with crash test dummy

    What is this thing called “impact”? More specifically, what are we talking about when we speak of the non-academic impact of research? In this post I want to explore some of the possible answers to this question, which I’ve been looking at as part of a forthcoming working paper on the ESRC STEPS Centre’s approach to impact. I also want to step back to ask a related, but wider question: how does the idea of impact affect the way that researchers and communicators think about how change happens?


  • How was a ‘policy space’ created for pastoralism in Kenya?

    Published on 9 September 2013

    Pastoralism in Kenya has long been neglected and understood. Pastoralists have been seen by some as vulnerable, a source of conflict and a drain on the country’s resources. But recent developments have begun to change that narrative.

    A new government Ministry, the Ministry of Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands, was formed in 2008. It aimed to create policy and institutional change, refocusing resources to support pastoralists and the areas in which they live and work.

    A new Future Agricultures Working Paper by Izzy Birch and Mohamed Elmi tells the story of the Ministry and the circumstances that led to its creation. The authors suggest that a ‘policy space’ has been opened up, enabling new opportunities, relationships and directions for the region. They also examine what progress has been made and what the future might hold for pastoral development in the country.

    In the video embedded above, the authors explain the story in a seminar recorded in May 2013.

    Further reading: Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins

    (Image: Garissa cattle market, Kenya by USAID on Flickr)

    This article was originally posted on The Crossing.

  • Against ‘monocultures’ in agriculture and knowledge

    Published on 4 September 2013

    Faced with the undeniable fact of hunger in developing countries, ‘sustainable intensification’ has been claimed as a science-led solution to food security. In an article for SciDev.Net, Prof Brian Wynne (Lancaster University) and Georgina Catacora (GenØk) tear strips off the large-scale industrial model of agriculture that is supposed to feed the world, and the narrow visions of science that underlie it.

    Science is used as an ideological tool to promote some technologies (such as GM) while neglecting others. In some cases, the social impacts of industrial agriculture (displacement, land grabbing etc) are left out of the equation; in others, diverse approaches are simply ignored, and food security is seen simply as a technical issue of production.

    The challenge of highlighting alternative pathways in agriculture is no small one. Huge financial interests are invested in pursuing intensive industrial agriculture at the expense of small-scale farming. Opponents are accused of being anti-science and romanticising poverty. But a narrow industrial technical view of science does no justice to the variety of scientific and social approaches to feeding the world and supporting farmers’ livelihoods.

    This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.