Re-imagining environmental governance Beyond the impasse

  • Home
  • Re-imagining environmental governance Beyond the impasse

The objective of this workshop is to critically examine approaches to environmental decision-making and processes of public policy-making. Specifically, we seek to investigate how current institutionalised norms and processes subordinate popular and cultural understandings about ‘environment’ and ‘participation’, and we aim to explore the role of social movements in improving environmental governance. The structure of this workshop will juxtapose cultural and environmental theory with mainstream economic and environmental paradigms to begin a different kind of environmental discussion. The aim is to provide a new set of markers for thinking about environmental decision-making and policy formulation, and to conceive of new and more creative approaches to public participation in environmental governance.

We situate this workshop in the context of debate about the effectiveness of current environmental decision-making and public policy approaches. While some maintain that the status quo, while not perfect, can deliver successful and democratically-generated outcomes; others feel excluded from prevailing governance processes. We seek to consider whether current assumptions, frameworks and processes of environmental decision-making marginalise alternative perspectives. We will explore whether and how current approaches diminish public expectations about sustainability and entrench widespread scepticism. Is local community engagement constrained by the narrowest of disciplinary specialisations? In what ways do vested interests constrain the democratic development of a more just social and environmental order?

Mainstream environmental paradigms that structure current approaches to decision-making and public policy are at odds with both vernacular and social science understandings of nature, landscape, place and ecology. Current approaches tend to prioritise pragmatism and technocratic solutions, while relegating to the private sphere, affective, cultural attachments to the natural environment. Together, these issues associated with our contemporary environmental conversation present both interdisciplinary challenges, and opportunities, for social scientists. By bringing together scholars from economics, sociology, social movement theory, organisational studies and policy development, cultural geography, and environmental history, this workshop will seek new ways to engage with both specialists and non-specialists in environmental policy-making.


The workshop will critically investigate how environmental issues are, and can be, framed. Of particular interest is how understandings of the environment as a ‘technical’ problem (assumed to be neutral) where ‘good’ decision-making requires ‘effective’ but limited forms of community participation are reproduced and maintained. Special attention will be given to sequential governance strategies that commence by gathering scientific data and proceed as if human activity and interpretations are impediments to policy formulation: paradoxically, in the final instance, this sequential approach seeks to engage various narrowly defined publics. Transdisciplinary scholarship on new social movements, new research about organisational structures and technological interfaces or historical, chronologically-explicit critiques of ecological modernities all assist in framing a different, more ethically and culturally responsive starting point for policy. Existing models of participation, for example, too often assume that consensus about environmental issues is both possible and desirable and that power between participants is equally distributed. Yet, in processes of public participation, non-specialists are typically recipients rather than co-creators of policy. Modernist, neo-liberal assumptions implicit in scientific forms of rationality underpin the idea that, in this process, the most logical and empirically sound argument will inherently prevail. Terms such as ‘inclusion’, ‘participation’ and ‘decentralisation’ are common in the literature on environmental decision-making (see for example, Lane, McDonald and Morrison, 2004; Dovers, 2003; Wondolleck and Yaffee, 2000; Lee, 1994: Stringer, 2006) but the impact of divergent, cultural understandings and attachments remains elusive. The result is that prevailing processes struggle to respond to new thinking about nature-culture dualism.

Interfaces of indigenous and non-indigenous environmental negotiation are one space where different worldviews highlight or disrupt the technical, utilitarian focus of those environmental decisions picturing ‘nature’ as separate from ‘culture’. A second paradigm is taken for granted in social movement activity, both at the very local level, and in various transnational contexts. For example, groups such as the ‘Lock The Gate Alliance’ (LTG) are often marginalised (and dismissed by agencies such as the CSIRO, see CSIRO 2012), despite the fact that they represent completely different models of social action in relation to the environment. In fact, LTG and similar social movements exemplify core problems taken up by transdisciplinary explorations of the ‘sociocultural’ world. Their disruptions, arising in reaction against asymmetrical modes of governance, raise significant questions about how our knowledge of the environment is produced, and whether we can move beyond the shortcomings of a utilitarian consensus. From this generalised concern, the workshop will address the following specific questions:

  • What key steps are needed to reconceptualise governance, from public participation to policy-making, in alternative, critical ways?
  • Given current policy and governance settings, what role can be found for culture-driven understandings of the environment?
  • Where might a fair assessment of the cultural reading of landscape and nature inherent in the appeals of groups like the LTG Alliance lead policy-makers?
  • How for example might a cultural reading of the environment be linked to different economic underpinnings for policy?
  • Within our existing economic context is there any possibility of moving beyond a ‘financialised’ conception of nature?
  • What different techniques of participatory decision-making can best achieve meaningful environmental outcomes?
  • Working from new modes of public engagement, how can we structure a framework to bring different environmental thinking to bear on particular examples ofenvironmental governance impasses?


This workshop will create a unique space for scholars from diverse disciplines who are active in research and public policy debates on the environment. Disciplinary boundaries too often side-track debates about environmental issues. They can deepen fissures between sectoral interests, science and politics, nature and culture. Alternatively, and this is our intent, the structured perspectives of diverse disciplines can be brought together in a productive and imaginative interchange. The specific outcomes of this workshop will be a series of interdisciplinary papers on the issues associated with current decision-making and policy processes, and new inter-disciplinary considerations of a reinvigorated public participation process. We aim to identify new areas of research that seek to generate a new inter-disciplinary vocabulary for environmental policy-making. In the end this workshop will bring together popular responses to the environment, critiques of participatory governance, and vanguard theory, in order to conceive of alternatives to prevailing utilitarian, consensus-driven models.

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335

Quick Links