Busy work as predatory delay by Kristin Mumbi Muthui

My introduction into the world of conservation, development and climate change happened through the most innocent and propagandistic way – as a child, I remember my bedroom posters covered with ‘save the manatee’ posters, thanks to IUCN, and to my mother, who brought them home. I think I learnt about coral reefs and their importance before I learnt about Kenya’s administrative units. Another memory that stands out is me and my sisters writing an article about the importance of planting trees for a forest related magazine – hell, we took pictures of ourselves working on our ‘journalism’ to accompany the piece. 

 Lastly, going to a three-day UNEP children’s conference on climate and environment at Safari Park That was the first time I met people my age who were not Kenyans, or from Ongata Rongai. I mean, environment focused NGOs had a message for children, they wanted to influence future generations, and you know what? They did. They asked us to take these problems – climate change, environmental destruction, poverty, biodiversity, seriously, and we did. At least I did. 

Which is why I find my experience so bizarre and so frustrating. That, almost 20 years later, I have to dedicate, as a thesis topic, the *potential* of agroecology in fulfilling both economic and environmental challenges that the world faces. I must defend a solution that nobody with any ounce of political power accepts because of the elephant in the room – it is not about the technology; it is about the politics. 

I have a friend, a hundred times more talented, and intelligent than me, who will spend her peak years studying the relationship between nitrogen content in soil and climate change in the Paris region. Nobody needs this. Not a single decision maker is waiting for a more refined and precise number on how much healthy soil will contribute to climate change mitigation before finally having a light bulb moment and implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions. Yet that is what she will do, while I will make an argument that food sovereignty is good actually, because it will help African countries develop themselves economically. (Please note, the WTO thinks that food sovereignty, or even sufficiency, is a secondary concern that should not impede the functioning of the all holy and sovereign markets). 

All of this is ridiculous – and maybe I am saying this as a sleep deprived consultant/ PHD candidate, but this is ridiculous. Why do we focus so much of our energy studying hyper specific problems with increasingly diminishing returns? For example, every year, more and more papers are published with the intention of quantifying, as accurately as possible, the impact that human made greenhouse gases have had on climate change and on extreme weather events. While this is intellectually fulfilling, and useful for humanity as a whole, this is not the kind of information that will finally sway decision makers and get them to act on climate change. 

This is busy work, much like the gossip that happens when you are getting a manicure at the salon – fun, relaxing, but nothing that will change the world. We need to reject depoliticization, and we need to reject the notion that any solution must be completely be divorced from politics, tested to death through randomisation and pilot projects, before being abandoned for another shiny new object. (Remember green growth? The ecological transition? Blue economy? No, because our perfect solution is just over the next hill, we just need to do a little more research before we finally get started. 

Why is it like this? How can we have honest conversations, and direct youthful energy towards more productive work?  What can we do about this? I do not want to relitigate subjects that were settled in the 1960s, just with more granular levels of detail. I assume my friend doesn’t want to do the same either. I suppose it is because the assumption that research driven policy drives national and global agendas, but clearly that is a convenient fiction that obfuscates the truth – politics is about power. 

In between research institutes that have been completely destroyed in our countries, meaning that knowledge production is the domain of northern countries, who then dictate to us what we must do in the future, and the fact that this knowledge and recommendations, even if not explicitly so, promotes the interests of these countries, where do we fit in as African consultants?