By Joern Fischer
As Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans pointed out in the previous guest post, the old approach of “just providing the facts” is failing to get the simple message communicated to society that our world is falling apart. No wonder, really. While us scientists might think of ourselves as pretty special, we’re no more special to society as a whole than its businesses, politicians and other lobby groups. We have methods for how we come up with what we believe to be true (arguably, pretty rigorous methods) — but other groups of people are just as entitled to communicating their points, which they believe to be important. Those points can range from “buy more burgers” to “help needy children”, and from “Vote for Me” to “Pray to Him”. In short: we’re one voice of many out there, and from the perspective of society as a whole (politicians included) no more or less interesting than all kinds of other voices.
What does this mean for how we ought to be engage with society? My short answer is “I don’t know”; my slightly longer answer is “I don’t know, but it is the single most important challenge for sustainability science”. And a pathetic attempt at an even longer answer follows below.
1. Work on issues that need attention. Given that the world is falling apart around us, what really does require our attention? Should we work where solutions are within reach — that’s one great option, and one that Gretchen Daily for example is using to push ahead the ecosystem services agenda; very successfully. Or we could work where it is truly needed because things are so messed up. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do in Romania. It’s not likely that we will “solve the problems” in Transylvania, but because the prolems are real and complex, it is important that somebody work there. Perhaps it’s easier to answer what not to study. I think we need to be careful about things that are primarily scientifically interesting, especially in systems that are not even under threat. Such work still dominates conservation (and sustainability?) literature. So, point one to me: work where it’s needed, and not just anywhere.
2. Think about leverage points — who can you reach with your work? In some systems, other researchers are your primary audience. Nobody else will listen anyway. This is the case, probably, where your work is highly contentious, and where you’re a long way ahead of where the system you are studying is. So if you propose we need to re-think our political system from scratch …. perhaps you need to bring this up with your fellow academics before trying for a revolution in the real world. The real world probably isn’t ready for that. Or if you’re against intensification but working in a system where intensification is the mantra because otherwise people starve. Again, you won’t have much of an audience beyond academia.
But in some cases, there will be a possible audience beyond academia. Engage those stakeholders, talk to them, report to them, interview them — involve them in whichever way is practical. These might be (1) individual people (“society”), (2) government officials, (3) politicians, (4) NGOs … I think a useful question to ask yourself is: who is a sensible target audience in my given system? Where is it most likely that my insights will fall on fertile ground, and effect some kind of real-world change? Then pick a strategy of engagement based on that analysis
3. Note that not everything can change the world. Being a scientivist might mean contributing to the momentum from within science. It might be that right now you see no option of using your insights to “save the world”. Perhaps not today. But perhaps you are still contributing to a wave of insights that is needed — and then it’s the wave that will ultimately sweep up the world and bring about change. You might be a tiny droplet in that wave, or a major force. But one way or the other — don’t expect that everything you do will lead to change, or even should. Personally, I don’t think this should stop you from trying though: that would be making excuses for yourself. It’s more about coping with disapp0intment (and being a bit realistic) about what you can and cannot achieve on your own.
4. We must find ways to link up, join forces, and make social change happen for real. Those of us who believe that scientivists are needed must be creative. We must do more to join our forces. So many people are now saying this — e.g. in the context of the MAHB. But what’s actually happening? Sweet F-A it seems, most of the time. What are we going to do about this?
That, to me, is the biggest challenge. There are more and more of us who agree that science is good, but on its own, not enough. We can no longer fiddle while Rome is burning, and more and more academics (particularly younger ones) feel this. Intuitively, we know it’s time for action, not just talk. So how we do join forces? What kinds of platforms do we need? How do we get this message to the public? To the media? To politicians? What can we do to re-focus attention on the nexus of the truly big problems relating to human behaviour and sustainability?
Somewhere we have to get started. Let’s make sure we’re not so busy to work on our academic credentials that we forget what we actually ought to be doing!