A free space for critical thinkers

The strategic research theme Pathways to Sustainability has nine thematic communities that focus on different aspects of sustainability. The Critical Pathways community is one of them. What is about exactly and how do members of the community experience their involvement? We asked Kei Otsuki and Daan van Uhm, two members of Critical Pathways, to tell us more. We want to get out of our office and see what happens. Experiment! It is a free space, says Kei Otsuki.

Kei Otsuki

We all agree that climate change is an important issue but we have to look at the concerns for the global (in)equality. To reduce the unevenness that has been there since colonial times. Are we reproducing this when we invest more in climate mitigation and adaptation? Re-colonizing through our climate agenda or not? As you see, I already take a critical stance, says Kei Otsuki. What happens in Europe is not going to stay here. You have to be aware of what’s happening especially in the Global South. So how can we cocreate an agenda for more equal and sustainable development?

Otsuki is a Professor of International Development Studies at the Department of Human Geography and Planning at the Faculty of Geosciences. Her expertise is in sustainability transitions projects in development projects, for example the green (energy) transitions in Europe and its implications in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Caring about sustainability, but more responsibly

Everybody is stimulated to buy electric cars, but what is the effect of this on the global south? she goes on. So, I conduct research in countries of the Global South especially regarding mineral extraction that comes with the production of batteries and what it does to local communities, the effects on social dynamics, gender issues etc. We started posing critical questions about what it means to decarbonize the world and other parts of the world maybe have to suffer because of this.

Initially, Liesbeth van der Grift, professor of History and a board member of Pathways to Sustainability, invited me to join the Critical Pathways community to initiate the conversation about these critical perspectives, that were already voiced prominently by Humanities scholars. We all care about sustainability but we want to do it more responsibly. How can we make the critical concerns more mainstream in the conversation about how to deal with the climate change?

And Daan, why did you join the Critical Pathways community?

My story is similar to that of Kei, Daan van Uhm responds. I presented my work on green criminology on one of the Sustainability Dialogues and afterwards, Liesbeth van der Grift called me and asked if I was interested to join Critical Pathways. And since then, we coordinate this community together with the three of us, together with Birgit Kaiser (Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Transcultural Aesthetics from the Faculty of Humanities).

Daan van Uhm
Daan van Uhm

Daan van Uhm is an Associate Professor of Criminology from the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, and he is specialized in green criminology.

Green criminology rejects anthropocentric notions of crimes and harms and approaches environmental harm and victimization predominantly from biocentric and ecocentric perspectives, he explains. It draws attention to the social construction of environmental crime, dependent on power relations and social inequalities within society. For a long time, political and economic elites have played an extensive role in minimizing the regulation of environmental markets and excluding harmful activities from criminalization in order to continue environmental destruction. Moreover, it can be illegal to extract (minerals, metals, timber) in a particular area, while in another area where rules are lacking, it can be perfectly legal. It relates to global north-south dynamics, as you can imagine. Stricter rules in Europe push criminal organisations to diversify their territory to global southern areas.

When does something actually become illegal?

In green criminology, we look at the contested notion of crime, Van Uhm continues. When does something actually become illegal? When everybody is involved in the deforestation or gold digging, including the army, mayors and local people; is it a crime then? And suppose you buy a nice floor made from tropical timber. Where is this coming from? The paper and documents could be perfectly legal here in Europe, but is the source legal or is conflict timber? Our demand patterns may produce a lot of violence and destruction in global southern countries where it has been extracted from, and might even fuel conflicts, for example in Colombia or Congo. Such questions are included in green criminology as such, but also crucial for critical pathways to sustainability.

I worked in different regions across the world and it was great to meet Kei, who also worked in all these different areas and to be able to share insights and thoughts. At this moment, we both have a research project in Indonesia and exchange our experiences. Also, because development and crime are inter-linked.

It all seems to be about perspectives…

That is why we want to meet people from outside our disciplines, says Kei Otsuki. To find more interesting, surprising perspectives for our own research. People have all different kind of ways to talk about sustainability, stemming from their background. But also: we are all keen on questioning the normativity that always came with the scientific notion of sustainability. ‘We have to protect nature’; ‘We have to decarbonize’; ‘It has to be economically feasible’; ‘We have to minimize the damage’ etc. But for whom, in what ways, from whose standpoint are we looking at things? We need to be green, but what does this mean really? In that sense, we are also looking critically at what we are doing ourselves. We are trying to raise curiosity for this among scholars.

We are all keen on questioning the normativity that always came with the scientific notion of sustainability.

Kei Otsuki

That is also why we have Birgit Kaiser in our community and other colleagues with a background in literature, language and discourses. Our Humanities colleagues can for instance really contribute to the critical perspective: what do we talk about when we talk about ‘Sustainability’? Who are ‘we’?

And there are more of these fundamental questions, Van Uhm proceeds. When we talk about harm that is being done. Are we also taking into account the harms for non-human animals; the global or local ecosystems, plants, rivers? When it comes to the social sciences, these are embedded in anthropocentric notions for a very long time.

To give an example: in most legal frameworks, ‘nature’ is referred to as a state property, which is to benefit growth of the gross domestic product instead of an essential life condition. But when you think about the environment, you should ask yourself: what is an environment; what is an ecosystem or: how can we consider the intrinsic or ecological value for an animal, or a river, rather than economic terms? What are the rights of a river? This reflects the importance of interdisciplinary approaches within critical pathways with ecologists on board that can define this from their point of view. 

Van Uhm reminds us: And let us also set full light on the perspective of indigenous communities. What is their view on the environmental harm that’s being done in their territories? In the West, we have a very commodified outlook on this: ‘we have to protect nature’ or ‘we have to protect the animals’ but you could also see them as interconnected. We need more eco-centric approaches to understand how to act in this. When the result is fencing off a national park, without the local people being allowed to enter for their medicinal plants – that can significantly harm the local people. We really have to acknowledge our colonial history and not reproduce the harm by setting new rules which could be considered as new forms of control. It’s important that we can discuss all these topics to understand pathways to sustainability, he concludes.

We really have to acknowledge our colonial history and not reproduce the harm.

Daan van Uhm

Can you tell me more about how the Critical Pathways community operates in practice?

We organize seminars, conferences, meetings, we have research fellows coming in, Van Uhm says, and we participate in all kinds of activities.

We don’t have a regular schedule, but meet once in a while as a community, maybe quarterly, Otsuki adds. We try to find interesting experts and give these scholars a place to meet. We started with the fellowships so we could invite people from outside the university - preferably from different parts of the world - to talk about their perspectives on climate change and social equality issues. Around them we could generate events and encounters. From there we try to encourage people to come up with a project that is not so regular (like those funded by the EU or NWO) but more network based. But that are still academically exciting and interesting.

We want to create an innovative space for scholars within Utrecht University, but beyond our institutional framework. To find funding, to do research together to share our ideas. Come up with wild ideas. To try and involve students. We have become so compartimentalised and everybody is too busy with the usual acquisitions, writing papers for your own discipline. But as a community, we want to be a bit more free. Let’s get out of our office and see what happens. Experiment!


Otsuki: I am also interested to work more closely with activists, civil society organisations, who are actually taking action on the issues we just talked about. We are for instance inviting a representative of a farmer’s movement in the Philippines, in April. To talk about food and justice, implications of the food system etc. The aspect of transdisciplinarity is also very important.

To interact with societal partners to see how they construct issues and emphasize problems, rather than we define what is problematic and should be solved, Van Uhm adds.

Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity contribute to our disciplines, he goes on, asking different questions, in particular regarding sustainability. There is not one direction forward that helps all of us to avoid suffering in the near future. We should embrace critical perspectives and different approaches. That is one of the strengths of Critical Pathways. It is also a quite international group. The different cultural backgrounds contribute to critically reflect on environmental issues. We try to ask different questions, ones that are not usually being asked.

Kei Otsuki: Most of the Pathways to Sustainability communities are thematic. About cities, deltas or oceans or food. Critical Pathways wants to be cross-cutting. So we also participate in the other communities, for example on how to assess the global food system critically, together with the Future Food community. Sometimes we try to organise a joint event, and we try to be efficient also trying to integrate our activities, our education and our ongoing research activities etc. so that we don’t get fragmented. And also, because we love this freedom but we are all super busy.

What has the Critical Pathways community brought you personally?

Otsuki: I have met a lot of Humanities colleagues for instance, whom I normally do not have an opportunity to interact with. And we are very practically collaborating in education, or try to make an exchange programme together, across faculties. I am still excited about the different perspectives, and thoughts about post-human or non-human aspects of sustainable development. Plus: I like to try things. If it fails, that’s fine too. Then we try something else. It is a free space. It should be fun – like all our work should be. You feel more free in your academic work, that is the value of being involved in this kind of thing.

Van Uhm: Criminology is an interdisciplinary study. We are used to looking outside disciplinary boundaries into other disciplines and employ their perspectives in our analyses. In most of the community meetings that we have, there is inspiration, new ways, new words, new concepts to see things in a different way. With that we can bring our own disciplines to a next level, intellectually and theoretically.

If we talk about a legal concept and we talk about an ecosystem, for example: how is this defined? By an ecologist? By a criminologist? And others? This also helps to answer what should we protect, how should we protect it and what are the difficulties and challenges to overcome in the near future.

How should we proceed for a Sustainable future for all of us? That is not us at university, us in The Netherlands, us in Europe, us the white people or us, the human species… that is: us, and… and… and…!

Would you like more people to join this academic free space?

Yes of course! Van Uhm highlights. We have a lot of people joining from the faculties of Geoscience, Humanities and Law, Economics and Governance already, Otsuki says. But we are also looking for economists to join. People from life sciences. More beta scientists please!

About Critical Pathways

Critical Pathways is one of the communities of the strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability and aims to strengthen the involvement of Social Sciences, Law and Humanities scholars in sustainability research and foster collaborations across all faculties. Together with its members and partners, Critical Pathways aims to analyse power dynamics within a sustainability context at local, regional, and global levels. The community works towards a broadening of academic discourse on sustainability by endorsing initiatives that seek to amplify the voices of marginalised human groups, as well as giving a voice to ecosystems and the more-than-human.

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Interview: Gert den Toom