By Dr Hemant Ojha.
In a paper recently published by One Earth, I have presented the case for a new and engaged Himalayan Sustainability Science.
The Himalayan region is facing a new crisis under climate change, rapid economic transformation, and escalating geopolitical tensions. A large body of Himalayan sciences has endeavoured to understand this challenge but has failed to engage meaningfully with the local people and policymakers. A new sustainability science should not only understand and interpret the emerging challenges but also strengthen the societal capability to mange the risk.
I think the Himalayan biophysical science has done wonderful work to collect and analyse data for establishing physical basis of climate change, ecosystems and water. That is a basic and useful disciplinary work of science. But then when you want to move to the domain of politics/management/decisionmaking, it is important to recognise other ways of knowing as well. The current Himalayan science work is not enough.
It is wrong to assume that you can do a great science that can automatically be translated into decisions and practice. This is where academic knowledge disciplines have failed (just in my example of landslides in Nepal Himalayas). In the Himalayan sceince-policy-practice policy process, I would have seen more interactive spaces (in more fundamental sense of deliberation) across science (of all related disciplines), politics, entrepreneurs, community leaders. These do not have to be big gatherings – but quality deliberative practices among representative voices and knowledge positions. These dialogical / co-production spaces should cascade from global to Himalayan regional to local levels and vice versa (this will be very like a situation of environmental federalism – in which the global scale does not dictate lower scales, but engage in the process of co-production itself).
In my recent work in Nepal, I have worked with national teams of experts to downscale climate science to the city or a small watershed level in a couple of cases, and then also bring other kinds of knowledge (of local experts making sense of the water and climate phenomena based on their observation and reflections into actions, community groups, utility service managers and others) to make sense of the risks and explore strategies to manage them. It is about co-creating knowledge between disciplines, and non-disciplinary, practical knowledge. This kind of co-creating process mobilises larger faculty of human wisdom around a problem, empowers the disadvantaged, and multiplies collective energy to tackle the common challenge. I think this is what should be the goal of any knowledge making and applying process. This approach is very different from the one in which discipline-blind experts aim to translate their ‘science into policy’ and also ‘practice’.
There is of course no one right way of doing things – it all depends on contexts but the principle of co-creation of wisdom by accommodating all kinds of knowledge works at every scale of sustainability governance. The cross-scalar process is also equally important. For example, if the climate risks in the Pacific Island countries is being discussed at the global level, it is important to have downscaled analysis of climate change and knowledge co-creating forums to be held at the Pacific regional level. If Himalayan challenges are being discussed in the global forum, this must be preceded by and build on the local and sub-regional level dialogues.
While I emphasise co-creation of knowledge, I should also alert you on a lot of quick-fixes people use in the name of participation, science-policy dialogues or similar languages. There is a huge gap in methodology. Few disagree these days on the value of interactive dialogues but there are too few methodological innovations. The challenge thus becomes how we translate the idea of co-creation genuinely in practice. Almost all of academic work loves asking why, but hardly engage with how questions. On the contrary, development practitioners and policy makers appear to be interested in tools and too often overlook the underlying purpose of such tools. Therefore we need a whole new discipline of knowledge and community of practice for tackling sustainability – wherein we define knowledge as something that thrives in the community of practice and not on just on academic papers.