By Joern Fischer
Prompted by a recent visit to the US, I am once again wondering what kind of science we ought to be doing for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world. A woman in the street yesterday wanted me to (financially) support an anti-bullying campaign. She explained to me all the wrongs of school bullying, as well as the substantial legal costs that needed to be covered to fight it. While her cause was worthwhile the whole interaction left me somewhat befuddled – the insanity of appealing to the good will of a few to fix what is systemically messed up seemed almost unbearably pathetic; and a theme that to me (as an outside observer) seems to run through much of the US in particular. Electric cars, good-natured philanthropists and coffee sleeves made of “85% post-consumer fiber” will not fix the many deep, underlying problems that make the US one of the least sustainable countries in the world. While this situation is particularly apparent in the US, it applies to different extents to virtually all places dominated by Western (consumer) culture: we’ve institutionalized un-sustainability, and de-institutionalising it won’t happen overnight. (Incidentally, to my mind, the “new conservation” that has been talked about so much won’t deliver an ultimate fix to the biodiversity crisis either, though it may buy time.)
Among scientists, my view is unpopular because it suggests that we need deep changes; to many colleagues, such changes sound dreamy and naïve, potentially dangerous, and plain unrealistic. Delivering concrete solutions to concrete problems (via campaigns to pay for legal fees resulting from bullying, via the “new conservation”, or via recycled sleeves on throw-away coffee cups) is just so much more satisfying! Yet, many small steps in the right direction do not amount to anything (unfortunately) if our societal systems as a whole are set up for ever-increasing unsustainability.
My reading of the current science in conservation and sustainability science is that there are colleagues that agree with my assessment; possibly many. However, the most prominent discourses remain firmly controlled by practical and tangible issues, rather than vague but fundamental issues. Invariably then, many pragmatic scientists simply follow suite and do research on “practical” themes put forward by others, without rocking the boat. It gets them published, cited, and after all, holds the promise of being of immediate and tangible, practical use.
For those who, like me, question the extent to which focusing on the concrete, bit by bit, and on its own, will ever lead to the changes we ultimately need, I suggest including the following elements in their research agendas:
- Take a holistic perspective. Systems thinking (to a scientist) is one of the more obvious ways of being holistic; and social-ecological systems thinking holds substantial promise for sustainability. So as a first cut, I think researchers interested in not just fiddling around the edges can try to embed their work within a systems perspective – always seeking to cross-check whether specific insights are still relevant if considered in a bigger context. Viewed within such a context, some “neat” research that is elegant from an ecological perspective, for example, might make a lot less sense when considered in the context of social-ecological systems. Different projects are being designed by people who take a somewhat holistic perspective than by people who are interested only in specific questions – personally, I’d like to see more projects embedding the specific within a broader perspective.
- Help to shift discourses. While providing tangible solutions to tangible problems is satisfying in the short term, in the long term, one of the most useful things scientists can do is to help shift societal discourses. Take research on biodiversity loss. The dominant discourse here used to be on protected areas, and then shifted to conservation outside protected areas; and most recently shifted towards ecosystem services. Such “big shifts” fundamentally shape how many, many scientists then start to frame and communicate their research (and how governments, NGOs and other actors respond to it). Personally, I believe we need a lot more elements in our discourses that fundamentally challenge the societal structures we have created. Everything we write contributes to the mélange of discourses that is out there, somehow – and it’s up to us, which bit of this mélange we want to strengthen. Science can shift, in big ways, within a decade or so, if only enough people start to recognize the need for a shift. It’s these discourses more so than individual pieces of research that end up being influential – hence, shifting the discourse towards the fundamental challenges we need to face would be a useful contribution.
- Embrace the inevitably normative nature of conservation and sustainability. Natural scientists in particular are comfortable with the tangible, objective, and value-neutral. Such knowledge is useful to describe problems, but it’s inadequate to solve them. Just like cancer scientists are allowed to passionately speak out against cancer, sustainability scientists should be allowed to passionately speak out against un-sustainability. We’re not doing ourselves favours by keeping all normative statements to conversations in the pub after work, instead of actually arguing for something in our scientific papers. Note I am not saying we must advocate specific policy positions – but if our analysis shows that certain societal directions are fundamentally unsustainable, and we take sustainability as a guiding principle and societal goal, it follows that we ought to judge such societal directions as “bad” in our papers, and not just in the pub.
- Don’t shy away from the deep stuff. A holistic analysis that embraces marginal discourses and normativity will inevitably raise uncomfortable questions – questions that are at the core of what it is to be human, and how we ought to live. All of this requires time to reflect. Erich Fromm noted that being “active” these days had connotations of being busy; when among Greek philosophers being “active” was more akin to quiet contemplation, that is, having an active mind. How active are our minds, really, when we’re caught up in the busy cycles of everyday research life? Here, too, our institutional structures are increasingly keeping us from thinking, feeling and being human. Bringing about external change will only work if we alternate between internal reflection and outward-oriented action: otherwise we run around blindly.
Like many other science fiction movies, the (cute, apocalyptic and ultimately happy-ending) movie Wall-E depicts a humanity that is obese, caught up in superficial entertainment, and controlled by the technology it created. This image is not at all new in science fiction, familiar from writings that criticize capitalism – and yet, many of us are living within this future already. For science to be relevant to sustainability it has to wake up to the full depth at which humanity is losing itself. Only then will we ultimately be able to conserve biodiversity and live sustainably.