SCI research round up December 2022
Don’t miss out on any article, podcast or presentation by SCI members anymore with our regular research round ups covering any recently published SCI research!
SCI Lecturer Jeremy Brice is the co-author on the open access paper ‘When you wish upon a (GWP) star: Environmental governance and the reflexive performativity of global warming metrics’ in Social Studies of Science. You can find it online here.
The metrics used in environmental management are performative. That is, the tools deployed to classify and measure the natural world interact with the things they were designed to observe. The idea of performativity also captures the way these interactions shape or distort the governance activities that metrics are used to inform. The performativity of metrics reveals how mundane practices of measurement and auditing are inscribed with substantial power.
This has proven particularly true for the global warming metrics, like GWP100, that are central to the management of anthropogenic climate change. Greenhouse gases are materially heterogenous, and the metrics used to commensurate their various warming impacts influence the distribution of both culpability and capital in climate policy and markets. The publication of a new warming metric, GWP* (or GWP Star), has generated a modest scientific controversy, as a diverse cast of stakeholders recognize this performativity seek to influence the metrological regime under which they live.
We analyse this controversy, particularly as it unfolded in the fractious discourse around sustainable food and farming, to develop the concept of reflexive performativity: where actors are anticipatory and strategic in their engagement with the metrics that are used to govern their lives. We situate this idea in relation to, and in tentative evidential support of, the concept of reflexive modernization.
The SCI’s Honorary Researcher Ulrike Ehgartner’s and Senior Lecturer Helen Holmes’s paper ‘Changing understandings of waste reduction and avoidance in moralities of thrift: A comparison of Mass Observers’ narratives three decades apart’ has now been published online in Geoforum. You can read the paper here.
This paper explores shifting ideas of waste and recycling in narratives on thrift in the UK. Drawing on texts written by 33 respondents who answered two separate Mass Observation Directives on the subject of thrift in 1987 and 2016, it illuminates how waste reduction and avoidance is described by ‘ordinary people’. The ways in which these practices are framed are dependent on the temporal context in which the narrative is set. Two key findings are presented.
Firstly, respondents explain motivations for such practices differently, depending on whether their examples relate to what they were exposed to during their upbringing or to their own practices at present. Between these two contexts, the moralisation of thrift through practices of waste reduction and avoidance shifts from a focus on financial hardship towards consciousness/satisfaction, which indicates that current understandings of thrift combine values of ethical consumerism and hedonism.
Secondly, responses to the 1987 and 2016 directives differ in terms of how thrift through waste reduction and avoidance of disposable items is accounted for. In 1987 writings, thrift was associated with efforts to find ways to use single-use multiple times, whereas in the 2016 writings, thrift is associated with a firm commitment to household waste recycling through municipal services. This indicates that since the 1980s, material and infrastructural changes have led to a shift of norms in dealing with single-use products and recycling. The findings point towards critical considerations of how moralities of thrift are employed in the context of material culture in the 21st century.
SCI Affiliate Maria Sharmina was invited to write a News & Views piece in Nature Climate Change about a new research paper that she reviewed for the journal. The piece highlights universities’ responsibility to be transparent about who funds their work, with research on natural gas as an example.
Corporate funding for academia often causes unease about the independence and integrity of such research. Now, a study shows that academia partnerships with the energy sector are more favourably inclined towards fossil fuels than to renewables.
The capture of science by corporate interests has been a concern for decades across a wide range of areas, from cigarette smoking to climate change and COVID-19. When it comes to climate change, naysayers have adopted more subtle measures over the years than an outright undermining of science. Fossil fuel greenwashing is one such strategy. Methane, or natural gas, has seen its fair share of greenwashing in an anticipated ‘golden age of gas’. However, the impartiality of university-based research on methane and on mitigating climate change more generally has not been sufficiently investigated to date. Writing in Nature Climate Change, Douglas Almond and colleagues argue that academic research funded by oil and gas companies tends to treat methane more positively than renewable energy as compared with publicly funded academic research.
Malte Rödl, Honorary Researcher SCI, co-published the conference paper ‘Algorithmically embodied emissions: The environmental harm of everyday life information in digital culture’ in the journal Information Research special issue. You can read it here.
Malte also co-published the paper ‘Repair Cafés and Precious Plastic as translocal networks for the circular economy’ in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The paper was written on the basis of research Malte conducted with Wouter Spekkink funded by the SCI in 2018. You can read the article here.
The literature on the circular economy is dominated by visions that either disregard the role of civil society in (transitions to) a circular economy or depict civil society actors merely as passive consumers. However, there are organized citizen initiatives that align with circular economy thinking and that envision a much more active role for civil society in (transitions to) the circular economy. This paper explores Repair Cafés and Precious Plastic as two examples of such initiatives based on exploratory questionnaire surveys conducted among the associated communities, supplemented with evidence from documents from the initiatives. Repair Cafés and Precious Plastic can be understood as translocal communities that strive toward creating a circular economy through, for example, local repairing and recycling of plastic waste.
This article is the first to study translocal communities in the context of a circular economy. In theory, such communities can develop transformative potential to challenge, alter and/or replace dominant institutions. This requires them to develop a critical mass, a shared identity and a political voice. The study shows that networking (and thus the development of critical mass) occurs primarily in specific countries (in the case of Repair Cafés) and not necessarily community-wide (in the case of Precious Plastic). Evidence for a shared identity does exist in both communities, although more clearly in the case of Repair Cafés. The study does not provide evidence for an explicit political voice developing in either community, although in the case of Repair Cafés, the Repair Café International Foundation does take up lobbying activities.
Thus, the ingredients for transformative potential in these communities are present only to a limited extent. This study contributes to the circular economy literature by showing how civil society actors can engage with (transitions to) the circular economy through organized citizen initiatives, a phenomenon that has thus far been largely neglected in the literature on circular economies. The study also adds to the limited pool of empirical knowledge on two rapidly growing citizen initiatives toward circular economies.