Occasionally, I have faith in humanity …

By Joern Fischer

Working in a sustainability context quite regularly leaves me frustrated. Quite regularly, my sense is that, on balance, we’re continuing to move away from sustainability rather than towards it. And to my mind anyway, this sucks, because it’s screwing up the lives of people who are already disadvantaged as well as the lives of countless other organisms.

But occasionally I’m struck by a glimmer of hope, and because there’s so much bad news out there, I thought why not share such a glimmer of hope. The thing that gives me more hope than anything else – and hence is more motivating than anything else – is working with “the next generation” of sustainability scientists. In the last few weeks, I have read numerous applications, grant proposals and PhD proposals, and a surprising proportion of them made me very happy. There’s a highly skilled, intelligent, and motivated generation of scientists emerging; people who are not (yet?) cynical, and whose motivation is not primarily tied to h-indices but to doing research for a better world.

Of course, a little while back, I was one of those people, so one might ask if anything has changed since then. In some ways, I think, it has. As reported in our recent paper, there has been a real coalescing of different ideas, disciplines and methodologies. Today’s generation of young scholars can “hit the ground running” when it comes to integrating insights for the benefit of the world, because a lot of the disciplinary ground-work has been done. This is a great challenge (because integration is hard) but also a great opportunity.

My occasional glimpse of hope about the state of the world thus stems from seeing a growing, increasingly well equipped generation of new sustainability scientists. Two challenges emerging from this are (i) fostering the academic development of such people as much as possible, and (ii) building bridges between different people so they can join forces. The latter strikes me as particularly important because many disjointed, individual efforts at “doing good” may not suffice to turn around the trajectory of the world.

Here’s a goal worth thinking about then: Within my lifetime, I’d like to get the sense that humanity is managing to “bend the curve”, that is, at least begin to turn towards a sustainable future, rather than keep racing away from it. It will take scaling up existing efforts, but with all the good people involved … perhaps we can do it?

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7 thoughts on “Occasionally, I have faith in humanity …

  1. Hi Joern! I have been following your blog for a while now and so enjoyed this post that I decided it was time to say Hi! Thanks for the inspiring post…and those that came before (I found the PhD tips one especially helpful as I have just started my PhD). I must say, I also really enjoy the enthusiasm and passion which I encounter so often among fellow young scholars in this Social-ecological research space: and feel that our research field really is alive with possibility! Let’s hope we can keep that going and contribute to “bending the curve” as you put it. Keep up the writing and good work! Jessica Cockburn (Rhodes University, South Africa)

  2. Pingback: No the Breakthrough Institute, Sustainability is Not Already Achieved - Achieving Sustainability

  3. Great post, thanks for the inspiration Joern. Of course we can do it…the key to turning towards a sustainable future is exactly that – hope and faith, despite the obstacles! 🙂

  4. Hi Joern,

    Thanks for the post sharing your positive reflections about next gen scholars! Jess kindly mentioned it, and it was a pleasure to read.

    Whenever I’m at conferences/workshops or meeting people in new places I’m always amazed and inspired by how innovative, insightful, and passionate early career scholars across the world are. They/we often seem to think quite collaboratively, focus more on solutions rather than problems, want to make a difference in the world but are also concerned about how to do that given challenges of working in narrow sectors (e.g., academia, government,…), and are often interested in ‘bridging’/boundary work across traditional boundaries (e.g., research, policy, practice).

    It’s fabulous to see more specific recognition and support for early career scholars in recent years. I definitely agree that a critical need is to be better link up beyond our individual endeavours.

    Something else I’d add is that I believe early career scholars need to become more comfortable being ‘entrepreneurial’ in making new things happen (e.g., linking research, policy, and practice; doing co-design and co-production). While institutional structures and traditions can be constraining we also have agency (to various degrees in different situations) which is something that we can make the most of!

    Best wishes,

    James Patterson
    Postdoctoral Fellow
    University of Waterloo, Canada

  5. Excellent points. Add to the power of youth the infrastructure they inherit and one can be hopeful your stated goal of ‘bending the curve’ in your lifetime will be realized. When I reflect on the amount of work we were able to do when I was a young researcher given the technologies we had available at the time it seems remarkable we made any progress. Developments in instrumentation, computer power, nearly instantaneous global communication, these improvements in the infrastructure available to today’s young scientists offer promise to be excited about.

    Another benefit of working alongside youthful researchers is the contagion of their exuberance. When age works on my bones and muscles I get a little bounce from trying to keep up with younger coworkers.

    Recalling the inspiration I received from many mentors as I came up through the system I hope I’ve been able to provide even a fraction of the same to students coming along behind me. The older I get the more this latter responsibility seems a significant aspect of my productivity.

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