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Building Sustainable Future Needs More Than Science, Experts Say

Stephen Leahy
Inter Press Service / News Report
Published: Monday 20 February 2012
While helpful, scientific knowledge and experts are also part of the problem: by dominating the sustainability discourse, they narrow people’s visions of what’s possible.

Contrary to popular belief, humans have failed to address the earth's worsening emergencies of climate change, species' extinction and resource overconsumption not because of a lack of information, but because of a lack of imagination, social scientists and artists say.

At a conference for the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) here in Vancouver, British Columbia, experts argued that the path to a truly sustainable future is through the muddy waters of emotions, values, ethics, and most importantly, imagination.

Humans' perceptions of reality are filtered by personal experiences and values, said David Maggs, a concert pianist and PhD student at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

As a result, the education and communication paradigm of "if we only knew better, we'd do better" is not working, Maggs told attendees at the world's largest general science meeting. "We don't live in the real world, but live only in the world we imagine."

"We live in our heads. We live in storyland," agreed John Robinson of UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

"When we talk about sustainability we are talking about the future, how things could be. This is the landscape of imagination," Robinson told IPS. "If we can't imagine a better world we won't get it."

This imagining will be complex and difficult. Sustainability encompasses far more than just scientific facts – it also incorporates the idea of how we relate to nature and to ourselves, he said.

"We haven't yet grasped the depth of changes that are coming."

Because human decisions and behavior are the result of ethics, values and emotion, and because sustainability directly involves our values and ethical concerns, science alone is insufficient to make decisions about sustainability, said Thomas Dietz, assistant vice president for environmental research at Michigan State University.

Information plays a much smaller role than we like to think, Dietz explained. In order to truly address big issues like climate change or sustainability, we need to talk at a society-wide scale about our values and reach mutual understanding about the values needed for sustainability.

"However, we don't like to talk about our values or feelings, because it threatens our personal identity."

Engaging the public

Treating nature as an object, separate and distinct from us, is part of the problem, said Sacha Kagan, sociologist at Leuphana University in Germany. The current environmental crisis results from technological thinking and a fear of complexity that science alone cannot help us with, Kagan said.

The objectification of the natural world began during the Age of Enlightenment about 300 years ago. People saw the world and their place in it in very different ways before that, said Robinson.

Today, he said, sustainability will not be achieved without "engaging people in numbers and at levels that have never been done before".

New social media tools like Facebook may help with such a monumental task, as "people certainly don't like to come to public meetings".

Current approaches to help the public understand the implications of climate change, such as graphs or iconic pictures of polar bears, have limitations and are ineffective, said Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

"We need to find new ways to think about the future under climate change," said Hulme.

Art could be one such approach, suggested Dietz. It would serve not as propaganda but as a creative way to engage our imaginations. "Art can provoke thinking and actually change people's perceptions of the complex issues associated with sustainability science," he argued.

"When we're considering questions about preserving biodiversity versus creating jobs, art can help us examine our values and have a discussion that's broader than just scientific facts."

It is tempting to believe the arts can help by softening and 'pretty-fying' the message and bringing it to a wider audience, said award-winning photographer Joe Zammit-Lucia.

"We need to go much further to provide a different worldview that can help us re-frame the issues," said Zammit-Lucia.

Society's choices are driven by people's cultural perceptions of reality, which in turn are based on their values and their cultural context, he said. While helpful, scientific knowledge and experts are also part of the problem: by dominating the sustainability discourse, they narrow people's visions of what's possible.

"I also don't buy in the idea we need to make the right decisions. What we need is the right process, ways in which the public can fully participate," he concluded.



This is eerily reminiscent of

This is eerily reminiscent of comments made by oil for food scammers like Maurice Strong when they wax poetic about UN Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter. I have read a great deal about others who were enlightened like this: they followed Adolf Hitler as he tried to create Utopia.

If it were all that easy.

If it were all that easy. The issue is complex. There hasn't been good and consistent agreement across the scientific spectrum, not so much within the earth sciences, chemistry and biology. But the physicists, and geochemists have been resistant. The schisms are significant. If the former gods of the physical sciences that have somewhat consistently raised doubts, as if there going to be an overthrow of theory, that's going to revolutionize our insight. It's not something that likely, but that's the court of public opinion that has been created. It's really fundamentally about ways of doing science. Chemistry and biology are inherently messy, planetary science follows suit. Nothing's clean and it won't ever be. Not all science is included by all scientists, and so we stumble on.The largest sense, there is no opportunity for conversation, we're still debating the moment of life, and whether or not we can absolve ourselves of death.

I am disappointed with Nation

I am disappointed with Nation of Change. for its failure to say (over and over again) that we have a serious population problem. While I am not aware of the details of China's "one child" policy and, therefore, do not specifically endorse it, WE -- all nations -- must stake dramatic actions towards reducing population. This includes government funded education promoting smaller families and government funded birth control, including sterilization and abortion. In addition, we need to eliminate child tax credits.

How can so many call for

How can so many call for renewed imagination, yet not mention at all "higher" ed?

Is corporate academe so sacred that no one in it, or skimming from it, can see, let alone admit, how its divisions into silo departments guarantees only the worst of narrow orthodoxies?

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