Lorax in Motion is a series whereby we report and reflect upon the Lorax project’s ongoing research activities. Here, Senior Research Fellow Paul Beaumont sits down and talks ecosystem politics, interdisciplinarity, and environmental governance with the leader of Lorax, Professor Elana Wilson Rowe.
Lorax aims to illuminate the growing trend in global environmental politics towards establishing regional cooperation around ecosystems. In particular, Lorax explores whether, how and why, ecosystem governance generates specific forms of norms, hierarchies and networks that inform and structure regional politics in a manner that is distinct from other forms of global governance. Combining insights from critical geography and International Relations, the Lorax project reflects the interdisciplinarity and theoretical ambition of its chief investigator, Elana Wilson Rowe, whose career to date has seen her bringing into conversation multiple disciplines and theoretical approaches when reckoning with the geopolitical, environmental, and ethical challenges associated with Arctic governance.
Elana’s most recent monograph - Arctic Governance: Power in Cross Border Cooperation (with Manchester University Press) - is available on open access here.
The project builds upon Elana’s previous research into Arctic transboundary cooperation but treats it as but one case of an emerging global phenomenon. With the help of the European Research Council, Elana is leading four post-doctoral researchers efforts to explore the political and social consequences of ecosystem politics in the Caspian Sea, the Amazon, and the Arctic. With more than a side-eye on whether ecosystem politics produces ecosystemic effects beyond the field of environmental governance, the project will soon publish an open access database of all transboundary ecosystem cooperation being undertaken globally, meanwhile Lorax publications should start to emerge in print in 2022.
Here, Paul Beaumont catches up with Elana, at a point in the project where the case studies on the Amazon, Arctic, Caspian are well-underway and as the comparative component of the project is set to begin over the next few months. The two also discussed how Elana developed the idea of Lorax, why global environmental scholars should take ecosystemic politics seriously, and about the challenges of conducting theoretically eclectic large-scale research.
1. 'What do conventional theories get wrong about environmental politics, such that you decided a new ecosystem approach was required?'
'I think what is often missed in environmental politics is the ‘everything else’ of political consequences .- changed networks, norms, new forms of leadership, new dynamics in other fields - that can be forged or rearticulated through environmental cooperation. Most of the time, environmental cooperation and regimes are studied (and rightly so!) from the perspective of whether they achieve their stated aims and what factors hinder or facilitate this. This results in important findings about progress in a particular policy field and theoretically-informed insights about the factors that shape the policy field. The broader effects - perhaps unintended or under-communicated by the actors involved in the policy field - are often more of a footnote or a curiosity mentioned in the conclusion of scholarly articles directed to understanding the core dynamics of environmental cooperation. There are a lot of these footnote-style observations though! Many scholars note additional ripple effects for security politics, changed diplomatic dynamics or norms and changed spatializations of regional and global politics more generally. This curiosity is really the core of the Lorax project - do efforts to govern national border-crossing ecosystems have unique effects that matter for global politics more generally?
However, the thinking for the project also stems from a grounded theorization from the case of Arctic governance - a topic I have been engaged with and researching from different angles for many years now. There have been several key drivers for Arctic governance, for instance, the activism of circumpolar Indigenous peoples. However, environmental cooperation and coping with transboundary pollutants and ecosystem dynamics has been a longstanding driver as well. Some of the earliest forms of circumpolar cooperation were rooted in coming to terms with the interlinked ecosystem(s) of the region, scientifically or in practical management. The growth of environmental cooperation has coincided with much more specific representations of the Arctic region and an enhanced emphasis on adjacency as a key source of political legitimacy for engaging in Arctic governance. Being an ‘Arctic state’ or a ‘non-Arctic state’ are categories that have emerged through the governance of the Arctic region in a post-Cold War period. There have been some excellent studies documenting this, especially from political geography and critical geopolitics. However, there are also some important unanswered questions, particularly connecting how the Arctic governance policy field has come together over time to how this shapes politics today.
So the project idea emerged from both lines of thought - reflections on how we most usually approach environmental policy fields combined with a desire to understand better if the Arctic was an exceptional ‘one-off’ in global politics. My hunch was that the Arctic is not a totally unique case and, rather, reflects an important/emerging repertoire of global politics that we may see elsewhere and need to understand with a comparative and broader approach.'
2. 'In your view, what does liberal-instituonalist scholarship overlook when they study international environment institutions around ecosystems?'
'I think the literature on environmental politics largely reflects the division you have in IR with one strand of scholarship focused on liberal/cooperative institution building and regimes and another strand of scholarship focused on more overt exercises of power in inter-state relations. This makes it difficult to apprehend how states may be employing ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’(to use those categories, which I’m not such a fan of but are easily recognizable!) in the same episode of action in global politics. Environmental cooperation is most frequently seen as low-level politics - and, unsurprisingly, is a popular option for ‘Track II’ contact between states that have difficult relations on other fronts. Yet, in the Arctic, this environmental cooperation has had consequences for hierarchies around the region (for example, Arctic/non-Arctic actors or Arctic coastal states/Arctic states more generally). These hierarchies, in turn, have broader security, political and diplomatic significance. We are also seeing a similar dynamic in the Caspian article that we have been working on, Paul: that environmental cooperation is not only a contrast to great power competition dynamics in the region, but was actively used by Caspian states as a channel to demonstrate and build out their collective governance of the Caspian Sea region more broadly.'
3. 'Meanwhile, your research design includes quantitative data on ecosystems, network data, interviews, text analysis, and more besides. Indeed, one of the goals of Lorax is to “scale up” findings that use a “constructivist” approach to research. What are the theoretical and practical challenges of using a multi-mixed-method research design? Do you foresee any tensions emerging?'
'I think it is important to explore how to generalize from practice-based studies of global politics in ways that facilitate some schematization of research results and communication of policy relevance. These are shared issues you hear about in both political geography and in practice-based scholarship on global politics, both which rely on empirically rich, focused case studies. The question of how to build a research design that allows for comparison, while retaining the unique insights that case studies can bring about, is a pressing and common one across this scholarship. The ERC encourages ‘high risk/high reward’ research. So, taking the time to explore a broader set of methods and see what works for such comparative efforts serves two purposes. It helps us consider the core questions we have about politics around ecosystems in the project and, also, to work on developing a methods toolkit that could be taken further more generally for comparison of disparate policy fields.'
4. 'Your prior research has focused to a significant extent upon Arctic politics, meanwhile Lorax will zoom in upon the Amazon and Caspian ecosystem cooperation. I remember you telling me that it took you a while to settle on these cases, what were the others under consideration and why did you eventually settle upon these?'
'It did take a while for case selection and the Lorax database has also illustrated some additional cases of ‘ecosystemic cooperation’ - actors anchoring a robust, multi-issue form of cooperation in what they acknowledge to be a shared ecosystem (see figure 1). In the project application phase, a case study of global ocean politics was coming in and out of the draft, but ended up being too difficult to integrate given the regional.-scale of the other cases. Additionally, budgetary constraints/staffing made it clear that 3 cases was what the project could handle. I also think it would be really interesting to add in a case on cooperation and institutions of the Sahel and Antarctica, but these will have to wait for a future project.'
Figure 1. Lorax – QGis map: Cooperation initiatives in Maritime Ecosystems with more than 4 adjacent countries, coded 1 for cooperation specific to ecosystem or 2 for covered by a broader regional cooperation. (Note: do not cite this map; based on provisional coding that needs further refinement)
5. 'The case study work packages are all now about halfway done and the comparative phase is coming up. Can you give us a sneak preview of any interesting emerging findings? Or is it too early?'
'I am so pleased with how the project is coming together and really happy to have such a great team of researchers as colleagues. Some things that have struck me especially at this stage are that ecosystemic cooperation is widespread but not ubiquitous. This is coming out clearly in our analysis of the Lorax database. Not every ecosystem ends up with a multi-issue effort anchored specifically in that ecosystem - some remain ungoverned or others are governed in different ways (such as through broader multilateral regional cooperation or specific treaties). This makes it especially important and interesting to understand the power political effects of this particular way of governing. In the Arctic and Caspian cases, I’m struck by what looks like a common marginalization of the diplomatic stature/access of non-adjacent/non-regional actors over time. In the Amazon case that Lucas is working on, I think it is fascinating to see how Amazon states work as a network in global environmental politics, even if the actual institution of Amazon governance (ACTO) is largely seen as a zombie institution. Still, a functioning and effective policy network is forged around the Amazon and operating in global politics.'
6. 'Lorax is a theoretically driven project; its primary wager is that there is something distinct to ecosystem politics that sets it apart from other types of cooperation. Your hunch is that we can ascertain this via looking at the broader effects of cooperation, beyond whether it works or not. However, I know that you also suspect that this approach may also prove policy relevant; how so?'
'I think understanding better the additional consequences of sub-global cooperation around ecosystems is only set to become more important. We face big, global environmental challenges - like climate change and waning biodiversity - and we also look to the environment to provide for more of our needs to achieve a more equitable and safe world. Most of these challenges are often seen as almost unresolvable on a global level, but there is a lot of hope for what the regional level might offer as a location of environment-society governance beyond the nation-state. So, we need to understand much better what the consequences of such regionalization of global aims and challenges are. I agree and anticipate that the regional level may be the best and quickest way to move forward on pressing challenges, say in ocean governance. But to avoid negative or unexpected outcomes in the broader field of politics around these states, we need more information about what the consequences of such forms of cooperation have been so far.'
7. 'For those of us who one day aspire to writing a successful ERC funding application, can you describe how you developed the idea? Did it hit you like a lightening bolt while doing the school run, or did you craft the argument over time?'
'I guess the onset of the idea felt both sudden and slow. I have young kids, so I had both read the Dr. Seuss book about the Lorax who speaks for the trees and watched the movie. A few months before I wrote the ERC application, I was participating in a scenario building workshop on Arctic politics, when one Arctic policy actor reflected: who will be speaking for the fish in all of this? This got me to considering how ‘speaking for’ an ecosystem might more accurately capture the strategic nature and effects of clubbing up around ecosystems than the studies of institutional or regime politics that generally characterize the scholarship around cross-border environmental cooperation. I often get a lot of inspiration from more experience-near/participatory forms of research, like that scenario workshop. So, that kind of organizing gambit felt a bit like a lightning bolt, whereas the content of what ecosystemic politics is and how it can be understood for the application really came out of my book length study of informal power politics in the Arctic. In preparing the application, I also gave myself a lot of time to read and get up to speed on all the relevant literature I could come across from several fields. While using all this literature brings its own challenges (see answer above!), feeling like I have a deep and fairly broad appreciation of the relevant literature also freed me to think more freely and creatively (and confidently) in writing the application.'