Thursday, May 8, 2014

World Social Science Report 2013: mankind as the blind spot of the sustainability agenda

Since the Dutch Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen marked a new era by labeling it “Anthropocene”, it’s no longer nature but mankind who holds sway over our planet. So to get a grip on the extreme changes our planet is undergoing we should turn our focus from Mother Nature to her “unfaithful” and culture driven human competitor. UNESCO’s five yearly World Social Science Report 2013 gives an overview of how the social sciences can be of help.

Its diagnosis is in line with earlier findings of the Social Scientific Council of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences. In 2011 this Council noted that “despite the prominent international position of the Dutch Social Sciences, its recent findings are poorly used”. This leads, the Council ads, to a lack of “insight in processes that determine the public support and the behavioral response of the individual citizen”. This situation will backfire now that we are confronted with climate change, which is the theme of the World Social Science Report 2013. Because climate change forces society more than ever to adapt itself and therefore to find ways, via scientific research, to prepare the individual behavior and society for this change.

The trend is that we need to become more aware of the complexity of the climate change issue, and also of the fact that all stakeholders need to work better together. To simplify: climate change is not a specific problem for the climatologist, but a cross-cutting condition that confronts society and citizens with fundamental choices. The trend however is also that we don’t really address these choices. We prefer to invest in technological “solutions” that leave the core of the problem untouched. For example we try to reduce CO2 emissions by setting up an emission trading scheme, or by burning biomass instead of coal. But in the meantime we’re still following the wrong recipe: a man made and perpetuated unsustainable development model that is deeply rooted in certain ideas about what progress is. One of these ideas is that progress is measured by the gross domestic product of a country, even if this product has (very) harmful social or ecological consequences. A good alternative for this is the Inclusive Wealth Index, that doesn’t have this blind spot.

The added value of social sciences is that they can help policy makers and scientists to better identify unsustainable development models. Useful questions for research in this regard are for example where and how such models manifest itself in individual or collective behavior. Once these models become “visible” in behavior patterns, the policy maker can start designing ways to influence these patterns to make them more sustainable. Example: a lot of research in social sciences concentrates on high-frequency & low-impact behavior (refusing plastic bags in the supermarket). Good policy however might benefit more from research focusing on low-frequency & high-impact behavior, like buying a car or insulating your home. Because these forms of behavior make unsustainability visible on a more significant scale, thus offering interesting opportunities for policy makers.

The challenge is to find out next how these opportunities can be used to actually influence behavior. Because although there is a lot of knowledge available about the relation between human behavior and climate change, we lack knowledge about how this behavior can be changed. Without this specific knowledge we will not be able to shift individuals and societies to the new sustainable world. An example: research shows that it is counterproductive to inform citizens about the negative consequences of certain frequent behavior (heavy water consumption). Why? Because during the evolution human beings became imitators to increase their chances of survival as members of the herd. Once this fact is established, policy can be adapted in such a way that it does not go against but rather with the human nature of imitator. One way to do this is to print a happy or unhappy face on water and energy bills, indicating how economical you are in comparison to your neighbors. Success is guaranteed, with thanks to the social sciences.

These little tricks are a good start, but will not be sufficient for a fast and more fundamental transformation of society. Such a transformation requires that the sustainability issue be analyzed in a broader and more integrated way. Take for instance the following key question: how can people be motivated to move from polluting infrastructures and habits like the car and the habit of systematically using it to alternative and less polluting infrastructures systems and habits? To find out, social sciences (from economics, law and political sciences to urbanism, geography and psychology) will first have to leave their tunnels and link their research themes to the cross-cutting theme of climate change. Example: if a legal specialist limits himself to traditional legal issues, this will hamper the development of a legal perspective on climate change and consequently also the debate about it. Secondly, there are many potential synergies with natural sciences that deserve attention from researchers. Think for instance of the geopolitical aspects of biodiversity research, because of the value of CO2 absorbing forests in climate negotiations. Or think of seabed research, because of the pharmaceutical resources and fossil fuels it contains. Thirdly, inter-disciplinarity will not happen without institutional reforms. Because traditional research and promotion practices keep many research areas closed for other research themes. And the practice of project related financing often favors mono-disciplinary research. Fourthly, the effect of sustainability research is often limited because its findings do not reach policy makers and the right audience, or not in the right form. This situation could improve if research institutes use media and communication experts more systematically. These experts can provide the missing “translation” from research to policy, for example by confronting policy makers more often with certain research findings. Finally, we could be more efficient in forecasting (un)sustainable developments if we don’t generate our forecasts by extrapolating existing datasets to the future (like the IPCC Assessment Report, the OECD Environmental Outlook, etc.). Because if Henry T. Ford had forecasted on the basis of available statistics what his future clients would ask for, the outcome would have been: “a faster horse”. Instead the combustion engine and the automobile quickly revolutionized the world, driven by the carbon intensive infrastructures and habits associated with them.

Although we would not have been able to foresee the automobile and the Arab Spring transforming societies, Riel Miller of UNESCO argues that we can strengthen our capacity to anticipate the future. To do this, he explains, we should not limit ourselves to approaching the future’s uncertainty with the current statistical and deterministic tools and methods. Instead, we should use this uncertainty as a source of inspiration to open up our thinking about the future with concepts like discontinuity, openness, globalization and big data. These concepts help to open our view of the future, first by identifying the anticipatory assumptions underlying our thinking and then by suspending them. Miller puts this in practice by inviting policy makers, scientists and other stakeholders around a table with regard to a relevant theme. He then asks them on the basis of which implicit ideas about the future they think and act today. This exercise exposes all kinds of causal assumptions that the participants quickly learn to recognize as limited. Finally they can help each other to correct these assumptions by integrating new and unexpected insights, thereby enabling themselves to improve their forecasts. In a similar way, social scientists can help society to reveal the assumptions of individual and collective thinking and behavior. This knowledge is needed “to find ways to embrace the wonder of unknowability [and not remain] stubbornly insistent on taking an exclusively probabilistic and arrogantly colonizing view of the future”.

My comments
  • Many social sciences are seen as “soft” in the sense that they deal with matters that seem to lack any serious, economical relevance (history, psychological phenomena, primitive societies, etc.). Their (economical) relevance would become more visible if we would involve historians, psychologists and ethnologists more in the study of complex issues like climate change. We could start with ethicists, whose sharp analyses of responsibilities are anxiously kept outside the doors of the political climate debate.
  •  The social sciences often feel undervalued as just a sort of interface tasked to translate findings of natural sciences into societal consequences. It is however too negative to suppose that the social sciences lose their “independence” by devoting themselves to a better dialogue between producers and users of knowledge (e.g. science and politics). On the contrary, as sciences of society in their own right they are best equipped to determine how societies organize themselves and consequently which scientific knowledge is most useful for that society. These analyses of usefulness are not a threat but an opportunity for the social sciences as they can show how broad and complete their understanding of society is. So they shouldn’t be afraid to help take away the criticism of policy makers that science is a source of “pieces of information” of which it is rarely clear “what should be done with it”.
  • The elephants in the room are barely mentioned: demographic growth (in 2013 even China slightly loosened its one child policy) and religion. Religious engineering could be a promising research topic, as it could help to make the Arab world – despite its oil interests –more interested in sustainability issues. More generally, we could use knowledge about how religion works, and probably also about religion as an ally or communication channel, if we wish to prepare the international community for the 5th recommendation of the Post 2015 High Level Panel: “[establish] a new spirit of solidarity [based on] a common understanding of our shared humanity, underpinning mutual respect and mutual benefit in a shrinking world”.

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