By Ian Scoones, Director of the STEPS Centre
This week we are hosting a major conference at the STEPS Centre at Sussex on resource politics. There are panels looking at everything from mining to wildlife to carbon to water, with big themes cross-cutting on: Scarcity, politics and securitization; Resource grabbing; Governance, elites, citizenship and democracy; Financialisation and markets; Growth, waste and consumption and Gender, race, class and sustainability
Why is this important? As resources become more contested and incorporated as part of a globalised economy, politics take on a new form. We have seen this in the land, water and green grabbing debates, which provide the backdrop to the conference. The resource grabbing debates have each raised important issues around who gains from what resources, and how resources are constructed, regulated and shared, as we discuss in our ‘narratives of scarcity’ paper that will be presented at the conference.
Also at the conference, we will be debating the much talked about concept of the Anthropocene, and the notion of ‘planetary boundaries’, with Johan Rockstrom and Melissa Leach taking the stage to present their perspectives. These ideas have put the politics of resources at the centre of the debate, and the controversy generated has not been seen since the discussions around the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report.
Some argue that these concepts down-play politics, constructed as they are in the register of science. Yet at the same time, they also imply a top-down, authoritarian response, and particularly problematic form of undemocratic resource politics to ‘save the planet’ against impending doom. The return of Malthusian narratives of population catastrophe, ‘perfect storms’ and resource wars is significant but, as in previous renditions, problematic. Such rhetoric can easily be deployed to justify appropriation of resources, and imposition of rules, regulations and market mechanisms that hurt local livelihoods, but not the global capitalist system that generates the problems in the first place.
Others however suggest that the Anthropocene framing and the concept of planetary boundaries offers a more emancipatory vision, connecting not separating nature and humanity, and offering the opportunity for the negotiation of a new more symmetrical political bargain for the planet. This requires not rejecting the ideas but claiming them, and injecting them with a new form of democratic politics that simultaneously respects nature and its limits, as well as puts people, social justice, equity and livelihoods at the core. This doesn’t need an old politics of environmental summitry and global regulation, but, in the words of Chantal Mouffe, a vibrant agonistic politics, part of what Nancy Fraser terms a ‘triple movement’ – neither state protection nor market dominance.
So what do we mean by resource politics? If we understand resources to be not just ‘things’, but created, assembled and constructed in social and political worlds, then we must see resources and their politics as located within particular knowledge frames, and in contextualised political economies – of particular places, and involving certain people. A bit of carbon here, is different to a bit there – just as all resources – because of the social, market, cultural, political and other connections made. Resource scarcity, as Lyla Mehta argues, is inevitably constructed and relational. My scarcity may be the result of someone else’s abundance, and what I see as scarce may not be seen in the same way by others.
Resource politics is therefore about knowledge, about social and political relations and about contests over meaning and access. It is the agonistic hybrid politics of Chantal Mouffe, cutting across state, market and civic spaces, creating an emancipatory politics of transformation, as Andy Stirling argues. It is not therefore the formal, institutionalised politics of global agreements, elections and international relations – although of course all these spaces can become important sites for contest and radical politics, as Catherine Corson argues. As Nancy Peluso and Mike Watts explain in a great chapter in the excellent ‘keywords’ book, Critical Environmental Politics, understanding resource politics requires understanding regimes of accumulation (who gets what – the classic concerns of Marxist political economy), regimes of truth (who understands what in what frame – drawing in Foucauldian analyses of knowledge and power), and regimes of rule (who controls what through what form of governance – Gramsci’s concern with hegemony). Each of these regimes intersects of course, and together make up resource politics.
Understanding resource politics inevitably then requires a diversity of disciplines, connecting natural and social sciences, and importantly across the siloes of social science. At the conference we have people coming from development studies, geography, science and technology studies, international relations, security studies, social anthropology and sociology, politics and political economy, and many with backgrounds in biology, engineering, physics, psychology, information technology and so on. With this mix, the conversation becomes vibrant and challenging – just what we hope to encourage at the STEPS Centre.
If you want to learn more, check out the conference website where there will be papers, presentations and other material. After the conference there will be videos of key sessions, photos and a Storify commentary. If you want to catch the buzz live – starting in a few hours – then follow the conference on Twitter with the hashtag #resourcepol.