By Joern Fischer
Many scientists working on sustainability issues are in this business because they are concerned about the state of the world. It seems self-evidently reasonable that, therefore, we ought to try to use our science to improve the state of things.
Most scientists, when they think of being relevant, or changing the state of the world for the better, automatically think of informing or influencing policy. This can be a very useful way to change things for the better. For example, new protected areas have been declared on the basis of scientific input to policy; and restoration activities in degraded landscapes have been improved by scientific input delivered to government and non-government organisations. Seeking to inform policy therefore can be a useful activity for scientists trying to improve the world.
When looking at my own work, some of it has been policy-relevant, but some has not – but was nevertheless motivated by a desire to improve the state of the world. Much of that work falls in the category of what may be called “asking uncomfortable questions”. For example, my analyses with colleagues from the social sciences and humanities have highlighted that many of the current sustainability problems require all of us to reflect on the value and belief systems underpinning the patterns of un-sustainability that we observe. Such calls to “halt and reflect” are not policy-relevant in a direct sense. When talking about such issues, I have therefore sometimes been asked: “What’s the point of all this? How is complaining about value and belief systems going to change anything?”
My response is that, in its own right, complaining of course does not do anything. However, as a scholarly community, what we talk and write about shapes or influences scientific and broader societal discourses. For example, a current discourse that many ecologists feed into is centred around the idea of environmentally benign agricultural production. Especially in a food security context, it would be possible for ecologists to feed less energy into this discourse, and instead think more about the intersection of biodiversity conservation with education (see my presentation in the previous blog post). Or – equally possible in principle – ecologists could take a systems perspective, and see whether systems are actually designed to meet objectives such as biodiversity conservation or sustainable development. Many systems were not designed for these purposes, and so we should not be surprised if they do not deliver outcomes that they were never designed to deliver in the first place. If scholars were to routinely point out inconsistencies between what our systems were originally designed to do and what may be a modern set of societal goals (e.g. sustainable development), this would create a different discourse from what we see today. In stylised terms, it is thus feasible that sustainability scholars help “create” (or strengthen) a discourse around societal goals and values, rather than continue to feed into discourses that may well amount to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
These two ways of engaging with the world – being policy-relevant versus asking uncomfortable questions – can and should go hand in hand. Of course it makes sense to work within existing structures and paradigms to improve sustainability outcomes wherever possible. But ultimately, unless we also challenge those structures and paradigms to keep up with modern (and long-term viable) societal goals, we may win many small fights but ultimately lose the overall battle.
From my perspective, it would be helpful if a larger proportion of scholars working on sustainable development, in a larger proportion of their work, highlighted the underyling problems of our sustainability crisis and the need to address those. This would alter dominant discourses, thereby creating momentum for more fundamental societal changes which very likely, ultimately will be required. Building momentum in this way means engaging with society at large, and not singling out policy makers as the single most important “end users” of scholarly work. Many societal actors play important roles in setting the overall direction the world is heading, including scientists and “ordinary” citizens – and if it is the overall direction we are worried about, it is not just policy makers that we need to talk to.
In short: being policy-relevant is useful, but as an end goal for a sustainability science community, it is not enough.