Resource Politics: Transforming pathways to sustainability conference 2015


Why now? Contexts and debates

In the build up to the confirmation of the post-2015 sustainable development goals, the politics of resource access, allocation and distribution are high on global policy agendas. The limits to economic activity in the face of ‘planetary boundaries’ are being fiercely debated, and even humanity’s survival in the age of the Anthropocene is questioned. Some suggest a ‘perfect storm’ of factors is combining to present ever growing threats, often assumed to be at the ‘nexus’ of food, water, energy and climate change issues. Among the responses are advocates of ‘green economy’ strategies, seeking transformations to more sustainable economies.

But the ‘sustainability’ framing of these issues needs interrogating. How do these debates draw on earlier neo-Malthusian visions of ‘Limits to Growth’, blind to social difference, distributional implications, and failing to disaggregate local users and politics concerning resource use, consumption and production? What politics and power relations are hidden by the apocalyptic framings of environmental disaster? What interests are supported by particular framings of ‘scarcity’ or ‘limits’, justifying appropriation of resources by some to the exclusion of others?

Food, water, fuel and minerals have become the focus of global and local political contests. Land, water and green ‘grabs’ have re-allocated existing resources to so called ‘efficient’ and economically productive users, causing local resource scarcities and dispossessions, damaging livelihoods and infringing basic rights. Resources have become valued, marketised and commodified, with a range of unforeseen consequences. At the same time, activism has flourished, contesting dominant perspectives. As we seek pathways to sustainability that assure both environmental integrity and social justice, now is a critical time to ask tough questions about the politics of resources.

Why a conference?

The STEPS Centre and its partners hope this conference can help unpack assumptions, question simplistic prescriptions and debate alternatives about the politics of resources and pathways to sustainability. The conference will present research evidence from varied locations revealing multiple pathways of change, linking conceptual challenges of understanding ‘resource politics’ with institutional and practical dimensions, from an interdisciplinary perspective. It is hoped this debate – with academics, practitioners, policymakers and activists taking part – can provide the basis for open and balanced debate about future options.

Research challenges

In conceptual terms, the focus on political ecology, long concerned with understanding the politics of access to, and control over, resources from local to global, is increasingly combined with a concern with the politics of knowledge, emerging from fields such as science and technology studies. Resource politics should be seen in relation to complex combinations of artefacts, people and knowledges. Resource control and ‘grabbing’ debates have reinvigorated a concern for earlier Marxist concerns with accumulation and dispossession, while new perspectives are required to understand the commodification and financialisation of nature. Pathways to sustainability are thus constructed through this complex interplay, with analysis of power dynamics at the core. This means engaging critically with questions of environmental and social justice and what these mean to different people in diverse contexts in both the global South and North. Increasingly a conceptual perspective on ‘pathways’ combining an understanding of material and structural forces, the politics that underpin them and the discursive knowledge politics that frame such dynamics, is essential.

The STEPS Centre’s work on resource politics

The STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ has been developed as a way of understanding contending and conflicting pathways of change, in complex, highly contested settings. Building on earlier work on ‘scarcity’ and the politics of allocation, we have highlighted the multiple framings of and responses to climate uncertainty. Similarly, an earlier focus on ‘institutions’ for resource control and access, has been extended to looking at resource access in diverse settings from peri-urban India to rural China. Historical work on the politics of landscapes, including forests or rangeland areas, has been built on to investigate the commodification of carbon in African forests. Work on water resources has linked issues of access to notions of security, highlighting political contestation, for example, dam construction in southeast Asia. And we have highlighted the variegated consequences of land, water and green grabbing in different sites across the world.

Conference themes
Six themes will run throughout the conference, with panels clustered within each theme. This will allow delegates to take part in fulsome discussions around particular themes.

  • Scarcity, politics and securitization
  • Resource grabbing
  • Governance, elites, citizenship and democracy
  • Financialisation and markets
  • Growth, waste and consumption
  • Gender, race, class and sustainability

3 thoughts on “About

    • Dear Francis, thanks for your interest, but I’m sorry to say that conference registration is now closed. Please check the website for updates and details of how to follow the conference online.


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