Global Infrastructures and the Environment: A Workshop Report

Centre Fellows Eric Cezne and Dumebi Obute recently hosted an interdisciplinary workshop on global infrastructures and the environment. The workshop, initially conceived as an engagement with infrastructures in the Global South and their impacts on climate policy, transformed into a multifaceted intervention which combined the focus of the research group ‘Legitimation and Delegitimation in Global Cooperation’ with work in the policy field ‘Climate Change and Sustainability’.

The two-day workshop, ‘Global Infrastructures and the Environment: Rethinking Legitimation, Socio-spatial Dynamics, and Resistance’, featured international scholars from disciplines as varied as language studies, cultural studies, international relations, political science, and science and technology studies. Obute and Cezne are engaged in research on the Niger Delta and the Brazilian Amazon, respectively. The workshop was proposed as an opportunity to share their research and insights while gaining a wider perspective for how global infrastructures contribute to legitimation, policy, activism, as well as climate concerns.

'We realised that a lot of the implications of infrastructures are global rather than Global-South-specific; a lot of the actors involved, a lot of the networks and finance mechanisms have a global dimension, so it made sense to treat it as a global phenomenon'.

Dumebi notes that a focus on legitimation/delegitimation was appropriate especially in regard to land ownership claims. How does an industrial entity gain ownership and influence of over a piece of land? How are these claims legitimized, and in what spheres? What are the consequences, politically, socially, and environmentally when multinational corporation exercise their particular interests in raw materials through the establishment of (harmful) extraction infrastructures? The answers to these questions do not come easily, but the plurality of perspectives offered during the workshop shed some light on possible ways to come to terms with them.

'We may not have come up with a symphony in terms of everybody speaking in one voice, but I think we were actually aiming for cacophony – different voices coming from different contexts, all taking part in the same conversation'.

Eric Cezne highlights how an understanding of infrastructures requires these different perspectives. A challenge is of course posed when attempting to distil these engagements into a collective piece of scholarship. Workshops at the Centre often involve a commitment (or at least and intention) to pursue a kind of output – for example an article, a special issue, a conference, or an edited volume – a task which is in a way complicated by the sheer diversity of voices in this instance. Despite this hurdle, Cezne notes that there were many successful introductions which promise, at the very least, some productive bilateral collaborations in the future. Dumebi has underlined the double-edged-sword that is interdisciplinarity: insights afforded by this type of engagement are indispensable to a more complete understanding of the topic, but output must in some way conform to the requirements of academic life.

Despite these challenges, the workshop has been described as an unequivocal success. Both Dumebi and Eric derived nuanced applications of infrastructure studies which will inform their research both at the Centre and beyond. One significant realization was the notion of the 'afterlives of infrastructures'. Implied here is that the physical impact of, for example, oil exploration in the Niger Delta or a road paved directly through the Amazon, is not just temporary, not simply a significant factor during that exploration itself. Rather, these infrastructures continue to make impacts on the landscape and political realities of affected populations even beyond their periods of 'practical' usuage.

Taking these realities into account was another major focus of the workshop: what role do activists play in the complex interactions provoked by infrastructures? Social movements advocating for the limitation or even the dismantling of infrastructures take many forms. One participant in the workshop is not only a climate activist, but also an author who offers poetic and literary works as a form of resistance. Centre researcher Lauren Eastwood offered further perspective on this issue, highlighting (among others) (para)military engagements and occupation of sites of infrastructure (as in the case of Lützerath, Germany). Emerging technologies require emerging acts of resistance and engagement from affected communities and policymakers. The future of growth/degrowth is contested and uncertain. Unrestrained infrastructural growth will surely have financial and social impacts on local populations; governments around the world are often wary of strategies of degrowth, seeing them as anticapitalistic or incompatible with economic concerns.

Somehow a balance needs to be struck between infrastructure development and human rights, between corporations, communities, and climate. The workshop represented a major, multi-focal engagement with these and many other issues. A wide and global understanding of infrastructures is necessary to provide insights on how to deal with past damages, present challenges, and appropriate policies for the future.

A Note on Barriers and Inclusivity

The conveners of this workshop acknowledge that the Centre, and consequently its fellows and researchers, are in a privileged position when it comes to planning and arranging events of this nature. With this being said, they would also like to mention some administrative hurdles that, in this case specifically, and also in the case of international academic engagements generally, act as barriers to exchange. Many participants in the conference were confronted with obstacles related to obtaining the correct Visas in order to take part in the on-site event; some were not able to travel to Duisburg at all. It should here be noted that these barriers, especially to researchers from the Global South, are not simply an instance of administrative bias, but are also stumbling blocks by which productive international cooperation is hindered.


Andrew Costigan, in conversation with Eric Cezne and Dumebi Obute