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Talk in Paris: Provocations on how ‘environmental stewardship’ is used

Talk in Paris: Provocations on how ‘environmental stewardship’ is used

On 30 September Henrik Ernstson will give a talk at a seminar in Paris on environmental stewardship. Invited  by Nathali Blanc at LADYSS Université Paris-Diderot, he reflects below on how the talk aims to critique the use of ‘stewardship’, paying particular attention to how it ‘travels’ to the global South. The talk is based on a social network survey and a longer-term ethnographic study in Cape Town. 



Urban stewardship and urban policies: cross-regards between cultures
Le 30 septembre 2015,
Université Paris Diderot, salle 870. 14h

Lieu : Salle 870, Université Paris-Diderot, Bâtiment Olympe de Gouges, rue Einstein, 75013 Paris, métro Bibliothèque François Mitterrand (RER C / Ligne 14), Tramway ligne 3 Avenue de France
Contacts: Thomoas Lamarche


“If I speak from Cape Town: What happens when ‘environmental stewardship ’travels the world? On knowledge politics, activism and governmentality”

by Henrik Ernstson, KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory, KTH Royal Institute of Technology African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

My intention with this paper is to present two provocations on how we think and treat “environmental stewardship”.

The first provocation is that the term might be too narrow in capturing all those social groups that are of interest in understanding how the social and ecological are interrelated in urban areas. Departing from an emerging trend to study “environmental stewardship” using social network analysis in US cities (Dana Fisher et al), I contrast their studies with my research group’s network survey of 129 organisations in Cape Town. Based on this empirical base, I demonstrate that a narrow “environmentalist” focus downplays both the number of organisations that engage in ‘green’ spaces and fundamental networked processes of social mobilisation.

The second provocation is that the broader use of “stewardship” in environmental studies, which carries an explicit normative connotation and with its origin mainly from global North institutions and contexts, might work to diminish important dimensions of what those we are studying are up to. Based on ethnographic work in Cape Town, a deeply unequal city with legacies of colonisation and racist town planning during apartheid, activists are acutely aware how ‘nature’ and the ‘environment’ is connected to elitism, elite spaces, and elite or expert professions. The notion of “stewardship” or “environmental champions”, which is frequently used by NGOs, State authorities and researchers alike, might depoliticise how environmental issues are connected to deeper issues of social change, equality and democracy.

In connecting to wider discussions, I mean that a particular governmentality—or environmentality—has emerged during the last 5-10 years that has developed a specific practice of governing in which ‘stewardship’ is used as a way of depoliticising what ‘green’ and environmental matters can be about. Although ‘stewardship’ and ‘steward’ has been used by indigenous groups, and in environmental justice discourse, I mean that we should be cautious and pay attention how it travels and changes in the current moment of ecological crisis. There is a great risk that it works as a narrow conceptualisation of those people and groups that engage in ‘green’ issues, one in which they become casted by researchers, policy makers and in co-managament arenas as ‘stewards’ in order to separate deeply political issues from the environment. Longer-term ethnographic research can instead show how their motivation for mobilising and engaging in so called ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ issues lies rather in trying to change social power relations, for instance to work against an apartheid racist planned city and an ‘environmentalism’ that don’t recognise their perspectives and ways of knowing. To then call them ‘stewards’ seems like an act of power to make them come across, and also think of themselves in non-political terms.

Both provocations serve towards a reflection on our practice of environmental science and contributes to theoretical discussions on environmental stewardship where the context of the global South is a crucial ‘testing point’ to interrogate how scientific concepts ‘travel’ and the knowledge politics they give rise to when they face new contexts.

The paper is part of the Socioecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems (MOVE) project and was also discussed at a conference in University of Maryland in May earlier this year.



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