Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

10 thoughts on “Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

  1. Well said Joern! I feel the same, but not sure whether I could have expressed it so well!

    I have similar rants with my colleagues about “the academic system” and how little it really serves the immediate needs of society. In a recent discussion where I raised this pet-rant-topic of mine, a wise woman advised me to just carry on and passionately do the research I believe in, in the vein of “be the change I want to see the world”. Another person, in the same discussion, advised me to “find supporters and champions who share the same vision”, and the third amazing woman I was talking to said that it is up to each of us as academics to motivate in whatever way we can e.g. in our CV’s, letters of motivation for promotion or funding applications etc., to make bold and brave arguments for how we would like to see “the academic system” changing and what that means for our work.

    So – to link this back to your argument about sustainability science and need to be bolder and more innovative: I think that in this mission, the key things are:
    1. to be bold in our everyday actions towards achieving a more potent sustainability science and “the the change we want to see” (in your case, I hope you will respond to the journal with a clear rebuttal as you have in this post about why your non-normal methods are important);
    2. to find allies, supporters and champions and walk the road together — I have come to think of this as a form of ‘collective wisdom’, which in the individualistic nature of academic, is often not appreciated and sough out sufficiently; and
    3. to argue at every opportunity for what we believe is important!

    Lovely to have some inspiring reading and food for thought — thanks!

  2. Dear Joern, I think this very stimulating article will find your interest: Bardi, A., & Goodwin, R. (2011). The Dual Route to Value Change: Individual Processes and Cultural Moderators. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(2), 271-287, doi:10.1177/0022022110396916.

    “Although values have become a major topic of interest for cross-cultural psychologists in recent years, there has been little systematic analysis of how values might change over time and the mechanisms that might underlie such change. In this article, we argue that, contrary to prevalent assumptions, there is evidence of predictable value change. Building on work on attitude change and biculturalism, we proposed two routes to value change, one automatic and one effortful. We identified a series of facilitators of such change. These include priming processes, adaptation, identification, consistency maintenance, and direct persuasion. We also considered the impact of age and culture in value change processes and related these processes to individual traits and needs.”

    “Understanding value stability and change is essential for understanding values of both individuals and cultures. Yet theoretical thinking and empirical evidence on this topic have been scarce. In this article, the authors suggest a model outlining processes of individual value change. This model proposes that value change can occur through automatic and effortful routes. They identify five facilitators of value change (priming, adaptation, identification, consistency maintenance, and direct persuasion) and consider the moderating role of culture in each. In addition, the authors discuss the roles of culture, personal values, and traits as general moderators of value change. Evidence on the structure of value change and the effects of age on value change are also reviewed.”

    Kind regards

    • Thanks Steven, interesting indeed. Just to be clear — it’s not that I think changing values is easy or obvious. But to not even go there because it’s deemed too hard strikes me as self-defeating in a sustainability context. Cheers — J.

  3. A sharp essay. Thank you. Most policy making is grounded in incrementalism, which you aptly sum: “you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking”. A major problem arises when not all incremental steps equally move us towards the desired long-term goal. Offsetting, for example, may actually entrench destructive behaviour, even while we use it to protect key ecosystems in the short term. I think sustainability scientists now more than ever cannot remain professionally apolitical. Politics, in a broad sense, is what limits us all too often — not lack of research.

  4. Dear Joern,

    Good to read your essay. I share the same experience: as soon as you leave established disciplinary boundaries and customs, you run a fair chance to be rejected with your paper (and method and values). Official arguments – by reviewers, often – are that you are mixing up different schools of thought or applying a non-established method. Particularly with economics oriented journals, this is my experience.

    Another point: you mention explicitly the role of values. In my book Sustainability Science I have proposed a framework to deal explicitly with values in the form of worldviews (as combination of vaues and beliefs). See .

    Best regards – Bert de Vries (Copernicus Institute, Utrecht University)

    • Thanks Bert, I appreciate your comment! I think talking about “worldviews” could be useful especially because many psychologists have defined values as essentially stable and unchangeable. This concept of worldview thus seems like it has probably got less baggage associated with it. Cheers — J.

  5. I know Ostrom’s work just doesn’t “sing” for you, Joern, but this is another area where I find Ostrom–or rather, institutional theory more broadly–helpful. Which is to say, people have many different patterns of behavior and values, often contradictory ones. Which ones we manifest are often dependent on the institutions around us. So certain institutions can put us into a cooperative mindset and behavior, and others can put us into a kill-or-be-killed competitive mindset, and many things in between.

    Which is not to say that it is easy to redesign institutions, or change them, either. But I think the short, short version of the lesson I take from much of that work is that we don’t so much even have to change individuals’ values, but rather, change institutions to evoke and reward values more in line with sustainability among the many (majority?) of people for whom these values already exist. While I should read through their more-up-to-date book on the subject, Bowles & Gintis’s “Is equality passe” ( is an excellent set of examples, where how people behave on the spectrum of altruism to pure selfishness depends on the circumstances they’re presented with. Ostrom shows this with game theory simulations of the common property problems she then analyzed more qualitatively. Bowles & Gintis do not speak about value for the environment, but I would say that between utilitarian values and something quite parallel to altruistic values (which they convincingly argue are not utilitarian values in disguise in most cases) there is plenty of room within current values to foster sustainability.

    Hence one of my biggest gripes about ecologists (and others) who doubt the possibility of change: insofar as change is possible, collective action to do it is a pretty well-validated prerequisite in most cases. So the refusal of some to get involved in building collective action directly (which can take many forms, but I would propose cannot be limited to publishing academic papers) is itself (empirically) making the necessary changes less likely.

    I tend to think this is a tidy argument, based on empirical evidence and theory. It might also be wrong. But it is vanishingly rare that a colleague or ecologist to engage me on this basis.

  6. Hello Joern
    I have just discovered your blog and enjoyed your views and insights, many of which I share. I understand your fustration with the mainstream but remember: innovation/evolution happens in small marginal zones/populations.
    In permaculture design this is used creatively (“Edge Principle”) rather than seen as a problem to struggle with.
    Permaculture doesn’t mesh very well with mainstream science but it does address pretty much all the issues you seem to be busy with. If this is of any interest to you, have a look at for an inspiring example.
    Best wishes

    • Hi David

      thanks for your comment. I am aware of permaculture, and I think there are many very useful aspects to both its practice and philosophy. That said, ultimately, if fringe movements remain fringe movements forever, we can be pretty sure that humanity is heading for collapse … so, true that innovation happens at the fringes, but hopefully some of the more useful innovation gets to expand, eventually, beyond the edges!

      Thanks also for the link.

      All the best,


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