ENVS junior, Aspen Ono, reflects on 2016 Nairobi Conference on Earth System Governance

In December 2016, ENVS student Aspen Ono attended the 2016 Nairobi Conference on Earth System Governance. The Department of Environmental Sciences was proud to help support Aspen's travel through a Lester grant and as part of the experience, Aspen offered the reflection that follows below.

Aspen Ono’s Nairobi 2016 Earth Systems Governance Blog

Sustainability, climate change, and environmental justice are global issues that implicate every single country, community, and human being. Yet the international dialogue, particularly that occurring at scientific conferences, that focus on the global issues tend to be dominated by a few key countries and institutions. This existing disparity in academic interaction not only hinders inclusive collaboration and communication, but also marginalizes many key voices that could contribute unique ideas and solutions to the global conversation. The annual Earth Systems governance conference attempted to overcome this obstacle this yearly choosing to be held at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. This conference represents an initial step towards global inclusivity in an interdisciplinary environmental dialogue. It allowed African researchers to present their work, many of whom, due to financial restrictions, will never again be able do so on a global stage.

Being an environmental science and international studies major at Emory, I am troubled by the current political climate in the United States and more broadly in the world. With Brexit and the elections of multiple separatist and populist leaders, it feels as though we are moving away from global collaboration, understanding and communication. We are building more walls (metaphorical and otherwise), constructing more exclusionary domestic policies, and seeing an increase in distrust of those unlike ourselves. This creates tensions for both social and environmental international partnerships. Being an American citizen, I must say that November 9th was particularly disheartening in this sense. I woke up feeling as though environmental research, particularly my focus on international environmental justice, was somewhat pointless. It appeared that there was a general lack of social and political valuation of sustainability and the environment in general.

This was my mindset on Earth Systems Governance upon entering the 2016 conference in Nairobi. It was one of doubt, pessimism, skepticism, and general uncertainty. But, this conference has renewed my hope in the future of the earth and the complex global network of humans that inhabit it. Most speakers, regardless of the core focus of their research, spoke to the challenges of deliberative governance to leverage sustainability in the current political and commercial climate, especially considering the recent American Presidential election. But instead of being deterred by these challenges my fellow presenters argued that our work in earth systems governance is more important now than ever before.

In Nairobi, researchers from around the world, with a prominent and unique representation of the African research community, came together to ask “how can we as a species move forward?” “How can we develop sustainably, increasing global human welfare, establishing international justice, and conserving earth’s resources for future generations?” Presentations ranged from research on geoengineering to water use in Africa, to my own research in environmental justice networks. But, they all came back to the central idea of creating a truly globally inclusive network of researchers; seeking to embody the age-old lesson that is all too often connected to environmental challenges of “divided we stand or united we will fall.”

Although, I learned a lot about different sustainability research projects being conducted around the world, my primary take away from this conference was a renewed sense of hope. This passionate group of researchers demonstrated that people, governments, institutions, and communities are internationally fighting for equitable and responsible earth stewardship and governance. Despite the current disheartening political and social climate in which we are all conducting our research and advocacy, this conference reaffirmed that there are still many dedicated individuals out there like myself who will continue to fight for what we believe is right, true, and just. There will always be those out there who do not listen or care about sustainable earth systems governance; but this conference demonstrated that there is a strong, resilient, and connected international network of people, who do.

I would like to leave you with the words of Dr. Wangari Maathi, a Kenyan humanitarian and environmentalist, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2014, and after whom the institute that hosted this conference is named. She said “We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to conserve the environment so that we can bequeath our children a sustainable world that benefits all. We need to promote development that does not destroy our environment.”