Something in the Air: Civic science and contentious environmental politics in post-apartheid South Africa

Scott, Dianne and Barnett, Clive (2009). Something in the Air: Civic science and contentious environmental politics in post-apartheid South Africa. Geoforum, 40(3) pp. 373–382.



The emergence of an environmental movement in post-apartheid South Africa has involved the reframing of the environment as a 'brown' issue, articulating the discourse of social and environmental justice and a rights-based notion of democracy. Environmental movements have pursued a dual strategy of deliberation and activist opposition. Environmental movements have deployed science to pursue the strategic task of democratic opposition and have established networks of environmental knowledge and expertise. Ecological modernization is the dominant approach to environmental governance and adopts a science-based policy approach. In this context the regulation and management of the environment is premised on the need for science, which provides the authoritative basis for a regulatory response. In local environmental movements, there exists a fundamental tension between a cumulative history of lay knowledge about pollution and the lack of official acknowledgement of qualitative narratives. This is accompanied by a lack and suspicion of reliable official data. Environmental movements have thus employed 'civic science' strategically to place the issue of air pollution on the political agenda. This paper uses the case of environmental politics in Durban to reflect on the ways in which civic science and lay knowledge, together constituting community hybrid knowledge, are produced and disseminated in order to pressure the state and capital. The three ways in which knowledge is deployed are: to frame environmental problems, in strategies of oppositional advocacy, and in deliberative policy forums. Empirical analysis shows that civic science is produced through knowledge networks, and both lay knowledge and civic science are opportunistically used by environmental movements to engage both inside and outside formal policy making arenas. This deployment of hybrid knowledge by environmental movements represents a broader challenge to the power of science and technology based on increasing evidence of the hazards and risks facing ordinary people in their daily lives.

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