Re-balancing … everything?

By Joern Fischer

In a particularly insightful comment to a recent blog post of mine, Jahi Chappell challenged the ultimate benefits of ever-increasing specialisation. Having thought about this a bit, I was struck by the generality of what this may mean. I was amazed by just how often, the problems we discuss in sustainability science result from society having favoured specialisation over balance. In this blog post, I just want to substantiate this observation by highlighting well-known examples where re-balancing would have benefits for sustainability. There is no particular order to these examples.

The time budgets of individuals. Let’s start with the point that Jahi raised – the time budgets of individuals are increasingly lob-sided. We’re encouraged to be super-stars (= workaholics) in one thing, rather than spreading our time across a variety of things; rather than “just being” (in Jahi’s words) in our communities. “Academia’s obsession with quantity”, as we called it, is just one manifestation of this general societal push towards specialisation. The time budgets of many modern people appear to need “re-balancing” – to embrace a wide range of things that give meaning, rather than focus on one thing primarily.

Global equity. Clearly, to sustainability scientists, it’s no news that the distribution of global wealth could do with some re-balancing. The wealthy nations are causing most of the environmental problems, directly or indirectly, because of lifestyles that require more resources than we have available per capita (on average). At the same time, too many people in poor nations still struggle to make a half-decent living, and lack access to services (education, medical) that are taken for granted in many rich nations. According to a recent Oxfam study (thanks Tim Lang, for your Tweet!), 1% of the global population owns 48% of wealth and 80% owns only 5.5% of wealth. More balance would be preferable from a sustainability perspective (i.e. intra-generational equity).

Knowledge generation. For a long, long time, Western scientists have valued specialisation. Knowledge has been divided into disciplines and sub-disciplines. Any given (modern) scientist knows a lot about a very narrow set of issues. As Konrad Lorenz put it (as I’ve learnt from my dear friend Tibor Hartel): “Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.” From a sustainability perspective, we’re now arguing for re-balancing knowledge generation. We’re arguing that having lost sight of the whole has caused all kinds of problems; and that we must get out of our disciplinary silos and embrace different ways of knowing. That’s where the terms interdisciplinarity and transdiscipinarity stem from.

Supply of ecosystem services. As famously summarised in Jon Foley’s paper in 2005, and also highlighted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the ecosystem service bundles of intensively used agricultural landscapes are highly skewed towards provisioning services – while everything else is taking a heavy toll. Many scientists have argued for more balanced sets of ecosystem services. Recent concepts such as “ecological intensification”, for example, have suggested that we can have high levels of provisioning services while also having higher levels of other services – advocating a more balanced set of services, in other words.

Beneficiaries of ecosystem services. Recent work on ecosystem services has highlighted that the benefits of ecosystem services typically do not reach all possible beneficiaries equally. Rather, some people get a lot, while others get very little. Perhaps not surprisingly, one might argue that those places where the bundles of ecosystem services are least balanced might also be those places where the benefits are least equitably distributed… time to re-balance both, perhaps?

Resilience versus efficiency. Last but not least, an obvious example is Meffe and Holling’s classic “pathology of natural resource management”. They argue, basically, that a desire for narrowly focused efficiency has undermined the resilience of natural resource systems; making them less able to absorb shocks and continue functioning.

Perhaps this has been obvious all along, but I was quite struck really by how widespread this phenomenon of “need for more balance” appears to be. From personal lives, to ecosystem services, to knowledge generation … and I’m sure there are many more examples I could have included.

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4 thoughts on “Re-balancing … everything?

  1. Happy I inspired such a great post! I have (typically) a great many thoughts about this area, but right now I would just point to one of the previous points in this conversation: your work on academia’s obsession with quantity over quality. I would say this is emblematic–the argument would typically be that increased specialization on everyone’s part yields efficiency advantages–comparative advantage and all that. But as people are increasingly realizing, we live in a high-dimensional world (in terms of problems and variables), and the externalities we’ve ignored or underestimated for many years are more pervasive and important than, it seems, any of our mainstream thinkers are willing to admit.

    Thus, while there are superficial overall gains in everyone being more specialized and producing more, the possible benefits of *producing fewer, better* things is ignored. We’re told homogenization, standardization, and mass-production lead to mythical overall gains for society, and those of us wishing for fewer, higher quality, more humanistic (as opposed to mechanistic) things are being nostalgic, unrealistic, and inefficient.

    But what if, as no-one wants to contemplate, there are trade-offs? That less focus on provisioning services means, perhaps, less “productivity” (say, yield), but more services for more people? Within the specialization-capitalization complex, this is contradictory–less yield/production must needs mean more production elsewhere. But if the quality of the food, ecosystem, and community is better–and valued–then this isn’t necessarily true. If equity (and waste) are factored in, less may be “better”. If we focus less on provisioning services but balance it with equity and enough ness–

    If in academia we value less the fact of producing MORE papers, but indeed choose to appreciate fewer, better papers… This is the crux I feel often missing in academia. If we are honest, I think we need say that there probably is a trade-off between productivity in *number* and degree of real inter- and trans-disciplinarity. But, comparative advantage aside, are we really worse off if we have fewer papers saying more about broader concerns, rather than more papers advancing us each on the quest to know everything about nothing?

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