Thinking with and from ‘the South’

By Connor Joseph Cavanagh, PhD Research Fellow, Department of International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric), Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Here in Dodoma, the first two days of panels have given us a comprehensive tour of the emerging Green Economy’s empirical nuances – in the form of new ecotourism ventures, carbon forestry, various payment for ecosystem service schemes, REDD+, biofuels, and so on, in a variety of contexts in the so-called ‘Global South’. These accounts have fascinated us, enlightened us, and perhaps even angered us, as a number of excellent papers have rightfully highlighted the injustices, inequalities, and inequities that sometimes characterize these initiatives.

But in the hallways and during the coffee breaks, there is a growing sense that this conference’s enduring contribution will be epistemological rather than empirical. As Jean and John Comaroff recently argued in their excellent Theory From the South, the legacy of nineteenth-century colonial science still lingers uncomfortably in certain corners of the contemporary academy, along with a conventional perception of ‘the South’ primarily as a great preserve of unprocessed data, simply awaiting analysis by researchers comfortably ensconced in their offices in London, New York, or Brussels, as the case might be.

Such an allegation cannot be levelled at the impressive group of scholars, activists, and practitioners assembled here at the University of Dodoma.

‘The South’ at the centre

Rather than a margin or periphery of the nascent ‘Green Economy’, most presenters have correctly identified ‘the South’ as the very centre of this emerging environment and development assemblage, around which a veritable galaxy of new discourses, policies, and institutions now circulate.

In other words, instead of a mere receptacle for green economic initiatives developed in the former colonial metropoles, the complex and varied empirical contexts of the South now both drive and actively shape the character of these. Not least, this usefully inverts the old colonial trope of a developing world that must be ‘modernized’ into conformity with a specifically European version of enlightenment and ‘civilization’, in relation to which the non-European world could apparently only be understood under the twin rubrics of incompleteness and lack.

Beyond the North-South binary

Yet, equally clear is the sense in which the concept of ‘the South’ perhaps refers more to a set of political and economic relations than to a stable geographical referent. Although much of the empirical work presented thus far is based on experiences in the countries of the former ‘Third World’, a number of papers have also problematized the North-South binary, identifying a number of emerging ‘South-South’ programmes and interventions, as well as the various ways in which ‘the South’ can be found in ‘the North’ and vice versa. Seen in this light, ‘the South’ is characterized primarily by its political and economic dynamism – though admittedly also by large and growing inequalities – as well as by a range of movements and possibilities for progressive social change.

As we continue to think with and from the South here in Dodoma, it is increasingly clear that this conference will have a lasting impact, not only on our writing and research, but also on the ways in which we conceive our role in producing the knowledge that results therefrom. Such a development is surely welcome, not only for scholarship on the green economy, but more generally also for the social sciences and beyond.

Follow Connor Cavanagh on Twitter: @conncav


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