Environmental Histories vs Environmental Futures? In Conversation with Josie Chambers

Scientific figure with stripes signifying climate variations.

Editor’s note: This post is part of our new ‘Doing Environmental History’ series, in which contributors share their insights for engaging in the work of environmental history: from practicalities of research to pedagogy to big ideas about connection and collaboration.

When assistant professor Josie Chambers discusses societal transformations for environmental sustainability, the connection between histories and futures is clear. One’s agency builds upon past power dynamics, so it determines how one sees the future, she explains. Her work at Urban Futures Studio, Copernicus Institute (Utrecht University, the Netherlands) looks at sustainable futures, yet past histories are not disregarded. Hand in hand, history and future are explored. In her research, methods are creative, imagination and action are collaborative, and politics is key to transformation. Having a conversation with a scholar immersed in studying futures unveils the role of history in futuring, challenging the dichotomy of history versus future. PhD candidate Valeria Zambianchi recently talked with Josie Chambers about co-production of knowledge, the concept of failure in environmental conservation, methodological rigour and “futuring” towards sustainability. The following post is of Valeria’s conversation with Professor Chambers, and the conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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Valeria Zambianchi (VZ): Your academic work looks at the processes of co-production and of reimagination of futures towards environmental sustainability. To do so, how do you approach environmental history?

Josie Chambers (JC): Engaging with history is key, also for non-historians. If you try to work on futures without paying attention to what’s happened in the past, it’s akin to driving forward with virtual reality goggles on. Part of the major reason why co-production and futuring initiatives can go wrong is that they are too much driven by elite perspectives, which are focused only on the future. Insufficient acknowledgement of past (and present) injustices and power dynamics is a constraint on the possibilities to go forward.

VZ: It is necessary to bring pluralistic views in studying the environment and this is something you intend to do in your work. Methodologically speaking, how do you include a broader, more pluralistic vision of histories and futures?

JC: From my perspective, I’m concerned with designing research with a diversity of perspectives in the room. We have so many different imagined ideas of what has happened in the past. And we construct our interpretation of histories backwards, often bringing these ideas into the future. We have to acknowledge that there are limitations with any methodology, but particularly with some of the dominant ones. Something I’m interested in is how methodologies can open up our imagination to engage with our creativity, to think about how things could be otherwise. But not in a way that’s disconnected from history in the past.

VZ: How do you intend to address these points?

JC: A big issue is when researchers employ methods to fit the world into preexisting categories. We see this a lot with, for example, hypothesis testing and with how the research is framed around it. I think this can be quite limiting because you’re trying to get the world to fit your pre-existing categories, as opposed to using research to question and challenge fundamental assumptions, break them down and question those categories in the first place. And I believe that’s much more work we need to do going forward, given all of the conflicting views in the world.

VZ: I find your answer can spark many reflections on how to do research. There are many methodological avenues to explore beyond fixed parameters, and there’s also much to learn through such exploration. How do you do rigorous research in humanities and social sciences?

JC: We very much need rigour in terms of breadth, not just narrow rigour. When we do a study that asks “Does this one treatment function well for this one particular outcome?”, we may be very rigorous in the way the science is done, but we are only looking at that one particular means and that one particular end. I believe that’s not rigorous in the sense of broadening the range of different ends or the potential means to include in a study. So I think we need to be rigorous in terms of bringing a plurality of perspectives into the questions that we’re asking to orient what kinds of means matter for whom and what kinds of ends matter for whom.

VZ: This is inspiring to hear, especially when thinking of expanding the meaning of what is understood as rigorous research. We assign to the word “rigour” a certain meaning—stringent, disciplined—but it’s not set in stone. It should progress as science and knowledge progress, and I would imagine that doing so requires flexibility, innovation, and creativity. How do you engage with creativity and creative processes in research?

JC: Creativity is something I intrinsically enjoy. So it’s been a real pleasure to be in such a supportive space for that at the Urban Futures Studio. I’m especially interested in how creativity can conceptually deepen the way we engage with certain concepts and how we connect to each other through these processes.

Whether it’s music or whether it’s drawing, or whether it’s building or creating something new, these creative practices invite people in to imagine and apply their imaginaries. I think you can surface different assumptions that way because they can become more visible and you’re stimulated to play with those, especially in group settings. So I’ve seen that in research processes that build boundary objects together and use artistic practices to do so. There you see the expression of different worldviews in the creation of a visible boundary object, without the purpose to come to a final, perfect boundary object. The purpose of it is to transform and change the object, and in doing so, to change people’s perceptions of what is possible or even desirable. And I believe there’s real power in those processes. The actual process of engaging with creative practices leads you to so many new ideas that I think these practices are most powerful as methods to deepen your thinking, to connect, and to imagine all sorts of new possibilities.[1]

VZ: A concept your work deeply engages with is one of imaginaries. In your view, can imaginaries help us connect histories with futures?

JC: Any project looking into history or future deeply holds ideas and assumptions on what is imagined as a good world. For example, one person’s perspective of a good future can be their utopia. However, that same perspective can end up being someone else’s dystopia in terms of how it plays out. We need to create space to acknowledge these differences and construct more collaboratively-produced actions and ideas. So I’m interested in collaborative ways of interrogating different imaginaries to foster collective understandings that ultimately transform how we go about different forms of collective action.

Gray illustrated map.
Portion of a map by visual artist Qiu Zhijie, exhibited at the 31st Bienal de Artes de São Paulo, 2014. Photo credit: Lais Castro Trajano, via Flickr.
[Image description: Gray illustrated map with many labels in different fonts, islands, oceanographic features, and ships. Labels include “Sea of Imaginary Voyage,” “Wild Island Stories” (cut-off), “Extraterrestrial Liquid Water,” and more.]

VZ: This is beautifully put. I believe this perspective on imaginaries as a tool to question assumptions echoes a paper of yours on failures. Could you expand on that?

JC: Two colleagues and I realized that in the field of environmental conservation people talked more and more about failure. People were almost becoming excited about failure and the opportunity to learn from it, with no reflection on the learning process and how deeply that allows, for example, to question the intervention in the first place. So we wrote a paper on this topic. We argue that your evaluation framework—how you collect and analyze data, and, importantly, assess outcomes—often only cares about the kind of indicators that you have designated in the first place as being “good.” This is a bit like a reinforcing cycle or self-fulfilling prophecy. And it never opens up space, because the discourse around learning and failure remains so narrow.

VZ: That’s a very careful account of failures in environmental projects. You mentioned it focused on environmental conservation. Could you give us a bit of your academic trajectory, on how you got passionate and started pursuing your current research interests?

JC: Going back to my undergrad, I started actually quite far from social sciences. I spent four years working in a honeybee lab, dissecting honeybee brains and doing genetics research. I’ve always been very driven as a researcher by doing research on what feels like it matters. I’d say I am very societally-oriented. So I found it very difficult to thread a connection between what I was doing in the lab and even very real problems of colony collapse disorder. I really didn’t like the lab environment and engaging with species in that way. So I leaned more towards studying monkeys in the wild. But then again, I started to question: why stay in the forest counting how often monkeys are grooming each other? Is that really making any kind of difference for habitat loss challenges, which are much more social issues and related to agriculture? These questions pushed me out of the forest into coffee and cacao farms, which my masters was about, and then eventually my PhD. I studied the politics of win-win interventions that propose conserving nature and working with communities. Yet I started to feel a little bit removed from a political ecology perspective that does the critical research and shows why things are failing but without offering any alternatives.

I turned towards researching co-production, on how to design research processes so that they are deeply connected to creating change. You work with different stakeholders along the way, also meaning not working with certain stakeholders in certain ways because of power relations.

And I was very lucky to then have the opportunity to collaboratively analyze thirty-two different co-production initiatives around the world. This got me back to an earlier point where we are really limited in our imagination during these coproduction processes. It’s really hard to think on a radically transformative scale, even though that is the kind of change we need.

So that’s what especially pushed me towards working on transformative change, the role of research, futures and imagination. Increasingly also creativity and the arts, and non-Western perspectives.

VZ: It seems that indeed you had a very reflexive process throughout your academic journey, which is also very humanizing because it was driven by your questions and your needs as a researcher.[2] I believe many working on the environment across the humanities and social sciences also had such a process. Now that your work largely focuses on futuring, could you share with us your perspective on the relationship between environmental histories and futures?

JC: I would say people too often construct history and future as opposites. For example, in the US, in elementary school we say, “it’s history class.” That’s ubiquitous, everywhere. Say that now people were to introduce a similar emphasis on futures. I would say that this absolutely should not be two different subjects. The separation of history and futures could be even more problematic than having no consideration for futures at all. I would encourage a fundamental transformation in our education by engaging with temporality and how that shapes our human, social and political processes. So I think that history and future very much shouldn’t be opposites, because to meaningfully do futuring, you always start with the past. You need awareness of the past to not reproduce the same power dynamics that will be implicitly within any sort of futuring process.

VZ: Yes, it’s a worldview where futures and histories feed into each other in a temporal dimension. How do you approach this in your research?

JC: I think we always have history present in what we’re doing through our memories and our experiences. And then we also have the future present and what we’re doing through our hopes, our dreams, our intentions. So I suppose I’m most interested in creating spaces that are grounded in the present, but make meaningful room for past experiences of injustice and listen to those perspectives, but also listen to our dreams and our hopes. So to bring all these different ideas and find ways to intertwine them, to create collective agency for how we can go forward.

The 71 Visions Process at Wageningen University is one way in which I tried to do this. There we were trying to better understand how researchers across the whole university assume the link between what they do as a researcher and societal transformations. Then it was absolutely essential that we asked people “what are your dreams?” first. So we really started with that future vision or future dream orientation, and then very much connected it back to how does that compare to what you do actually as a researcher and what you have been doing. And oftentimes there was a big gap there between those two perspectives. So then the interview really became about, why so? Why is there such a gap? What is it about: structures in the university or finances or own worldviews or assumptions? Studying this disconnect helped create a more tangible understanding of ways to connect future perspectives with ones stemming from the past, to increase the plurality of perspectives. We have since created a PhD course based on this work, called “Transformative Research for Sustainability Challenges,” that will run for the third time in 2024. It guides researchers through this process of challenging their present assumptions of what it means to be a researcher and enables them to both dream and take active steps towards a more critical, creative and plural role as a researcher in society.

VZ: As a last question, is there anything that you’re looking forward to and are excited about in terms of transformative studies on temporalities?

JC: I would say there are two things at the moment. One is the role of legal approaches in shaping possible futures. I’m involved in a project which looked at the Milieudefensie versus Shell Dutch court case. Typically, legal procedures have been very past-oriented around climate change and try to compensate for past damages. What’s so interesting about this court case is that it’s based on future likelihood of harm. It’s a completely different temporal orientation. You can’t prove by numbers what’s going to happen in the future. So this case opens up the potential for science to be much more explicit about its political and normative underpinnings. I think we’re seeing a really interesting moment right now from legal perspectives, where we’re seeing a shift towards how litigation and legal tools actually can be much more actively future-oriented.

VZ: This is a very exciting turn for both legal practices and their study!

JC: Absolutely, and I’m keen to collaborate with people on that, as that is clearly not my core expertise! The main topic I’m keen to take forward is the idea of utopia and how that has historically been wielded in a colonial way. Few, and more often powerful people put out models of what they think of as utopia. And unfortunately, that’s sometimes implemented in real practice, often times taking very dystopian turns because it has disregarded so many perspectives. I’m interested in how we can reclaim collective imaginative power so that utopia can be much more, as a creative and political method.

Ruth Levitas is one scholar who’s been, I’d say, at the forefront of conceptually developing utopia as a method and how it can be very powerful as a speculative sociology of the future, to open up our imagination.[3] Studying societal relations in potential future settings is a way to then inform our present actions. I’m looking forward to engaging with creativity and the arts as a way of making that speculative sociology of the future much more tangible. And to hopefully find pathways or directions that are more collectively desirable.

VZ: Wow, I will look forward to hearing how your research goes. Indeed, the concept of utopia tends to build upon a Western perspective, so it should be time to reflect on the coloniality of the concept itself and transform it to make it more pluralistic.

JC: There have definitely been people who say utopia is dead, we should just move away from this concept. I believe that’s then yielding the power of such an imaginative tool to capitalism and authoritarianism. So I think we need to find ways to actually reclaim utopia as a much more pluralistic, anti-colonial imaginative tool.

[1] On the terminology of “boundary object”: the literature in science and technology studies defines boundary objects as “objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989) “Institutional Ecology, `Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science, 19(3): 393. For more information, see also: Caccamo, M., Pittino, D., & Tell, F. (2023) “Boundary objects, knowledge integration, and innovation management: A systematic review of the literature,” Technovation, 122: 102645.

[2] Author’s note: Josie’s reflections go beyond theoretical and methodological concerns. Her journey shows the importance of reflecting on what researcher one intends to be in the world, on what research means to each one of us, on how one wants to pursue research, and, overall, on the responsibility stemming from being a researcher in the current state of the world.

[3] Levitas, R. (2013) Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Palgrave.

*Cover image: An illustration of climate stripes, showing divergent options for the future. Alexander Radtke, via Wikimedia Commons.

[*Cover image description: Scientific illustration of “climate stripes” in increasingly warm (reddish to purple-ish) hues signifying global mean temperature increases over time. A black pin-point label in the middle says “We Are Here,” followed by two divergent stripe options for the future.]

Edited by Anna Guasco, reviewed by Evelyn Ramiel.

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