She had me, the taxidriver. After telling her how much I had enjoyed the Earth System Governance (ESG) conference in Norwich this week, she asked me: ‘So, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned’. It took me a while to answer that question.
Looking back at the conference I have not learned much ‘new’. Yes, I have gained a richer insight of environmental problems and possible solutions based on a series of rich case studies; I have seen old and new theories applied, tested, questioned, argued against or being confirmed; and I have been able to recalibrate my ‘ESG thermometer’. In other words, I have gained a great insight in where the field is currently heading empirically and theoretically.
The biggest thing I learnt, though, and this was something I could not really discuss with my taxidriver, is all the Babylonian speech confusion. We are all working hard to claim our own niche, and are almost having a battle of terms. Some look at “the ‘new’ environmental governance”, others at “environmental governance experiments”, and yet again others at “voluntary environmental programmes”. I fully admit that I am actively participating in this language game.
What binds all these studies together is that scholars are interested in a shift away of steering environmental behaviour by state actors through command-and-control type regulation towards the involvement of a plurality of actors in such steering (may they be governments, NGOs, businesses or citizens) through less-coercive strategies that often allow for self-steering and market based mechanisms.
This is not a new insight. The regulation and governance literature has been writing about that transition for a long time now, and many ESG scholars appear to work with that regulation and governance literature – or appear keen to take up this literature. That in itself is an exciting development. As a regulatory scholar myself I could not wish for more than to see regulation and governance literature becoming more at the centre of ESG debates.
What I hope that the ESG scholars applying this literature will add to it, is a critical reflection. At the very basis we should pose questions such as: What regulatory and governance instruments and strategies work where, why and how, and whether are insights transferable to other contexts and situations? But more importantly, what does this contemporary trend of experiments, new governance, and voluntary programs really bring? To what extent is it possible to speed up and scale up effective responses to environmental problems? I was happy to see that many do indeed pose such questions in their studies and am looking forward to the results of these.
So, whilst maybe I have not learned much new, I have a somewhat better insight in how my knowledge and experience can add to existing ESG debates. In addition, the real value of this conference for me was in meeting old friends and strengthening relationships, as well as establishing new contacts with a range of inspirational colleagues.