A Bit Too Simple: Narratives at the Intersection of Development, Sustainability and Climate Change

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Mette Fog Olwig


Roskilde University


DKK 648,895




Monograph Fellowships


Trees are good, "floods are bad" and "local people are helpless." Such statements reflect underlying narratives at the intersection of development, sustainability and climate change that have become dominant to the point of appearing as unequivocal truths, regardless of contradictory scientific findings, the narratives' inconsistency with lived experiences and their possible detrimental consequences. Drawing on research in Ghana, Vietnam, Tanzania, Denmark and the US, this book will illuminate how long-standing narratives on sustainability and development and new narratives on climate change converge, becoming all the more influential as a result. Key questions will be: why, how and to what effect these stories are told?


Narratives gain their power by relating to the familiar while simultaneously simplifying complexity. Importantly, they thereby justify actions - usually actions that are convenient for those in power. Since colonization, local people in the Global South have thus been excessively blamed for environmental change, negatively affecting their understandings of environmental challenges and solutions. This book examines, on the one hand, the converging effect of linking different narratives through time and across disciplines and, on the other hand, how actors encounter, reproduce and challenge these narratives. This book is thus theoretically innovative by engaging simultaneously with ideas and their movements, and with actors, their relations and sense of agency.


The book applies theory from the humanities in an analysis of social and natural science issues to understand how stories, or narratives, are related, what makes them powerful and for whom, and why and to what effect they are told. It draws on data collected throughout the world employing the ethnographic methods of multi-sited fieldwork and event ethnography. These methods are particularly well suited to this study as narratives gain their authority partly by being able to travel between sites and across disciplines. Each chapter of the book will analyze interrelated narratives and lived experiences that when taken together reveal absurdities, tragedies, and sometimes agency in the face of hegemony. But most importantly, they show the impact on the lives we live of the stories we tell.

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