Cautious Hope at the 2017 NESS Conference in Tampere

Highlights from the keynote presentations

written by Marko Ulvila, photos by Jere Nieminen


The bi-annual Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference took this year place in Tampere, Finland with the theme HopefulNESS. It gathered together more than two hundred academics mainly from the Nordic countries for three intensive days of sharing and discussion. The programme included five key-note presentations from distinguished scholars and more than a hundred presentations in thirty working groups.


The conference started with the keynote presentation by prof. James Meadowcroft from the Carleton University, Canada. In his talk on confronting the limits of the environmental state Prof. Meadowcroft drew on his vast expertise on political sciences and energy and environmental policies. He presented three structural elements that pose fundamental constrains to what modern states can do to manage environment:

– economic foundations with the growth compulsion in capitalism

– international system with competition of profoundly unequal nation states

– national political systems with the limits of representative democracy


Though all these dynamics contribute to increasing critical environmental harm, prof. Meadowcroft argued that there is no need for desperation. For example in the context of climate there has been clear progress during the quarter of the century. In summing up, he pointed that the three constraints pose significant structural obstacles, but are not absolute. Given sufficient time it is possible to mitigate structural obstacles and find solutions to particular environmental problems. Therefore one should push the idea and practice of environmental state further so that such solutions would be developed and applied.



The second keynote presentation by Dr. Josephine Mylan from the University of Manchester (UK) discussed sustainable consumption in transition. She applied a reconfiguration view on consumption  in contrast with reformist of revolutionary perspectives on the topic. Key elements in the reconfiguration view are interest in ordinary practices and multiple drivers moving the agency of consumers.  Thereby also role of firms becomes interesting.


Her three cases illustrated the dynamics and challenges in the field of sustainable consumption. Over the years the environmental impact related to packaged orange juice has increased due to the emphasis on freshness. This is not only a matter of consumer choice, but also a lock-in caused by investments in certain kind of plantations, packaging, transport and retail systems. Shifts to low-temperature laundry practices demonstrates a case where detergent companies have promoted a more sustainable practice with positive results. This has required a process or co-evolution and reconfiguration by many actors, including machine vendors, regulators and cultural norms. The case of meat is in early transition, with vegetable based products on a rise but no decrease of meat consumption yet visible in statistics.


On the second day the first keynote was delivered by prof. Esther Turnhout from the Wageningen University (NL).  Her talk on politics of knowledge in the context of biodiversity started with the observation how knowledge is performative and plays out in the service of making order and defining what is normal. One outcome of such definitions and classifications is that they and reality become mutually aligned and constituted. Biodiversity science is an example of such urge for classification. There the shifts from morphology to DNA analysis recreate how species are grouped and related, even in botanic gardens. In biodiversity conservation classifications produce for example categories of endangered species and hot spots of vulnerability and value.


The concept of ecosystem services is one manifestation where biodiversity knowledge interacts with other aspects of society. Some feel that that the concept will help to highlight the value of biodiversity, while the critics point to the risk of commodification. One example of emerging issues is how in the climate policies a single tree can be seen mainly as a carbon store with potential monetary value when kept in place. Such measurementality plays an increasing role in the biodiversity knowledge and governance, leading to the narrow view of ecosystem services as the dominant view.


Prof. Turnhout concluded with slightly optimistic note about the developments in the Inter-governmental platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES). Its conceptual framework has incorporated also the knowledge systems of indigenous communities, besides the western scientific understanding. This might open up possibilities to re-imagine biodiversity and its values, leading the democratisation of biodiversity knowledge.


The second keynote of the day was delivered by Dr. Morgan Meyer from the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée (FR).  In his presentation on domesticating sustainability he covered the rich field of participatory knowledge and technology creation especially in the DYI and open source communities. The examples from DYI biology, hacking of agricultural hardware and open source ecology demonstrate currents that want to contribute to sustainable solutions from the bottom-up. There are real issues in the ethics of DYI biology since technologies can and are used for both destructive and constructive purposes. He concluded with concepts of promissory equipment and the fabric of participation that are shaping knowledge creation in the field of sustainability.


The final keynote was made by professor emeritus Yrjö Haila from the University of Tampere (FI). Building on his decades long experience, prof. Haila started by discussing the definition of biodiversity that at times is so wide that it comes politically meaningless. Wrong understanding can also lead to proposals that make no sense, such as assessing the prehuman state of the environment and attempts to return it. Similarly, seeing humans and nature separate is serious nonsense.

Prof. Haila pointed out how it is necessary to re-frame the understanding of biodiversity. One way to do is to focus on the human dependence on the biosphere and work through the different scales of relevance, from global to micro. In the reworking it would be important to avoid an singularization, atomistic reductionism to entities and technocratic closures of the understanding of biodiversity. He further pointed to the concept of vital force by molecular biologist Franklin Harold as a key one in developing the understanding biodiversity. Focus needs to be on processes, in particular reproductive cycles. They have impacts on metabolism, physiology and are shaped by developmental-historical processes. Cultivation is one such dynamics that works the relationships, and weeds, the faithful companions, an expression of the vital force in all processes.



In this approach, the biodiversity question is about how to live together with our companion organisms. The responses to the biodiversity crises depends on the time frame.  It is useful to look at least the following time frames and their defining characters:

1) Immediate time, real time: stability, regular cycles

2) Personal time: synchronization (with seasons, for example)

3) Institutional, collective time: synchronization with whatever gives support

4) Political time: challenging “Trump time”

5) Historical time: constraints & enablements


In an important sence, biodiversity crisis a sink scarcity problem. There are no place or location which takes on influences potentially disturbing a system without causing observable change. This contributes to the process of homogenisation, where sterilisation is the final outcome. This is the opposite to the working of the vital force. To enhance the vital force, considerate stewardship is needed, along with the prevention of criminal neglect and plunder. In this, artistic expressions such as immigrant speciesor ballast plants can be useful.


Note: video records of the keynotes are available at



Marko Ulvila is Tampere based non-fiction writer and organizer working on sustainable well-being and ecological democracy.