Berkeley Conference “Deadly Modernity”

By Julian Dierkes

The Mongolia Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies hosted a conference entitled “Deadly Modernity: The Environmental Crisis Behind Mongolia’s Swift Development” March 10-12, 2016.

I don’t think anyone was tweeting from the conference, but just in case there was interest, I used the hashtag “#MongoliaConfCal“. Even when no one else joined in the tweeting conversation, use of the tag in the tweets I sent allowed me to storify these notes (see below).


The conference was focused on discussing environmental impacts of development in and around Mongolia. Most of the presentations took an ecosystems approach and examined specific elements in systems, but there were a number of social science presentations as well.

As is the case so often, it is one of the great privileges of being active in an area of research with a very specific geographic focus (Mongolia) that many might consider “obscure”. What this means that I have more interactions with eco-systems research focused on Mongolia, than I ever would in my other geographic area of focus, Japan.

Given the wide variety of topics, I was surprised that I actually came away with a bit of an overarching conclusion, vague as it may seem and limited to some of the presentations as it is. This lessons is “scale!”. To understand adaptations to change (climate change, economic development, etc.) it is essential to consider scale carefully and to adjust the lens with which we look at phenomena to the appropriate scale.

The most explicit pointers to this came in the presentations by Sneath, Jensen, and Dales.

D Sneath: Herding Economy as Socio-Technical Systems

I have heard David Sneath speak on this topic twice now and it’s always interesting and I learn a lot. In my understanding, he compares the pre-revolutionary/neo-feudal, collectivized, and individualistic market-based herding economy as socio-technical systems to ask the question at what geographic scale grasslands have been managed in the past. This comparison seems to imply an argument that the houselhold level management under the market economy is not well-suited to adapt to always-present challenges of grasslands management, but especially to respond to climate change.  Prominent elements in the analysis are winter fodder (how it is provided in monastic units under neo-feudal systems, or by collective, but not provided to household herding), and (over)grazing (again, neo-feudal and collectivized management has enough space available to assign herds to less-stressed locations; households are more restricted.

To me, the message is clear (though Sneath doesn’t make it explicit as a policy recommendation): household-level management has some very serious implications for grasslands, some kind of collective is necessary as a level of administration/coordination.

K Dales: Watershed Management

Kirsten Dales focused specifically on cross-boundary conflict around water management. Most recently, this issue has received some attention with the (transparently self-serving) Russian complains about the hydro-dam that has been proposed for the Eg River. She spoke most explicitly about scale, noting that natural science approaches to water are typically focused on very specific, small sites, but that the governance issues clearly unfold at a much larger scale, even across national boundaries.

O Jensen: Fish Management

In comparing the impact that a recreational catch-and-release fishery has on taimen populations to the impact that a commercial sport fishery divided into concessions that cover specific areas of a river, Jensen finds that the taimen are much more mobile throughout the river to allow for management by segment. Instead the population needs to be managed to preserve its viability, and the recreational catch-and-release fishery seems to be effective in this management.


Taken together, these projects seem to imply that environmental management in Mongolia needs to not only keep scale in mind, but focus on collective organization, not on the individual incentives and market-based mechanisms that are typically advocated by many development approaches, particularly those of the World Bank or also of US AID (yes, guilt of broad generalization here).

My Presentation: Environmental Movement

In my presentation, I asked why there is no environmental movement in Mongolia. Obviously this was meant as a deliberate provocation (it worked), as there are many environmental movements but these haven’t coalesced into a national movement. I tried to point out why it is not unreasonable to expect the emergence of a political and united environmental movements, but also some of the blockages that I see to such mobilization. I pointed to patterns of individualistic social organization, and the vertical organization of civil society as possible explanations.


Storified Tweets

Obviously, these are very incomplete notes that I took for my own interest, so they are sparse and unbalanced. Whenever I have not commented at length about any specific presentation, that was likely due to my ignorance on a given topic, not intended as a comment on the quality of that presentation.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Air Pollution, Conferences, Countryside, Environment, Environment, Environmental Movements, Grassland, Health, Mining, Nationalism, Policy, Politics, Research on Mongolia, River Movements, Social Movements, Water and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Berkeley Conference “Deadly Modernity”

  1. The workshop looked very interesting and many thanks for the overview and storified Tweets that recap the key topics and points. It’s helpful for those of us who couldn’t attend. I especially liked the question about whether what could be called ‘resource nationalism’ has applied to contexts beyond mining, such as with the Eg River dam project that Kirsten Dales discussed. This is something I’d love to hear/read more about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *