Integrating conflict research - interdisciplinary and social- ecological perspectives

The lack of knowledge integration in environmental conflict research and management

Overarching and long-term perspectives for conflict management and resolution require analyses of social, economic, ecological systems and contexts in which conflicts occur. The only overarching perspective established and widely accepted in environmental research, environmental policies and global environmental governance is, up to now, that of sustainability or sustainable development. The complicated discourse of sustainable development was reviewed several times (Du Pisani, 2006; Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 2007; Bruckmeier, 2009; Leach et al., 2012; Brand, 2015). How far do the debates of sustainable development take up research and solution of environmental conflicts?

The discourse of sustainable development is the latest variant of a debate on global development and North—South interaction and integration. Before that the unequal development process was discussed more critically, for example, in the UNCTAD-Declaration of Cocoyoc, Mexico, 1974, in the Dag Hammarskjold report from 1975, or in the eco-development discourse in the 1970s and 1980s, and the dependency debate of the 1970s. There the systemic conflicts were more visible than in the Brundtland-report from 1987 where conflicts are masked in the abstract notion of intra- and inter-generational solidarity. The following conflictgenerating problems have been insufficiently addressed in global environmental governance and in the sustainability discourse — although all of them, finally, need to be addressed in conflict research:

1 Continuing older problems and forms of development

Continuing development gaps between the global North and South, the rich and the poor countries, the extracting and the processing economies Incompatibility of continued (exponential) economic growth and sustainable use of natural resources

2 Accelerating and escalating new conflicts

Accelerating and conflicting race for natural resources through the late industrialisation in some big countries in the Global East and South

Intensifying and more violent resource conflicts after the collapse of East European socialism and the East—West confrontation in the cold war, for example, resource use conflicts related to global warming and climate change

3 Contrasts between proclaimed goals and practices

Contrasts between liarmonistic global ethics and dividing consequences of sustainability policies and practices (e.g., environmentalism of the rich in contrast to environmentalism of the poor: Martinez-Alier, 2002)

Contrasts between the proclaimed goals of governmental sustainability policies and the lack of progress towards sustainability in most countries and the continuing intensification of resource use. Negative ecological trends described in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2005 have not changed much, as later analyses of ecological footprints and material and energy flow analyses show

With regard to the unsolved problems and environmental conflicts, global environmental governance is confronted with accumulating difficulties of how to deal with the complexity of systems, the limits of knowledge and increasing number of conflicts. When global social and environmental change appear as too complex to be managed, sustainable development as perspective of conflict analysis and resolution may be given up in favour of short-term perspectives and a process of‘muddling through’. The critical debate includes diagnoses that the sustainability discourse is stuck (Luks and Siemer, 2007), that the diffuse idea should be given up (Blowers et al., 2012, Benson and Craig, 2014) and replaced through the resilience concept connected with disaster management, or other concepts. Regarding resilience research (Folke, 2006; 2016), it seems sufficient to highlight its closeness to conflict research. Yet, the conflict term is not used in the functional and adaptive processes analysed in resilience research; it can be used as a complementary term to deal with the consequences of disturbance, catastrophes and disasters, when and where conflicts arise. It seems more important to discuss the blending of resilience and sustainability criticised and elaborated by various authors (e,g, Derissen et al., 2011; Bruckmeier, 2013; 2016). The ideas to replace sustainability as a long-term perspective are not more promising or less value-loaded, as exemplified by the concepts of conviviality (Illicit, 1973), consilience (Wilson, 1998), environmental justice (Schlosberg, 2007).

More promising perspectives emerged in recent years: the rapidly developing debate about transition or transformation has meanwhile reached the global policy agenda, although without clarifying the transformation concept in relation to the interaction of social and ecological systems (United Nations, 2013). This debate includes critical reviews of illusionary ideas about sustainable development and ineffective policy programs, with the conclusion: sustainability as a long-term process of transition or transformation, as a new ‘great transformation’ (Polanyi, 1944) of society, needs to be rethought to include knowledge about conflicts on the way towards sustainability.

The Water Framework Directive of the European Union from 2000 aimed, under its overarching sustainability goal, at good ecological quality of all surface and ground waters in Europe until 2015, which was not achieved. This is less an example of bad policy, more for illusionary ideas: that sustainable water use and management can be achieved within a short time, without dealing with resource use conflicts, without changing the political and economic institutions of resource use and management, and insufficiently considering the complex interrelations between ecosystems and social systems.

Environmental conflicts need to be dealt with continually on the way towards sustainability, navigating through the processes of global environmental change, especially the disastrous consequences of climate change. Sustainability appears, more realistically, as a project of several generations or longer, of experience and learning how to build a new society: less through direct regulation and policy programs (or the meanwhile extended governance that includes civil society action and social movements), more through second order regulation, or other and indirect forms of influencing change and transformation of interacting social and ecological systems. However, the formulation of such principles and procedures is difficult; it requires elaborate theories of nature—society interaction, so far existing only in rudimentary forms in social and political ecology. Presently used notions show that the indirect processes are insufficiently understood and developed: ‘navigating social-ecological systems’”, ‘second order regulation’, ‘multi-scale processes’, ‘hierarchical governance’, ‘governance of nested, embedded, networked systems’, ‘regulation of nature—society relations’.

Social-ecological systems - developing integrative perspectives of nature-society interaction for conflict research

The following summarising description, based on the analysis in Bruckmeier (2016, p. 183, cont.), refers to the theoretical construction of coupled social-ecological systems (SES). These concepts developed in social ecology, in a historically specified theory of nature—society interaction and human modifications of nature, especially in the debates of world ecology in the discourse of world systems theory' (Waller- stein, 2000; Moore 2015), in the social-ecological research (Ostrom, 2009; Fischer- Kowalski and Haberl, 2007; Bruckmeier, 2016). That social and ecological systems are interconnected and co-evolving ‘by necessity'’ is assumed in parts of resilience research (Folke, 2006; 2016), ignoring most of the differences between biological and sociocultural evolution, their heterogeneous principles, functions, processes and temporal scales. The normative idea to embed society in nature seems insufficient for interpreting the complex interactions between society and nature that changed throughout human history' and include many different forms of coupling between social and ecological systems.

The complexity' of SES needs to be analysed empirically and through theoretical analyses of modern society, modes of production and socio-metabolic regimes, to be able to identify the influencing factors and processes in the broader contexts. This context includes societal and ecological systems, forms of their reproduction, system structures that block or predetermine the long-term development of the systems. Societal structures affecting ecosystem management and environmental conflicts include social and class structures, societal division of labour, political and economic power relations, socially unequal appropriation and distribution of natural resources.

The historically specific forms of coupling of SES and interaction of nature and society cannot be read off from the empirical examples and case studies of resource use and the conflicts identified there. The present, functional as well as dysfunctional forms of coupling of SES result from the industrial socio-metabolic regimes in which fossil energy resources played a key role; first the coal regime, later the oil regime, still dominant but phasing out. The analysis of these regimes helps to find theoretical explanations for the unsustainable interaction between society and nature and resulting conflicts. This situation is accounting for systemic structures and bottlenecks of development, furthermore, supporting the consolidation of environmental conflict research. Interactions and feedback processes between social and ecological systems show that natural resource use conflicts are indicators of maladaptive change processes in modem society; conflict analysis needs to be complemented by analyses of the manifold and changing, loose or tight forms of coupling between social and ecological systems and their consequences for resource use. This analysts is guided by the question, how long can the present industrial forms of resource use and economic growth be maintained? Since the 1970s, when the discourse of limits to growth began, it has become evident that the overshoot of global resource use that has been achieved meanwhile cannot be maintained over a very long period of time.

Conclusions - interdisciplinary knowledge synthesis and its difficulties

Environment-related or natural resource use conflicts are not only political conflicts, although most of them are connected to public policies, policy programs, political controversies and political actors, unequal exchange and various forms of conflict resolution. The conflicts may originate in everyday practices of resource users, private persons or organisations that act in the institutionally channelled and regulated forms of cultural, political, economic and other specific forms of social systems. Conflict mitigation does not always require governmental or political institutions or decisions. Many resource use conflicts appear as multi-sectorial, multi-dimensional and multi-scale conflicts that are simultaneously economic, political, social, cultural, ethnic, conflicts between values, interests, user and property rights, and conflicts between the needs and interests of human and other resource users. In their multi-dimensionality they show the interconnections between different social spheres, social and ecological systems.

Assuming that resource use conflicts continue, inter- and transdisciplinary knowledge syntheses will become more important, to show the necessity and the forms of new development perspectives and improved procedures of conflict resolution. Knowledge about global social and environmental change — in which conflict mitigation and sustainability transformation are interwoven - makes the core of renewal. Interdisciplinary knowledge syntheses that require knowledge from the social and natural sciences are, however, badly developed. The scientific learning in the overarching process of social-ecological transformational is twofold: to learn how to integrate empirical research, theories and practical action, and to learn how to synthesise knowledge from social and natural scientific research. Both forms of knowledge integration imply methodological guidance, critical analysis, assessment, and learning from prior forms of policy and research, their misfits and their failures. Moreover, this seems necessary to prepare for more and intensifying conflicts as a consequence of global environmental change and the difficulties of conflict resolution. Such learning requires knowledge input from both ends: from the empirical and the theoretical research about the unsustainable state of nature—society interaction. Beyond the debate of transforming conflicts to cooperation to be able to solve them, more is to learn in conflict research: to advance from research about conflict transformation to research about social-ecological transformation towards sustainability.


I am grateful for comments and critique from the editors of the book and an anonymous reviewer who helped to improve the text.


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