Reflections on convening the Environment Working Group
Professor John Vogler (Keele University) reflects on the founding and development of the BISA Environment Working Group, providing advice and knowledge of the advantages of convenorship to those who may be looking to get involved.
The group came into existence in 1991 in advance of the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED 1992). As convenor, it seemed to me that the issues to be discussed in Rio; climate change, desertification, biodiversity and sustainable development, were going to be a significant area of interest for BISA members. At the time I was also a member of the ESRC’s Global Environmental Change Programme and saw the opportunity to obtain funding for a series of seminars. Thus, in the early 1990s it was as the ESRC/BISA Environment WG that we held a series of meetings - hosted by Peter Willetts at City University. The result was an edited collection The Environment and International Relations (Vogler & Imber eds. 1996, London Routledge). Contributors to the 1996 volume were concerned with the ways in which a ‘fragmented’ states system might address and ‘manage’ the recently identified problems of environmental change at a global scale. In the invigorating discussions of the Working Group in the early 1990s, a central contention was whether such a focus on managerial co-operation between states made any sense at all. Un-reconstructed statism, in one view, missed the essential point that the world was facing a socio-ecological crisis that arose from the processes of capital accumulation under conditions of globalisation. This question recurs, although there are new framings, as we attempt to come to terms with conditions in the age of the ‘anthropocene’ and the sobering realisation that the international climate regime has been so ineffectual that approximately half of the total atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution have occurred after the founding of the BISA Environment Group. Another jointly produced book followed in 2000, The International Politics of Biotechnology: Investigating Global Futures (Russell & Vogler eds. Manchester University Press) and then a special issue of Global Environmental Politics (May 2003, 3:2) based upon a series of seminars on theoretical and normative approaches to global environmental governance. Members used the group to develop their research and to engage in numerous sponsored panels at the BISA conference, ISA and elsewhere. A new generation of members took the work of the group forward after I had ceased to serve as convenor in 2011, resulting in another significant joint work edited by Olaf Corry and group convenor Hayley Stevenson (eds. 2017, Traditions and Trends in Global Environmental Politics: International Relations and the Earth, London: Earthscan/Routledge).
"Undertaking to convene a group provides an opportunity to set agendas and to bring people together"
My thoughts on the advantages of convening the EWG for some 20 years may be somewhat outdated. First of all, such a long-term convenorship is no longer possible and this is probably for the best! When I began, e-mail connections were rudimentary without the capability to instantly circulate documents. Our policy was that maximum benefit would be derived from meetings that were able to consider a couple of papers that had been pre-circulated in advance. Thus, in the beginning, time and money were devoted to photocopying papers, collating them and stuffing envelopes for mailing out to members. Our relatively frequent meetings were held at City University London on Friday afternoons and the lion’s share of our limited budget was taken up with the travel costs of members. Their travel arrangements varied enormously, as can be imagined, and some took the opportunity to stay over in the capital for the weekend. The meetings were often contentious, but one of the virtues of a group where members came to know each other quite well, was that people were able to express themselves without much recrimination and we generally concluded by going to the Sekforde Arms pub in Farringdon. I hope that any members who read this will recollect these occasions as fondly as I do.
There are minor disadvantages to convening a working group, such as the clerical work involved and the need to bid for funds and keep minimal accounts. On the other hand, the main suggestion of this brief article is to stress that, in my experience, they are greatly outweighed by the benefits and advantages. First, a convenor gets to meet and interact with other scholars with similar interests. For me, it was the main way that I encountered and got to know a whole community of academics, many of whom are now very well known and prominent in the field and whom it would be invidious to mention by name. However, you could get some idea of who they are by looking at the contents pages of the books mentioned above! Being at the centre of a network has a number of evident benefits, especially for an ‘early career’ academic, but also for more established people who might be feeling somewhat isolated, perhaps institutionally or through the lingering effects of ‘lockdown’.
Second, undertaking to convene a group provides an opportunity to set agendas and to bring people together through suggestions for panel themes at conferences or in a seminar series. There are, of course. opportunities to extend this beyond the UK which in my case involved organizing ISA panels, with associated wider networking opportunities. If you serve as a convenor you will not be at the periphery but required to make connections. The key thing is to be willing to take initiatives that will involve group members.
Third, it often follows that the outcome of all this activity will be some form of publication. Being a convenor can put you in an editorial position. In my own case I had never done such a thing before, but it was an invaluable experience in terms of understanding the mechanics of this necessary academic activity. There were the frustrations of persuading others, sometimes more remiss than students, to get their copy in on time alongside the very real satisfaction of seeing the final product to completion.
In summary, being a convenor is well worth consideration and can do no harm to your CV or reputation within the discipline. Additionally, under current arrangements you won’t have to do it for 20 years!