Saving the world in two steps

By Joern Fischer

Today, I’ll write my first post on recipes. Well, kind of. The basic premise is that saving the world is like some pretty basic cooking and requires just two steps. By saving the world, I mean making substantial advances towards sustainability, considering intra- and intergenerational issues of justice alongside ecological sustainability.

First, there is a central assumption — and I’d be interested in comments if people even agree with that assumption. The assumption is that most current efforts can be seen as “incrementalism”, while the major drivers underpinning unsustainability continue to intensify rather than weaken. I’ve made those basic points in “Mind the Sustainability Gap“, and in “Human Behavior and Sustainability“. This means, effectively, that most current efforts are band aids, on their own bound to do not very much (nothing). I think of things  like failed summits in Copenhagen or Rio, new guidelines to clear just a bit less, or offsetting our carbon emissions while flying more and more. We, often, miss some key underlying points, and our “successes” are not real successes. They are not even steps in the right direction because the overall trends are not going in the right direction — or does any scientist working on sustainability believe that we are actually moving closer to true sustainability (globally!)?

If this assumption is correct, then a steady evolution approach to societal change seems to be futile. Instead, we need to think about some more fundamental drivers; I see some of those in our value and belief systems. As long as the answer to “what do you value” is “consumption and growth”, actions for sustainability will remain essentially futile.

If this is true, the two steps to saving the world are: (1) recognise that we need to do something fundamentally different (in terms of societal order, dominant values, etc), and then (2) work towards implementing fundamental changes.

As I see it, this cake is going to take some time to cook though, because we have not yet reached step 1.

At a recent party I spoke to two “young” scientists (under forty is young, right?) about such issues. They, like me, came into this business at least partly because of concerns about where the world is going. The point is there are so many of us — there must be thousands of “next generation scientists” around the world who would agree that something somewhat fundamental needs to change.

My question to those reading this is: would thousands of such young scientists signing a joint statement that we need to look at societal values more fundamentally (or some such thing) not create some useful momentum? — Would it not be a bit like at least getting step 1 on the way? Or would a statement of that sort, delivered to the UN, major governments, and of course the media, be truly worthless?

If step 1 is to state that change is needed, and if step 1 has not been voiced effectively so that society actually hears it, then it’s precisely that step which we should start with. Would it be possible to get a few thousand “next generation scientists” to agree on some fundamental tenets of such a joint statement, and would it be worthwhile?


16 thoughts on “Saving the world in two steps

  1. I would agree on everything, though I would not expect “some useful momentum” to equate to very much.
    I think the societal values will change dramatically, but only when the situation is also dramatic.

  2. I agree with the assumption. And the proposal is worth a go, if only to get the new generation involved, without worrying too much for now about overall momentum. From my pov, younger scientists and scientist-wannabes are too occupied with their own survival in the game – and the reason for that is the very same unsustainable inertia (plus funding cuts, of course).

    I do not even think that “consumption and growth” is in the values of that new generation; it is not a chosen option for them, it’s inertia.

    Then, I wonder how one gets past the shield of values around them? Perhaps via professional societies like, say, ESA or SCB?

  3. I carefully agree with your opinion. To change values has the consequence to change the point of people’s view. Unfortunately, I often hear “this is not possible, people doesn’t want that” and this doesn’t end at our university. In sus. management, we learn sth. about the I = P x A x T formula, but the lecturer constrains our view on Technology, because “it is common” that a discussion about a different understanding of affluence is not realistic.
    Moreover, I don’t know whether a joint statement within anyhow in sustainability interested younger scientists supports a rethinking of “old school” scientists.

  4. Societal values – why not – but from scientists? See what good it was that limits to growth were discussed in 70’s – it was forgotten at least 20 years before rediscovered. What did it help that the UN formulated human rights, when it is neglected by all nations since then. Or what about the millenium development goals? If a statement by scientists would even compare to these milestones of declared human values – what is different today? I would just subscribe for the MDG and head for step 2. Lets do it.

  5. While I’m very sympathetic to the idea–and much in agreement with the overall analysis–I think what would be INFINITELY more effective, and only, say, twice 🙂 as challenging, would be a joint statement of thousands of young scientists *and local communities*. What if each young scientist sought out some interested citizens wherever they’re at–if they’re in Portland or somewhere else pretty progressive, maybe even the city council; if they’re somewhere less out front, it may be a smaller/more select citizen group–and drafted a document on a citizens & scientists consensus? THAT would draw major attention, I’d think, both for its uniqueness and actual content. Many of us “young” scientists *do* care about getting people–citizens–involved beyond just hoping they read our journal articles. Would this not be a great opportunity to do just that? Like I said–harder, maybe twice or thrice as hard, but much less hard than “impossible” and I think the impact would be much more than thrice as large. And now that I think about it, obviously, a second hugely positive side effect would be *getting all these young scientists talking to their communities*. While not quite a “win-win” (participation is crucial, but not the same thing as “winning”) it’d be quite a thing…

  6. I think that would be a fascinating endavour, it would be worthwhile to make a checklist and have that circulated. I think once a general draft has been made this would need to be circulated within the community, and it should go viral. Then you should carefully plan to approach one of the major journals, and also throw in some metrics of why exactly this community is vital. Once you got this out you would need to set up a really short and really easy to understand video, which delivers all points of the message in a funny way, without still showing that the matter is serious. This needs to go viral then.
    I think also one key thing is to confront established institutions, and clearly state that we do not have the time to go all the institutions. But thats probably already one of the first points for the list of the draft….

  7. Pingback: Coming soon: an open letter | Ideas for Sustainability

  8. My first response is go for it! My second response is be careful not to rely solely on your circle of ecological knowledge. I have no doubt that with careful consideration you can write a wonderful and inspiring letter for young ecologists to sign on to. But perhaps that’s only 30% of the issue. In many ways the potential success of this action relies on pulling off a very successful marketing campaign; and in that regard, who could you call on to make sure that all those aspects that are peripheral to ecology are dealt with sufficiently so that this wonderfully inspiring idea, doesn’t end with a whimper. That’s not to put a dampener on things, it’s just to point out that it’s a very crowed playing field out there, with thousands of important and unimportant issues vying for people’s attention. So knowing that you (we) want this action to really make as much of a difference as possible, suggests that we need to step outside our ranks and get people involved who actually know what’s needed to maximize the chances of this effort succeeding. That said, happy to help in whatever way I can.

    • Thanks Adam. Agreed. The world is a big and mean place, and the likes of me have no idea what they’re doing. But hey, not doing anything is also doing… I took a long time to come around to the belief that this is worthwhile. I see it as two steps. Initially, to get this thing signed, and let the world wide web do its thing .Then if it works well (which it may or may not), the “product” is a website with a fair few signatures, and then that can be further “used” in communications of whatever type. So my sense is, let’s start, and take it one step at a time. If the first step goes well (which it might not, after all), then we can still think about the second step. Perhaps I should take bets on whether it will be “successful” or not … what would success be, anyway? Hm….

      • Fair enough. I imagined the signing process as something that would feed off the publicity, and vice versa. But, I take you’re point that this can work in stages.

        With respect to success…as long as it helps to push this ship in even the smallest of better directions (which I believe it will!), then it will be a success.

  9. Just to be clear, I wrote “ecologists”, but meant more than that. The point it not just to step outside ecology, but to try to get advice from people who are experienced with things like social-media campaigns, marketing, public relations, etc.

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