Centre researcher and Policy Field Convener for Climate Change and Sustainability Lauren Eastwood joined the Centre in May of 2021, bringing with her a wealth of experience derived from international fellowships, doctoral studies, and participation in meetings of various environmental bodies within the United Nations. Remaining with the Centre until the end of its mandate in January 2024, Lauren has participated in a wide range of research and events at the Centre ranging from publications to contributions to both research groups to the organisation of a workshop series. In what follows, we invite readers to get to know Lauren through her research and significant contributions to the Centre.
Lauren’s research has centered on institutional ethnography, environmental sociology, green transitions/degrowth, and political ecology. Already in the early phase of her education, Lauren realized that ‘all the science in the world isn’t going to fix environmental problems unless we address the human arrangements that create those problems in the first place’. This realization prompted a change in course from a science-focused major in environmental studies to a MA and PhD in sociology with an emphasis on the environment. With a desire to marry the two subjects through her PhD dissertation, Lauren began working within the theoretical framework of Institutional Ethnography (IE), a subdiscipline founded by Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. IE insists on analysis of the binding institutional documents and social relations that form the underpinnings of policy. The ways in which policy is expressed through foundational texts are scrutinized, beginning with the language used in their creation. The 1992 Rio Conference, with its significant textual output, offered an impetus to delve into a closer analysis.
I wanted to know more about the process; thinking about how those texts came to be, especially since sustainable development was such a buzzword at the time. I didn't really know what it meant in practise, but I had a hunch that it was a shell term that could stand in for a range of things that would allow governments to “tick boxes” but then also continue to engage in particular behaviours.
The first foray into UN meetings began as an outgrowth of the Rio Conference. Lauren was able to gain access to negotiations on forestry policy which were taking place in Geneva. Drawing on the experience and data from these meetings, Lauren formulated her dissertation project, an institutional ethnography of the forest policy process. Chief amongst the first impressions from attending UN meetings was the observation that the focus of the meetings determines what kind of experts are brought in to speak, a fact which in turn determines what happens in the room in terms of policy making. For example, negotiators in these forest policy meetings were primarily foresters who held financial interest in the maintenance of forests, rather than a social or environmental one. In this constellation of actors, consequently, interests from indigenous groups and NGOs went largely unaddressed.
In her 2018 book, Negotiating the Environment: Civil Society, Globalisation, and the UN (Routledge, UK), Lauren drew on 20 years of experience in observing the policy making processes of the UN. Among other topics, the work explored the ways in which non-state actors obtain their ‘seat at the table’ in the process of policy making, with particular emphasis in the participatory language conventions used to make their voices heard.
In 2009 Lauren received an Abe Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council (Japan), which was partially funded by the Japan Foundation’s Centre for Global Partnership. The fellowship provided access to more climate policy meetings, including the COP 15 in Copenhagen and COP 10 in Nagoya. Looking to expand her research focus from forests into climate and biodiversity, as well as at how NGOs and indigenous peoples engaged in the processes, Lauren then began to regularly attend meetings of the expert groups that contributed to COP and its subsidiary bodies. As a representative of the Association of Global South Studies (formerly the Association of Third World Studies), an organisation with consultative status under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN, Lauren maintains observer access to policy meetings, including the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
More recently, Lauren has been augmenting her research focus with analyses of resistance and degrowth. A recent workshop convened by Centre Fellows Dumebi Obute and Eric Cezne provided a platform for conversations on both topics. Global Infrastructures and the Environment: Rethinking Legitimation, Socio-spatial Dynamics, and Resistance (21-22 June 2023) featured a talk by Lauren entitled ‘Critical Infrastructure and Critical Resistance: The Shifting Legal Terrain of Anti-fossil Fuel Infrastructure Activism’. This work examined the increasing criminalization of anti-fossil fuel activism. She has been working on a broader project in this area with a colleague from SUNY Plattsburgh, Dr. Elizabeth Onasch. In this iteration, the goal is to analyse recent pipeline struggles and the ways in which they demonstrate not only social movement organizing, but also the changing terrain of activism vis-à-vis stricter legal penalties associated with ‘critical infrastructure’.
An interest in the discourse of degrowth sprung from the plethora of UN meetings attended, where the only discussions of economics in relation to environmental concerns seemed to be about investing more, growing more, and simply boosting economies. Degrowth invites reflection on the rehabilitation of sites of resource extraction and a refocussing of the idea of the economy as a measure of environmental health. Lauren notes that there really isn’t any research available that shows that increasing GDP or GNP leads to better environmental outcomes overall, or even that those from wealthier countries “value” their environment more than those from the Global South.
The ways in which Indigenous groups obtain conceptual currency in the policy making process has become a central component in global environmental policy. ‘Under the climate negotiations’, writes Lauren, ‘there have been policies organized around the idea that forests, primarily in the Global South, should have a value so that they can better be preserved/conserved.’ Initiatives like ‘Avoided Deforestation' and ‘Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’, which have been put in place by UN bodies, seem to address key areas of concern in environmental policy. In practice, however, NGOs and Indigenous peoples' organizations have argued that these programs ended up creating a further context for land grabs and add to the already tenuous land tenure arrangements of marginalized Indigenous peoples. This neoliberal imperative for economic growth is often at odds with sustainable initiatives as well as the concerns of Indigenous communities. It can result in policy negotiations which ‘end up skirting around the fundamental root causes of environmental harm’.
One can also make the argument that people from the Global South value their environment, but they're so impoverished due to the history of resource extraction that it's not really an option to be “clean” in our sense from an environmental perspective […] The UN is very much based on the archaic notion of understanding economic growth as leading to environmentally positive outcomes. To me, the discussions that weren't happening about the root causes of environmental degradation were ones that are associated with a critique of how the global economy is organised. It's still a major concern of mine because I really do believe that we cannot address the environmental crises unless we address the global economy as well.
Lauren is currently co-editing the ‘De Gruyter Handbook of Degrowth’ with Kai Heron, with publication set for early 2024. The handbook is being presented at the 9th International Degrowth Conference in Zagreb, Croatia through panels featuring some of its 25 contributing authors. In the near future, Lauren sees her research focus changing slightly from the abstract or theoretical realms of policy analysis to study of current dynamics fuelling change in particular locations – a shift that is informed in part by her workshop series, ‘Green Transformations’. Questions to be asked include: How do people enact change? How do people resist, and with what results? How do governments react to such resistance?
- Andrew Costigan