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World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment: Discourse Coalitions and their Limits

David Ritter - 1st July 2011
Merton College hosted the 2011 World Forum on Enterprise and Environment

The 2011 World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment held at Oxford's Merton College this week was devoted to ‘valuing ecosystem services’. The annual event is convened by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment based at the University of Oxford. The founding Director, the charismatic Sir David King, was formerly the UK’s Chief Scientist, a position he held with distinction though not without noble controversy. King has made a series of memorable public interventions, including bravely (and accurately) describing climate change as a greater global threat than terrorism. This week King entered the public debate again, calling on UK Prime Minister David Cameron to show greater leadership on climate change.

The 2011 World Forum was a dynamic event, as the presentations (available for viewing online here) hopefully make clear. The conversation in the breaks was lively and the smaller group sessions gave rise to a series of memorable rebellions by delegates good naturedly refusing to accept the given tenets of the exercise. High marks to the Smith School for a thoroughly useful and convivial occasion.

The attendees were an eclectic bunch, including academics, business people, bureaucrats, NGO representatives, students, journalists and artists. (Late on the first day I found myself between a merchant banker and a soft drink company executive, with all of us nodding in agreement with an eminent animal ecologist). The delegates to the World Forum might be understood as reflecting a discourse coalition, comprised of actors that are not normally brought together politically, unusually working in concert in pursuit of a common interest. Nevertheless, there was also a certain sameness to the attendees, given the near complete absence of outsider voices at the gathering. In broad ideological terms there was no doubt that the Forum fell squarely within the hegemony identified by Steven Bernstein as the ‘compromise of liberal environmentalism’.

Drawing on the work of Maarten Hajer, discourse coalitions can be said to revolve around specific story-lines to which the members collectively adhere in the course of their shared political agenda. Here the relevant storyline is reflected in the introduction to the Forum program which stated that ‘we are not yet valuing biodiversity and ecosystem services in accordance with the vital importance they have for human wellbeing’. The program then makes clear that by virtue of their shared normative concern for the ecological crisis, and by dint of their respective expertise, the delegates will be expected to collectively make a meaningful contribution to resolving the conundrum of non-valuation.

Conceptualizing the conditions of life as ‘ecosystem services’ (something about which I’ve got serious misgivings), is a classic instance of what Hajer has dubbed a ‘discourse of ecological modernization’. Although it was very notable that none of the speakers at the Forum adopted a vulgar monetary approach to the question of how to remedy the failure to adequately value biodiversity (and the program expressly suggested that proper valuing could well occur in ‘economic, moral, aesthetic, social or cultural terms’), nonetheless the clear tendency was to seek economistic solutions, reflecting the inclinations and experience of many of those present.

The delegates’ presumed shared commitment to a more appropriate valuation of biodiversity stands in broad contrast to what are, in truth, widely diverging beliefs, interests, roles and identities. The bloke from Shell seemed like a nice guy who was sincere in his personal concern, but he works for a business entity that seeks to maximize profits from the sale of fossil fuels and has been implicated in political efforts to block action on climate change, and I work for Greenpeace. The operating and amiable conceit of the Forum in particular and of discourse coalitions in general is that ‘we all want the same thing’, when actually personal and institutional beliefs and affiliations are inevitably a good deal more complicated than that.

Discourse coalitions can be extremely useful and both the conversations and the personal bonds forged at events like the Forum are unquestionably helpful, but they don’t alter underlying contests, structures and arrangements. After all, as the Smith School’s Angela Wilkinson told the Forum in her presentation, ‘the future is not neutral; it is the playing field of power’.