Ready for your signature: an open letter

By Joern Fischer

In my last post, I threatened that I was in the process of drafting an open letter to societal leaders.

The letter is now up and running. If you believe that many current sustainability initiatives are falling short of what is needed, I suggest you sign this letter. Also, please spread it — this will only “do something” if the number of signatures is large.

Is this a waste of time? Maybe. Maybe not. I have had various bits of feedback on the letter, ranging from “great initiative”, to “too vague”, to grumpy rants that none of this ever does anything anyway.

One thing should be clear: I don’t believe that this particular letter is perfect. I don’t know what perfect would be. I do know though that doing nothing is even less perfect.

Regarding the somewhat vague appeal in the letter: this is not because I couldn’t think of something more specific. My view is this: change will only come if many people believe change is needed. That, in turn, will only happen if the issue of sustainability (and the fundamental problems standing in the way of sustainability) finds its way into discourses in the public domain. This could be in local politics or in church groups, or in the UN. Doesn’t really matter, but unless fundamental issues such as material growth, leading a “good life”, equity, justice, obligations to other species, and so on manage to get on the radar at least — well, then nothing will happen. So the letter is vague because the answer is not 42, but in fact requires discourse and deliberation at all levels of society.

Ultimately, I believe if we can have a conversation, more prominently, on what we (as humanity) truly value, the outcome would not be that we believe in greed and infinite material growth. I’d rather go with something the Dalai Lama once alluded to — that humans are inherently good, but their heart of gold may be covered by layers of dust. The goal of discussions about what we value, what is a good life, and so on — continuing this metaphor beyond its safe limits … — would be to scrape the dust off people’s hearts.

Finally: this is not “policy advocacy” beyond what scientists should do. I’m not telling any politician or any local leader what they should do. I’m simply saying we ought to reflect whether what we do (collectively, as humanity) actually achieves what we strive for.

Anyway, enough ranting and raving. Go sign the letter, if you agree with it, and do help to distribute it. Unless many people sign it, we know what it will do: nothing.

Coming soon: an open letter

By Joern Fischer

Thanks to those of you who responded to my recent post on “saving the world in two steps“. The idea was that perhaps some initiative is needed to let our leaders (at all levels) know that most scholars agree that something somewhat fundamental needs to change in how we go about our lives. What is that something? Hard to know. But unless we ask that question at least, it is very unlikely that incrementalism alone will lead to the right kind of change (from a sustainability perspective).

Having received largely positive, and exclusively constructive, feedback on a draft letter, this initiative is now going ahead. In a few days you will see a blog entry here pointing you to an online “open letter”. I would like you to keep an eye open for this, and help distribute it as widely as possible. If you agree with my logic in the above blog entry, please do sign the letter, and spread it via facebook, twitter, and send it to your colleagues and friends. The letter will be open for signatures from all scholars from PhD students onwards; and will be directed at societal leaders at all levels.

In short: please keep an eye open for this upcoming letter, which I will highlight on this blog when it goes live (probably this week!). And then, please help to spread it. Who knows what it will do? — I don’t know. But I do know what will happen if we simply do nothing. Nothing.

Stay tuned!

Saving the world in two steps

By Joern Fischer

Today, I’ll write my first post on recipes. Well, kind of. The basic premise is that saving the world is like some pretty basic cooking and requires just two steps. By saving the world, I mean making substantial advances towards sustainability, considering intra- and intergenerational issues of justice alongside ecological sustainability.

First, there is a central assumption — and I’d be interested in comments if people even agree with that assumption. The assumption is that most current efforts can be seen as “incrementalism”, while the major drivers underpinning unsustainability continue to intensify rather than weaken. I’ve made those basic points in “Mind the Sustainability Gap“, and in “Human Behavior and Sustainability“. This means, effectively, that most current efforts are band aids, on their own bound to do not very much (nothing). I think of things  like failed summits in Copenhagen or Rio, new guidelines to clear just a bit less, or offsetting our carbon emissions while flying more and more. We, often, miss some key underlying points, and our “successes” are not real successes. They are not even steps in the right direction because the overall trends are not going in the right direction — or does any scientist working on sustainability believe that we are actually moving closer to true sustainability (globally!)?

If this assumption is correct, then a steady evolution approach to societal change seems to be futile. Instead, we need to think about some more fundamental drivers; I see some of those in our value and belief systems. As long as the answer to “what do you value” is “consumption and growth”, actions for sustainability will remain essentially futile.

If this is true, the two steps to saving the world are: (1) recognise that we need to do something fundamentally different (in terms of societal order, dominant values, etc), and then (2) work towards implementing fundamental changes.

As I see it, this cake is going to take some time to cook though, because we have not yet reached step 1.

At a recent party I spoke to two “young” scientists (under forty is young, right?) about such issues. They, like me, came into this business at least partly because of concerns about where the world is going. The point is there are so many of us — there must be thousands of “next generation scientists” around the world who would agree that something somewhat fundamental needs to change.

My question to those reading this is: would thousands of such young scientists signing a joint statement that we need to look at societal values more fundamentally (or some such thing) not create some useful momentum? — Would it not be a bit like at least getting step 1 on the way? Or would a statement of that sort, delivered to the UN, major governments, and of course the media, be truly worthless?

If step 1 is to state that change is needed, and if step 1 has not been voiced effectively so that society actually hears it, then it’s precisely that step which we should start with. Would it be possible to get a few thousand “next generation scientists” to agree on some fundamental tenets of such a joint statement, and would it be worthwhile?

Scientivists urgently needed!

Guest post by Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans

(Pim Martens is Professor of Global Dynamics & Sustainable Development, Maastricht University, Jan Rotmans is Professor in Transitions and Transition Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Almost every scientist recognises this picture. Having devoted much of their lives to perform research on a specific issue, but not being able to get the message outside the academic walls (and it’s not only the government that’s ‘out there’). This holds for the more fundamental sciences, but even more so for research on more complex issues, like climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss and the financial-economic crisis.

Of course, many scientists are to be blamed as well. Being so caught up in their own scientific square centimetre, they are unable to communicate the main message of their research to others. Stimulated by the perverse publication system that only accounts for peer-reviewed publications (and not so much for more understandable messages), leaves people outside academia with only scientific papers. Not very useful in the public arena.

But still. Isn’t it funny, that a society that pays lots of money to universities and research centres, that does value teaching and research done at these places highly, then dismisses results of these institutes if it is not ‘handy’, and perhaps a little too vague?

Academia has responded through the initiation of new fields of research, such as sustainability science, focusing on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and non-academic stakeholders from business, government, and the civil society. Not so much for the fundamental sciences, but for the earlier mentioned ‘complex societal issues’ humanity faces today. The idea behind this is that we all need to work together in order to address sustainability challenges and develop real solution patterns.

Well, that’s a step in the right direction. However, being good scientists, this idea of ‘sustainability science’ is becoming formalised rapidly. And  – although classified by concepts such as post-normal, mode-2, triple helix, and other science paradigms – it still are ‘scientific’ classifications. With other words, it is being ‘bounded’ by similar rules that apply to other sciences as well.

From a scientific point of view, this is fine. But what about the point of view of moving forward to a more sustainable world? Does this not oblige scientists to take more responsibility, especially at times when many signals in nature and society are red? Or do we (scientists) continue to discuss the rules under which ‘sustainability science’ needs to be operated? Rules that probably will be ‘dismissed’ by the other stakeholders if it suits their purpose?

It is about time for many (more) scientists to become scientivists. Scientivists are people that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the ‘science part’), to promote, impede, or direct societal change (the ‘activist part’). Scientivism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, to economic activism, such as boycotts, sit-ins etc. Scientivists are not afraid of interfering with legitimized procedures and official politics when science shows this would be needed.

On the other hand, scientivists must be aware that their actions may increase the risk of scientific results inappropriately being used into social discourses and in the media. This might lead to situations where, for instance, researchers find themselves unwittingly “supporting” an application of the generated knowledge they might strongly disagree with.

It is, therefore, not a ‘job’ (as for most of us ‘being a scientist’ is), but rather an ‘attitude’. An attitude that may be urgently to move forward to a more sustainable society. As in this era of social media, opportunities for scientivists will increase as we speak, there are no reasons not to join…

Human behaviour and sustainability (#ESA2012)

By Joern Fischer

So, this morning we had the symposium on human behaviour and sustainability. The session was organized by Rob Dyball, who leads the Human Ecology Section of the ESA. Rob also was one of the most important contributors to our paper on “human behavior and sustainability”, which appeared in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment earlier this year (available here).

I kicked off the session, with some basic comments on the role of policy change. In a nutshell, I argued that policy change is important to work towards sustainability, but that we need to look beyond policy — towards underlying, foundational issues regarding human behaviour, like our value and belief systems. It’s those foundational issues that we rarely discuss, and should have more debates about.

As a case study on how civil society can (and should) be engaged to foster sustainability, Dale Blahna then talked about a neat case study of public engagement to assess ecosystem services in the Deschutes National Forest. His talk was followed by Chiho Watanabe, from Tokyo University, who impressively outlined some of the major challenges involving food production and consumption in Bangladesh — too many people, on too little land, dependent on just one staple crop, namely rice. Population is obviously a critical driver of un-sustainability, and we can’t ignore it in public debates, even if that would be popular.

Over-consumption in rich nations is a major issue in sustainability, but did not receive the same attention in the symposium today as in our paper mentioned above — I think that’s a bit of a shortcoming, since it’s such an important issue. All of us flying here, really — we must do a lot of good at this conference to make up for the bad we have already done by getting here!!

Thomas Lovejoy then gave an insightful talk about how major financial players like the world bank had in fact made a lot of progress when it comes to sustainability issues; nice to get some good news for a change.

Rob Dyball presented a talk by Catherine Gross (she couldn’t make it) on key issues of justice, emphasising that just outcomes must consider both the process and the way in which people are involved in decision-making; AND the outcomes. Procedural, interactional and distribute justice all are important concepts, and should be routinely considered in natural resource management.

Amy Freitag gave a really nice overview of how different worldviews at times collide in fisheries systems of North Caroline. Superb case study, and especially for natural scientists, I think, probably quite eye opening. There’s more to science in the real world than objective measurements … and there are many ways of knowing a fisheries system.

Then the stage was open for two “rock stars of ecology”, as someone termed them in real time on twitter: Will Steffen and Paul Ehrlich. Will gave one of his unbelievably good synthesis talks of where the science of climate change is at — there are few people who so succinctly and elegantly present such huge amounts of information. The bad news, between the lines — Will gives us many reasons to be concerned about the future: climate change really will hit us hard, sooner or later, it seems. Courtesy of Kai Chan, here is a link to a recent video featuring Will and his explanations of climate change:

And then Paul Ehrlich and his overly large charisma had the stage, last but not least. The most fun way to cover what he talked about is to simply put a few quotes here, of what he said during the talk (thanks to those tweeting the talk!):

  • need equal rights for women, including access to birth control & abortion, as a way to control population.
  • we don’t know what exactly will happen with climate change, but we know it will bring unwanted surprises.
  • “What are we going to do abt it? Nothing. I see no sign of our society doing a WW2-type mobilization.”
  • “you’re not in a scientific debate, you are in a street fight”. Get out there and work for change!
  • “Have fun with your science but put a good chunk of your time into trying to save your civilization.”

Overall, a successful session, I think — though I would have preferred more on the needs to question our value and belief systems, and more on the role of civil society in bringing about change. Comments welcome, of course!

Measuring academic activity — and heads up for ESA Portland!

By Joern Fischer

Two things today: random rant on quantity obsession (booooring), and heads up regarding upcoming conference.

Yes, I’m going on about the same stuff yet again, and those of you bored of reading about this — apologies.

I recently read Erich Fromm’s “To have or to be”. He distinguishes between two modes of living — a “having” mode, and a “being” mode. The having mode, in a nutshell, is associated with behaviours of clinging to things, experiences, status, and so on; whereas the “being” mode is one that (through a process of personal growth) is more in the moment and less inclined to satisfy one’s self in the same material manner. (Summarising this argument succinctly appears to be beyond me. Go read the book …)

Some examples: when a child sees a flower, it wants to “have” the flower. Later, one might learn to be able to enjoy the flower for a moment, but leave it there — we learn that we don’t need to “have” it necessarily.

Similarly, one might “have” authority through one’s position. E.g. a professor has a certain authority over her students. Or, one might “be” an authority — this means, regardless of her formal status, people will seek  out such a person because she is knowledgeable.

Among many other things, Fromm also writes about what it means to be “active” and “productive”. He highlights that to ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, activity and productivity were the same. And moreover, the highest form of activity and productivity was … still contemplation! It struck me that this is the very opposite of our modern academic culture; we rush from meeting to meeting, and without our various electronic gadgets to keep us organised we’d be entirely helpless. Our academic culture makes the same mistakes as we make in our economy by worshiping GDP: we mix up quality with throughput.

So, what’s a productive academic? According to Aristotle, one who obtains deep insights via still contemplation. We may need to re-instill a slice of that kind of philosophy back into our modern academic culture.

And a heads up: I’ll be a the Ecological Society of America Meeting in Portland next week! And I intend to blog about it, with a random bias towards whatever I find interesting. This, most likely, will mean I’ll comment on conservation and sustainability issues being discussed; and who knows, perhaps I’ll feel the urge to have random rants about the uselessness of mega-conferences (you never know…); or I might complain about jet fuel being senselessly burned in the name of science.

Myself, I’ll be presenting in a symposium on “Human behavior and sustainability” — details here. I have thought more than once that flying to this thing to talk about how we need behaviour change is a complete load of crap (excuse me) — and I doubt I’ll get over this feeling. So, this time, I will go, for various reasons, but the irony is certainly not lost on me. The symposium is loosely based on a paper I led with Robert Dyball, which you can find here. Rob is coordinating the symposium.

See you at the ESA, perhaps!

Too big to fail: Limits to growth as discussed at the McPlanet congress in Berlin

By Friederike Mikulcak

From April 20 to 22, the McPlanet congress entitled “Too BIG to fail” took place in Berlin ( The title thereby aimed at deconstructing the common picture of giant banks or global corporations with practically undisputed claim for political support in times of financial crisis, reasoning to be too relevant for the global system. Or simply: too big to fail. Instead, the conference organizers (such as attac, Greenpeace, BUND) aimed at providing a platform for discussing issues such as the green economy concept, the sustainable provision of food and energy for a rising population, the deregulation of financial markets, and alternative lifestyles. The international congress, consisting of a variety of thematic workshops and panel discussions attended by a total of 1700 participants, did not only serve for knowledge exchange. Moreover, participants could ‘network’ and become inspired to take action.

One very interesting panel discussion I followed was on the green economy concept (as prominently promoted with view on the upcomingRio+20 summit in June). Panelists were Achim Steiner, head of UNEP; Camila Morena, grass roots activist and researcher from Brasil; and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey (UK) and author of the book “Prosperity without Growth”. Central to the discussion was the question on how to build an environmentally and socially sound economic model. Steiner (diplomatically) accused many environmentalists in that they too often just articulated “what we don’t want to have on the planet” and “what not to do”, instead of providing clear answers and concepts to global issues such as food crisis, water stress, or climate change. Too often, economics was merely blamed as the cause, but not as potential part of the solution. The green economy concept thus attempts to bring economics to the issue of nature conservation, and to describe nature in (economic) values. According to Steiner, we can only preserve what we value. Camila Morena criticized the concept in that the notion of natural ‘capital’ was accompanied by a shift in property regimes. She warned that many local communities were being expropriated for the sake of green projects. Too often, termed ‘green’ investments were destructive and ‘new wine in old wineskins’. However, she could not answer Steiner’s question for the way of sustainably providing/ producing energy for the planet.

Most inspiring, however, was the approach offered by Tim Jackson.Jacksonexplained that growth is not always bad. Only because of growth we (say: the global Northern hemisphere) have better health standards, nutrition, education, the ability to travel across the world, and time to think about the world. However, the good life as we conceive it – a world in which all have the same material standards as in theUS– is simply inaccessible. We are thus trapped in a dilemma. If we rapidly reduced growth we would “trash our system”. In continuing our current lifestyle, in turn, we’ll “crash the planet”. According toJackson, our system is structurally deficient. We are incapable to move technological innovations fast enough. We have misconstrued who we are and too often are purely materialistic, selfish consumers. We built systems to support this notion of humanity. So how to bring predicted 9 billion people to western standards, while still retaining growth? His answer: We need to change both our institutions and economic structure. We need to put our investments “back in the heart of the model” of good life. Investments need to be protecting and nurturing the ecological assets on which our future depends. We need to incorporate the idea of meaningful prosperity; of a global society that provides possibilities for people to flourish, and which is less materialistic. We need to “make room for growth where growth really matters”, for example by investing in places where we can connect (such as public spaces or community centres). According toJackson, a necessary transformation is not about changing human nature. But about targeting “a more realistic vision of what it means to be a human”. How to tackle this transformation in practical terms, however, remained unexplained.

Why is society failing to halt biodiversity loss?

By Joern Fischer

Leuphana University Lueneburg recently held a ‘Sustainability Summit‘. The plenary sessions were recorded on video — including a presentation by me on the question Why is society failing to halt biodiversity loss?

The slides of the presentation are available here:

The presentation was recorded and can be viewed here:

From ABC Australia: Knowledge isn’t the problem, willpower is

By Joern Fischer

My colleague Rob Dyball got some nice media coverage in Australia, which has ensued quite an online debate! Well done Rob! See his open editorial on Australia’s ABC network here:

It’s attracted 255 comments! I’d encourage our readers to also comment on that site — we need to send a signal that people care about these issues.

And here’s another one you might want to comment on directly on the page, if you speak German:



Directions for sustainability: insights from a week of conferences

By Joern Fischer

As I mentioned in my previous post, this was a week of two conferences on sustainability — in total about 2000 people in Lueneburg participated in these two conferences and thus actively engaged with issues of sustainability. Today was the last day.

The conference organisers had asked participants to answer questions about the upcoming Rio +20 summit. What would Rio have to achieve? Were they optimistic this would be achieved? What if Rio fails?

Paraphrasing the findings of Harald Heinrichs, the main organiser of the conference:

1. people thought Rio would have to achieve something tangible, like an actual binding agreement;

2. people were very pessimistic that anything binding would be achieved; and

3. people felt this meant even more work had to be done in future — including by civil society.

Today I was interviewed together with Harald and Jochen Flasbarth, unfortunately only by some local media people. Frankly, we disagreed. Jochen Flasbarth, for all his experience (and I’m sure the very useful things he has achieved in his career — doubtless more than what I have achieved!), felt that scientists should provide facts for policy, give policy makers different options, and then it was up to the policy makers to decide on appropriate courses of action.

To my mind, there’s a new generation of scientists now, who is no longer satisfied with their role of describers and advisors. If medical scientists are allowed to advocate better health outcomes, then sustainability scientists are allowed to advocate better sustainability outcomes. I feel strongly that we must engage more with civil society, and get civil society informed and moving — or sustainability will remain elusive. I have absolutely no hopes for current economic and political institutions to achieve anything unless civil society demands fundamental changes.

It’s too easy for countries like Germany to pretend we’re doing well — but that’s because we’re screwing up the rest of the world with our greed for ever more stuff. Germany itself is looking nice, if you ignore its external impacts. According to the global footprint network, if all people lived like Germans, we’d need several planets Earth: not just one.

I am tired of people highlighting that “we have come a long way”. No we haven’t. We have absolutely failed to address the fundamentally important challenges that underpin our societies: our addiction to ever more material growth and limitless comfort at all times. How, based on such values, will we ever reach sustainability, including global social justice? We are failing, not doing well.

One problem I ask myself is what I do with this insight. It might be wrong. But for a moment, let’s assume I’m right. How can we get this message discussed in civil society? We were able to get nothing but a couple of local media people interested in what we had to say. Is that because we approached the wrong people? Possible, but I think there’s more.

The media want numbers. Factoids. Perhaps this means people want numbers and factoids.

Here is my prediction: unless we re-learn to reflect, discuss, and get beyond factoids, sustainability stands no hope. Again, I may be wrong … but to my mind, unless we get people moving and involved — forget Rio, and with it, a Green Economy and other saviors that can only be partial solutions. To move beyond partial solutions, we need to dig deeper: I’m afraid that so far, too few people are willing to accept this.

That said: the one positive note to me coming from the Leuphana Sustainability Summit was that within the discipline of sustainability science, there is an increasing number of people who believe we need new ways — people who are starting to shake the foundations of our growth- and greed-based society. And a message to all those people: Unless we manage to get organised, we’ll count for nothing. Fragmentation within academia is one of our biggest (self-created) enemies. So many “sustainability experts” now truly believe that we must go beyond the pragmatic, and beyond the low-hanging fruit, and question fundamentally how we can best achieve ‘transformative change’. Our challenge must be to communicate this to (and discuss it with) the rest of society — those of us who believe that real change is needed must find ways to bring this about.

Anyway. There’s quite a rant. I’m tired of people patting each other on the back telling themselves we’re doing well, and all will be well. At this stage the numbers say differently: 1 billion under-nourished; extinction rates 1000-10000 times the background rate; climate change essentially out of control and beyond safe limits.

So far, we’ve failed.