By Joern Fischer
As I mentioned in my previous post, this was a week of two conferences on sustainability — in total about 2000 people in Lueneburg participated in these two conferences and thus actively engaged with issues of sustainability. Today was the last day.
The conference organisers had asked participants to answer questions about the upcoming Rio +20 summit. What would Rio have to achieve? Were they optimistic this would be achieved? What if Rio fails?
Paraphrasing the findings of Harald Heinrichs, the main organiser of the conference:
1. people thought Rio would have to achieve something tangible, like an actual binding agreement;
2. people were very pessimistic that anything binding would be achieved; and
3. people felt this meant even more work had to be done in future — including by civil society.
Today I was interviewed together with Harald and Jochen Flasbarth, unfortunately only by some local media people. Frankly, we disagreed. Jochen Flasbarth, for all his experience (and I’m sure the very useful things he has achieved in his career — doubtless more than what I have achieved!), felt that scientists should provide facts for policy, give policy makers different options, and then it was up to the policy makers to decide on appropriate courses of action.
To my mind, there’s a new generation of scientists now, who is no longer satisfied with their role of describers and advisors. If medical scientists are allowed to advocate better health outcomes, then sustainability scientists are allowed to advocate better sustainability outcomes. I feel strongly that we must engage more with civil society, and get civil society informed and moving — or sustainability will remain elusive. I have absolutely no hopes for current economic and political institutions to achieve anything unless civil society demands fundamental changes.
It’s too easy for countries like Germany to pretend we’re doing well — but that’s because we’re screwing up the rest of the world with our greed for ever more stuff. Germany itself is looking nice, if you ignore its external impacts. According to the global footprint network, if all people lived like Germans, we’d need several planets Earth: not just one.
I am tired of people highlighting that “we have come a long way”. No we haven’t. We have absolutely failed to address the fundamentally important challenges that underpin our societies: our addiction to ever more material growth and limitless comfort at all times. How, based on such values, will we ever reach sustainability, including global social justice? We are failing, not doing well.
One problem I ask myself is what I do with this insight. It might be wrong. But for a moment, let’s assume I’m right. How can we get this message discussed in civil society? We were able to get nothing but a couple of local media people interested in what we had to say. Is that because we approached the wrong people? Possible, but I think there’s more.
The media want numbers. Factoids. Perhaps this means people want numbers and factoids.
Here is my prediction: unless we re-learn to reflect, discuss, and get beyond factoids, sustainability stands no hope. Again, I may be wrong … but to my mind, unless we get people moving and involved — forget Rio, and with it, a Green Economy and other saviors that can only be partial solutions. To move beyond partial solutions, we need to dig deeper: I’m afraid that so far, too few people are willing to accept this.
That said: the one positive note to me coming from the Leuphana Sustainability Summit was that within the discipline of sustainability science, there is an increasing number of people who believe we need new ways — people who are starting to shake the foundations of our growth- and greed-based society. And a message to all those people: Unless we manage to get organised, we’ll count for nothing. Fragmentation within academia is one of our biggest (self-created) enemies. So many “sustainability experts” now truly believe that we must go beyond the pragmatic, and beyond the low-hanging fruit, and question fundamentally how we can best achieve ‘transformative change’. Our challenge must be to communicate this to (and discuss it with) the rest of society — those of us who believe that real change is needed must find ways to bring this about.
Anyway. There’s quite a rant. I’m tired of people patting each other on the back telling themselves we’re doing well, and all will be well. At this stage the numbers say differently: 1 billion under-nourished; extinction rates 1000-10000 times the background rate; climate change essentially out of control and beyond safe limits.
So far, we’ve failed.