Transformation and justice: Insights from the 2022 Conference on Earth Systems Governance

News | Posted on Wednesday 9 November 2022

PhD student Megan Tarrant recently returned from the 2022 Earth Systems Governance Conference in Toronto. In this article she considers the topic of “transformation” and how it links to justice, which featured heavily in the conference proceedings.

The 2022 Earth Systems Governance (ESG) Conference was held this year in Toronto from the 21st – 23rd October. For the first time since 2019 the conference took place in a hybrid virtual and in-person format, bringing together social scientists from around the world to share knowledge on global environmental change and governance. The theme of this year’s conference was “Governing accelerated transitions: justice, creativity and power in a transforming world”.

Over the course of the three days, during plenaries, panels, and conversations in the hallways, one concept was discussed and debated more than any other: “transformation”. Transformation has become something of a buzzword in both the climate governance and conservation spheres. Within Earth Systems Governance, societal transformation is seen as a necessary means of combatting climate change. In my own work, in conservation, transformation of practice is seen as a way to ensure equitable and effective outcomes. “Transformation” in these contexts is often spoken about in very loose terms and seen as something that is overwhelmingly positive. Even though the destructive events transformation seeks to upend (rising CO2 emissions, deforestation, climate change and species loss to name just a few) are transformative in themselves. This article considers these positive connotations and asks how a more nuanced view of transformation might better serve our understanding of transformation and its links to justice.

What is “transformation?”

When we speak of transformation, what do we mean? For some, transformation is seen as the processes and changes that are possible to achieve within the systems we currently have. This can be for many reasons, including timing (the pressing need to address CO2 emissions, for example), conservatism or the fact that people are benefitting from the systems that currently exist. For others, transformation requires total systems change. These views of transformation are not binary, they exist on a spectrum that is guided by how people relate to the world. It is worth considering that, when we speak of transformation, we are not all talking about the same thing. The goalposts are also constantly moving. What we think of as fundamental change is changing as we go along.

Transformation and justice

There is an assumption within the governance and conservation spheres that transformation automatically leads to justice, but this is not necessarily the case. Importantly, the question of “justice for whom?” is often disregarded, as is deeper understanding of what such justice looks like. Indeed, in my own work on rights-based approaches to conservation, I often encounter the inherent assumption that “transforming” conservation through the incorporation of indigenous and local community rights, voices, knowledge, and experiences will automatically lead to conservation that is more effective and equitable. This is not to suggest that such approaches and changes should not occur. In fact, my research suggests the opposite. However, painting a picture of transformation as a wholly positive change glosses over the need to question “effective and equitable for whom?” While the conservation sector has begun to engage with issues such as gender rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, the rights of other vulnerable groups remain far less considered. This trend that is mirrored in discussions about justice in environmental governance. While many scholars are now calling for better engagement with a wider range of people to develop new concepts of justice, some suggest that we need to go even further, moving beyond human-centred concepts of justice towards ones that also consider the needs of non-humans. These are bold visions, that require a great deal of self-reflection and critique to unpack normative assumptions about who makes decisions about, and takes responsibility for, such notions of justice.

While it is hoped that efforts towards transformation will lead to positive outcomes, the inherent assumption that this process is automatic is also problematic. In many cases, transformation towards justice is seen as a checklist when it is, in fact, more of a process. In my recent research with international conservation NGOs, many of the participants mentioned their wish for a set of guidelines or a checklist for “transforming” their conservation processes. The ease with which transformation is spoken about belies the immense amount of work that is required for it to occur. Bringing justice into conversations about biodiversity conservation means dealing with questions about whose rights and knowledge are being considered and reshaping how climate change and biodiversity are framed and understood. These are not simple tasks. Doing so requires a huge amount of rethinking, sharing important conversations and, perhaps most importantly, listening to people from outside our own disciplinary comfort zones.

Some of this work has occurred, for example in the push towards action-oriented research beyond the bounds of academia and the attempted decolonisation of methods and literature, which continues today. In other ways there is still a long way to go. It is easy to find examples of the objectification of case-studies and the romanticisation of lifeways different to our own in literature from all disciplines. This also occurs outside academia. I regularly encounter it in my engagement with conservation NGOs. For equity and justice to be truly “transformative” this process cannot be tokenistic. It must be fundamental to the ways in which we undertake research and engage with the world.

All this suggests that there is a long way to go, but the conversations I was involved in during ESG 2022 give me hope that progress towards understanding “transformation” and how it relates to justice does seem to be occurring. One question may always remain, however. How will we know when we’ve got there? Or will the goalposts keep moving ahead, faster than we can keep up?

Related links

Find out more about Megan Tarrant's research.

Related links

Find out more about Megan Tarrant's research.