Psycho-social stress? Not among our professors, apparently

By Joern Fischer

A few months back, Leuphana University instigated an assessment of “psycho-social stress” affecting its staff. Online questionnaires were sent to professors, other scientific staff and (presumably) administrators. Results were shared, and now group interviews were announced to dig more deeply into existing problems and devise solutions for these problems.

I thought it was quite laudable of our institution to investigate such factors, and so when an open invitation came to participate in a group interview with other professors, I checked whether I would be available at the time. My diary was still open, and so I registered, with the disclaimer “if there are still places available”. A message came back that I was in fact the first to register — so, all seemed good.

Funnily enough, a few days ago, a second message reached me saying the exercise was cancelled because I was in fact the only professor at the entire university who showed an interest in participating. And that’s what’s prompted this blog post …. what’s going on here?

Three alternative explanations come to mind. The first is that professors are so happy and balanced here that there is simply no need for such exercises. Everybody’s mental health is great, social processes are functioning, and so there is no need to talk about it, let alone further improve things.

The second explanation might be that professors were, generally, too busy for such an exercise. They might agree on the importance of investigating mental and emotional well-being in the workplace, but the invitation to them sounded like yet another annoying workshop, with lots of talking and no change anyway. Better then to focus on one’s direct environment and ignore this kind of lip service exercise run by the central administration.

And finally, the third explanation is that professors are so fragmented in their inner and outer selves that many are not even in a position to actively consider the possible value of reflecting on psycho-social processes.

Most likely, it’s different answers for different people; and I should not judge which of the three explanations (or perhaps others that I have not considered) dominates. But the outcome, to me, is a missed opportunity to improve the workplace.

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.

Emotional competence in science

By Joern Fischer

In a recent discussion, I had a minor epiphany that I’d like to share, regarding the balance of rational thought and emotion in the day-to-day operation of science. It struck me that naturally emotionally attuned individuals who want to survive in science, have to work hard to train their capacity for rational thought and analysis. But the reverse is not true: individuals with a natural tendency for rational thinking are not required, and only rarely encouraged, to develop their emotional competencies. My argument here is that science, on a daily basis, suffers from this imbalance between the rational and emotional.

First things first: science is about rational arguments to understand the world. The use of logic is extremely valuable because it can be scrutinized, and fact and opinion can be carefully divided. This is extremely valuable, and to me, the key strength of science. (I use “science” in a general sense here, not only for the natural sciences, but also for the social sciences and other academic disciplines founded on logical reasoning.)

But science on a day-to-day basis, is a social process. There are supervisor-student relationships, junior and senior researcher relationships, lots of peer relationships, administrative relationships, communication tasks among all of these plus with the general public and potential readers of one’s work. Science is full of this stuff. In the context of running complex field projects, I have said they before that it’s 90% about people and 10% about science. This is perhaps an over-statement (… though I don’t think so …), but the general notion that there are lots of social processes, I think, cannot be denied.

I argue that a lot of improvements would be possible if scientists spent at least equal amounts of energy on developing their emotional competencies as on refining their analytical skills. The reason why I say “at least” equal amounts of energy is that I think science, on average, is dominated by “thinkers” with relatively little natural knack for the emotional realm. Most scientists are naturally talented at rational thought (that’s why they got into science), but fewer it seems to me are naturally talented at dealing with people.

Let us think of common problems that make for unproductive and unhappy situations: students feeling lost, insecurity regarding one’s achievements, uncertainty about future employment, power games, misunderstandings between administrative and academic staff, or poor recognition of the individual needs and strengths of different kinds of people. These situations stem from poor emotional competence – but they have ramifications for achievements in science, that is, in the purely rational realm.

My hypothesis is that the most productive science can be produced where people routinely pay attention to both the emotional and rational realm. All of us can develop skills in both areas – but traditionally, the importance of emotional skills has not been recognized sufficiently in science.

(Final point: Yes, this is related to the idea of emotional intelligence, as communicated by Daniel Goleman and increasingly recognized as important in various leadership contexts. I’m not using the term in the above because I’m not well read in this area, and so I’m not sure if what I mean maps precisely onto the idea of emotional intelligence or not. Either way: I think academic environments are not doing a good job of recognizing this “thing” that I argue is missing.)

Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.



I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …

Gender discrimination and the fifth Sustainable Development Goal

By Joern Fischer

Today I’d like to summarise the opening keynote presentation from the Development Research Conference 2016, which is currently taking place in Stockholm. The talk was presented by Andrea Cornwall, and was entitled “Addressing Discrimination on the Basis of Gender: Towards a More Just and Equal World for All.”


Source: wikimedia

Andrea addressed the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, which relates to “gender equality”. In her talk, she highlighted key strengths and recent improvements in this area, but also identified challenges where further changes are necessary. I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but in the following I do my best to convey some of her most pertinent messages.

Andrea first contrasted biological and social understandings of gender. Right now, Andrea argued that in feminism there were a number of contrasting streams, many of which recognize a softening of boundaries between men and women and between the biological and the social.

In a development context, by contrast, changes in gender discourses took a different turn. Contemporary development discourses speak of empowering women and girls, and engaging men and boys; all in the name of development. In this context, women often (inadvertently) become instrumentalised, being important tools or “targets” to achieve development. Unlike in recent feminist discourses, the strong binary views of men vs women are very much present in development discourses. Along with this understanding have come ideas that women are poorer, and care more about the environment – while men are the problem who suppress women, and destroy the environment.

Andrea argued that it thus appeared there were diverging paths. Contemporary feminism acknowledges the complexity of gender, whereas development discourses remain set back in time, often dividing the world into poor suppressed women vs bad suppressing men. Arguably, this kind of distinction fails to recognize that everyone would gain from greater equity.

Andrea continued by contrasting differences between a rise in laws against gender-based discrimination, while there was little or no change in the actual incidences of such discrimination (e.g. in domestic violence against women). Thus, it appears there is ongoing suffering on an everyday basis, despite changing laws.

Sustainable Development Goal 5, Andrea argued, was somewhat troublesome in that it failed to acknowledge the complexity underpinning the intersectionality of gender. The dynamics of gender identity, and the complexity of gendered power relationships, feature very little in SDG5. Instead, the SDG seems to primarily look at increasing the numbers of women in various contexts – more educated women, more in public office, and so on. Gender relations and gender identity, by contrast, remain outside the scope. In sum, this means that current conceptualisations of women in a development discourse, still are rooted in traditional images of men vs women; traditional views that, arguably, cannot be separated from colonialist views.

What then is needed to go forward? First of all, according to Andrea, development would need to be de-colonised. This would require a different kind of education, which recognizes the inherently colonial assumptions underpinning much of modern education. For example, the idea of a “male breadwinner” being the more natural state is a colonial idea. Similarly, the normativity implicit in ideas of who would make a good farmer, or what constitutes a virtuous woman be (or man, for that matter), would need to be questioned.

As a possible way forward, and drawing on existentialism, Andrea offered understanding gender as a “situation”. That is, situations give rise to gender roles and outcomes, and in a development context, the dynamics of such situations need to be better understood. These dynamics, in turn, are likely to be highly place-specific.

Looking at discrimination from a gender perspective – rather than gender equality perspective – thus means looking at problems more broadly. In a gender perspective, men are no more inherently the problem than women; rather, both can suffer from colonial ideas of gender stereotypes. Gender as a concept thus can even be unhelpful, and can further entrench the very stereotypes that give rise to unequal outcomes. Human rights, by contrast, are more broadly defined, and have greater potential to bring together all kinds of people (and genders).

Assuming I understood her correctly, Andrea thus argued for moving beyond focusing on discrimination in a gender context towards discrimination more broadly. Especially in a development context, there is a need to better understand the colonial roots of many of the existing dynamics that give rise to (or reinforce) discrimination. We shouldn’t ask what we can do for women, nor what women can do for development. Instead we should stop putting people into boxes (as men vs women), and focus on ending discrimination – for the benefit of everyone, regardless of their gender.

“Diversity” vs. “gender”?

By Joern Fischer

Most universities (at least in the “western” world) routinely have equity and diversity representatives sitting in on selection committees. When it comes to Germany, I’ve sometimes been quite unimpressed by how well-intentioned action to support diversity plays out in practice. Some visions of “diversity” and the ways to achieve it are narrow, and may do more harm than good to the quality of the selection process.

German institutions are, at face value, quite “gender-sensitive”. And so it’s no surprise that the colloquial name for the equity and diversity representative is in fact (roughly translated) the “women’s representative”. And this is where the first problem comes in: diversity beyond women is routinely overlooked. I’ve sat on a committee before where an African man had applied for a senior position. While all women who applied were carefully scrutinised, the African man was quickly ruled out as just not good enough. In my view, he was more competitive than some of the women who had been carefully discussed; he would have brought more diversity to our university than various women; and when it comes to discrimination, I’m pretty sure the obstacles he’s faced in his life were no fewer than those of various women. This routinely happens to applicants from developing countries, potentially even for positions where at least considering this dimension of diversity would be truly beneficial.

It’s time for “diversity” then, to be more than just “more women”. To understand the world, we benefit from diversity in all its facets, including cultural, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. Gender should be in the mix, of course, but it’s not the only factor.

Why are there so few female professors in Germany? I’m pretty sure that at departments like ours, the answer to this is more structural than about day-to-day discrimination. To my mind, the dropping out of talented women from academia has a lot more to do with creating family-friendly workplaces, and with making it routinely possible (in reality, not in theory) for aspiring academics to work part-time, than with discrimination against women as such. This isn’t to say there is never any discrimination against women. Rather, if a large part of the problem is structural, a large part of the solutions ought to be structural — just having ambitious quotas for what proportion of professors ought to be females is not going to do it. In fact, it’s a displacement activity from actually facing the structural problems. Asking people about how they consider “gender” in their teaching (a routine question at Leuphana) is similarly formulaic, and anyone with a brain can bull*^&! her or his way through this while being completely sexist at heart.

I addition to structural problems, there are also cultural problems that current approaches often overlook. For one, gender stereotyping is widespread in Germany, and both women and men engage in it. This national pastime stands in the way of seeing people for who they are. Also, many academic environments are quite cut-throat, and naturally or culturally more “sensitive” people who value things other than building or expanding their own empires, may find the whole culture of professorial life quite off-putting.

In short, I’d love to see “diversity” in the workplace being interpreted as more than “women”; and I’d like to see structural and cultural issues tackled as such. This would benefit everyone in the workplace, women included.

As always, I’m happy for comments, including critical ones, and if there are important aspects missing from my analysis (or if I’m plainly wrong in some parts) then do let me know! It’s an important issue and I’m sure mine is not the only workplace struggling to improve.

The eternal challenge: walking the talk

By Joern Fischer

Having recently come back from a short, long-distance trip halfway around the world in the name of sustainability science – and having blasted a vast amount of carbon into the air in the process – I couldn’t help to think, yet again, about the perpetual challenge of “walking the talk” in sustainability science. But how does one “walk the talk”? The following are some suggestions for how to think through this.

  1. If it’s work-related travel, carefully weigh the sustainability costs and sustainability benefits. Frankly, a lot of work-related travel is not needed. We have a culture of workshops and meetings, and a culture of attending lots of these even if they are far away. Travel is cheap, workshop papers (i.e. discussion blabla papers) sell well, and have become a business in their own right. Personally, I believe in (i) prioritizing fieldwork related air travel over workshop air travel, (ii) prioritizing close travel for workshops/conferences over far trips, and (iii) thinking through how much travel you are willing to do in a given year.
  2. With respect to work travel, question the difference between what is necessary versus expected versus something you simply feel like. It’s too easy to say “I was invited and so I went”. In a culture where we all travel around without a second thought on whether that is good or necessary, just travelling a lot because everyone else is doing it is a very poor argument. So, as a minimum, be honest with yourself about (i) what is necessary, (ii) what is expected of you, and by whom, and (iii) what is simply your personal preference. Things you classify as necessary, well, I guess they can’t be changed easily. For things you classify as expected you can think about whose expectations these are, and whether you need to meet these expectations. And regarding third, frankly, that might be a fine reason at times, but from a sustainability perspective you should be aware that a preference for personal gluttony is also what’s destroying the planet. So probably best to remain a bit critical with oneself on this last point!
  3. Is there a way to get there without flying? Air travel is fast, and cheap (because it does not account for externalities). But it’s not the only way to get around. For example, many trips within Europe are possible by train if you think about it a little bit in advance. Night trains exist to some places, too.
  4. Once you decide to fly somewhere, consider offsetting your carbon impact. Most likely, your workplace – even if it’s a sustainability department – won’t have an offsetting scheme (do any?? I’d be interested!). Still, you can consider offsetting your personal and work-related carbon emissions. People who fly a lot also tend to earn a lot, making this not as big a deal as it may sound. Obviously, in science, your ability to offset depends on your salary and/or career level.
  5. Beyond travel, differentiate between big-ticket items versus little things in your life. Little actions can be good because you can do many little things. But changing a few big things in meaningful ways may achieve even more in terms of sustainability. Big changes are, for example, to live somewhere where you can ride a bike to work, rather than drive every day. Or to cut down the amount of animal protein in your diet, or obtain your food more locally. Little things like turning off light bulbs are fine … But just leaving your car at home one day (when you normally drive) is like a lot, a lot of lightbulbs!
  6. Recognise that you’re part of a “system”, and work on personal change as well as systemic change. While some sustainability scientists do too little (in my, in this case, not-so-humble opinion) to walk the talk, others beat themselves up for not being perfect footprint-free creatures. I think it’s important we recognize that it’s both a personal and systemic issue. If you live in North America or Australia, it’s nearly impossible to have a lifestyle that is fully sustainable. Most likely, most things from the food you eat to the transportation systems you use, to the infrastructure you support through your taxes are unsustainable. That is why it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do, and do that – while at the same time working on systemic changes so that living more sustainably becomes mainstream. That is, the institutional and socio-cultural context we live in will ultimately need to change, but that won’t happen overnight.

Comments on how you think about “walking the talk” are, as always, most welcome!

Self-perpetuating hierarchies and their effects on knowledge flows

By Joern Fischer

I recently had two interesting experiences, both involving colleagues from less wealthy countries. The first experience was hearing a stakeholder from an African country say that his country needed more of our knowledge and technologies, so it could move forward. The second experience was a researcher from Asia telling me that in her country, people didn’t develop theories, but rather relied on theories from the Global North. Those, in turn, were implemented, but not questioned or criticised.

It struck me that something interesting is going on here. Instead of taking pride in their systems knowledge, both of these individuals saw their country’s knowledge as somehow inferior to what is produced in wealthy countries. This may be true for some kinds of technologies — e.g. Germans build better cars than Tanzanians (sorry, guys, it was the first random African country that came to mind). But for many other kinds of things, the local knowledge is more likely to be just different, not inherently less valuable. It’s not a big secret that often, people from the Global North have gone to the Global South — and implemented “solutions” that ended up causing more harm than good.

What I find particularly interesting then, is that this pattern is being perpetuated (1) in two directions, and (2) beyond the initial observation that I highlighted above.

First, the duality of “knowledge provider” versus “knowledge recipient” is perceived by many individuals in the Global South, as I outlined above. But this doesn’t come out of nowhere, but rather, is being reinforced through science from the Global North routinely telling people what they ought to do — assuming that such science knows best. Science from the Global North might, for example, tell people where to intensify their land, how to irrigate, or which improved varieties to grow. If this suits local people may be considered, but often as an afterthought.

Second, a general attitude of dividing the world into “providers” versus “recipients” of knowledge is self-perpetuating beyond its origin. That is, the same academic from the Global South who accepts his role as “recipient” of better science coming from the North, is likely to also assume a role of “provider” of science to local people in this country. That is, a top-down extension model that is common in the Global South is in itself the same pattern of one-way knowledge transfer that can be observed between the Global North and the Global South. This gets a little bit ironic then when people from the Global North start to highlight that governance structures in the Global South (for example) do not take local people into account adequately!

So, what to do? Dualistic understandings of one-way knowledge flows need to be treated with great caution. Of course, sometimes one person primarily “provides” and the other primarily “receives” knowledge. But very often, mutual learning is possible and would arguably lead to better insights on both sides: Academics in the Global North can learn from those in the Global South. Scientists in the Global South can learn from smallholder farmers in their countries. Recognising that knowledge flows can go both ways breaks down traditional hierarchies that prevent innovative and holistic thinking.

I singled out this pattern with respect to the Global North and Global South, and with respect to academics versus on-ground stakeholders. That’s because this is the anecdote that made me think of it. But self-perpetuating hierarchies like this exist in many realms of life. To truly learn and generate insight, I argue that we will do best to break down such hierarchies much of the time.

Christianity and sustainability – Reflections on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment

By Chris Ives

The majority of people living on the planet profess to be believers of some kind. As sustainability scholars, it’s critical then that we engage with issues of spirituality and religion. In May last year, Pope Francis released an Encyclical (a formal teaching document of the Catholic Church) on the ecological crisis, titled “On care for our common home”. Far from being only relevant to church-goers, it is a remarkable articulation of systems thinking, and in my opinion brilliantly integrates science with philosophy and theology. Francis presents the ecological and social dimensions of global problems as fundamentally interconnected and expressions of a deeper ethical and spiritual crisis. He outlines the need for a comprehensive “ecological education” that incorporates science and spirituality in order to bring about personal and systemic change. And he presents Christianity as carrying a message of hope and the moral resources needed to challenge today’s self-centred culture that perpetuates ecological and social injustice.

While there have been many writings on the theme of eco-theology within the Christian faith, this is a significant document because it outlines the official position of the Catholic Church and has potential for great influence politically and practically. Its title “our common home” is poignant, since Francis speaks against the rampant individualism in western consumerist culture and argues that we must consider other people and other species. The document is freely available for download here, but I thought a shorter summary would be useful for those who haven’t got time to read all 180 pages. By way of synthesising its content, I’ve structured this review into four sections: (1) The complexity of the problem; (2) The inadequacy of past solutions; (3) The challenge of an ethical revolution; and (4) The contribution of the Christian message.

(1) The complexity of the problem

One phrase that Francis reiterates is “everything is connected”. Although it’s not written as a scholarly document, the encyclical is one of the best articulations of the complex relationships between the ecological, social, ethical issues that face the world today. It provides some well researched science on the state of the planet, spanning issues of pollution, climate change, water security and biodiversity. (I won’t review this here, so download the encyclical if you’re interested in reading more about the science). Yet Francis also delves into social and philosophical issues such as the intrinsic value of non-human species, global economic inequality and spiritual poverty. He argues that they are all intimately related and that we are therefore “faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (p104). Below I outline some of the specific links that he identifies.

Environmental problems with social causes (human roots of the ecological crisis).

Francis argues that “[t]he human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (p33). One example of this is the throwaway culture that is so prevalent today, reflecting a fundamental disconnection from the natural systems that provide resources and absorb wastes, and an insatiable desire for consumption. He highlights that current economic systems only encourage and reward throwing away goods, which leads to increasing environmental harm.

Social problems with environmental causes

Many if not most of the environmental problems in the world have significant social implications. This is especially the case with the extraction of resources from developing nations and the effects of environmental degradation being more pronounced in these countries. Environmental migrants are becoming increasingly common as places become increasingly inhospitable. This opens up environmental degradation as a moral issue, since it relates to issues of justice for the poor.

The ethical and spiritual roots of the crisis

Francis argues that “[o]ur relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God” (p89), and for this reason the environmental and social crises can be understood as products of an underlying ethical and spiritual problem. Christian teaching is that humanity’s broken relationship with God results also in a rupture or distortion of relationships between people and the earth and amongst one another. The lack of adequate political and personal responses to social and environmental crises reflects the loss of a sense of responsibility towards people and the planet, and a state of spiritual poverty.

(2) The inadequacy of past solutions

Pope Francis is scathing when it comes to technocratic solutions to the present environmental crisis. Although he doesn’t find there to be anything intrinsically wrong with technology, he argues that those with access to it have power, and highlights that it’s the unequal distribution and misuse of power that is at the root of so many environmental problems. While technology is intimately linked with economic development, Francis cautions technological advancement should not be confused with progress. He argues that “the technocratic paradigm promotes finance at the expense of the real economy. It doesn’t consider the negative impacts of technology on society [nor] account for the true value of the environment” (p139). The real problem then is that technological advancement has not been “accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (p78). Techo-fixes to environmental issues are therefore inadequate since they don’t go to the root of the problem. Similarly, the notion of balancing nature protection with financial gain is equally misguided, since this logic operates within the same system parameters that created the mess we’re in and “simply delay the inevitable disaster” (p142). Instead, Francis identifies an urgent need to contemporary society to redefine our notion of what true progress is, and to develop “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded restraint” (p78)

(3) The challenge of an ethical revolution.

After rejecting the notion of technological advancement as the solution to the global environmental crisis, Francis gradually outlines the alternative: an ethical revolution that encompasses both individual transformation and a shift in societal values. Advancement in scientific knowledge will not be enough. He suggests that “unless we struggle with these deeper issues [of meaning and values], …our concern for ecology will [not] produce significant results” (p119). This is where forms of knowledge and wisdom that derive from religion and philosophy must contribute.

One particularly interesting perspective that Francis brings is connecting both the individual and society. It is not just de-personalised systemic change that is needed. It’s also a change in us as individuals. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (p150). The state of one’s internal world influences the state of the world around us. It’s our experience of inner peace that enables us to live at peace with the planet.

The solution is found in ‘ecological education and spirituality’. But the education that Francis outlines is not simply communicating scientific facts about the state of the planet. He argues that education needs to also critique “individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market” (p154). It needs to incorporate an “ethics of ecology” and help people grow in “solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (p154). We need “a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature” (p157). And this new mindset must be coupled with a reclaiming of virtues such as self-restraint and humility, which have been greatly neglected in contemporary society. Indeed, “once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment” (p163)

Francis highlights the importance of environmentally responsible behaviour if we are to address the ecological crisis. Indeed, “an awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” (p153). But how can this be done? He notes that “the existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct… Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment” (p154). The kind of commitment Francis presents is one that starts with small actions, such as car pooling, planting trees, and turning off unnecessary lights, for “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread”. He argues that grassroots social change will eventually apply pressure on those who wield political, economic and social power. (Interestingly, in Leverage Points thinking, this would suggest intervening at shallow leverage points in order to build momentum for a shift in deeper leverage points over time).

(4) The contribution of the Christian message

As is expected for a document of the Catholic Church, a large part of the encyclical discusses Christian theology. If a moral and ethical rejuvenation is what’s required, the Christian message has much to offer. Contrary to popular belief, Francis argues that Christianity does not present a licence for humanity to exploit nature. Instead it offers a moral foundation for environmental stewardship, upholds the intrinsic value of nature, and provides a hope for the future. Below are a couple of themes that emerged in the letter.

Humanity’s position in Creation

The Christian doctrine of creation (that the universe exists because of an intentional act by God) has two profound environmental implications. First, it recognises that since humans and non-humans are created, humanity is part of the natural world, looking at it ‘from within’ (p160). This, Francis argues, endows us kinship with the rest of creation since we are “joined in a splendid universal communion” (p160) and God is “intimately present to each being” (p161). In addition to this, being made in God’s image, humanity also has a “vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork” (p159). The second implication of creation is that “each creature reflects something of God” (p161) and therefore has intrinsic value apart from any direct benefit that human receive from it. The Biblical scriptures emphasise that “every creature has its own value and significance” (p56). But it’s not only individual creatures that are of importance: “the universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God” (p63). For the Christian then, “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion” (p159) since loving God is expressed (in part) by loving His creation.

A new life and a new hope

Francis argues that true Christian anthropology does not see human beings in Promethean mastery over nature (p87). Instead, humanity’s role “should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (p87). For Christians, the moral resources for this stance come from the person of Jesus Christ and the hope of the Christian story. As Christians look to Jesus as a picture of the nature of God, they are reminded that God is deeply concerned with the physical world since he “entered into the created cosmos [i.e. as Jesus], throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross” (p73). This is a reminder that “he does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth” (p177). God’s concern for nature is also highlighted in Jesus’ teachings on God’s care for the birds of the air and lilies of the field, as context for God’s love for humanity (Matthew 6:26-30).

Perhaps the most powerful contribution of the Christian message for tackling the ecological crisis is that it presents an alternative understanding of what fullness of life really means. “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life…one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption” (p164). Indeed, Jesus teaches that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Instead, “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack” (p164). The message of the love and acceptance of God results in a freedom to live generously and self-sacrificially. Further, the Christian future hope is that “all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast” (p177), meaning that none of the efforts towards environmental sustainability will be lost upon Christ’s return.


In summary, it is clear that the “On care for our common home” is a significant document for Christians, environmentalists and anyone interested in Christianity’s stance on environmental issues. To me, it has much to contribute to current debates about how environmental degradation and social justice ought to be tacked in our generation. Francis does not shy away from identifying the systemic nature of these problems and he digs to unearth their moral and ethical roots. The true impact of this Encyclical however will be shown in its ability to raise the profile of spirituality and religion in public discourse on these issues, and the response of the Christian Church to take heed of the moral and practical challenges set before it.

Turning hurt into impact (?)

By Joern Fischer

“I can’t afford to buy pencils for my daughter, who needs them for school.” – This was the response by a woman in our study area in the SW of Ethiopia when asked about her biggest challenges. The SW is one of the most food-secure parts of Ethiopia, and yet, by international standards, many people in this part of the country live in severe poverty, and are afraid of food insecurity in most years.

For me, engaging with issues of poverty first-hand stirs up a potent mix of strong emotions, including empathy, hurt, anger, impotence, and a sense of shame. It hurts to see people who deserve a good life have fundamentally worse access to things that I take for granted – material safety, schools, doctors. It makes me angry that the world is full of poverty, and yet, in the rich nations we still fiddle around the edges, and by and large, are happy to exploit the poverty of others to make our lives yet more comfortable. I feel a sense of impotence by not knowing what to do about it, and a sense of shame that I will be publishing research on these issues, yet I cannot help very well in tangible terms.

How can a researcher navigate such feelings? This question is work-in-progress for me, in the sense that I’m far better at offering a theory for this than living it in practice. My current understanding is that all of these feelings are worth experiencing. But being caught in them achieves nothing, and so they should be noted, but then left to settle. Caught up in strong emotions, we don’t function well as researchers, and both our science and potential to have real-world impact will suffer.

Ultimately, then, when the strong feelings have settled, they can turn into motivation: Motivation to question one’s research, frame problems in ways that are relevant to the “subjects” being studied, and motivation to generate impact. Impact, in this context, is likely to be diffuse. As researchers, we generate an understanding of complex challenges – we can’t single-handedly implement solutions, especially not in messy situations that don’t lend themselves to ideal-typical transdisciplinary research. Yet, even when it’s difficult, we can think about how to best engage a variety of different stakeholders so that we can be of use not only to the international scientific community but also to the stakeholders in the system under investigation.

I wrote about poverty in the above, but the same is true for other normative research endeavours. If I care about conservation, it hurts to see landscapes cleared of forest. If I care about climate change, it hurts to see policy failures. I argue that engaging with these feelings, and reflecting on them, is important to channel our energy wisely – to prioritise where to work, what to work on, and how to work on it.

PS: Why did I write this post? Because I figured I’m probably not the only person struggling with these issues; and because it’s the kind of thing that is not being talked about in (most) scientific papers. Yet, the context of science is just as important in shaping our science as the intellectual questions we are so much more used to debating.