Local ‘facts’, global discourse – ‘desertification’ in north-west Namibia

Getting the science right, or introducing science in the first place? Local ‘facts’, global discourse – ‘desertification’ in north-west Namibia

pp. 15-44 in Stott, P. and Sullivan, S. (eds.) (2000) Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power. Edward Arnold, London.

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Critique of ‘received wisdoms’ of environmental degradation tends to swing between poststructuralist demolition of the validity of a peculiarly western natural science and a realist perception that ‘getting the science right’ will accurately reveal ‘what is really happening’. In this chapter I argue, however, that both these stances ignore a basic characteristic of many environmental narratives: that they have become reified as ‘scientific truths’ in the absence of what most natural scientists would consider the praxis of science. I hinge discussion around a particular environmental narrative, that of ‘desertification’ in north-west Namibia. The case study traces the construction of a national discourse of ‘desertification’, and elaborates differences between biophysical researches both linked to, and independent of, institutions which receive funding in the name of an international concern over ‘desertification’. Oral testimony accounts from local people further situate ideas of environmental degradation, suggesting them to be metaphors for wider concerns regarding claims to land and other policy processes. A critical realist engagement with these contexts implies two things. First, that academic research regarding environmental knowledges is incomplete without some political interaction with the structural processes enabling power to define what knowledge is. And second, that in contrast to the archaic portraits of science featured in some relativising sociology of science there is much room for conceptual exchange between a biophysical science embracing both form and change, and an actor-oriented applied social science grappling with conflicts between local dynamics and national or global structures.

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