By Joern Fischer
Have you ever thought that sustainability science seems to be missing the point, half the time? That’s we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and that we’re fiddling around the edges? Well — you’re not alone. A group of eight scholars from Leuphana University Lueneburg (myself included) got together early in 2014 to write a project proposal on precisely this. And just a short while ago we found out that our proposal was successful, funded through an exciting initiative by the German state of Lower Saxony to fund excellence in sustainability.
Our new project is called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. Conceptually, we start with an idea by Donella Meadows, which she published in 1999, in an essay called “Places to Intervene in a System“. Her idea was that there are many ways to intervene in complex systems — but some of these ways are not particularly influential (they have shallow leverage), while others are highly influential (they have deep leverage).
Looking at the list of leverage points identified by Donella Meadows (see above), one might argue that a lot of sustainability science has focused on the things on the left — on relatively shallow leverage points. Think about the “reform” of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, of laws to ban incandescent light bulbs, or maybe even of REDD+. These are all good things, but it seems they are only small steps in the right direction; while the forces for un-sustainability continue to operate with the same strength as before.
Arguably, it’s time for sustainability science to more routinely look at the things with deeper leverage — on the right hand side in our graphic above. Our new project will try to do precisely that. For the purpose of convenience, in our new project, we will look at leverage points within three spheres, which for convenience we labelled restructure, reconnect, and rethink. Restructure will deal with the role of institutions; reconnect with relationships between people and their natural environments; and rethink will critically investigate what types of knowledge are needed to advance sustainability (including from outside academia). As focal themes, our new project will focus on food and energy; and as case study areas, we will compare Lower Saxony (in Germany) with Transylvania (in Romania).
The project is designed to run for four years, and will start in spring 2015. There will be four postdoc positions and eight PhD positions starting in mid-to-late 2015. Stay tuned!
The other PIs on this new project are (in random order!) Ulli Vilsmaier, Dave Abson, Henrik von Wehrden, Julia Leventon, Thomas Schomerus, Jens Newig — and our speaker, Daniel Lang.