Directions for sustainability: insights from a week of conferences

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.

5 thoughts on “Directions for sustainability: insights from a week of conferences

  1. Thank you for this wake-up call. Is it just one of many? And do people want to get awake? I have more doubts than ever. And I have made a different observation: within sustainability science, many scientist are also not really up for real change, actually I know a lot of environmental scientists who just do not care, do not promote change, do not even try to live a different way of life. This sometimes makes me depressed. This is, as the blog post, not really optimistic, sorry for that.

  2. “People” are hungry for change, in my experience (especially my experiences in the Global South — witness Hardt & Negri’s points in Multitude, and the rise of La Via Campesina, among other examples like the “Arab Spring” and Occupy Wall Street–for all their strengths, weaknesses, and ambiguities, they certainly denote a desire for *change*). I do, however, agree with Matthias that too many environmental scientists are not as up for it as civil society, ironically. To some extent, I feel many of our colleagues became academics in order to avoid dealing with anything outside of their field; the realization that they may have a moral, ethical, or practical obligation to do so is unwelcome.

    And to Joern’s post itself, regarding Jochen Flasbarth’s opinion, I tend to agree with Nelson and Vucetich–being a scientist no more removes you from the obligation (or the right) as a citizen to act for what you consider to be good and wise policy than being a scientist removes you from the obligation of taking care of your children because you could get more work done if you ignored their needs.

    Lastly, I don’t know that “people” want numbers and factoids. Rather, “people” tend to want to invest in change they have some notion and hope will work–I often say to my students, if you see someone on a corner asking for money, someone who looks to be legitimately in need, do you hesitate to give them something because you are self-concerned? Or is it because you don’t have confidence that giving them some change will really help them, or be put to “good” use? If you had a guarantee your money was actually putting someone on the path to betterment, you would at the very least be much more likely to consider this “handout.” Although an oversimplified parallel, the point to me is this: I don’t think people are reluctant for change. They are reluctant to invest time, resources, sweat and tears in change that may be the “wrong” thing, ineffective, hopeless, or unwise. All the more reasons for scientists to get involved–because *all* “solutions” run into roadblocks. If we have stepped back and said “this is the ‘most logical’ thing to do, go at it”, then when snags, surprises, and “revenge effects” occur, we will lose trust. On the other hand, if we are partners with society, and say “Science gives us not the tools to have ‘THE’ answer, but rather the process by which we can progressively improve and evaluate our actions while we work together”, then as partners, we can build the trust that we need to rely on when things, inevitably, go awry. A facile form of trust may be gained by appearing “objective” and impartial; the true trust we need for hard problem solving is only gained by being comrades-in-change, close by with society, so that even when the outcomes are unclear or discouraging, the motives are less likely to be suspect. This is only done by working together, not be handing things off assembly-line like.

  3. I fully agree with your conclusion of the Sustainability Summit and concur with Matthias: “we need to walk the talk” (as Arnim Wiek also state it in his keynote speech at the summit). But 40 years after the limits to growth and 20 years after Rio we are still lacking in action and change to this will not happen overnight.

    On the one hand there are too many people thinking that sustainability is only about doing less (driving less, but still driving) and/or satisfy their conscience with small negligible steps (using renewable instate of fossil fuels). Ones again the annual student conference at the Leuphana served as an example. On the other hand there are “sustainability experts” out there flying between two cities (distance < 900km) three times in less than 36 hours to confirm their importance. Instead of offering online participation in the conference we are proud to welcome patricians from 50 countries to Lüneburg.

    At conferences we like to develop frameworks and making up plans how to achieve change. But framework papers serve only to raise impact of scientists and our roadmaps are useless especially if they are planed without the relevant stakeholders. A week of conferences confirms that once again.

    However, I thank you for sharing your ideas! I think it is unfortunately not the norm to read such post from someone in your position.

    PS I would like to share Paul Gildings TED talk on “the earth is full”:

    • Thanks for your fiery reply — good to see a little passion out there! There is one bit of good news: our faculty is ready to hear exactly these kinds of things. I share your cynicism about people flying between important meetings — and I don’t know what to do about, either — being invited to speak at two such important meetings later this year. What should I do? Decline to come, thereby not spreading my opinion? I have wondered this, quite actively, and asked colleagues for advice on it, too — for now I’ll go. Unless we engage, we’ve lost already. That said, conference organisers (as opposed to invited speakers) should do better for keynote speakers especially to find alternative web-based formats.

      But back to the good news: our Faculty in Lueneburg is ready to hear this, and there are enough of us who want to go beyond doing just more of the same thing. If that is so (and I believe it is), the questions shifts from what should we do (engage with the world) to HOW DO WE DO IT.

      I state in our recent paper on human behaviour and sustainability that we need an avalanche of social change; and that scientists should be part of starting that avalanche. The question to me is HOW. This is where creative thinking is needed — and that’s where we ought to put our energy (while still satisfying academic ‘requirements’ because otherwise we’re unemployed…)

      Anyway, there’s a bit of a rant to follow on my own rant! Point is, yes, let’s move beyond flying between meetings; let’s get people involved and fired up — personally, I believe that without a new global movement on sustainability, humanity will (continue to) fail.

  4. Dear Joern, Christopher,

    thanks for the replies. Having studied and worked in Lueneburg, I know that a lot of things are already done there. However, this is exceptional for a university so far, unfortunately.

    You asked how we as citizens who are also scientists could be involved. Here are my suggestions:

    1. Tell others about your (sustainable) choices. Tell what you did and why. To colleagues, friends, and at conferences. This will motivate others. It works!
    2. write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Such letters are widely read! Connect something from your research to a recent topic, give your opinion if you think that sustainability issues are neglected, and argue against environmental myths and sceptics.
    3. Think actively about how your own research is related to sustainability and try to communicate it, for example in a blog.
    4. Take some of your precious time to be involved in grassroots movements and political parties. I noticed that there is sometimes really a lack of knowledge about complex environmental issues. With what you might think is trivial, you might actually be able to make others rethink completely.
    5. Write to a politician.
    6. Keep smiling.

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