Scholar-Activism and Transformative Knowledge
A North-South Workshop
Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Futures of Sustainability,”
University of Hamburg, 22–23 May, 2023
On May 22 and 23, 2023, a workshop on “Scholar-Activism and Transformative Knowledge” was held at the Hamburg based Centre on “Futures of Sustainability.” It was organized by Frank Adloff (Director of the Centre) in collaboration with Madhulika Banerjee and Tobias Müller, who are Fellows at The New Institute (Hamburg).
About two dozen people from all over the world, most of them working in the liminal space that emerges between science and activism, participated – so the event which was titled “a north-south workshop” lived up to its name.
The workshop aimed at bringing together a range of issues on how knowledges that challenge the dominant discourse of development and search for alternatives that actually fare on the ground. The task was to understand the materiality of the efforts towards sustainability and a socio-ecological transformation, undertaken by activists on the ground, by bringing them in conversation with committed scholars. Activists and practitioners explained what they do to operationalize the ideas that scholars speak and write about, the difficulties they face and how they overcome them, how they forge new processes and institutions to find solutions.
These conversations then should enable academics to provide a more assertive voice for the efforts of activists, that reach both realms of policy and politics. The workshop also provided a platform for activists to engage with one another, from across sectors, fostering new synergies and alliances across different political, economic, and epistemic spaces. Speakers included farmers, journalists, activists, academics, and others working at the intersections of knowledge, economy, and politics.
The workshop kicked off with some introductory remarks by Frank Adloff in which he outlined three strands of approaches or paths to sustainability. The mainstream strand is focused on technological modernization, green capitalism, markets, technological modernization. Within the transformation strand – on which the focus of the workshop was –, in turn, it is argued a more profound change of society is necessary, since capitalism seems not to be able to become greener, post-capitalism is needed. And then there is the dystopian trajectory of controlling the problem somehow (i.e., by means of social control and/or geoengineering).
Since every academic was asked to put their activist hat on first in the workshop, the organizers gave some insight into their activism: from convivialism as a positive vision for living together, to grassroots politics in India and traditional knowledges, to climate activism and decolonization – just to name a few.
After a short conversation mingle (in which the participants expressed that they hope for a long-term perspective of collaboration and concrete and practical learning about scholar-activism beyond boundaries and binaries) the first session about producing common goods was held. It was discussed how nature can be used without abusing it, how this is related to production system and what role and value traditional knowledges have in this. The guiding questions were: What kind of interventions and new ways of production on the ground contribute to a socio-ecological transformation? What technologies, forms of organizing and ownership structures are conducive in these efforts? What obstacles are activists and practitioners facing on the ground, and what helped overcoming those?
Light was shed on those questions by reporting from practical work. First by Leonie Guerrero Lara, who is part of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) Network. She gave insights into collectivizing ownership structures, forms of decision making, de-commodifying food, but also raised the question: Who is able to afford the time for engaging with CSA? After her, Hassan Turi, who is working on land reform in Pashtun tribal areas, gave insights in how the resource conflict (over land, water etc.) in Pakistan is framed as an ethnic conflict. In this context the devaluation of the act of farming itself and the stereotyping of farmers and peasants was also discussed. This problem, as well as possibilities and obstacles to contribute to the production of one’s own food, was also further elaborated in the discussion of Gunda Brun’s presentation. She works in the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerlicher Landwirtschaft” (ABL, working group of peasant agriculture) in Lower Saxony and presented impressions from practice. The last speaker of the session was Annapurna Mamadipudi, an activist-academic, researching on traditional craft in the contemporary world, particularly handloom in South India. She gave insights into the metabolic exchange with nature and, drawing from Erik Olin Wright, emphasized that spaces in the cracks of capitalism need to be found.
The connection to Wright, in particular his ideas of “real utopias,” was also explored in the second session, after a reflective joint walk through Planten & Blomen, the nearby park. The topics of the second session were distribution, consumption, community building. The guiding questions included: How can new forms of production succeed in the context of capitalist markets? How are new ideas and products advertized, distributed, and sold? What commu-nities are we engaging, what alliances are we building, whom do we still need to reach out to?
Input was given by Antonio Andrioli, who is engaged in the landless worker’s movement (Mo-vimento dos Sem Terra) and agroecology in Brazil. He pointed out, that the most marginal-ized suffer from hunger and have no access to politics. He spoke about how food to schools and universities is provided, building alliances with state governments and large farmers as-sociations. And although their project is a niche, Andrioli said, it is a rather big one, that could lead the way to a post-capitalist society. The extent to which this can also provide an example for European contexts was discussed: Would EU laws be interfering? The im-portance of knowledge was also highlighted by Anup Dhar, former director of Development Practice at the Ambedkar University (India). In his talk, he focused on the brain-hand-divide in Western culture. He argued that practitioners have knowledge, as well as scholars are ac-tive, making critical remarks on the appropriation and abduction of know-how. The first day ended with a dinner at the Centre.
The second day of the workshop started with a session focused on policy and politics. The guiding questions were: What should governments at local, state, national, EU, and global level do to support transformative knowledges and economic practices? How does politics need to be reconfigured and what institutions need to be built to enable transformative knowledges to unfold their full potential? What concrete engagements with policy makers, businesses and grassroots activists have been particularly helpful or constructive?
The first input in this session was given by Tanja Busse, writer and journalist on issues of bio-diversity. She provided an overview of the German political landscape and how Germany is not using opportunities that would be possible in terms of biodiversity (which would have many positive effects in terms of climate, food, etc.), while councils and midlevel actors make good proposals to the government. In her remarks, Vasna Ramasar, a scholar-activist in the field of critical political ecology, then deepened the question of how to interact with politics and argued for working pragmatically with the state, while having a pluriversal approach and taking serious interest in questions of environmental racism and patriarchy. While the politi-cal process is slow, it can best be started small and by building trust that has been destroyed throughout history by colonialism. Several participants pointed out that extra-statehood in liminal spaces, like that of the Zapatistas, need to be theorized; a government is not the only way to govern; the rather young concept of the nation-state needs to be seen critically. After this Tabea Lissner, who works in climate analytics, gave insights in scientific communication in politics. She raised the problem, that science uses a rather specific type of language and underlined that a legal perspective is important in matters of environmental issues. It was discussed that small wins are sometimes made in the juridical process, but that this process often only acts reactively, while some legal concepts are outrageous. Vedran Horvat, scholar-activist from Zagreb and fellow of the Centre, in his talk argued for a transformation of the institutions from within, keeping in mind that institutions are slow and time is needed, giving some examples from Croatia.
The last session was titled “The way ahead: Towards a network of transformative knowledge, alternative economies and scholar/activism.” The writer and activist Bayo Akomolafe made some introductory remarks, emphasizing the fugitivity that must be dealt with. Neither the North nor the South has the answers, he said, and sometimes the way of addressing problems is part of the problem. He argued for slowing down – not in a soothing way, but as staying with the trouble (drawing on an expression from Donna Haraway). He highlighted whiteness as an organizational principle of the Anthropocene and scientism as bastardization of science.
In the final discussion of the workshop, the participants agreed that more work and debate is needed to bring science and activism together and to dissolve artificial divisions between both in order to address the multitude of challenges that have to be faced (in terms of sus-tainability, climate, agriculture, North-South divide, etc.). First commitments were made to further intensify the exchange between each other and plan a follow-up workshop.