STS Interventions into Green Futures. A report on the EASST funded workshop organized in Poznań, Poland

by Aleksandra Lis, Agata Stasik

The workshop Making Futures: Green alternatives and STS Interventions”, which took place on 24th and 25th November 2017 in at the Adam Mickiewicz University Poznań, Poland, was the result of an exchange of ideas between senior and junior scholars in STS, both from Western and Eastern Europe. This exchange happened via e-mails between Luigi Pellizzoni’s (University of Trieste), Les Levidow’s (Open University, London), Ingmar Lippert (IT University of Copenhagen) and Aleksandra Lis (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań) in the autumn of 2016. The four researchers did meet before at a number of conferences and events so they knew each other’s interests and publications. They have all worked on issues related to the environment, climate change and innovations, taking on various perspectives, examining different cases and using different methodological tools. However, in one way or another, they all position themselves in the field of STS. The particular questions about “what is green?” and “what kind of socio-technical realities are brought about by various green visions?” came from Luigi and Les. Ingmar and Aleksandra added a new challenge to it and asked whether STS has methodological and theoretical tools on offer to address them. 

The decision to hold the workshop in Poznań, Poland, was motivated by the will to enable an exchange of ideas between Western and Eastern European scholars in STS. In Poland, it is difficult to speak of an STS field as such. There are several scholars doing research on socio-technical systems, controversies, and science who are scattered across different universities. There is a group of philosophers and sociologists from the Nicholas Copernicus University in Toruń who identify themselves with STS – mainly theoretically. Krzysztof Abriszewski from Toruń was the first Polish scholar to introduce actor-network tradition in a thorough and reflexive way to the Polish academic community in social sciences and humanities. In 2014, the EASST Conference was organized in Toruń, which clearly showed the raising ambitions of that centre. Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań is another place were philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists are inspired by STS concepts. Both Toruń and Poznań reach out to other places, for example Warsaw, for fruitful collaborations. One of the successful examples is the cooperation between Aleksandra Lis from the Mickiewicz University in Poznań with Agata Stasik from the Koźmiński University in Warsaw on controversies around fracking. There is also a growing number of STS-friendly scholars, mainly sociologists and anthropologists, who do research on environment, climate change and health. The application for the EASST fund to organize the workshop was seen by the Polish STS academics as a chance to engage in interesting discussions, to meet scholars from outside as well as inside of Poland.  

The workshop organizing team found it important to discuss the following issues: (1) various visions of ‘green future’ and alternative socio-technical realities which could be enacted in these visions, (2) uncertainty that is inherent in any kind of future-making practice and (3) the potential of STS interventions for building, stabilizing, imagining, and operationalizing futures. Politically, the objective was to question the predominance of techno- and market-fixes as solutions proposed to address environmental challenges mainly by the Western/Northern experts, policy makers and business actors. One of the recent manifestations of this mainstream type of thinking is eco-modernism articulated well in the Breakthrough Institute’s Ecomodernist Manifesto (Adafu-Adjaje et al., 2015). The document was written as a response to the challenges of the Anthropocene – the new geological era distinguished from the Holocene by acknowledging the role of human beings as a geological force. The solution advocated in that document is to stabilize climate change with the use of social, economic and technological powers to maintain economic modernization while protecting the environment. Two other reports written in a similar spirit are the Accelerationist Manifesto (2013) and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015). While the former sees capitalist ‘acceleration’ as a way to get out of environmental problems, the latter proposes to intensify development of technologies to ‘free us from biological and environmental constraints’, as well as from conventional work. All the abovementioned perspectives assume the possibility to de-couple economic growth from environmental degradation and see techno-science as one of the main remedies. The workshop in Poznań was meant to become a space for critiquing such assumptions, deconstructing them and reflecting on other possible options, like community-based innovation, non-action or solutions that are based on other types of cosmologies, often seen as non-scientific or non-rational from the Western/Northern perspective.   

Twelve abstracts were accepted but in the end, only nine papers were presented. They were ordered into three sessions: (1) scales and scale-making, (2) promises and temporalities, and (3) infrastructures and their actors. As each paper had an assigned reviewer, all participants benefited from detailed feedback. Additionally, Ingmar Lippert delivered a keynote speech on conceptual and methodological perspectives for studying how environmental assessments rely on practices of defining baseline conditions. The talk was titled: “Dispositifs of green futures: certainty and tactics in baselining environments”. Ingmar proposed to reflect on the ways in which green futures are prefigured in baseline accounts in environmental monitoring and assessment infrastructures. The Foucauldian notion of the dispositif was used by Ingmar to help him explore both the simultaneously semiotic and material problematization and configuration in such environmental accountability infrastructures. In the first part of his talk, he explored recent discursive dynamics about greening economies, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ecosystem services and natural capital, green infrastructures and capitalist acceleration. He concluded that one of the requirements for knowing presences and pasts are environmental baselines. In the second part, he turned to participant observation and his informal interview-based engagement with agents who are tasked to account for the greenness of recent pasts to ground claims about the greenness of futures both in the present as well as in an imagined future. His work was to analyze mundane environmental data practices in such accountability work as well as tactical and reflexive engagement by these practitioners of environmental accounting, monitoring and assessment.   

The workshop closed with a presentation of two local artist photographers who are experimenting with visual representations of humans’ future outside of the Planet Earth. They showed short films comprised of various visions of the outer-space shelter, food, mobility and agriculture from the popular culture. Their own work is an attempt to artistically communicate research on extra-terrestrial technologies carried out in Poland. Surprising to themselves, this kind of research projects are often messy and resemble more a home-based tinkering than a high-tech work in hyper-modern labs. They related their observations to the workshop’s questions and tried to reconstruct visions of the future life that the humans may lead outside of the planet Earth – the possibilities and limitations of making human lifestyles look the way we know them now. The implied visions brought about many further questions: whose visions are they? To what extent are the material conditions for life outside the Earth known and to what extent are they imagined? Who produces knowledge about them and who imagines them? Whose cultural values are embedded in these visions? The presentation of two photographers also provoked questions about differences and similarities between STS and artistic fields. It was interesting to observe how some participants tried to fit the artists’ narrative into their scholarly perspective – by taking the artists as objects of STS research or by encouraging them to adopt a more critical perspective on techno-scientific development.  

The critical perspective underlined in the call for abstracts dominated workshop conversations as the participants kept on questioning various techno-scientific fixes proposed by business, policy-makers or experts. The optimism of technological modernization was put into doubt – both in the participant’s presentations as well as in the discussants’ comments and questions raised by the public. One of the workshop goals was to foreground alternative visions of the future and solutions to environmental challenges and that has been accomplished by several speakers. The workshop was a very pleasant event both intellectually and socially. Thanks to the EASST funding, the participants were offered food and accommodation as well as a partial allowance for travel (upon request). This made it easier for junior scholars to come over to Poznań. In the evening of the first workshop day, everybody joined a dinner at a local restaurant. The food, wine and conversations were good and the day ended at the main Christmas market in the city.  


 In his presentation, Les Levidow critically scrutinized the concept of green economy, the idea coming from 1980s which tried to reconcile sustainable development and economic growth. Based on the comparative analysis of Green Economy Initiatives by UNEP and the World Bank, or Green Economy Coalition promoted by i.e. nature-conservation groups and Environmental Justice Movement linked to other social movements, Les traced how specific policy initiatives differently co-construct the “green” and the “economy”, but also the “nature” and the “society”, and, as a result, build different stances toward contestation or accommodation of power by actors dominating the current system.     

The paper by Kostas Latoufis from the National Technical University of Athens and Aristotle Tympas from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens dealt with the Wind Empowerment Movement that emerged inspired by Hugh Piggott’s small wind turbine design manuals and the practical hands-on construction courses offered by Hugh Piggott. Kostas and Aristotle not only showed how the design travelled through the manuals but also considered the mid-70s development of small wind turbines in Scotland to be a key episode in the development of modern small scale electricity producing wind turbines.  

Adam Choryński’s paper focused on other aspect of community-based actions connected to climate change and energy choices. He analyzed the factors influencing resilience of small towns and local municipalities in the Western Poland in face of the more and more common extreme weather events caused by the changing climate. The research was based both on the analysis of official data as well as in-depth interviews. In his presentation, Adam focused on theoretical tools he wants to apply to understand this phenomenon. He discussed the policy arrangements approach (Arts et al. 2006; Liefferink 2006), different modes of governance, and various understandings of innovation in adaptive strategies, focusing especially the role of knowledge for building resilience. Discussants of Adam’s paper were very helpful in proposing ways in which STS perspectives could be applied to his work, in particular in order to understand the processes through which various concepts, such as, for example, resilience are historically constructed by institutions. 

A wonderful theoretical paper on the alternatives to techno-scientific visions of the future was given by Luigi Pellizzoni who proposed to discuss several concepts, such as “pre-emption”, “messianic time” and “socio-material entanglements”. In an inspiring talk, Luigi share his reflection on a new research agenda for STS which could articulate and address pre-emptive politics as a politics of time that prevents any actual change. Finally, he asked whether the idea of ‘inoperosity’ could underpin a research agenda for STS aimed at articulating the possibility of a different science and technology at large. As Luigi explained: “Inoperosity does not mean contemplation or resignation, but a non-purposeful, non-instrumental mode of living and acting, capable for this reason of suspending the apparatuses of domination and exploitation.” A lively discussion followed, where participants questioned the concept of inoperosity on the basis of that in the modern societies actors are socialized to operate with the concept of efficiency and to create visions, goals and instruments with short-term goals.   

A big question mark was put by Aleksandra Lis from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and Agata Stasik from the Koźmiński University in Warsaw with regard to the future vision that stands behind development of an electric vehicle (EV) in Poland. In the conditions of Poland’s electricity production heavily depending on coal, greening of the transport system with EVs seems to be at least an ambivalent project. The new object, which at the moment is still at a design stage, can thus be classified both as “green” and “black”, and its ultimate quality and status will depend on the capability of various actors to stabilize a desired vision. The two STS researchers from Poland critically examined the government’s discourse on electromobility as well as the first steps to construct a Polish EV for a wider public.  

Roberto Cantoni’s paper scrutinized another energy project as a case of technopolitcs. The Moroccan megaproject of solar energy, Desertec, was presented by Roberto as a process of downscaling solar energy from transnational to national contexts. He analyzed how technological choices regarding energy technologies contain multiple rationales: scientific, economic, political, social, and environmental. Drawing on the contribution of Gabrielle Hecht, he stressed that preferences for megaprojects over microprojects are rooted in political visions of Moroccan techno-political elite’s and discussed the uncertain future of the “solar diplomacy”.  

Workshop participants (from the letft): Agata Stasik, Piotr Matczak, Les Levidow, Adam Choryński, Ingmar Lippert. 

 Other theoretically minded contributions came from Jeroen Oomen on the “Holistic ecomodernism and resistant reality” and from Siddharth Sareen and Stefan Bouzarovski on “Bridging concepts: Applying a geography of energy transition to the empirics of urban solar uptake”. Jeroan focused on the question of environmental degradation and its relation to scale. While environmental problems usually arise locally, solutions are sought for at larger scales. According to Jeroen, it is within this tension, the tension between the large and the small, between the dominant narratives and the lives of the marginalised – whoever and wherever they may be – that STS may be used to unearth some of the deeper assumptions underlying the ecomodernist plight.  

 Sid and Stefan asked about the possible contribution of geography to the study of solar power uptake. By focussing on (de-)territorialisation and Haarstad’s and Wanvik’s (2016) work to analyze assemblages of unstable energy landscapes as possibilities, the authors proposed to attend to constituent empirically-researchable elements. Unpacking such elements produces a relational understanding of power inequities determining energy transitions. Animating the dialectic of (de)territorialisation with bridging tools like institutional assemblages and networks, accountability relations, and shifts in materiality, helps to arrive at empirically-embedded accounts of the stakes for key actors involved and the political nature of the legal and built environments that modulate energy transitions. 

Andrzej W. Nowak discussed the consequences of the concept of the Anthropocene for the existing knowledge structures. His gloomy, apocalyptic vision of a disaster which looms on the horizon was received with a mixture of outrage and surprise by the workshop participants. However, despite the pessimism, the main question asked by Andrzej was how the contemporary societies can create knowledge structures outside of the capitalist system and how can the non-capitalist archives be mobilized to create new social orders in a post-apocalyptic context. This philosophical reflection preceded the presentation of the local artists which, by contrast, provoked the participants to brightly look into the post-Earth future.  

To sum up, most of the presentations and following discussions touched upon the topics of eco-modernism and the stabilization of new technologies as part of technopolitcs. The critical approach dominated all discussions. Even though, no new concepts were coined, it seems that the workshop gave the participants the best that STS has on offer – the attitude to re-construct the underlying assumptions behind green visions and to de-construct them by asking whose visions those are and whether the solutions proposed by particular actors can really make them come true. Apart from the critique, the workshop also provided the participants with examples of alternatives to the mainstream techno-scientific development. The most inspiring alternative vision was the one of community-based power production and the analysis of it, which showed that alternative designs do not need big capital in order to survive throughout time and space changes. The diversity of participants, in terms of their theoretical perspectives, experience and nationalities as well as the analyzed cases created a lively space for exchange of ideas and intense discussions. The workshop was also an important source of inspiration for the growing STS community in Poland.