MEDIA RELEASE — Global sustainability: Time to act on what we know

By Joern Fischer

Various versions of the following media release will be spread today and tomorrow in several countries where the co-authors are active. A German media release will be distributed by the Leuphana University media office, and is currently available on the Leuphana homepage.


Major assessments have shown that global environmental deterioration is getting worse, not better. According to a new international study published in Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment (2012; doi: 10.1890/110079), it is time to act on existing knowledge rather than describe the process of environmental deterioration ever more precisely. The authors of the study are an unusual alliance of scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines, including sociology, ecology, public policy and philosophy.

Global sustainability, according to the study, demands far-reaching changes in human behavior, including a re-evaluation of the core values that underpin our growth and consumption based society.

Professor Joern Fischer from Leuphana University Lueneburg (Germany) is the lead author of the study. He explains that a lack of knowledge is no longer the primary barrier to sustainability: “Human actions and behaviors, both by individuals and society at large, are the fundamental cause of ongoing environmental degradation. From decades of detailed studies, we know huge amounts about what we ought to do differently – but we’ve done a terrible job acting on this knowledge.”

“Our study has summarized key priority areas which must be addressed to improve sustainability. Many of these are reasonably well-known, including the need to reform political institutions, address population growth, curb overly consumptive lifestyles, and act against social injustices. To actually bring about changes in these areas, it is important that we question much more deeply the values that underpin our modern lifestyles.”

Dr Rob Dyball is based at the Australian National University and is a co-author of the study. He argues: “A key challenge is that many of the necessary reforms are politically risky and therefore have fallen in the ‘too hard basket’ for many years. The likelihood of real change being initiated in politics, out of thin air, is close to zero. This means that civil society and the public must be engaged much more actively to discuss and confront sustainability problems together with researchers and other societal actors. It’s only when people see the need for difficult changes that these become politically possible.”

The paper argues that ultimately, a powerful new sustainability movement is needed in civil society – and researchers should play an important role in gathering momentum for such a movement to start.

Fischer explains: “Unsustainable behaviors result from a vicious cycle: Existing political and economic structures discourage and undermine more sustainable behaviors – and so people find it difficult to live more sustainable lives, even if they want to. But at the same time, unless civil society demands fundamental changes, those existing structures won’t change.

“As researchers, we must do a much better job communicating the urgent need for more sustainable behaviors. Those interested in sustainability must engage people more actively and provide opportunities for citizen participation. Put bluntly, we know what needs to happen to work toward a more sustainable future: we know that a social avalanche is needed. The challenge now is to get it started.”


Professor Joern Fischer, Leuphana University Lueneburg, phone: +4915734054192; email:

Dr Robert Dyball, The Australian National University, phone: + 61261253704; email:

The article can be downloaded from Professor Fischer’s personal homepage:

9 thoughts on “MEDIA RELEASE — Global sustainability: Time to act on what we know

  1. Hi – nice article and post, congratulations! It seems to me that it is so hard to ‘act against’ some behavioural features well ‘fixed’ by the millions of years. We need to address and change them very quickly. I just analyse myself and realize how hard this can be…

    • Tibor — I think it is overly easy, and overly daunting, to consider this as “acting against” behavioral features “well ‘fixed'”. If I may be so egotistical to quote myself, “neither fundamental economic principles of self-interest nor empirical research on human behavior show that humans are “naturally” programmed such that cooperation and sustainability cannot be accomplished or require driving a major overhaul of human nature (not that the tasks before us are by any means easy; they just do not require the wholesale alteration of supposedly inalterable traits).” Herman Daly and many others (Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Elinor Ostrom, Arun Agrawal) have, in my opinion, long since shown that, while sustainability and human behavior are *complicated*, they are certainly not *deeply and inherently opposed*. Arguably, we have as many traits useful to to the task as we do inimical to it, and of course, almost all such traits are contingent. The challenge is building and maintaining structures that take advantage of our “good side” (so to speak) rather than exploiting our “bad ones.” And to me, that is not a challenge of our millions of years of nature, so much as a challenge to those who benefit so richly from making us *think* acting in unsustainable ways is simply in line with our nature.

      In a somewhat frivolous parallel — we pretty rapidly evolved significant populations able to digest lactose as adults, twice, thousands of years ago. Even were our traits inherently inimical to sustainability, and shaped by millions of years, nothing says that such traits can’t be rapidly changed. (They’re just not *easily* changed, but “not easy” is different than “inherently constrained”.) Indeed, in the long run, there would arguably be both social and ecological selection pressure to do so–the challenge is to build the structures of change before we’re “forced to” by increased differential survival, aka privation and warfare, (aka selection, e.g. the dying out of the uncooperative, alongside, most likely, the less socially powerful).

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  4. Thanks Jahi – I agree with you but still, according to my actual knowledge, it will be a big challange to change fundamental human behaviours (which govern even the willingness for e.g. cooperation – people can cooperate for many things, including ‘bad’ ones). I dont say it is impossible – just hard. We need probably very authentic leaders, who actually do what they say not just ‘predicate’ (and there are many people like this – even recent Nobel price winners. These people will ‘inflate’ these big concepts and ideas too). And although there were and are such leaders (see my previous post about saints swines and sustainability) there are very few, too few. But, lets continue to be optimistic and do what we can at least in our little / larger society where we live, to make good things.

    • Hmm… Indeed so, Tibor–it will be hard. But I still maintain it’s less the challenge of (positive) cooperation itself, than the concerted, though minority interests aligned against it. It has, to me, everything to do with the immense amounts of effort to stop change, and somewhat less to do with “human nature” (or “fundamental human behavior”). Unless you are referring to, for example, our tendency to believe things that are repeated many times, and lack of willingness to contribute to something unless we are able to discern it’s making some difference.

      But again, it’s “hard” because, in my opinion, so many people are spending so much money, time, and other resources *making* it so. How many billions of dollars are spent on advertising alone? How many billions on targeting all the “soft points” of human nature, exploiting our accumulative desires and encouraging us to be dissatisfied with lives made up of more positive relationships and less “stuff”? I ardently believe that if it were “easy” to make people so unsustainable, and cooperate on “bad” stuff, those pushing over-consumption and exploitation would gladly save their money and let us “come to them”!! To me, even the most charitable interpretation of human nature would be hard pressed to say that “good” people could easily stand against so much intentional effort to make them apathetic or actively “bad”!

      And regarding leaders, I think there is way too much emphasis on “leaders.” I found Duncan Watts and Juan Carlos Rocha’s points very compelling, and in line with my lived experience, intuition, and varying sources like Howard Zinn’s work and the rise of La Vía Campesina. Raj Patel makes a similar point in “Value of Nothing” — “leaders” is blind alley, to some extent (imho). We need to realize that we ALL need to take turns being leaders–*and* we all need to take turns serving, as well: “being part of something effective should be the goal, not necessarily being “the” leader of everything.”

      • Excellent comments on leadership, Jahi, thanks. Very nice. That said: in the Saxon villages of Transylvania, we’re finding that a problem is that nobody makes the start: this is where leadership is indeed critical, to get things started. I guess it all depends (a bit) on where you work: so it’s good to exchange ideas and experiences in forums like this one!

      • Good point, Joern. It would indeed be overly facile to conceptually dismiss “leadership” as a whole! But what I take away from some of the items I linked to is that what we need to pay attention to, more than leaders per se, is creating the circumstances conducive to leadership. Like the example of the forest conflagration, the spark is no more important (and arguably less) than the conditions being right for everything to take flame. Of course, who helps make the “conditions right” but leaders? I suppose it is a chicken and egg issue, to some extent, and also context dependent, as you said, to a great extent. I would surmise that “enabling conditions” are as much a problem in the Saxon villages as “leadership”–but I may be wrong!

        My own research reflects this possible dichotomy, as the breathtaking innovations in food policy in Brazil can be, in no small part, be traced to some amazing leaders. But my research also put it in the context of the fact that Brazil, as a country, had been working aggressively on ideas for food policies arguably since WWI, and had incredible mobilization leading up to and after the fall of the dictatorship in the 80s that set the stage for change. It arguably wouldn’t have happened without dynamic leaders, but it *couldn’t* have happened without the years of “condition-building” and agitation by “average people”. The research on participatory democracy is instructive here… but I could go on and on!

        Certainly, ample food for thought, and as you advocate, Joern, an approach to problems that doesn’t consider everything as polarized “either/or”‘s.

        And thanks, btw, for your kind message. I’m glad my work has been helpful to you. And for my part, let me congratulate you — the new article in Frontiers is excellent!

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