The Nordic Environmental Social Sciences (NESS) conference is one of those events where we, researchers studying environmental issues from a social scientific perspective, have the opportunity to meet our peers and have great discussions. The NESS conference series started in 1993 and has since been biennially hosted in one of the Nordic countries, this time in Tampere, Finland. This year’s theme of hopefulness could not have been more apt in a time of increasingly gloomy environmental news. Indeed, the keynotes by Professor James Meadowcroft, Dr. Jo Mylan, Professor Esther Turnhout, Dr. Morgan Meyer and Professor Emeritus Yrjö Haila were critical but remained cautiously hopeful about the future.
Professor Meadowcroft highlighted how we are far from having exhausted the potential of environmental states, stressing how we cannot know their limits prior to testing them. Professor Turnhout, in turn, presented the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) as a test case for the democratization of knowledge through its regional and global assessments. However, she stressed that this is possible only if and when closure is resisted and technologies of humility and accountability fostered.
In addition to inspiring keynotes, one of the unique features of the NESS conferences is structuring working groups around full papers with pre-appointed commentators. This enables more detailed comments and fruitful discussions than the usual, rushed conference presentations. Together with other researchers from the Environmental Policy Research Group at the University of Helsinki, we hosted a working group titled ‘Framing energy: between hope, hype and hopelessness’.
In gathering the working group, we were inspired by the large amount of discourse-oriented studies examining energy politics and transitions in the recent years. These studies often discuss meaning-making processes related to currently occurring changes in energy systems at large, and how these changes are turned into issues and concerns. We wanted to bring some of this research together to ask how the multiple aspects surrounding energy become issues. Are there cases where they do not become issues at all? How do particular framings produce specific outcomes?
What we noticed in the working group were wide-ranging and divergent perspectives on the topic. From a theoretical perspective, contributions ranged from psychological approaches and sociotechnical imaginaries to performative politics. The working group examined energy issues at multiple scales: from the individual through to the local, regional, national and international. Empirically, the studies relied on a variety of materials, including surveys, interviews, news articles, academic articles and participation observation. For an overview of the working group’s papers, please see pages 44-50 of the NESS book of abstracts.
Despite such divergent theoretical, scalar and empirical starting points, we did see similarities in how energy issues were approached. First, energy was viewed as deeply entangled with societal processes and practices. Second, and related, most studies paid attention to issues around energy as material-semiotic, where it is undesirable to separate discursive developments from material processes of change. Finally, most cases were based on empirically rich material, reflecting the wide availability of energy issues to be studied.
With this brief summary we, the organizers, would like to thank all the participants of our working group and wish them well in proceeding with their work! We would also like to thank all the participants and especially the organizers of the hopefulNESS 2017 conference. We look forward to our next meet-up in Luleå in 2019!
Kamilla Karhunmaa & Karoliina Isoaho