Conference Dispatch: Earth System Governance Conference, Utrecht University

Conference Dispatch: Earth System Governance Conference


“The key message from the ESG Conference was a call to action—to improve, coordinate, and disseminate our research to address the challenges of environmental change”


This month, I had the pleasure of attending the Earth System Governance (ESG) Conference at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The conference reflected on nearly a decade of research conducted by the ESG research network and marked the launching of a new Science and Implementation Plan meant to guide the next decade of research into the governance challenges of environmental change.

At the conference, I was exposed to a number of challenging debates in the field and, as typical of all great conferences, I left with more questions than answers. What role do institutions play in earth system governance, and should we be concerned with bettering institutional design? How can we go about measuring the effectiveness of policies, or even defining what effective action means? How do agents envision the future, and how do these visions shape what policies they see as plausible in the present? Who gets included in these formative discussions about desirable futures or policies, and who is left out? Would including non-human objects or animals in our definitions of environmental justice require a deeper rethinking of the concept’s practical application?

Many of these questions reflect the new “research lenses” of the Science and Implementation Plan. Whereas the past decade of ESG research was conducted under the rubric of ‘the five A’s’ (Accountability, Adaptiveness, Agency, Allocation and access, and Architecture), the new research foci are as follows:

  • Architecture and Agency
  • Democracy and Power
  • Justice and Allocation
  • Anticipation and Imagination
  • Adaptiveness and Reflexivity

What they lack in alliteration they make up for in relevance. The new lenses cut across much of the research currently being done in the ESG community. Ideally, the subheadings will act as magnets, drawing interested researchers into more sustained conversation with one another, and enabling better collaboration among researchers working in similar spaces. Moreover, the more normatively focused lenses like ‘Democracy and Power’ and ‘Justice and Allocation’ provide apt reminders of the most urgent issues at stake in earth system governance. Hopefully, these lenses will encourage all ESG researchers to reflect on the obvious and non-obvious ways in which our research intersects with issues of justice and democracy.

The key message from the ESG Conference was a call to action—to improve, coordinate, and disseminate our research to address the challenges of environmental change. The Science and Implementation Plan provides some guidance on that count. However, the experience of being in a room of researchers working on similar challenges was equally if not more valuable for generating ideas on how to improve one’s research and outreach. I would encourage anyone who gets the chance to attend an ESG conference. And if you need any more encouragement, the 2019 Earth System Governance conference is in Oaxaca, Mexico!