Consensus and environmental governance – day 1 report

Day 1 of the GB Sasakawa Foundation-funded UK-Japan Workshop on Consensus-Based Environmental Governance is in the can – and what a day we had.

Those of the UK contingent who had arrived they day before were now feeling more awake after a long sleep and full breakfast, and we headed en masse through the green if not yet leafy Hokkaido University campus for the 9.30am start. I’d written ‘9.30am – Leslie/Taisuke introduction’ into the running order, but had completely neglected to think of anything to say. So with a quick round-the-table out the way, we got into the meat of the presentations.

Stephen Elstub of Newcastle University got us underway with a more theoretically-driven overview of mini-publics and their role in deliberation, which set the tone for the underlying theme of the workshop. Namely, different ways of imagining decision-making for environmental issues and the challenges and opportunities that may lie within these. This was followed by Emily Creamer from University of Edinburgh, who talked about her recently-completed doctoral research into community sustainability in Scotland. One of the really interesting things that jumped out at me from this was her observation of the role of ‘incomers’ to the community, and the vital role they had to play in initiating and maintaining ‘sustainability’ initiatives. This reminded me of Rosemary McKechnie’s work on ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ on the Isle of Man, except in this case it was the outsiders that were taking the lead.


Bregje van Veelen then moved us into the realms of energy, presenting the typology of community energy she’s been developing over the course of her now very advanced PhD work. It’s often easy to think of ‘community energy’ as a homogenous entity, so it was fantastic to see work that drilled down a bit into the different scales and motivations – not to mention the different technologies themselves – that are encompassed by the catch-all term ‘community energy’. Lastly before lunch, Natascha Mueller-Hirth delivered a powerful and thought-provoking talk on resource conflict and reconciliation in South Africa. By her own admission Natascha had been a bit worried beforehand about how her work would connect to the other more ‘environmentally’ focused material, but the connections were clear in terms of (in)justice, who benefits from environmental management or resource extraction decisions, and some of the difficulties and also commonalities when theory developed in a UK or Japanese context is applied elsewhere in the world. And as usual, it was delivered with characteristic enthusiasm and gusto.

We had been keen to limit the ‘presentation’ format as much as possible, so built opportunities for wider discussion into the time schedule. Perhaps the key theme that came out of this over the morning was ‘intermediaries’ – the question of who it is that connects processes at the very local level up to much larger-scale decision-making processes. All of the morning’s talks touched on this in one way or another, and set us up nicely for the afternoon. Speaking of intermediaries, lunch too proved a hoot as the UK contingent marvelled at the size and quality of portions in Japanese university canteens – once, of course, what most of the stuff was had been explained to them by the host researchers.


I was first up after lunch, talking about some of the latest results from my UKCCSRC-funded work just down the coast in Tomakomai. Tomakomai is where Japan’s first large-scale carbon dioxide capture and storage project is taking place, and my collaborator Jun Kita chipped in throughout to offer some physical science insights. Our topic was interdisciplinary research and its role in consensus-based governance, which was just as well as most of the questions I received were to do with the potential environmental impacts of sub-seabed CO2 leakage. Hence having a marine biologist on tap to help me out was greatly appreciated, although I was pleased to note that I could have answered most of the questions myself. I must be learning.

Taisuke Miyauchi followed me with a look at community and communities in Miyagi Prefecture after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I’ve long been a fan of Taisuke’s work having first met him in 2012, and it was fascinating to see him in action unpicking the complexities of community resettlement and reconstruction in small villages that had been destroyed by the tsunami. As a piece of long-term ethnographic and interview work there were some utterly fascinating insights into community dynamics, not least the different rules between villages for the collection of shore seaweed. Cultural norms for seaweed collection. See, this is why I love my job. Last before the break was Japanese environmental sociology star Makoto Nishikido, mirroring Bregje’s talk from the morning by looking at community energy in Japan since 2011. Makoto identified key drivers for community energy initiatives, noting not only environmental, but also social, economic and attainment/cultural pride drivers (in the open discussion after, we returned to this and drew out the importance of broad-based rationales for action as a way of getting round political attention-cycle issues…which is somewhere CCS repeatedly falls down). I also really liked Makoto’s assertion that community energy was a positive, tangible step towards a post-disaster Japan, moving on from purely protesting against nuclear power.



It is, however, not good to be in a room all day, so in lieu of some presentations we took an extended 50-minute campus walk. Taisuke took us up to the model dairy farm at the north end of Hokkaido University’s extensive campus, and on the way forestry expert Shinji Yamamoto – who will talk on Monday – pointed out various things. Seemingly the reason there are many foreign trees on the Hokudai campus is that they were imported from abroad in the 19th Century due to their quick-growing nature, which meant they could be used sooner to build battleships. On our tour we also saw old farm machinery, an antique bell, and the most unconvincing plastic cow ever. Plus, more importantly, a great opportunity for informal mixing between the UK and Japan – which as everyone knows is where all the really good ideas happen.

Final session of the day took us to Indonesia, where Masatoshi Sasaoka first challenged standard ‘separative’ models of nature conservation with an ethnobiological study of remote communities in east Indonesia. This included the most innovatively-titled methodology of the day: participatory parrot transect surveys. Humour aside, this struck me as a hugely innovative way to collect data – local residents were given a GPS device in a hat, and were asked to walk along a route of areas comprising of both protected and non-protected land, making a record on the device when they saw a certain type of parrot. A fascinating, multi-method piece of work that I look forward to reading more about. And last was Isma Rosvida, who I met in autumn 2012 when she had just come to Hokkaido from Indonesia and was now undertaking her PhD under the direction of Miayuchi and Sasaoka. She presented a political ecology of tin mining, where the parallels to Tomakomai were staggering – Isma noted the community didn’t seem to be opposed to tin mining, but couldn’t work out whether this was realty the case or whether there was another dynamic at play. I wondered out loud if there was a dynamic of dependency at play here, i.e. whether the influx of tin mining and associated declines and fishing and farming had made the communities somehow dependent on the tin mining industry and therefore reluctant to vocally or obviously oppose it.

Out of the afternoon, perhaps the strongest theme coming across from the discussion was the commonality in issues no matter what the national context. Difficulties of balancing up local understandings and processes with national-scale discourses, mismatches in benefits to those spatially proximate to developments versus those far away, variations in meaning of apparently common terms like ‘community’, ‘risk’ and ‘sustainability’.


Tomorrow we head to Tomakomai – not to see carbon dioxide storage, but to learn about the Tomatoh Commons to the east of the city (coincidentally the area I was reading about in the EIA for the Tomato-Azuma coal-fired power station from 1974). And then on Monday, we are back at Hokkaido University for a more dialogue-driven day. Thanks to those of you that tuned in online despite the early technical hitches, I’m looking forward to reporting back on the next two days.


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