Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Planet Under Pressure

I cannot imagine anyone leaving this event still questioning that our planet is under pressure (PuP). But even that opening sentence is not an adequate framing of what is at issue.  And so it was at PuP, far too much inadequate framing and sensible, rigorous, use of language.

Let me start again. There is no doubt that human activity, directly and indirectly is affecting the quality of life on Earth. The public consolidation of the neologism, 'the Anthropocene', evident throughout the conference, is symbolic of scientific understanding as well as the way in which science is done.  The Earth will survive but life on Earth as we know it may not - what is at stake is the future quality of the relationship of humans with the biosphere, with other species (biodiversity) and with each other.  However at PuP a systemic sensibility, a capability to understand and talk in terms of relational dynamics, was not always evident in the plenaries and  the parallel sessions.

Several plenary speakers spoke of the need for systems thinking, and taking a systems approach.  These included Shobhakar Dhakal, Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova as well as Wendy Watson-Wright, Deputy-Director General of UNESCO.  Julia-Marton Lefevre challenged the on-going use of the three pillars concept, arguing instead for more systemic understanding and approaches.  Learning as a key idea was not much in evidence except for Laurence Tubiana who stressed its centrality to change processes.  On the other hand in the word-cloud derived from the conference policy briefs the most prominent word was 'systems'.  Several speakers spoke about complex adaptive systems, some even referring to a complex system of systems!  In other words there was considerable confusion in the use of language (and thus thinking) about systems with some demonstrating a commitment to systems as ontologies ('real' entities) and others appreciating that systems were epistemological devices for knowing and acting.

Lack of theoretical clarity about the concept 'system' obfuscates getting on with the job - of taking practical action.  Too often speakers were left articulating exhortations and normative claims that ran the risk of leaving them naked in terms of how to move forward.  In a way the coining of the term 'Anthropocene' also has the potential to distract attention away from praxis - theory informed practical action - because it conserves a manner of abstraction involving classification, typical of doing science.  As an aside I left feeling that no scientist in future could defend ethically committing to an exercise in classification such as the MEA, because such exercises have become a means to avoid action.

I was pleased to have been at this conference even though my pessimism regarding our ability to act has not shifted greatly.  There is a conference declaration: "First State of the Planet Declaration" which is worth reading (see below).  Along with many others I was invited to comment on the draft of this manifesto and there have been many columns of reporting both in the press and digital media.  Here is what I said based on my experience of sessions I attended and my own research:

1. There is a lack of reflexivity on the part of scientists themselves.  Multiple perspectives including social scientists are needed to frame the research questions and agendas; more than lip-service needs to be paid to inter and trans-disciplinary research approaches (there is a need for significant institutional reform); the linear knowledge transfer paradigm needs to be abandoned in favour of knowledge co-production.

2. There is a need for more conceptual rigour - sustainability is not a state but an ongoing process; targets distort practice and produce perverse outcomes; the language of 'solutions' is inadequate in terms of the nature of the situations that have to be dealt with and implies science can deliver panaceas - this is not the case.

 3. The need for systemic understanding and practice was highlighted throughout the conference but too often this was confused with systematic and also too often people's comments and framings suggested a lack of systemic sensibilty (contextual and relational thinking and practice). For example the 'goal of increased education for women' was regularly espoused in the conference but when expressed as a goal or a target it ignores the systemic appreciation that the education of women has to be the result of changing patterns of social relations, personal identies and the beginning of the conservation of a different manner of living by many families and communities. Educated women is an emergent property of these systemic processes.

4. The conference has enacted an apartheid of the emotions - the result is that we risk conserving scientific communications that foster an emotion of fear rather than an emotion of hope. One of the best ways to alay fear is to offer people some agency in their own situations (including conference attendees).

5. More attention needs to be paid in the declaration to the systemic effects flowing on from climate change to the water cycle.

6. We need to abandon tripple bottom line approaches and framing and state clearly that the economic is merely one aspect of being social - and a domain where innovation has to happen.

7. Under research there is a need to recognise governance and praxis (theory informed practical action) as important and neglected areas of research.

You can judge from the declaration as to whether my points were taken on board or not.

Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions
1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.
3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.
4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.
5. The Global Environmental Change Programmes1 with the International Council for Science convened the Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions conference to assess the state of the planet and explore solutions to impending global crises. The conference brought together nearly 3000 leading experts and decision-makers to discuss global challenges and offer new solutions. And at least 3000 people across the world participated in the conference online.
6. Humanity has taken a huge leap and become a planetary-scale force. Significant changes have occurred since the 1950s, and the rate of change is accelerating. Researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilisation.
7. The past decade has seen the emergence of important areas of new scientific understanding by which to define what we are witnessing:
 A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.
A2. The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are themselves highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation. But they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.
A3. Assessments of current mechanisms for governing global environmental change show why existing international arrangements are not dealing quickly enough with current global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. There is growing evidence that diverse partnerships amongst local, national and regional governments as well as business and civil society provide essential safety nets should singular global policies fail – a polycentric approach for planetary stewardship.
8. These insights from recent research demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountabilities of nation states to support planetary stewardship. This requires goals aimed at global sustainability in order to achieve universal sustainable development. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of well-being and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.

9. Interconnected issues require interconnected solutions. Rapid scientific and technological progress can provide potential solutions – if adopted in timely manner – to reduce the risk of deleterious consequences for societies everywhere. But technological innovation alone will not be enough. We can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.
10. Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions. This contract needs to encompass three elements:
B1. Integrated goals for global sustainability based on scientific evidence are needed to provide essential targets for societies. In support of this, the international scientific community calls for a framework for regular global sustainability analyses that link existing assessments that build on the foundations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and other ongoing efforts. Such analyses can be designed to bring coherence to the science-policy interface.
B2. The challenges facing a planet under pressure demand a new approach to research that is more integrative, international and solutions-oriented. We need to link high-quality focused scientific research to new policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability. This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems, across the North and South, and must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector. As part of this new collaboration, at this conference the global-environmental-change programmes support a major research initiative, Future Earth: research for global sustainability.
B3. New mechanisms to facilitate an interactive dialogue on global sustainability among the various stakeholders and the policy-making community at different scales. Such interactions should be designed to bring societal relevance and trust to science-policy interfaces, and more effectively inform decision-making to keep pace with rapid global change.

11. To these ends, the initiatives above must be supported by:
• A greater commitment to fund and support capacity-building in science and education globally, and particularly in developing countries.
• A strong commitment to both applied and pure research and increased efforts to bring together disciplines, across all research domains.
• Strengthened support for observing systems, particularly in developing countries, including the new observations needed to support decision-making for global sustainability. New approaches should fully integrate global observing systems for environmental and social issues.
• Continued exploration of new areas of knowledge, such as theoretical and applied research in behavioural science and economics addressing ecological and social tipping points and irreversibility at multiple levels.

12. The United Nations Rio+20 Conference is an opportunity the world must seize at this crucial juncture. The UN Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, provides a strong strategic framework for a sustainable future while calling for a marked strengthening of the interface between science and policy. The findings of the Planet Under Pressure conference support the key recommendations including:
C1. Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earthsystem governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars. Current understanding supports the creation of a Sustainable Development Council within the UN system to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level. There is also strong support for strengthening global governance by including civil society, business and industry in decision-making at all levels.
C2. A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production. The research community should be involved in the development of goals, targets and indicators, recognising interconnected issues and building on existing measures of well-being. They should apply to all levels of governance.
C3. Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.

13. Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The Planet Under Pressure conference has taken advantage of this potential to explore new pathways. It has marked a new direction for global change research. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.
14. Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action. We must show leadership at all levels. We must all play our parts. A strong contribution from all stakeholders should make the UN’s Rio+20 conference a defining moment that sparks global innovation to move us towards a sustainable future. We urge the world to grasp this moment and make history.

London, 29th March 2012