Human behaviour and sustainability (#ESA2012)

By Joern Fischer

So, this morning we had the symposium on human behaviour and sustainability. The session was organized by Rob Dyball, who leads the Human Ecology Section of the ESA. Rob also was one of the most important contributors to our paper on “human behavior and sustainability”, which appeared in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment earlier this year (available here).

I kicked off the session, with some basic comments on the role of policy change. In a nutshell, I argued that policy change is important to work towards sustainability, but that we need to look beyond policy — towards underlying, foundational issues regarding human behaviour, like our value and belief systems. It’s those foundational issues that we rarely discuss, and should have more debates about.

As a case study on how civil society can (and should) be engaged to foster sustainability, Dale Blahna then talked about a neat case study of public engagement to assess ecosystem services in the Deschutes National Forest. His talk was followed by Chiho Watanabe, from Tokyo University, who impressively outlined some of the major challenges involving food production and consumption in Bangladesh — too many people, on too little land, dependent on just one staple crop, namely rice. Population is obviously a critical driver of un-sustainability, and we can’t ignore it in public debates, even if that would be popular.

Over-consumption in rich nations is a major issue in sustainability, but did not receive the same attention in the symposium today as in our paper mentioned above — I think that’s a bit of a shortcoming, since it’s such an important issue. All of us flying here, really — we must do a lot of good at this conference to make up for the bad we have already done by getting here!!

Thomas Lovejoy then gave an insightful talk about how major financial players like the world bank had in fact made a lot of progress when it comes to sustainability issues; nice to get some good news for a change.

Rob Dyball presented a talk by Catherine Gross (she couldn’t make it) on key issues of justice, emphasising that just outcomes must consider both the process and the way in which people are involved in decision-making; AND the outcomes. Procedural, interactional and distribute justice all are important concepts, and should be routinely considered in natural resource management.

Amy Freitag gave a really nice overview of how different worldviews at times collide in fisheries systems of North Caroline. Superb case study, and especially for natural scientists, I think, probably quite eye opening. There’s more to science in the real world than objective measurements … and there are many ways of knowing a fisheries system.

Then the stage was open for two “rock stars of ecology”, as someone termed them in real time on twitter: Will Steffen and Paul Ehrlich. Will gave one of his unbelievably good synthesis talks of where the science of climate change is at — there are few people who so succinctly and elegantly present such huge amounts of information. The bad news, between the lines — Will gives us many reasons to be concerned about the future: climate change really will hit us hard, sooner or later, it seems. Courtesy of Kai Chan, here is a link to a recent video featuring Will and his explanations of climate change:

And then Paul Ehrlich and his overly large charisma had the stage, last but not least. The most fun way to cover what he talked about is to simply put a few quotes here, of what he said during the talk (thanks to those tweeting the talk!):

  • need equal rights for women, including access to birth control & abortion, as a way to control population.
  • we don’t know what exactly will happen with climate change, but we know it will bring unwanted surprises.
  • “What are we going to do abt it? Nothing. I see no sign of our society doing a WW2-type mobilization.”
  • “you’re not in a scientific debate, you are in a street fight”. Get out there and work for change!
  • “Have fun with your science but put a good chunk of your time into trying to save your civilization.”

Overall, a successful session, I think — though I would have preferred more on the needs to question our value and belief systems, and more on the role of civil society in bringing about change. Comments welcome, of course!

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3 thoughts on “Human behaviour and sustainability (#ESA2012)

  1. I think that ‘nothing’ is a bit too harsh – I know there are many people working for ‘good causes’ in Transylvania, and yes, it is always place for better but still it is much more than nothing what we (various people with initiatives) do there. Or if that is ‘nothing’ than it is a quite hardworked northing:)) And now there are much more good things going one than 20 years ago. Lets see the positive sides and hope.

  2. Pingback: Saving the world in two steps | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: Being policy-relevant vs. asking uncomfortable questions | Ideas for Sustainability

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