Sedative consumption of science

Limits, boundaries & thresholds. Real or constructed. Motive for action, or a power grab by elite scientists? The concept of planetary boundaries has become a somewhat heated polarized debate, which you can read more about from Victor Galaz on the Resilience Science blog,or Robert Pielke Jr’s blog, or Melissa Leach in the Huffington Post.

Erle C. Ellis wrote in the New York Times this week that ‘Overpopulation is Not the Problem.’ I am part of a global sustainability group, called the Balaton Group set up by Donella and Dennis Meadows (authors of Limits to Growth) in 1982 to discuss planetary issues in one of the few places where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scientists could meet in the 1980s, on the shores of lake Balaton. The op-ed by Ellis has sparked a lively debate amongst this heterogeneous group of scientists. We have our annual meeting later this week to discuss “Technology and Transformation—Meeting human and planetary needs.” I will present on Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability: Equity and sustainability in the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Many, on the planetary boundaries side, might say that this debate distracts from actually doing something about the challenges we face. On the other side, there is great discomfort about the top-down science that the concept of nonnegotiable boundaries promote.  I think the interesting challenge here is how can critical pluralism, as Andy Stirling calls it, lead to positive action? This seems to be the challenge we face: to maintain a diversity of alternative options in a democratic open space. We seem to be all too willing to give into the seduction of clean, clear boundaries that call for the change we ultimately all wish to see.

Ellis: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Stirling: As knowledge can be power, so power tries to shape knowledge – including green knowledge. And few oppressions are more forceful than closure of imaginations. So, for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies. Despite pressing constraints, the great strength of green politics lies in its critical pluralism. This means hope-inspired democratic choice, not fear-driven technical compliance.

At a local scale, this is how I, with Frederik van Oudenhoven proposed igniting local imaginations for alternative futures:

We propose to “abandon the professed neutrality of pseudo-scientific paradigms in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

In a development context, in one that I know well, have a read of our article on how development organizations erode the very pathways they try to build, and the subjects of development become exactly that, subjected to development. So the real challenge in creating a sustainable future is to maintain diversity in imagination.

Activists take note: Welcome to the Anthropocene

Practitioner, Academic, Activist. I’m not really any one of these things just yet, and generally have fun floating around in between them all and find the broad range of topics I’m interested in to converge among all those worlds.  But sometimes I lose sight of who’s talking about what, where. I was surprised, for example, to find that the term Anthropocene is largely unknown, and certainly unused, among my environmental activist friends. At last, people are talking about wider recognition of the term causing a paradigm shift in the way Natural Scientists approach social-ecological systems; so maybe it can spur a shift in the influence of activists on policy.

The term was coined over 10 years ago by Paul Crutzen (Nobel Laureate, Chemistry), and published in Nature in 2002. But it hasn’t been widely used until more recently, such as in these excellent talks by Johan Rockstrom and Will Steffen.

In addition to academic forums, the Anthropocene has recently made headlines in the National Geographic (March 2011) and notably, in The Economist  last week, and the world’s top news agencies around the world followed suit.  As a side note, the Economist article, among many others,  refers to the epoch as the Age of Man.  I’m fairly certain women are also affecting the planet, for better, or for worse. So how about we call it the Age of Humans. Thanks–

Greater recognition of the Anthropocene would be very useful to activists. The basic premise of the term is that we’ve entered a new geological epoch– one in which humans have shaped the geological characteristics of the Earth. Rather than read this as a death sentence, surely we have the power to positively shape future planetary processes as well.

“For humans to be intimately involved in many interconnected processes at a planetary scale carries huge risks. But it is possible to add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions, if they are well thought through. And one of the messages of the Anthropocene is that piecemeal actions can quickly add up to planetary change.”

Activists take note: if the Holocene was an era of relative stability, we’ve entered the Anthropocene, so you can use it to highlight the (obviously lasting consequential) geological impacts of the tar sands, carbon, and nitrogen cycles… but you can also use it to prove that small acts can have a huge impact.

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