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Published on March 29, 2012

Planet Under Pressure part 2 – Moving from fear to hope

By Rosalie Callway

Rosalie is supporting Involve in looking at the central role of public engagement in delivering sustainable development, identifying new opportunities for engagement, building the evidence base for how engagement can assist changing attitudes and behaviour, as well as ways to scale up engagement.

Our generation of scientists, policymakers, industry and civil society must do everything within our power to change course towards global sustainability. We must do no less for the sake of our children and our children’s children” Planet Under Pressure Co-Chairs Dr Lidia Brito and Dr Mark Stafford Smith

After the doomsday scenarios of the first day it was good to refocus on some of the wealth of activities the scientific community can and is helping bring in the transition towards a more sustainable future.

The words scientific ‘community’ suggests a single group but it is certainly clear from this event at least that academics continue to struggle to bridge the gap between different fields. The social sciences and the ‘bio-physical’ sciences as they describe themselves are still trying to find a common language in working together. It was pointed out by Dr Marian Mehring, from the Institute of Social-Ecological Research, that simply the fact that so many scientists are now working on the sustainability agenda is a cause for hope. The question of how to draw together this work was the next important step.

Beyond the problems of interdisciplinary working, it was also recognized that academics are only just beginning to work more effectively with policy-makers and importantly the public to support long-term transition towards sustainable future; “We need to create a movement – we need to create a war-time mentality so that everyone decides to change” Pamela Collins, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de lausanne.

At one side-session, Sander van der Leeuw of Arizona State University, Santa Fe University spoke about some of the barriers to change. In particular she said our societies have set in motion a particular pathway ‘path dependency’ towards one lifestyle – a more individualist and consumerist one, or as Professor Richard Norgaard, University of California, called it the; “Work. Buy, Die. lifestyle”. This will require society to find ways to shift individual behaviours. Leeuw suggested scientists and policy-makers have been over confident and dependent on technological solutions, seeking out ‘silver bullet’ quick solutions whereas such change is more likely to be a slower process requiring “blood sweat and tears”.

Leeuw then posed a whole bunch of questions: “What kind of transition are we talking about? To what end? How do we manage the interaction between many scales and meet particular local circumstances? What is going to happen to our institutions? What is the role of science and how much can it contribute to this process?” She indicated that in order to begin to answer these and other questions a ‘normative’ process and open dialogue will be required to take place. This is essential to clarify and prioritise questions and establish a clear vision. Leeuw said this would require linking up previously top-down and bottom-up movements. Impacting education, she felt would also be vital – where many schools have tools to engage children in a dialogue around a set of values and to equip them with alternative ways of thinking, problem solving, building resilience and adaptability. Government and businesses would also be pivotal actors in this process. Professor Maria Invavnova, University of Massachusetts, pointed out that governance can be defined as ‘the design and execution of policy’ but importantly it is not just about policy from governments but policy at multiple levels and involving multiple actors.

David Willetts MP – UK Minister for Universities and Science appeared to agree with the view that technological and bureaucratic routes have not been wholly successful in the transition to Sustainable Development. He suggested that the social sciences are beginning to take greater prominence because policy-makers need to understand and properly engage with those effecting and affected by environmental change.

Willetts gave the example of the links between our consumption attitudes and food security, noting 30%-50% of food is lost in the long journey to consumers. Some of this huge waste can be addressed by technology but greater impact will be felt through more sustainable behaviour. He outlined four priorities in science for the UK government:

  1. Infrastructure investment supporting integration e.g. the Living with Environmental Change programme brings together actors to address critical issues e.g. drought investment implications
  2. Addressing the risks of climate change to economies and society –climate-related natural disasters (storms, landslides, flooding, tsunamis) increased from 400 incidents in 1980 to over 1000 in 2010.
  3. Carbon measurement – supporting better carbon trading and the move towards decarbonising economies through international standards e.g. National Physics Laboratory’s new Centre for Carbon Management
  4. Understanding and changing human behaviour – addressing public attitudes and behaviour in relation to sustainability challenges.

The organizers of the conference include the International Council for Science (ICSU) presented an initiative called Future Earth with has the objective of bringing together sustainability researchers across the globe. It will establish a global platform for collaboration on sustainability, integrating science through co-design and co-production, involving different stakeholders and society. If ICSU are serious in their intention to involve the general public, as well as policy-makers, in the framing and delivery of scientific research then this may truly be step in the right direction.

Further information: Planet under Pressure Conference, London, 26-29 March 2012

Photo by Stella VM

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