NIES Research Symposium VII
Environmentalism, Spatiality and the Public Sphere
Oslo, Norway, September 27–30, 2012
Lawrence Buell, Harvard University, author of The Environmental Imagination (1995), Writing for an Endangered World (2001) and The Uses and Abuses of Environmental Memory (forthcoming)
David Nye, Odense University, author of American Technological Sublime (1994), Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (1997), and America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (2003)
Edward Soja*, UCLA, author of Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (1996), Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (2000) and Seeking Spatial Justice (2010)
The rise of environmental studies across different disciplines in the natural and social sciences, and more recently the humanities, is an acknowledgment that nature, as material and biological force, plays a larger and more fundamental role in human history and society than often previously acknowledged. By addressing the dimensions of spatiality in human experience, environmental studies has the potential to go beyond the emphasis on externalities often signaled by the term “environment” (i.e. the understanding of the surround as merely conditional, a circumstance that must be responded to, managed and overcome), to arrive at new insights regarding how the environment (as expressed, for instance, in social practices, belief systems and modes of living) helps us to reconceive / reinterpret what it means to be human.
At the same time, and despite what we might see as a deepening academic discourse in environmental studies, environmentalism both as a socio-cultural movement and as a set of policy options seems to have lost its forward momentum in the past 20-30 years. Schellenberger and Nordhaus’s provocative study “The Death of Environmentalism” (2005) calls into question both the scope and strategic merit of contemporary environmental discourse. As any problem of knowledge is also a problem of audience, there remains the question of how environmentalism might better construct, address, or include various publics, and to what extent, if at all, environmental studies in the academy can help facilitate that process.
The end of substantive environmental reformism in the USA during the 1980s, for instance, reflected the growing insignificance of national politics and national culture as instruments of political reform. Environmentalism and the environmental movement must now respond to the terms of the real global economy in light of an evolving understanding of the interdependence of human societies and natural ecosystems, amidst mounting evidence of global climate change. The question now confronting environmental activists, and indeed environmental studies scholars/researchers, is whom their work and efforts should seek to engage, and in what ways they should/can address various actors that constitute publics. In both of these questions matters of space and place are pertinent, indeed essential, in defining the boundaries of publics (as polities, communities and indeed audiences) and in asserting discursive and political priorities. This has particular importance in light of the ever more prominent integration of environmental discourses in the media sphere, where contested environmental/ist images and narratives have become a commonplace.
A common spatial starting-point in environmentalism holds that local place and global space must have priority. In this perspective, environmentalism is an ideational system of concepts, values, beliefs and world views resting on sensibilities of place and the earth as a common life space. Such a standpoint has implications regarding where relevant publics lie and how to address them. At the same time efforts to more broadly conceive of the public sphere have presented problems that reveal lost opportunities. For example, turn-of-the-20th-century conceptions oriented toward recollecting a “usable past” as the means of achieving a common memory could be appropriated for nationalistic purposes contrary to an environmentalist ethic and spirit or they could be activated to forward environmentalist ends. The long prevalent environmentalist sensibility toward place may also fit uncomfortably with a world in which goods and people are increasingly mobile. On the other hand, contemporary western political discourse (mired in an unproductive political discussion between clumsy, lock-step “globalization” and idealized nationalistic localisms) may still yet provide a useful entry point for a reconstituted or reinvigorated environmentalism in line with 21st century political realities and material conditions / ecological circumstances.
We invite contributions from scholars in all fields that address the spatial dynamics of environmental political concerns in relation to the public sphere. We are particularly interested in papers that address one or more of the following themes:
• Discourses of globality or globalization and regionalization
• Discourses of place and space
• Marginality v. centrality
• Productions of locality and questions of scale: city, region, nation
• Nature, space and the Sacred
• Space, place and nature in religious traditions and new religiosities
• Conceiving/re-conceiving the public through space, landscape or place
• Economic inequalities, resource exhaustion and place identity
• Urbanization and de-urbanization
• Rural decline / transformations
• Conceiving space and place in the climate change discourse
• Media iconographies and master narratives of environmentalism and/or environmental issues
• Public space and/or (natural) commons