4 item(s) found.

Story-telling gorillas and sustainability discourses of the European primary sector

Story-telling gorillas and sustainability discourses of the European primary sector

Ansel Renner and Louisa Jane Di Felice

In January of this year, the European Commission released the European Green Deal. Thereby, the Commission laid down a 10-year roadmap for the “complete decoupling of economic growth from resource use”. Somewhere behind the crowds of neoclassical economists applauding the idea of absolute decoupling stand biophysical economists—many of whom are likely rolling their eyes at the idea of increasing economic growth in the face of declining resource (ab)use. How is it that the two factions coexist? How is it that neither faction is shown to be more logically consistent than the other?

To answer such questions, let us take a brief foray from European policy and reflect on the teachings of Daniel Quinn’s bestselling novel Ishmael. In Quinn’s novel, a Socratic conversation between a man and a wise gorilla is used as a pedagogical device to show readers just how peculiar and idiosyncratic human society is. Students of sustainability and the environment will recall the novel’s two koans—anecdotes presented with the purpose of demonstrating the inadequacy of logical reasoning (Quinn, 1995, p. 160):


and later


Does the extinction of man give hope to gorilla or does it condemn gorilla? Does the extinction of gorilla give hope to man or does it condemn man? Koans are pregnant with meaning for sustainability, and all interpretations are equally valid. Just as with those individuals who converse with wise gorillas, scientists rely on cultural narratives to deter ambiguity. Such narratives provide epistemic boundaries—boundaries that allow one to distinguish between justified belief and opinion. Epistemic boundaries are constrictive. Epistemic boundaries are also necessary for the creation of purpose and meaning, however, and their adoption is unavoidable. All too often, the assumption of epistemic boundaries is left implicit and unquestioned. In the context of a global sustainability crisis, this blasé attitude is not constructive.

In two forthcoming scientific articles, we took a look at how energy and agriculture policy in the European Union are shaped by justificatory, normative, and explanatory narratives. Those three narrative types, respectively answering questions of why?, what?, and how?, can be understood to form epistemic boundaries of decision-makers. From a scientific research standpoint, their purposeful identification can reveal inherent cultural biases. Their identification can also help reveal how primal, societal concerns are transmuted into problems formally represented in policies as well as what solutions are proposed for those problems.

In that work, in conclusion, we identified a number of ways in which European knowledge society as it relates to energy and agriculture policy could benefit from the adoption of a complexity paradigm over a paradigm of reductionism. Among other things, the complexity paradigm prescribes the acceptance of irreducible value pluralism. Such an acceptance is difficult to entertain in reductionism—a prevailing approach to science infatuated with objectivity and optimization. While the current version of the European Green Deal is reductionist in spirit, naysayers should be comforted by recalling that Europe occupies a unique position among Western political entities. More so than in, for example, the United States, the European policy-scape prescribes a precautionary handling of conflicting epistemic boundaries (precaution being quite different than risk). Regarding scientific decision-support under a complexity paradigm, a promising line of research arises thanks to that precautionary stance—a line of research suitable for shedding light on indeterminate dialectics related to decoupling and green deals such as:


and also




Quinn, Daniel. 1995. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam Books.

More about our approach can be found in two forthcoming scientific articles. The reference section will be updated once those the articles are published. In the meantime, readers are invited to get in contact.



Post-Normal Science and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

Post-Normal Science and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

Ângela Guimarães Pereira & Thomas Völker

Engagements with different actors on various levels of governance and policymaking were a central element of Quantitative Story Telling (QST) approach developed and applied in MAGIC. This approach builds on ideas developed by Jerry Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz as a part of their writing on post-normal science (PNS). In particular, our work made use of their concept of an ‘extended peer communities’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993), i.e. “consisting not merely of persons with some form or other of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue.” (Ravetz, 1999: 651)

While these engagements were for the most part carefully designed and orchestrated, sometimes chances for interacting with the world of policy emerge as a coincidence. We want to use an event of the latter sort to reflect on the relation between PNS and the European Commission (EC).

Midway through the project, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) started contributing to a so-called Flagship-project on the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem (WEFE) nexus, which brought together different units at the JRC. Since it was common knowledge at that time that both of us were part of the MAGIC project and thus also working on nexus governance, we were approached to “do something together”. Our JRC colleagues thus were able to report collaboration with different nexus initiatives while we could tick the box of science-policy-engagements.

The workshop we came up with aimed at bringing together JRC researchers, policy officers from policy DGs and scholars working on the WEF concept with a selection of MAGIC consortium partners to discuss nexus narratives together with challenges to nexus governance and approaches for addressing these challenges. The main aim of the workshop was discussing key narratives that were distilled from a document analysis of policy papers and interviews with EC policymakers. The idea was that these could inspire future model requirements.

Reading this description, you might have stumbled across the notion “narrative”, which we casually dropped a couple of times already. What do we mean by that and how does it fit with this workshop?

Conceptually speaking, narrative means a (mostly retrospective) sequential ordering of events from a narrator’s perspective, thus constituting particular temporal and spatial structures and establishing a set of actors/subject positions with particular rationales, often together with a causal relationship between a problem and a solution. Narratives are a fundamental part of how we as individuals and organised social collectives engage with the world. When we walk through a wood, we might see a habitat for certain species, the “lungs” of our world, a recreational space in a world characterised by increasing urbanisation, or – more recently – an area increasingly threatened by climate change and wildfires. It is practically impossible to cognitively and interactionally make sense of ‘the wood’ without embedding it in a story. It is in that sense that Jerome Bruner talks about human beings as “storied animals” (Bruner, 1991). Consequently, stories or narratives not only refer to a cognitive capacity of single isolated actors, but additionally they can be regarded as a “sociocultural artefact” (Herman, 2003). Narratives do something, they way in which we narratively grasp the world in which we live in does have consequence for how we live in it. They express broader imaginations about the world, who and what has agency in it and what is valued. They are closely related to institutional, cultural, moral and material formations of society (Bremer et al., 2017). In policy-making, narratives tacitly define possible horizons for action and distinguish actors from non-actors and issues from non-issues (Hajer, 2006). They naturalise the “normal”, the “taken for granted”. Thus, when working with narratives it is eminently important to talk about not only what is actually there but to also stay attentive to that which is absent. This was done in MAGIC by asking for the relation of dominant to counter narratives or to explore the functions of certain types of narratives (see Mario Giampietro and Silvio Funtowicz in this issue).

Working with narratives in MAGIC has been a way to collaborate more closely with policy DGs to explore how policy narratives relate to scientific representations, while also aiming to extend the peer community of policymakers. Additionally, talking and reflecting about policy narratives is a way to tackle the more informal side of institutions and practices of governance (Hajer, 2006). They become a method to “challenge unthinking consensus” as our colleague Keith Matthews likes to put it.

In this contribution to the Nexus Time we don’t want to reflect on the outcomes of this particular workshop in terms of the main take-aways, nor do we want to engage in the practice of selling success stories that are among the most valuable commodities within the JRC/EC institutional ecology. What we want to do is to use this workshop to reflect on peer-group extension as a practice with the Joint Research Centre to see what “doing post-normal science” entails and means in this particular context. The term “extended peer community” is usually used descriptively, e.g. “the case of AIDS” (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993: 753) or normatively to call for the involvement of heterogeneous actors in policy- and decision-making processes.

If PNS is indeed characterised by extended peer communities and extended facts (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993) this in turn makes it necessary to reflect on the problem of extension (Collins and Evans, 2002; Dickel and Franzen, 2016) and on questions about the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and claims to expertise. We argue that is important to consider extension as a practice involving competing claims about the legitimacy of certain sets of expertise, methods and even disciplines in a given organisational-cultural process for any given problem. Extension then becomes a messy practice involving actors with different stakes and aims.

So, why was this workshop made possible? What happened during and after the event, and (maybe more importantly) what did not happen?

In the more recent past, the JRC was led by a management that made a lot of effort to break down existing “silos”, attempting to walk the talk of interdisciplinary research and paying attention to questions of complexity; there was a new attention e.g. to social sciences and humanities and some organisational push towards collaborative work through transversal and flagship projects. Furthermore, there was a de facto restructuring of services. In practice, however, this hasn’t always translated into epistemic dialogue but rather resulted in amalgamations of different standpoints, with the consequence that the historically stabilised - usually inoffensive - standpoints are channelled to policy. In the case of this workshop, a senior manager was open to the opportunity to conduct this encounter. Not surprisingly, he has anticipated the kinds of resistance that we faced later on but was nonetheless quite enthusiastic about it.

After the workshop, a report was produced, which mapped and described the different nexus-challenges (and controversies about them) for each of the narratives that we discussed with participants. The challenges were subsequently translated into questions that could potentially be addressed by the existing or adapted models. However, it is on what follows that we can further our reflection on what “extension” means in practice.

First, we think that there was institutional momentum to conduct this activity. Not only did the JRC strategy at that time require cross-unit “collaborative work”, but also the management actors involved saw an opportunity to safely explore the interdisciplinary pursuit: safely here means that there were no real (political) commitments of follow-up and no “witch-hunting” on the horizon. To put it bluntly, the outcomes could be outright ignored, and the reputations would not be touched.

Secondly, on the same vein, to start with many of the researchers involved had genuine interest in the conceptual discussions that the narratives helped to prompt. The discussions were often uncomfortable, as there was open criticism of taken for granted concepts (e.g. water scarcity) or regarding the reductionism of adopted concepts in nexus related policy (e.g. ecosystems services). However, there was no real mandate for the researchers to follow-up on those discussions and to change anything in existing practices or to be committed to this “extension” for longer period of time; this has found in very pragmatic justifications (e.g. lack of personnel, no policy request, urgency to deliver narratives) no practical implementation of the discussions, as far as modelling was concerned.

Thirdly, we want to direct attention of an ongoing politics of expertise that was part of this experiment in extension: To start with, the authors of this paper are not formally trained on the models that were discussed in the workshop. Hence, to some extent our legitimacy was granted whilst we prepared and run the workshop, after which the workshop outcomes were deemed “philosophical”, which may mean that they were considered unpractical.  Furthermore, it must be noted that the dissenting and competing expertise present at the workshop was from outside the JRC, which gave the JRC actors some leeway in how and if to make use of these inputs; in the end of the day,  the material form of the workshop became therefore a shelved report for which there is no clear accountability.

So, what can MAGIC learn from this experiment of extension as means to channel uncomfortable knowledge into a science-for-policy-milieu like the JRC? And what are potential broader implications for engagements with the policy-realm?

When we look at extension as a practice of social, epistemic, organisational and moral re-ordering, we see that in order for this workshop to take place, there needed to be momentum in the sense of coinciding interests of various actors on different institutional levels, agreement on the necessary people to involve and on the acceptable degree of disruptiveness. Also, and this is probably the most important element, the workshop depended on powerful actors that functioned as gatekeepers or “champions” of extension. What we described as an event emerging by “coincidence” in the beginning of this essay, is the outcome of what can be described as a complex politics of extension. This also became visible in the ongoing struggle for legitimacy of different ways of knowing and kinds of expertise (uncomfortable knowledge as “philosophical”).

Next to such politics of extension, one needs to stay attentive to the temporalities involved. As we laid out, there was no mandate, accountability, or long-term commitment, so it was safe to conduct this workshop.

Overall, one may ask whether there was any extension. We have two possible answers for this question: either the extension did not exist, to the extent that the workshop was merely performative, useful to tick some boxes, or the question is outright inappropriate, as the workshop did not actually invite an “extended” but an “inconvenient” peer community that brought in uncomfortable knowledge. Hence, it is important to note that the honest discussion has not led to change, and in the spirit of PNS, one is left to wonder if science-policy institutions would ever be able to work with extended peer communities. We could argue that the extension in this case was the work on and with narratives, which - shelved or not - was a warning that the “taken for granted” narratives might not always be what they seem.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that it took the Commission almost 20 years to pass from a seminal White Paper on participatory governance (2001) to advance the extension talk into a political priority and commitment. The process of making it visible took perseverance, subversive work, and some degree of serendipity. The uncomfortable knowledge generated by MAGIC seems to be still overwhelming in an institutional sense. The process of making it visible might take either a catastrophe or hopefully courageous politics to avoid the former, precisely by institutionalising practices of extension.



Bremer, S. et al. (2017) ‘Narrative as a method for eliciting tacit knowledge of climate variability in Bangladesh’, Weather, Climate, and Society. American Meteorological Society, 9(4), pp. 669–686.

Bruner, J. (1991) ‘The narrative construction of reality’, Critical Inquiry, 18(1), pp. 1–21.

Collins, H. M. and Evans, R. (2002) ‘The Third Wave of Science Studies’, Social Studies of Science, 32(2), pp. 235–296. Available at: http://sss.sagepub.com/content/32/2/235.abstract.

Dickel, S. and Franzen, M. (2016) ‘The “Problem of Extension” revisited: new modes of digital participation in science’, Journal of Science Communication, 15(1), p. A06_en.

Funtowicz, S. and Ravetz, J. (1993) ‘Science for the Post-Normal Age’, Futures, 25(7), pp. 739–757.

Hajer, M. A. (2006) ‘The living institutions of the EU: Analysing governance as performance’, Perspectives on European politics and society, 7(1), pp. 41–55.

Herman, D. (2003) Stories as a Tool for Thinking. In D. Herman (Ed.), CSLI lecture notes. Narrative theory and the cognitive sciences (p. 163–192). Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Ravetz, J. R. (1999) ‘What is Post-Normal Science’, Futures, 31, pp. 647–653.

Image credit: Schuman Berlaymont



The treacherous use of indicators for SDGs

The treacherous use of indicators for SDGs

Mario Giampietro

The experience of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has shown the difficulty of  trying to achieve international consensus on required action to tackle global challenges such as the problem of climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on the other hand, rather than looking for an international consensus on specific actions for achieving “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”, directly opted for a detailed formulation of targets and indicators. In 2015 the UN General Assembly provided no less than 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 169 targets for the 17 goals, each of which has between 1 and 3 indicators to measure progress toward the targets. In total, 232 approved indicators to measure progress. However, as with the case of climate change, when looking at the results both on people (provided by UNHCR) and on the planet (in the latest IPBES report) there is no sign of an imminent wave of peace and prosperity.

The question we need to address here is the following: Is there is a systemic problem with the strategies selected by international bodies and national governments to deal with so-called “wicked” problems such as sustainable development and climate change?  Is the translation of a mission explained in semantic terms as peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”  into a set of 232 pre-approved indicators a wise move? To address this question, I use the approach developed in MAGIC to look at three types of narratives that need to be integrated when discussing complex policy issues.

Justification narratives—To guide specific actions useful for society, it is essential first of all, to identify societal concerns i.e. the perception of a stress to be avoided or the existence of unsatisfied wants. Next step is to prioritise these concerns because valid justification narratives can be in contrast. For example, “aspiration for economic growth” (SDG 1 & 2) and “need to preserve the environment” (SDG 14 & 15). This entails that the priority given to justification narratives always depends on the context. Dealing with contrasting justification narratives is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Normative narratives—In the context of governance and politics, normative narratives identify actions needed to address specific concerns. However, the choice of a specific action depends not only on a previous prioritisation over existing concerns but also on the analysis of the consequences of the action in terms of winners and losers. When dealing with the goal of “zero hunger” (SDG 2) we can make several suggestions: (i) give funding to the ministers of agriculture of countries with malnutrition; (ii) making fertilizers available to poor farmers; (iii) distribute emergency food in refugee camps.  Trade-offs between these solutions will generate different types of winners and losers.  Implementing more effective agricultural policies may improve the situation in the future, but does nothing to help poor farmers now; starving people want food not fertilizers. The perception of the usefulness of the chosen normative narratives always depends on the feelings and values of stakeholders. When “considering the nexus between energy, food, water, land use, ecological services, across different scales and dimensions, the legitimate aspirations of individual countries, the whole planet, present and future generations” [1] it becomes obvious that the choice of a specific action(s) to be taken is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Explanation narratives—In modern society, when implementing policies, “scientific evidence” is commonly cast in quantitative form, and thus indicators become a privileged form of evidence. Indicators allow the analysis of relevant attributes to characterise the performance of proposed solutions with numbers. Fractal geometry [2] flags the problem faced with this solution when dealing with issues requiring a multi-scale analysis. Let’s imagine that we want to use indicators to select a passenger tour around the coast of UK that minimises the consumption of fuels and the number of overnight stops. Detailed maps and reliable information about fuel consumption and the speed of the means of transport will not enable the identification of a solution that can be used by different operators using both boats and buses. By boat (keeping a safe distance from the shore), the UK coastline is approx. 2800 km. By bus, using coastal roads, the distance is 3400 km. Fractal geometry [2] explains that the length of the UK coastline “changes” not because of lack of accuracy in its representation, but because of a different understanding of what can or should be measured. When different perceptions of the external world co-exist because of different concerns and different purposes, the need to adopt different scales and dimensions of analysis makes the use of quantitative indicators and targets treacherous. Indicators for poverty (SDG 1), justice (SDG 10) and biodiversity (SDG 15 & 16) will always be contested.


The identification of policies linked to the SDGs should be based on: (i) definition of priorities over concerns (for which justification narratives should be used on a case by case basis); and (ii) decision of how to deliberate on the existence of “incommensurable trade-offs” across scales and dimensions. Normative narratives should be selected, again, on a case by case basis. When dealing with the implementation of the SDGs, the issue of how to prioritise concerns and who should be involved (and how) in decision-making is a paramount political issue. This explains why, as illustrated by the experience of the climate COP, getting results through globalised political processes is not easy. However, the current solution through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is even worse. Given the unavoidable existence of trade-offs and uncertainty, SDG targets and indicators should only be considered after a political discussion of the proposed normative narratives in a specific context.  In specific situations none of the 232 approved SDGs indicators can be used as evidence of an “improvement” outside of a process of unpleasant political discussions about priorities and losers.

A fuller discussion about the use of scientific evidence for governance in complexity is available here.




[1] Giampietro M. and Funtowicz S.O. (2020), From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy, Environmental Science and Policy 100: 64-72 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.04.012

[2] Mandelbrot, B. (1967), How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension, Science 156 (3775): 636–638. doi:10.1126/science.156.3775.636


The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

Thomas Völker and colleagues

In a recent publication by the MAGIC project, Völker and colleagues investigate the changes that are emerging in governance with regard to the nexus. Recognizing the interconnections between water, energy and food, means also acknowledging how water policies, energy policies and food policies interact with each other – sometimes by reinforcing each other, and sometimes by supporting contradictory goals. In order to make these synergies and trade-offs visible, policy makers in the European Union are relying more and more on indicators. The paper asks, are indicators a good means of raising awareness about complexity of governing for sustainability and challenging existing governance structures or are they a way of reducing the complexity to a technical problem, that can be measured and managed through existing institutional arrangements?

Quantification requires considerable work and relies on technical and administrative infrastructures that allow for data collection and processing. Once such “accounting machineries” are put in place, they become not only quite stable and “sticky”. The creation of new metrics on the nexus have, therefore, the potential of creating new paths of accountability. For example, nexus indicators can expand accountability of agricultural policies outside of the agricultural realm and including water governance, energy governance and other sustainability goals, such as climate and biodiversity. But indicator production may also suffer from the stickiness of the current “managerial” system of governance.

The analysis builds on 28 interviews with 32 actors from different European Commission DGs, members of European Parliament and its Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) as well as from the European Environment Agency (EEA). Our primary focus was on the views and experiences of the staff within the Commission. The Commission is the administration for the European Parliament and Council of Europe, and is responsible for making, implementing, evaluating and enforcing cross-European policies that are mandatory for the 28 member states in the current European Union. The Commission is organized into 33 Directorate-Generals (DGs -departments), each with a separate, specific and self-contained policy area, giving rise to the idea of “policy silos”.

Our data indicate that there are institutional logics and mechanisms that might hinder an implementation of nexus governance. Interviewees stressed that there is little room to think about what people are doing when one is busy and focused on immediate priorities. Metrics on the nexus are welcome as eye-opening evidence that may help overcome policy made in “silos” – within DGs, and without regard for how policies affect each other. New data may challenge taken for granted ways of thinking and doing things within European policy making. The water-energy-food nexus is framed as a problem of institutional arrangements and working culture. For challenging this status quo, however, our interviewees ask for novel forms of quantified knowledge and in doing so reinforce the mode of governance that relies on the “managerial” approach to metrics, which leads to a process of de-politicizing difficult political decisions about the trade-offs of sustainability through the notion of the nexus as measurable interconnections.



Völker, T., Blackstock, K., Kovacic, Z., Sindt, J., Strand, R. and Waylen, K. (2019). The role of metrics in the governance of the water-energy-food nexus within the European Commission. Journal of Rural Studieshttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.08.001