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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Robert Dyball, The Australian National University, phone: + 61261253704; email: email@example.com
The article can be downloaded from Professor Fischer’s personal homepage: