Since 2006, the ESRC STEPS Centre has focused on complex challenges around social justice and environmental sustainability, building on long-standing struggles. From epidemics and pandemics to water, energy, food and other resources, and the politics of innovation and technologies, the STEPS Centre has revealed how multiple ‘pathways to sustainability’ are influenced by different kinds of knowledge and forms of power.
We are now looking forward to a final event on 8 December 2021 where we will reflect on these experiences, with our co-hosts at the University of Sussex, IDS and SPRU, our funder (ESRC), and members of our global consortium and other collaborators.
This seems an appropriate moment to reflect on how knowledge is made and used. We know that power can influence decisions and who gets to take them: but what’s sometimes forgotten is that it even shapes the knowledge that might be used to inform or justify them. Biases are all around us, in research funding, education, who gets to speak, the cultures and languages that we have to describe the world, and so on. As a research centre, with experience of engaging in many different grassroots activities, policy processes and scientific debates, we can see at first hand that knowledge is not neutral in how it is created or deployed. Knowledge not only ‘speaks’ to – but is also partly determined by – politics and power.
Powerful interests not only sideline ‘inconvenient truths’, they also condition what is taken to be true. In the broad area of ‘sustainability’, this is extremely important. People’s relationships with ecologies and environments can be understood in a myriad of different ways – depending on their education, background, disciplines, experiences and cultures, and the methods they use to appreciate the problems they face. There are uncountably many possible visions, ideas and perspectives, but many of them – potentially useful or even life-changing – are unjustly neglected.
This can be seen in many areas. Most recently, at the COP26 climate change conference, we have seen the frustration of people from civil society organisations and activists who have struggled to be heard within official spaces. Even in the official negotiations, power and money shape who can afford to attend and which interests get prioritised. In many spaces like these, perspectives from richer countries drown out those from the majority world. Even where funding is directed towards research in poorer countries, it is often in the form of grants to a handful of institutions or a limited range of questions. All this has deep implications for how sustainable development goals are understood and pursued.
Through our research programmes and our Pathways Approach, the STEPS Centre has aimed to highlight this shaping of knowledge by power.
Most recently, we have explored how research methods – and the cultures and practices around them – make a difference, and how methods can serve to challenge powerful interests or dominant pathways. In a new Open Access book, Transformative Pathways to Sustainability – we explain how diverse methods and approaches have been applied to local sustainability challenges in six places around the world. Local challenges around energy, water and food in these places may seem far away from the high-level decisions that take place at conferences like COP26. But even the most local, specific problem has a wider context, and can involve many different actors who see the problem differently, depending on their identity and the interests they have.
At our final event, we’ll bring together people from across our research areas and Global Consortium, to reflect on our learning, and discuss the urgent challenges facing the world now. We’ll also talk about some of the exciting initiatives that are continuing into the future. To join the event, explore the event page and register online before 8 December.