Environmental activism above politics? How contests over energy projects in Turkey are intertwined with identity politics

CMES and the Institute of the Environment present:

Environmental activism above politics? How contests over energy  projects in Turkey are intertwined with identity politics

Ståle Knudsen, PhD
Professor, Social Anthropology
University of Bergen, Norway

Monday, March 31, 2014
4pm in Marshall 490

In parallel with its rapid economic growth during the last years Turkey has seen a massive investment in and development of energy production. Planned and actual construction of hydropower, gas- and coal-fired power stations as well as nuclear plants has been met with considerable opposition by local population as well as environmental groups. Many organizers of these protests stress that the resistance is 'above politics', yet they are caught in a dilemma where politicized identities can be a resource in mobilizing resistance, but ascription of identities such as 'terrorist' are difficult to avoid. This paper explores and compares how this dilemma is handled in environmental protests and argues that environmental conflicts can only be understood within the context of national identity politics. In Turkey strong social, political and symbolic frames for mobilization are rather reproduced than challenged as the protests, movements and NGOs manoeuvre to gain support for their causes. These frames relate to images of the Turkish nation and internal and external threats to it. Who you are, especially your ethnic or political identity (often correlated), and who you cooperate with often become critical for the credibility of a protest or movement. Environmental activism seldom remains 'issue-based', however much activists themselves claim or desire their protests to be 'above politics'. These characters of environmental social movements in Turkey may explain why they tend not to seek international cooperation and why they may not be as much expressions of a 'mature civil society' as commentators expected during the early years of AKP rule.

Ståle Knudsen is a professor of social anthropology at University of Bergen in Norway. He holds a PhD in social anthropology (2001) and has researched Turkish Black Sea fisheries for 20 years. This research has covered issues such as knowledge, technology, science, consumption, state policies, poverty and common pool resources and has been published in Human Ecology, Human Organization, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Anthropological Quarterly, as well as in the book Fishers and Scientists in Modern Turkey: The Management of Natural Resources, Knowledge and Identity on the Eastern Black Sea Coast (Berghahn 2009). From 2004-2013 he was involved in EU-funded interdisciplinary work related to the management of European seas. This resulted in the publication of several co-authored multi-disciplinary articles. Knudsen’s current research interests include the political ecology of biodiversity and introduced species in the Black Sea and beyond. He has more recently taken an interest in the widespread social mobilizations against the massive construction of energy plants (hydropower, thermal, nuclear) across Turkey and in how these protests are countered by the corporate ethics work by international energy companies operating in Turkey.


As part of the series: Peace, Power, and Protests: Challenges of Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East and North Africa


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