government systems

Living within system limits

Dr Morgan Williams is Chair of the Cawthron Foundation, is on the NZ international councils of the WWF, the National Energy Trust. We discuss his background in ecological systems science, from Antarctica to Fiji, and from North Canterbury farm through being the second Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to his ongoing work.

Talking points

The research challenges are actually in understanding us – Homo sapiens. All the ways they interact, their decision making processes, their valuing systems, their moral structures and everything in that realm – that’s where most of the effort has to be.

Our understanding of the physical world is racing ahead of our ability to reconstruct our values and belief structures to keep up with the changes that we need.

It’s a real challenge if you have a conservative view on life, then reshaping the language about how you utilise resources – which is what sustainability is all about – and recognising the science that says this tiny blue planet does have limits and we as a species can overthrow those limits.

We’re not particularly good at working out where the limits are, nor how we share the division of resources between all peoples.

How do we get to a society where we more fairly share the resources available?

A much greater level of equity across society really does help everybody understand it improves the chances of all of us surviving and maintaining a better lifestyle without trashing the planet.

I don’t think there’s enough going on in a policy and investment sense to involve people in society who are really finding life hard…questions such as emissions are off their radar as the day-to-day is what they rightly have to focus on.

(Green without social) Far too simplistic. It comes back to equity. If we’re going to get on top of how do we as a species walk more lightly on the planet, you’ve got to work out how do we have a fair access to resources. It’s not just liters of water, or sunshine, it’s resources that we generate and provide through every facet of our society – access to music or health, housing…

Asking the hard questions…has elements of representing the future.

The problem with the whole notion of being fair and living within budgets of a small planet, is putting that into a political framework.

The value of an office such as PCE is to till the landscape a way ahead of the policy of the day. Its real value is to be seeding thinking, being an evidential thought-leader, putting out the evidence on the landscape a way ahead of where any government is at.

(Can we democracy our way out?) Good question. The evidence to date is with difficulty. There’s so much evidence that when we get to these big wicked problems we get tensions, and we get a Brexit, Trump in the Whitehouse.

(Can we business our way out?) Business – all the mechanisms of provision of goods and services for society – has to be part of it. There’s no question that we can empower a whole lot of innovation and adaption and a whole lot of smart people , but how do we do that in a way that has a moral compass that is 100% better that those that have shaped Facebook and so on.

(On profit motive) They have to stay in business but there are groups of businesses around the planet who are working for values other than profit, things are shifting and they have to keep shifting. There has to be viability there, but the notions of what is viable needs to change dramatically.

Journey of living within limits

Looking more and more at the drivers – what the things that we are doing as a species that putting all the pressures? (the breakdown of systems).

Goal areas, mostly aimed at saving something, that’s appropriate, a mitigation model. But when you look deeper, it’s a capital problem.

Young people are quite rightly saying “this is our future we’re talking about”. Their leaders are going to inherit some pretty tough spaces. I’d be getting my boots on and starting to kick some tyres too.

We have to have conversations and actions that we can craft a sustainable world, we lift the expectations we can deal with the turbulence, we’re going to have to get hold of the tiger and believe that we can make a difference, and we’re going to have to go fast. And we can.

Sustainability: Activity through endless generations. That’s really asking whether the resilient characteristics of our ecological systems, our atmosphere, our species mixes…can they evolve to deal with this turbulence? It’s not about saving species, it’s about saving the capacity of ecological systems to change at the pace that the pressures are generating. Resilience is quite an important word here. Resilience of the ecological system to change.

Have they found the Narnia door? A totally different way of thinking, of talking.

Superhero: might be useful.

Activist: I didn’t until last year.

Motivation: Seeing that you can make a difference. I’ve been encouraged by a lot of people. Having a partner in a life journey.

Challenge: Water security.

Miracle: Education. That we build into our education system how to relate, share ideas, recognise power of communities.

Advice: Think about your day to day life. Your impact, waste and so on, but it needs to be much more than that, so think about your purchasing, particularly clothing.

geography science systems visualisation

Modelling land management

Dr Bethanna Jackson is a Senior Lecturer School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University Wellington.

Bethanna’s research addresses the impact of land management and climate change on multiple ecosystem services, including flood risk, agricultural productivity, water quality, biodiversity, erosion, cultural services, green-house gas emissions, and amenity/socio-economic impacts.  We talk about the LUCI project – a land management decision support framework – in particular how well we understand processes across multiple scales of time and space.

Talking points

Sustainable: Nothing is truly sustainable… I don’t truly have a definition which encumpasses every aspect of sustainablitly.

Success: It’s been a huge success developing this framework, which is a huge step forward because we are now able to look at the impact of many different environmental variables.

Superpower: My ability to be non-judgemental and provide a platform for sustainable development.

Activist: Yes, in the aspect that I am acting to create change and I believe very strongly in what I am doing… I don’t consider myself to be an activist as I actually try to keep certain environmental opinions to myself because I think it is very important that I am as objective as possible in putting this framework together.

Motivation: I really enjoy what I do, and I do feel like I’m making a difference to the world!

Challenges: I am looking forwards to more and more of my students getting out and taking their ideas out into the world. I’ve got some really good collaborations forming, so I am hoping that in a couple of years we will have produced something that is being applied quite broadly.

Miracle: Showing a bit less fear towards people in other cultures and accepting more refugees.

Advice: Whenever you are thinking about sustainability try and think beyond specific issues.

ecological economics systems

Positive systems thinking

Robert Costanza

Professor Robert Costanza is Chair in Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.   He is a thought leader in Ecological Economics – as a hint to his impact, one of his papers “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” has been cited more than 15,000 times.

Professor Costanza is also currently a Senior Fellow at the National Council on Science and the Environment, a Senior Fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Center, an Affiliate Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, and a deTao Master of Ecological Economics at the deTao Masters Academy, China. His transdisciplinary research integrates the study of humans and the rest of nature to address research, policy and management issues at multiple time and space scales, from small watersheds to the global system. He is co-founder and past-president of the International Society for Ecological Economics, and was founding editor of the society’s journal, Ecological Economics. He currently serves on the editorial board of 10 other international academic journals. He is also founding editor-in-chief of Solutions (, a hybrid academic/popular journal.

We talk about what motivates him and where he sees Sustainability (and Desirability) heading in the future.  But, first we start with where he grew up…



Sam: Where did you grow up?


Robert: I grew up mainly in South Florida, born in Pennsylvania. We moved to South Florida because found that my dad worked in the steel mill at, was the site of the first case of fatal air pollution the United States, Donora Pennsylvania, and they eventually closed down the steel mill, and I think the clean air act was partly the result.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grew up?


Robert: When I grew up? I don’t know. It wasn’t that far back, but …


Sam: Once you got past the astronaut and a fireman.


Robert: I did have the astronaut thing for a while, but I think when I got to a university, I got very interested in how things are connected, the systems approach. My PhD was in systems ecology, and had HT Odum a famous systems ecologist as my PhD advisor. It was more about looking at how the world is connected, and interconnected, and not looking at humans as separate from nature, but humans as an interval part of a broader natural system, we’re not unnatural by any means. I think a lot of academic research was, and still is I think, is focused around looking at the economy as a separate thing, looking at nature as a separate thing, looking at ecology and economics separately, and so eventually my research was more about building an ecological economics. How do we actually integrate across the different, sometimes distinct disciplines that really should be talking to each other if we want to understand the world, and how it works, and particularly how to make it both sustainable and desirable.


Sam: Okay, so I’m going to slow you down. You did architecture first?


Robert: I did architecture first, yes.


Sam: Why architecture?


Robert: Well, actually I started in engineering. In aerospace engineering, this was the astronaut phase. I thought engineering, at least the way was being taught, was a little too narrow, not very creative, and so I switched to architecture that would have a little more creativity, but still yeah, the engineering science and math background. Got involved as part of that degree program in a study of South Florida, and how it evolved over time, and landscape planning, and landscape ecology, and architecture, that led directly into systems ecology field.


It was about understanding broader landscapes. When we look at the world at that scale, and larger, then we can’t ignore the tight interconnections between the human dominated part of the system, and the rest of the system. There is a study of how South Florida, the Kissimmee Everglades basin had evolved over the period from 1900, to the present that time. Went to 1973, it’s been a while. You can see the tremendous impact that humans have had on that system by draining the Everglades, by changing the way that system functioned. Trying to understand that evolution, and that landscape, and how to design a landscape that maybe worked better going forward.


Sam: Odum –  who is one of those textbooks that sits on my desk, and has done forever, its systems similar to electric circuitry approaches?


Robert: Well, that’s the system diagramming he came up with, and systems dynamics modelling, computer modelling, I think was also a part of, and it’s still a part of what I’m interested in doing. How do you understand these systems, not just from a qualitative point of view, but from a quantitative point of view. When we build computer models to simulate, and replicate the way systems work, to better understand them, to better understand really the uncertainties involved in how they behave as well, and give us a better handle on how to better manage them.


Sam: Your PhD was on the Everglades?  What were you trying to answer there?


Robert: It was a sustainability question, the project was funded around those terms, how do we create a South Florida landscape that was more sustainable, given the many issues that are still topical there? Changing the water flow patterns in the Everglades, and the effects that that had on fire, and nutrient regimes, and invasive plant invasions, and water supply for the East Coast, and development patterns, and the urban patterns in South Florida. All of those issues together,  led to this idea of ecosystem services, and natural capital. What is nature, the rest of nature I should say? Not the human part of the system supplying to the human part of the system that, in a way benefits, and maintaining life support, and controlling climate, and controlling water flow, and controlling nutrients, etc.


This idea of ecosystem services and natural capital, became a big part of it. I think it’s also a different way of looking at how to manage these systems. Traditionally conservationists have been protecting nature for its own sake, let’s keep people out of it, we want nature to be, so we’re going to preserve, which only goes so far. I think you can make that argument, but I think, in many cases, it’s maybe more effective to make the argument that yes, these places are beautiful, but they’re also very necessary to our survival, they’re productive, they’re not just pretty pictures. In fact, you could argue that the reason people appreciate the beauty in nature, is just that deep level understanding that these are systems that are required for our continued well-being.


Sam: This is in the early 70s?


Robert: Yes. Early 70s, 80s, yeah, and into the present.


Sam: In the early 70s that was a very different view from the prevailing view of, I just say, conservation over here, was human development over there. The great thing of teh Brundtland report was pulling all those things together.  That came after came after your PhD, but before that, somebody was being holistic in their thinking even to get you working on it.


Robert: Sure, and I think it was Odum, and others that are thinking the same way. There were 2 Odums actually, there was Eugene and Howard Odum. Eugene was the first author of the textbook that you have, or EP Odum, and HT Odum was my advisor, they worked together on the textbook. Other systems ecologists, and systems thinkers, Jay Forrester was also one of the influences. Herman Daly was actually a colleague of mine in my first job at LSU after I graduated with a PhD, and went to Louisiana state.


Sam: You were colleagues together there, and eventually started the Society for ecological economics, and the journal ecological economics.


Robert: We were trying to build that-institutional structure for people to work in a more trans-disciplinary way on these issues.


Sam: And a minor in economics?


Robert: Yeah.


Sam: I can’t imagine the views that you would have would go down too well with the traditional … the classical economic view. Did you manage to keep it quiet in those classes?


Robert: Well, that sort of was a minor, actually I took it as a foreign language, or in lieu of a foreign language. Yeah, I think it was a difficult sell at that point, and has been an ongoing difficult sell to the economics profession. I think that it’s finally changing, I think economists are finally beginning to get into behavioural, and experimental economics, and trying to understand the way people really behave, not necessarily the way people should in theory behave.


Sam: If you could only describe yourself as one of those two things, which one would you pick?


Robert: An ecologist or an economist? Well, that’s why we came up with ecological economists to keep both, but I think I will be ecology is the broader term, because the original definition of ecology was the economics of nature. Ecology, especially systems ecology really should be about understanding that whole system. People and the rest of nature. In that sense, it’s what ecology should be all about. It’s also what economics should be all about. Economics should be about what actually contributes to human well-being, and how do we devise the most desirable ends, and how do we achieve those ends? It’s about a lot more than the market, but unfortunately the mathematical models focus on how the market works. Unfortunately that’s what a lot of mainstream economics has gotten into. I think we need to broaden both economics and ecology, and merge them together, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.


Sam: When you started talking about having a journal of ecological economics, did you get a perspective on the economics people themselves saying, “You got it wrong…“


Robert: Yeah, yeah of course.


Sam: What was your response to that?


Robert: Well, I think there were enough people that could see the value of it, that we were able to proceed, so we ignored that, and I think they ignored us as well. It’s just a fringe group. I think the journal is now one of the most successful economics journals, but also environmental journals, one of the few that crosses both of those fields, and I think it has been quite successful, at least providing a venue for people that want to do in a more transdisciplinary way. That was one of the main reasons that we had for starting the journal amount was there is no place for us to publish the things we were doing, because economics journals didn’t like it, and the ecology journals didn’t like it, it was too in the middle. We had to create a journal to publish our own things.


Sam: I’ve got two questions. What were the tenets of it, of ecological economics at the time, and how they changed over time?


Robert: I don’t think they’ve really changed-


Sam: Okay, so we can lose the 2nd question. What are the tenets of ecological economics?


Robert: I think we’ve talked about it, it’s very much of a systems approach. It’s not saying that economics is wrong, it’s not saying ecology’s wrong, it’s saying we need to understand the whole system together, not just individual pieces. That we also need to understand the system as one where the economy is embedded in society, which is embedded in the rest of nature, that these are highly interconnected systems. They’re not 2 separate systems maybe with a little bit of interaction, which I think was the traditional view, a more disciplinary view. We think of it as a transdiscipline, rather than a new discipline. Transcending disciplinary boundaries, and focusing more on how to understand the whole system, and the problems that we face. We need to bare the information, the knowledge is useful from, the existing discipline, but not thinking of your discipline as where you were born, not your total identity.


Sam: Your CV lists 20 books, 500 papers, you’ve been busy.


Robert: Yes.


Sam: What’s your favourite book?


Robert: My favourite book?


Sam: It can’t be just the last one you’ve written, just because it’s the last one.


Robert: The favourite of my books, or the favourite of-


Sam: Yeah, the favourite of yours.


Robert: Well, there is a textbook that we have called Introduction to Ecological Economics, so I think that’s one, it’s kind of a favourite because it covers a lot of this ground, but we did one recently that was a version of a report we did for the Rio +20 meeting called, Building a Sustainable and Desirable Economy-in-Society-in-Nature. A long title, but I think it gets at what we’re trying to do, and it gets at all of the different pieces.  Part of it has to do with envisioning what this system should look like. Part of economics is really about satisfying desirable ends, but we don’t spend very much time talking about, what are those desirable ends? What kind of world do we really want? That was the theme of the +20 meeting, the future we want, what does that really look like? Getting at that issue, and saying, “How do we think about, how do we talk about what that system should look like? How do we design the kind of system that we really want?” I think should be a much bigger part of the whole discussion. 
We’re actually doing a survey, we did a survey recently in Australia, we put four alternative futures out to the general public {Market Forces; Fortress World; Policy Reform; and  Great Transition}.  One was the business as usual free enterprise future, one was this more sustainable and desirable future that was more focused on community well-being, and well-being generally rather than maximizing GDP. The results are intriguing, because majority people, like 71% strongly preferred their community well-being sustainability future. If you put it in those terms, what kind of world do you want in the year 2050. A majority also thought that Australia was headed towards the …, and continues to head towards the more free enterprise future. I think that’s sort of deep in the public mind, that we are not really headed in the direction that most people want to go. How do we change that? I think we have to get that discussion higher up on the agenda, maybe your radio program can pick up on that in the future. Do people really want? Can we have that discussion very broadly? Use that as a vehicle to help us change the direction that we are headed.


Sam: What would it take to get to the physical parties anywhere to give up on growth as the primary agenda?


Robert: That’s a really intriguing question, and that’s what I think part of the reason for having this survey was to head in that direction. We have the sustainable development goals, which all the UN countries have agreed to, including New Zealand and Australia, and their 17 goals know they are much broader than just maximized GDP, even though that’s one of the subgoals. I forget which one it is, goal 8 or something that says … That it says, inclusive and sustainable growth. They couldn’t get the growth term out. There is a lot of effort to replace that with prosperity, or something that is less requiring of growth. I think there is a broad recognition these days, that GDP was never designed as a measure of societal well-being, and yet, it’s being used inappropriately as our main policy goal. If we really want a sustainable and desirable future, we’ve got to basically dethrone GDP as the primary goal.


Not that we shouldn’t keep those statistics, we should use them for what they were originally designed for, which is just how much production and consumption’s going on in society, not how well the society’s doing overall. For that we need some much better indicators. One alternative, for example, is to show you how much difference it could make, one alternative that we’ve looked at is something called the genuine progress indicator, which starts with personal consumption expenditures, a major component of GDP, so it’s the consumption part. Then it weights those by income distribution to acknowledge the distribution of wealth is an important factor, fairness and those sorts of things, to well-being.


Then it subtracts a bunch of things that shouldn’t be included as positives, like the cost of crime, the cost of pollution, the cost of climate change, etc. It turns out that in many countries the genuine progress indicator has leveled off, back in the 80s or so, even though GDP continues to climb, because the income distribution effects, the cost of environmental damage have begun to outweigh the positive influence – uneconomic growth. Not the perfect indicator for well-being, I think there’s a lot of research now on what could be better, but I think there is a broad recognition now that simply focusing on GDP growth is not the way to go. Not broad enough evidently, but getting there.


Sam: Is it possible to have GDP growth, and sustainable and desirable prosperity?


Robert: Not indefinitely. Certainly in some places for some time, and I think you could argue, looking back at the GPI GDP comparison, they were both increasing from the postwar period in the 50s, until about 1980, or sometimes later, and vary by countries. It’s certainly not impossible, but I think we should pay much more attention if we are going to have GDP growing, it should be growth in a way that’s not damaging to natural capital, that’s not damaging to social capital, that’s much better distributed on GDP growth. There are ways to improve, increase GDP that are more sustainable. On the other hand, it really should never be the goal in the first place. The first place is, the goal should be societal well-being much more broadly defined, and if that means that GDP goes up, well, fine, if it means that GDP goes down, well, so what? As long as you’re measuring the more appropriate set of indicators.


Sam: Do people understand the notion of the substitution? You talked about the highly connected…Daly‘s model strong sustainability model, the one we know  a bull’s-eye model, the economy being subset of society, and being subset of environment, and under that you can’t borrow from one capital to the other. That does go counter to what people justify. Well, yes, we’re going to chop this tree down, or this forest down, but we need to, to …


Robert: To grow the economy.


Sam: Yeah.


Robert: Yeah. That can only go on to a point. The best analogy from one distinction I think is important to keep in mind is, the distinction between growth, and development. Growth increasing the size of the magnitude of something, development is improving the quality and sometimes those go together, organisms in their early life stages are both growing and developing, but at some point growth stops, it doesn’t mean development has to stop. It’s going to be in a very different form, and so that … That’s going to mean we want sustainable development, we need to maintain our natural capital assets, as well as our social, our human, and our build capital assets. That’s going to mean population needs to level off, which it will eventually, and it means that we need to have a much more collaborative interaction with the other parts of the system.


Sam: In 2008, I was at the world education for sustainability conference in Bonn. Then after couple a days, someone from Malawi, or somewhere,  stood up and said, “This is all very Western, you’re already living in a lap of luxury, your notion of sustainability doesn’t apply to us all.” I’ve heard it expressed in other ways in terms of you can’t begrudge people wanting a fridge.
Robert: Well, I think the problem is the idea of replicating the flawed western development model, which has been very destructive of natural capital, very destructive of social capital. We need really a new development model for both the North and the South. I think that’s one of the key outcomes from the sustainable development goals process, that these are goals not just for that “developing country”, these are goals for all countries. Some of the goals have to do with reducing inequality, reducing hunger, access to water, but also protecting natural, and natural capital assets, but marine and terrestrial dealing with climate change.


These are goals that all countries have signed onto, and if we are going to do that, that means developing in a very different way. It doesn’t mean that those countries like Malawi shouldn’t improve their material well-being, but they should do it anyway that’s not so destructive, that has happened in the West, which would mean not basing it on consumption of fossil fuels that are damaging the climate, so they could move directly to a more renewable energy basis for their development, they could also improve the way those resources are distributed in the population, and build their social capital at the same time, rather than depleting it as we’ve done in the West.


Sam: Places like Cambodia that have managed to skip parts of the technology development, they’ve gone straight to mobile phones, can they do a similar thing in terms of the development pathway?


Robert: Well, that would be the way to go, yeah. Don’t go through the heavy industrialization, fossil fuel stage to go directly to something based on renewable energy, but also something that’s not using GDP as their main policy goal. GDP was developed during the depression and World War II as a way to facilitate production and consumption of very intensive material goods. It’s got a lot of problems when you start using that as a measure well-being. It’s really measuring the cost of production. Those are things that we want to minimise, not maximise. You want the benefits to be maximised, and the cost to be minimised. You want to get the efficiency of the economy in that sense, the most well-being for the minimum amount of GDP, rather than equating GDP with well-being, which is, I think, part of the problem.


Sam: You’re listed as one of the most cited authors ever. Went back and looked in my library online this morning. We talked on about the Ecological Economics that came out in 91, I have found 2 other papers n my library from 91 that I thought were interesting. One of them was called Mending the Earth. Does the Earth need mending?


Robert: I don’t remember that one. I think the Earth, more broadly conceived, if you’re thinking of the quote on quote natural part of the Earth. I think the teacher will survive whatever happens to humans.


Sam: Probably some collateral damage on the way through.


Robert: Yeah. I think what’s really needed is this recognition that we are a big part of the system, we’re in the anthropocene, as it’s been called now. Because of the magnitude of the human influence on what goes on in the planet, and because of that, we have to be much more cognizant of what we do, and how we manage that influence. If we want a sustainable and desirable future, we’ve got to take the whole system into account, and that will be the true mending I guess.


Sam: Another paper which I remember, was a paper assessing the data quality in policy relevant research, and that led me, in a roundabout way, along the path of participatory modelling. You involve people in the process, and that’s being a big part of what you’ve been doing over the whole time, is it’s not just about you as the expert doing this modelling, it’s about how to get the scientist, get the policymakers engaged the same kind of thinking.


Robert: Yeah,  I think that’s important part of the process, this idea of that research and policy need to be coproduced. Otherwise you’re not going to get very sustainable solutions, you’re going to get siloization of knowledge that we’ve had so far. We really want to get past that, think it’s how do we involve all of the stakeholders in problem-solving? There are a couple of interesting methods for doing that. One of the other papers you probably read was this one that we did in 1997 in Nature about the value of the world’s ecosystem services, which came out of a working group at NCEAS, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, and that whole process of synthesis working groups, where you structure the engagement around the problem that you’re trying to solve together.


You bring that diverse set of participants together to solve that problem, I think that’s a much more productive way to move forward, than to simply do the more detailed analysis work most scientists are funded to do. The Synthesis Center was based on the premise that we needed to actually allocate some time for scientists to get together and see what their data actually means. How do you put it together and use it to solve problems, rather than simply collecting more and more? That’s been a very effective technique, synthesis centres have produced a huge amount of very highly cited publications, and they are not based on collecting more data, there based on getting diverse groups together to say, “What does this mean? How do we use it to solve problems?” I think we need to do more of that. Building models is one way to actually do that synthesis.


Sam: That’s a very different approach to what’s been called the argument culture, the assumption that over thinks do you choose this, or do you choose the other thing? I think there is an awful lot of what my field human computer interaction has made the mistake of thinking, is, it’s just a matter of saying, “How do you choose between this? Option A or option B?” One of them clearly bad, and the other one’s clearly good, so it’s just a matter of convincing people to do option B, but I think there’s an awful lot in just how complex things are.


Robert: You may have seen the book by the title The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, you may have read that one, it’s very good, which is a social linguist who got into this idea that we tend to frame everything black and white, and in fact, it’s very counterproductive when you’re trying to solve these complex problems. What we really need is discussion, consensus building, and recognition of the complexity of the issues if we want to move forward. Yeah, and that’s what I think this synthesis process can actually help with, that are conventional argument, basically the culture mediates against.


Sam: The value of total value of services is a very big number.


Robert: Yes.


Sam: Is it so big, and that’s why people just abstracted out and said, “Well, just ignore that.” Or is it just convenient to ignore it?


Robert: I think it just hasn’t been out there on the table because we’ve been so obsessed with GDP, but it’s certainly … It’s bigger than the estimates we came up with with a capital E, we’re a couple of times bigger than GDP in terms of supporting the human well-being. It’s not infinity, but it’s also not zero, it’s somewhere in between.


Sam: There’s been several posts in the last few weeks, and I think there’s been a couple of memes about that if the world’s major industries were to probably account for externalities, all of them would go broke.


Robert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Sam: Do you buy that argument, are they right?


Robert: I think maybe not quite all of them, but I’ve been involved with this company called Trucost, which I think is where those numbers are coming from, and they are able to estimate the external environmental costs by company, and if you … There are the damages to ecosystem services if you include those damages as part of the cost, then the profits these companies are making fall to zero or even negative, many of them. As you can imagine. We have a corporate structure that’s not really producing social benefits, they are producing private benefits, but they are only sort of mislabeled benefits because there are actually costs that are imposed on others through their damages to our natural capital and our human capital. It’s more reason to begin to estimate those costs, and to bring them into the accounting system so that we can produce a real social benefit from these companies.


Sam: What would it take for those sorts of costs to actually get onto the …


Robert: Onto the agenda?


Sam: Yeah.


Robert: Well, one simple way to do it would be to tax companies for those costs, so this idea of carbon taxes is certainly one way to do that, and that could be extended more broadly. You can combine that with the other side of the coin which would be to reward companies for producing social benefits. This idea of payment for ecosystem services. You pay companies or individual landowners for the positive benefits that they are creating as well. That would help to get the accounting more appropriate.


There are some companies and institutions that are beginning to move in this direction, the National Australia Bank in Australia for example is beginning to try to get natural capital onto the books, sort of estimate the value of the natural capital from some of their clients, and reward them for managing their natural capital, or effectively in terms of their decisions about lending and interest rates. They are part of the natural capital of… which is a group of financial institutions that are all trying to do the same thing.


There are some initiatives that are like that, Trucost’s numbers and estimates by company are used in some of the rankings for companies, sustainability rankings, so that could have an impact on investors and things like that.  Ultimately I think we need to mark those prices, those costs onto the table, and get the market to tell us the truth about the real cost of things.


Sam: What do we need to be doing at school to tertiary education to be preparing workforce that are seeing things in terms of the synthesis, the being able to see the bigger pictures, the connections, and so on?


Robert: Yeah, I think that’s really important, I think part of it is to structure things more in terms of systems, and understanding systems rather than only understanding the analysis, and the details of things. I think also engaging students much more in problem-based learning. That these workshops that could be structured around solving problems engage and include students along with stakeholders and faculty.


I’ve been involved in several of these kinds of courses, and workshop courses involving students, I think it’s much more engaging for students, to be involved in something like that, but also it teaches them how to be creative how to think about solving problems rather than simply memorizing facts.


Sam: What’s the biggest learning we’ve had in the last 20 years?


Robert: Biggest learning? Society.


Sam: Well, maybe … How has ecological economics contributed over the past 20 years?


Robert: Well, I would like to say that it’s sort of lead to things like the SDG’s, the recognition that we can’t continue to be so narrowly focused on GDP as the goal. I think it’s led to recognition that we need alternative indicators: well-being, it’s led to the recognition that natural capital and ecosystem services are extremely important and need to be part of the discussion, and how we manage the system. I think it’s led to many of the things we’ve been talking about actually being on the agenda these days, even 5, 10 years ago you couldn’t imagine a discussion about the problems with GDP, or alternative goals for society. Now I think it’s out there. Not that we solved the problem, but I think we at least acknowledged these issues I think much more directly, and I think forgetting to change the goal structure which I think is the first step in really solving that problem.


Sam: What would you like to see it contribute over the next 20 years?


Robert: Well, I think if we can build this broader consensus on the kind of world that we are really after in the next 20 years I would say out to 2040, or 2050, what do we want 2050 look like? Work backwards from there. I think we can build a much broader consensus among people about what kind of world they would like to see, then you can about what the immediate next step is. Having that discussion in society, and that’s what this survey I was telling you about earlier is trying to initiate, how do we have that discussion? I think it’s really what democracy should be all about, it is a broader discussion about the kind of world we want, and then that becomes the basis for the kinds of policies that we are using to get there.


Sam: We are not going to see that when it’s the first-past-the-post battleground approach are we?


Robert: It’s going to be difficult that way, yeah, so our approach needs to change.


Sam: Do you have any favorite thinking tools that you think if only everybody would use these tools once a day? How could they go about their lives and actively change how they are doing things?


Robert: Well, the first thing that comes to mind I guess is to start thinking of the world more as a complex system, and to see your connection to other parts of the system rather than seeing yourself as an isolated entity. That’s what’s helped me I think to see things in a broader light, just to take a much broader systems view, and we certainly don’t get very much education in that respect, in the conventional education system. Bringing systems science more into play, I think it would help.


Sam: What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?


Robert: Well, I like to distinguish between sustainability and desirability. I think if we used the real definition of the word sustainability, it means something that lasts, so we certainly want a system that lasts. We don’t want it to collapse, but at the same time we don’t want a bad system that lasts, so we want a much more desirable system that is also sustainable, and I think it’s the combination of the two.  Often sustainability is used as a code word for that sort of desirable and sustainable system, but I think if we made it a little more explicit and had the discussion more explicitly about what a desirable system really would be as we’ve been talking about earlier that that would help. I think often people, when you say sustainability, they immediately think you are talking about environmental sustainability or ecological sustainability, but I think it’s much more than that. We certainly have to have a ecologically sustainable system, we have to manage the climate and the rest of our natural capital, but we also have to have one that’s desirable.


Sam: You are associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and they are famous for lots of things, one of them is that the planetary boundaries work. Also –  back to this desirable system that lasts –  the recognition that’s got to be a transformation.


Robert: Right, yeah.


Sam: How do we get people on board with that notion of change?


Robert: Well, one paper we are working on right now actually has to do with this idea of societal therapy that in fact we are in a very real sense addicted to the current system. In a way analogous to the way individual acts are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It’s got all these positive feedbacks in the short term, but in the long term it’s going to be a disaster, so what can we learn from what works at the individual level to overcome addictions to work at the societal level to overcome addictions? One thing that we know is that one of the worst things you can say to an addict, “You are doing the wrong thing, stop doing this, it’s just killing you.” That usually gets a very defensive denial kind of reaction, and yet that’s the way we’ve been framing this argument to society at a societal level about sustainability, and so it’s maybe not surprising that we get this kind of denial that we’ve been getting.


How do you overcome that? Well, one technique that seems to work at the individual level something called motivational interviewing, which is engaging the addicts but in a much more sort of non-confrontational discussion of what their goals are, whether what they are doing now really achieves their goals, and if not how could they change their behaviour to better achieve their goals. The analogy then for that at the societal level that at least one that we are working on is this idea of scenario planning, but engaging the broader society in this discussion of what kind of future they want. I think that’s the key to overcoming this addiction is to say, “What kind of world do we want? Can we describe that world? I think we can.” And we could probably build some broad consensus about that, and that’s the first step in overcoming our addiction to where we are now.


Sam: I think a key is the work that the Transition Towns are doing.  Because that demonstration of we are not trying to convince you of anything, we are just going to demonstrate a better way. We are not talking about a lesser life, we’re not talking about just taking stuff away from you. Here we are over here having a good time, and I think those sorts of things are going to be key. But that’s a hard call for businesses.


Robert:, I think that’s why we need to engage the broader public having that discussion about what it could look like. The Transition Towns are a little model, we could say, “Look, it’s not utopia, it’s not pie in the sky, it already exists.” There was a really good article in the Guardian a while back, I forget the authors name but it basically said, “Okay, here’s my vision of the future about people interacting in a community way, renewable energy and all the things we were talking about in a sustainable future.” Then he says, “Well, this is not utopia, this is already happening, it’s just happening in different places. Is not all happening in the same place, it’s not all happening at the scale that we wanted to happen.” It’s certainly not unfeasible, it’s a totally feasible future that we are talking about.


Sam: Can we do transformation at scale?


Robert: I don’t see why not, we want to. We have to build the consensus to help us get there. I think that’s part of overcoming the addiction, the reason that we don’t do it is well it’s much easier because there are all the positive feedback of just staying in the current way of doing things. There is a lot of inertia built into the system. Overcoming that inertia is going to take some positive willingness to change, and that doesn’t come overnight. It really takes this broader social discussion.


Sam: We are writing a book of these talks, we are calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes, and in that we are describing the work that people are doing, and the things which we’re calling superpowers. What would you like your sustainable superpower to be? What are you bringing to the sustainability team?


Robert: Okay, maybe the ability to show people what life would be like in a sustainable and desirable future. In a way that they can relate to. That’s been one of the most difficult parts in this process, you can describe this future, future world in a text narrative, but really I would like to be able to produce a visual reality kind of world where people could, “Here, walk into this world, here are the alternatives, which of these worlds do you really want to live in?” Let them sort of live in that world for a while. It’s maybe not predict the future, but be able to project people into alternative futures that they can actually experience, and then decide which one they like best. I think that would help to build the consensus for which road we really want to make.


Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years? I would suggest something, and that’s celebrating success, and journals like your solutions journal. It’s about celebrating the things that people are doing, and I think that’s a real success.


Robert: Yeah, I will go with that. Maybe I could use that as a way to celebrate success in journal, so we’ve been doing this now for 7 years, but the title is solutions for sustainable and desirable futures available online for free, Our rule of thumb for articles in the Journal is no more than a 3rd of the article can be about describing the problem, and two thirds has to be about describing the solutions, so it’s really a way of compiling and providing a venue for people to talk about what works. Transition Towns certainly have been one of our topic areas, we have a section called on the ground, which is really about what’s happening in different places geographically there are real solutions.


Sam: I might have stolen your success opportunity, you could talk about something else if you wanted.


Robert: No I like that one. That was good.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Robert: Not in the traditional way I guess, but I think definitely in the way of trying to get society to change and be transformed into something better, yes.


Sam: What motivates you, what gets you out of bed in the morning?


Robert: Well that’s probably it, how do we create a better world for our children and grandchildren? I think that motivates a lot of people actually, to make the world a better place.


Sam: We talked about what challenges ecological economics has over the next 20 years, let’s pull it down a little bit. What about you over the next couple of years?


Robert: Over the next couple of years? Well, I would like to dethrone GDP. I think that’s going to be a big challenge, because there’s a lot of inertia there. I think the time is right to come up with alternatives, but they’re not going to happen right now building a fairly broad consensus about what to replace GDP with, and I don’t think we can leave that void blank either, I think we need to replace it with something, some way of measuring progress toward our goal. Some have argued that well, we don’t need an aggregate indicator, we just need a dashboard. I think when you are driving your car do you do need a dashboard, yes you need to know how things are working, but you also need to know where you’re going. We need to have those goals more explicitly set, and we also need to be able to measure progress toward achieving those goals. As Yogi Bear once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going you end up somewhere else.”


Sam: You might have just answered this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway because then you get a free hit. It’s stolen from motivational interviewing. If you could have a miracle occur by tomorrow morning, what would it be?


Robert: A miracle? Well yes I think if … If we could get the world society to recognize that we are headed in the wrong direction, and that we need to change course much more dramatically, I think if we could get somebody like Bernie Sanders elected as president of the United States and some other countries, but I think these miracles are at least foreseeable these days. I mean, Bernie made a lot more progress than most people anticipated, and I think he was saying many of the same kinds of things that we’ve been talking about, and people recognize that yes, that business as usual, the traditional approaches to politics are not really appropriate anymore.


Sam: You lived in Vermont – is that way of thinking, even if it doesn’t hold not total sway, does it get more traction in places where it’s been tried?


Robert: Yeah, I think so, yeah. It’s been shown to work in the sense that people’s quality of life is improved, it’s not damaged by reducing their sort of material consumption they can be happier in different ways. Focusing more on social capital. I lived in a cohousing community in Vermont, which was very explicitly designed for people to share resources, to focus on their … Keep their relations within the community, the ecological sustainability issues, and I think the quality … We’ve actually done some research showing that the quality of life in these kind of intentional communities like transition talents, but there’s a whole range of them is in fact much higher than the quality of life and non-intentional communities. It gets back to our ability to do this, it’s totally feasible, it’s totally practical, it’s not … There are no technological constraints, it’s really overcoming this I think addiction to-


Sam: It’s becoming a marketing job for those pockets of the better life?


Robert: Exactly, yeah.


Sam: I think that’s one of the interesting questions. Things like local food markets, how do we scale that up, but also maintain the benefits of your local…


Robert: I think that’s totally possible, yeah. Just recognize that that’s in a sense a better way to handle food production, it should be as local as possible not that everything should be local. I think it is really getting the balance right.


Sam: Yeah so that was a bigger miracle, what’s the smallest thing that we could do that would make the biggest difference?


Robert: The smallest thing we can do? I guess it could be self-serving there and say, “Take a look at Solutions and try to contribute your own solutions to the ongoing discussion.” I think if we could get people thinking in that way, that there are ways to solve these problems.  These is not the sacrifice, the sacrifice is to not solve the problems. We can’t afford business as usual, I like Paul Raskin’s, phrase that business as usual is really the utopian fantasy. That’s not really possible, you have to transform the system into something more sustainable and desirable.


Sam: Lastly, you might have just answered this as well, but another free hit then, do you have any advice for our listeners?


Robert: Okay, can I just reiterate what I just said? I think that the advice would be start thinking in a more positive way about the whole system, and may be reading Solutions would be a way to sort of stimulate some of that discussion, but I think there are a lot of positive things happening around the world, but just not all happening at the same time or the same place. We can move in that direction, if we can build this broader consensus about the world that we want.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Robert: Yeah, my pleasure, thank you.




We are grateful for the support of Victoria University in making this Sustainable Lens.


ecological economics economics systems

Seeing big, connected pictures

Marjan ven den Belt



 I value my kidneys, but I have no intention of selling them. But for some reason when we look at wetlands that function as the kidneys of our ecosystem, they are for sale. There’s something wrong there.

Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt is the Director of Ecological Economics Research New Zealand at Massey University. She is an Ecological Economist.  We talk about what led her to a career in economics and how that became ecological economics and what that means.

Talking points

I was an environmental activist from an early age – it has always been a part of me, perhaps my methods have become more refined over the years.

I chose economics because I thought that understanding the world’s money systems

The human system should be within the carrying capacity of the ecological system

Ecological economics is not so much how we use the existing economic tools on environmental issues (that would be environmental economics), ecological economics aims to design and develop new types of tools

Ecological economics is not particularly impressed with GDP – Gross Domestic Product – because it measures economic activity only. It does not distinguish whether that activity is desirable or undesirable. For example if we have sickness, war, disasters, crime that’s all good for GDP. Whereas the things that we do want – healthy families, low crime, environmental volunteering – that is not counted as valid activity for GDP.

You get a distorted picture when you take GDP as a proxy for well-being or wealth.

Uneconomic growth is when we don’t count costs and benefits in decision making – such as benefits we derive from the ecosystem that are not in our decision making.

New Zealand should take a good look at whether we are experiencing uneconomic growth.

We train economists to think that if only we could include all externalities in our decision making framework – the market – then we’re all sweet. The problem is that goods and services from ecosystem services don’t behave as marketable goods.

We’ll never have all the externalities, all the science, by looking in smaller and smaller pieces, hence I’m all for transdisciplinary approaches using synthesis – put the pieces together in an elegant way.

We really need more synthesis – putting the pieces together, not just taking apart.

Trickle-down hasn’t worked,

We need to decouple economic growth – measured as development, all the things that are desirable – from material throughput.

All over the world we see GDP growing, while the Genuine Progress Indicator levels off.

Facilitating complex dialogue

Systems dynamics is not about prediction, it’s about understanding.

How do we make better decisions in a timely fashion? How do we develop the capacity to make the best possible decision in the most transparent way? How do we synthesise the information we have effectively?

Systems thinking is an uncommon common sense.

We’ve kind of forgotten the art of synthesising things back together. It’s my big quest, bringing the disciplines together.

We assume that value can only be monetary, but it’s not. We use values in many different ways – to measure things, to express to whether we care for it, ethical aspects. I would say I value my children, but they’re not for sale to the highest bidder. I value my kidneys, but I have no intention of selling them. But for some reason when we look at wetlands that function as the kidneys of our ecosystem, they are for sale. There’s something wrong there.

Sometimes putting a monetary value on something can be a good conversation starter, but it doesn’t mean we should immediately create a market for it.

Pricing is different from valuing, we need to get that lingo straight.

The fragmented approach isn’t really helping. So provide the space, put people together, connect the dots.

(Superpower) Time travel for backcasting…and the beauty is that we have these tools. We do have to crack silly measures like GDP, and intellectual property rights over ecosystems

(Success) Working with Maori – that holistic, moralistic way of looking at the world. I find that creative and giving and promotes dialogue.

(Motivation) While we have to acknowledge that the trends aren’t good – I’m not in denial about this – but I choose to wake up every morning and work towards solutions, because I enjoy that the most.

(Activist) Active. Does this make me an activist. Sometimes I do show up and bang my fists on the table, but my natural tendency is as a mediator, a facilitator – providing participatory leadership inviting people into that space.

(Challenges) Establish a synthesis centre.

(Miracle) That we really start to understand how dependent we are on ecosystems. That there is great opportunity and excitement in redesigning our human society to respect and stay within those bounds. That for me is very exciting.

(Advice) Keep at it. Find the right people, don’t be in denial. Be courageous.

business design systems

Strategic sustainable products

Sophie Hallstedt

The trick is to make a business out of being more sustainable.

Dr Sophie Hallstedt is a researcher and lecturer at in the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development at
Blekinge Institute of Technology. Her research interest is sustainable product development and the question of how a strategic sustainability perspective can be integrated and implemented into product innovation process with focus on the early phases.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.

Talking points

Strategic sustainable development means you you take a strategic approach to the success ladder.

Supporting companies to consider sustainability as part of everything they do.

If you talk to individuals in an organisation, many are concerned about the unsustainable society that we live in, and they want to contribute…but as part of a bigger organisation it’s not always so easy to do that – to put that on the agenda when there are other issues that are putting pressure on the company.

You need to have a long term perspective. If you only look at today, you might have one choice, but if you look 10-15 years ahead, what would be the best alternative if you could then choose for today. It may be best to invest in the thing that is more expensive today but will in the long term be more beneficial.

We are developing support for including the long term in decision making. This is tricky because you don’t know what is going to happen. So we use scenarios.

We have a tool for visualising scenarios.

There’s a danger of reducing to economic terms if you do it too soon. You need to keep it as transparent as possible and also have a qualitative assessment. You need a dialogue around the results. This can be supported by the visualisation of the quantitative results.

It is harder for engineers to accept qualitative results…it helps to visualise it…but the qualitative story is needed.

(Can human rights, human suffering – less tangibles – be represented in a format that makes them equivalent to the numerical values in a decision support system?) You can’t. You can’t put a figure on some sustainability aspects.

But if you are going to support product developers, to support them in their decisions, their designs, then it may be important to help them go from the larger picture to something they can translate and compare.

To make a more sustainable product it is important to collaborate with your partners in its value chain.

Can a product be sustainable?) It depends on how you manage it for the whole lifecycle. It is very difficult to say something is sustainable. You might be able to say more, or less sustainable.

What is strategic sustainable development? What is a sustainable society?

(Role of ecology in engineering degree?) I would think it very useful, to see how everything is connected.

Everything is connected. Even a small change can have catastrophic consequences.

(Consumers). A big impact is to use with care so it lasts longer.

(Decision to buy, are we getting better at supporting through product design the decision not to buy) You have to take responsibility as a consumer, but yes, you will see more of that.

(Is there a sweetspot as a consumer?) A mix. There is a need for companies to make products that enable consumers to choose between alternatives.

To some extent we (as consumers) need to trust the producers that they have taken their responsibility seriously to make their product more sustainable, or as sustainable as it can be at the moment and have a road map.

(but we have to wade through a swamp of greenwash). yes, as consumer, your responsibility is to be aware of that. It’s quite hard, that’s why we have labeling schemes. These aren’t perfect, but they are better than nothing.

You should be aware of the labelling schemes, but you still have to take your own responsibility when you chose your product.

Issues such as ecological issues, production issues and so on are harder for the consumer to see, so these values have to be in the company – what is good for society is also good for us.

(On planned obsolescence) I hope and think there is another way to do products design, so they have a value for lasting a long time, maybe a modular system where you replace parts of the system.

3D printing may cause a new sustainability problem itself if overused.

(Activist?) I wouldn’t call myself an activist – I’m trying to inspire. I want to try to inspire and grow and have a seed to take a direct responsibility to continue to work.

(Challenges) Having companies taking a more active role in bringing in a sustainability perspective in business strategies. I working on describing more good examples so they can see it does have a value.

(Motivation) Trying to contribute, To inspire other people to work with it.

(Miracle) My wishlist would be to have more resources in companies to prioritise this area.

(Advice) Everyone can contribute in their field to a more sustainable society and you should do that – both as a person and in your profession


economics engineering systems

Strategic sustainable transport

Henrik Ny

If you come back a year later and they’ve got recycling in the office rather than looking at the main process, that’s a sign that they are not really buying it.

Dr Henrik Ny is a researcher and Sessional Instructor at Blekinge Institute of Technology. His research interests include ecological economics and sustainable product development. He has worked to integrate lifecycle assessment into the environmental management system and the waste treatment and recycling efforts of major industrial companies. Henrik’s current role is to run large research projects together with industry and public institutions. The largest so far is a regional electric vehicle project called Greencharge.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.

Talking points

I studied engineering as a route to sustainability.

If you did it from scratch it would be much easier…but it rarely happens that you get to do something from scratch.

My PhD was a toolbox for companies to practically integrate strategic sustainability into their products and systems.

Rather than just looking at the systems as they are, we started looking at applying the principles for sustainability.

Substances from the earth’s crust should not be allowed to increase in the system – because then we will have problems now or in the future. So this makes the process of increasing concentrations a problem – before you know what consequences they give.

Chemicals – combinations of emissions from the earth’s crust – these should also not increase.

The third is about other ways to break down natural systems.

The fourth is about social sustainability, because even if we address the ecological issues without the social people will not deal with this in a good way. We need to be happy at the same time.

We have focussed on the process conditions – the increasing concentrations, we’re working with others (Rockstrom) who have set up the boundary conditions for how far those processes can go.

Companies are beginning to understand that so long as they are acting in an unsustainable way, they are taking a risk. It sometimes takes while for them to understand that.

If you are working with someone who is trying to improve, it is sometimes counter productive to be too dogmatic. I never tone done the science or the consequences of something, but I am trying not to tell them how they should run their business.

If you come back a year later and they’ve got recycling in the office rather than looking at the main process, that’s a sign that they are not really buying it.

The nature of something that is so big – holistic – is that sometimes it is so big and blurry that you don’t know where to focus…that’s the value of the framework.

We have added a scoping phase to Life Cycle Assessment where you use the principles of sustainability, so that you can see, just by knowing that you’re looking for substances from the earths crust what you’ve up against… the idea is that you can keep track and not get lost into the detail.

If you want (your analysis) to become dynamic, then you use scenarios and tweak it, system dynamics from a strategic perspective.

The challenge is to do something complex enough to address reality, but not so complex that you don’t understand what is going on.

Putting social systems into that makes it more complex.

(Green Charge) The technology we need is more or less here – so it is more of a social- economic problem: how can you mobilise the necessary actors to act in a coordinated way to make this possible and affordable.

We could say this is how you should be sustainable, but if everyone is bankrupt before they get there then little is won. So we try divide in two steps. First a wish list of the things we want to do. Then we prioritise based on short-term economics.

So we try to find things that will give you money now, and prepare for coming steps.

(are we close to the tipping point for sustainable transport?) Not yet, but within five years.

The status quo is a big barrier.

As long as there are a few good examples of success, we will move forward quite quickly.

Those who don’t move will lose in the transition.

The strategic framework raises a few principles as a common guide for any actor. It is built at such a level that anyone acting in society could, for example identify according to principle one, how they contribute to increasing concentration of substances from the earth’s crust. That can lead to common goals, with different types of actors working together.

The strategic sustainability framework provides a common language so that people from different positions can work together.

When you put a price on externalities and internalise them into the economy, then you are making the economy better. But even with this environmental economics, we might consume them (the environment) anyway but at a higher cost. Ecological Economics attempts to limit this with quota and so on.

We need to think about growth in more nuanced way. Many times growth today is just expanding a wasteful business model where you waste a lot of resources, then you expand that and waste a even more resources. If you transition to a business model where you waste less resources, then you can have economic growth while not wasting as much. It is difficult to achieve this in practice – to have both growth without systematically eroding the environment.

There are different ways to fulfill needs that wouldn’t show up in our current economic systems.

Just enough is not enough. Restorative sustainability…systems that start to improve themselves again. I think this is necessary, because we have destroyed a lot of things.

(Motivation) Realisations when I was very young – looking a car exhausts and asking where they go. The realisation that this is not going to work. Then being able to be part of the solution and just looking at the problem. And I’m quite curious and I like solving problems, simplifying, explaining…and here is the biggest, most interesting problem we have.

(How many people do we need?) Amoeba theory…

(Activist?) Depends on what you mean by activist. I don’t generally go around telling people what they should do. And I’m not fundamentalist in that I do everything right always myself. I try to make the big things right and recognise that sometimes you need to make compromises.

(Challenges?) Run Green Charge to fruition. Develop the road map, develop a big systems model to look for transition points.

(Miracle?) We have the technology…so one, a sudden global awareness that we need to change to become sustainable, and two, this is how we should do it.

(Advice?) Don’t despair. Most of us are aware that there is something wrong with the world today, but most of us are also quite frustrated that we don’t know what to do to fix it. But there are many things you can do, use the internet, find things to do, trying to reduce your own energy bill for example will start helping the world.

design sociology systems

Socially strategic sustainable

Merlina Missimer

Merlina Missimer is a researcher in the department of Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. She is exploring the social side of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.

Talking points

What does the world need from us to make sustainability happen?

We need to find a way out, and depression is not the most helpful thing we can teach

Rather than convincing people of what’s right, we create positive examples of what’s possible in a sustainable world.

Considering sustainability with a systems lens to make sure we don’t address one thing but create negative consequences somewhere else…this has been clearly done on an ecological basis, but for social we had gone straight to the individual…what would it look like if we took a systems perspective to the social side?

People are not subject to systematic barrier to integrity (physical wellness), influence (the individual is able to influence the system), competence (ability to learn), impartiality (being treated equally), meaning (clear purpose).

Systematic barriers are ingrained in how we designed the system

Sustainability principles create a space for people to meet their needs

Asking bigger and better questions. Does this product even exist in a sustainable society? Those are the kinds of questions we need people to ask.

We don’t necessarily have to have the answers, but the more people we have to ask questions in that way, the better we will be going in the direction of a sustainable society. If we don’t ask those questions, we’ll never get there.

It’s the giant systems that we currently have for production that are really hard to change

Aha moment…there’s a framework, an intellectual structure around of these things that are interrelated. Without that structure we’d be going crazy because there’s just too many things to think about.

(Activist?) I don’t consider myself any of the labels. I’m actively working. Would I choose academia if I thought it was imperative to take a neutral stance? No.

(Miracle?) People woken to face the fact that we have somehow managed to build systems that are not only inherently unsustainable, but don’t actually achieve what we want to achieve – and equipped with a desire to do something about it.

(Advice?) If you haven’t started asking yourself what we’re doing, then start asking.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.

business design engineering systems

Strategic sustainable development

Goran Broman

You would be very unlikely to win a game of chess without knowing the principled definition of checkmate. Reaching a sustainable society without any idea of the principles that define that situation would also be very unlikely.

Prof Göran Broman heads the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.

Talking points

Developing tools to support strategic sustainable thinking

It is important that we develop tools with the community, the type of people who will be using them or they will be useless.

How organisations can support the whole of society towards sustainability, and how can they do that in a way that strengthens their own organisation – that is the being strategic.

If an organisation does something for sustainability of society, that is good, but if the company goes bankrupt doing that then it’s not that good because they can’t continue to contribute, and they become a bad example…then other companies will be hesitant to work proactively with sustainability and that will slow down the progress of society towards sustainability.

It is really important that organisations that work towards sustainability are successful in the short term, because that will help the transition.

Strategic sustainability is about developing methodologies to help organisations bring together those seemingly hard to match aspects – the short term with the long term, the small scale perspective with the big perspective, the self interest profitability with ethics, and so on.

A framework for strategic sustainability, tools supporting the whole of society in a way that strengthens your own organisation.

Having a long term perspective, a vision of where you want to far into the future when the whole of society is sustainable, how is your organisation supporting that, fulfilling the needs or the wants of the customers within the frame of a sustainable society in the future. From that, look back to today’s situation, how does that differ? What are you doing today that contributes to unsustainability?

Once the companies have created that vision, we put that vision inside the frame of the definition of sustainability – because is is really stupid to have a vision that cannot exist in the future.

In what way is the company today contributing to sustainability and unsustainability.

It is possible to avoid the apparent contribution of short term profitability and long term societal sustainability.

It is difficult to describe a product, a person, a company today is sustainable since the whole of society is unsustainable, or on an unsustainable track, whatever you do contributes to that unsustainability. But you can say that a product can be designed, or a company can be run in a way that contributes to sustainability – contributes to the transition from today’s unsustainable situation to the sustainable situation, that you can say.

Only when we have reached the situation when the whole of society is sustainable, and everything within it…then you can say a company or product is sustainable, but today you can not. We are unfortunately very far from that situation.

It’s impossible, or at least very hard, and not very wise, to define in detail what a sustainable society should look like. We won’t get everyone to agree on detail…another reason is that so many things will change during the transition that we cannot predict… So we have been trying to find a principled definition of sustainability.

The principled definition of strategic sustainability can be described using a chess metaphor. In chess you also have a principled definition of the goal, how do you define success – you put your opponent in checkmate. Checkmate is not defined in a detailed way…it is a principled definition – it says that the king must be threatened, the king must not be able to move away from the threat, you should not be able to put a piece in front of the king to protect him and you should not be able to strike out the threat. If those principles are fulfilled then it’s checkmate. It can look in an almost infinite number of ways…when you start to play a game of chess you don’t know exactly how it will end. That definition is used all the time by the chess player…first you learn the basic rules and how to play the game (the A step)…then he or she assesses the current situation, where are my pieces, my opponents pieces and so on (the B step), then work up a number of ways you can move ahead (the C step) and there are huge amount of possibilities, and the (D step) what smart early moves should I start with? And you assess those moves through the lens of the definition of checkmate because that’s what you want to reach. Once you’ve made a couple of moves you reassess the situation, because the opponent has moved his or her pieces in a way you could not predict in detail. You move and reassess. All the time the player has the definition of checkmate.

You would be very unlikely to win a game of chess without knowing the principled definition of checkmate. Reaching a sustainable society without any idea of the principles that define that situation would also be very unlikely.

We are defining and continually refining strategic sustainability principles that correspond to checkmate.

Our principles are based on defining an ecological and socially sustainable society…people ask why not economics? …but that is not included in the goal, because economics is not the goal – it is means for reaching the goal.

We have a systematic increase of fossil carbon, captured in carbon dioxide, that is increasing. That cannot continue, we cannot have higher and higher concentrations all the time, because eventually we will reach a tipping point, or critical limit where the system will collapse. We don’t know exactly where that limit is, but we don’t need to know exactly.

If we run the society the way that we will have as an unavoidable outcome a systematic increase of substances, then it is unsustainable. We don’t have to know exactly when it collapses, but it will, and the design as such is unsustainable.

Of course it is of value to try to find out the critical limits of substances, but it is also hard, so we should not put all of our efforts in society, in research to find where exactly where those critical limits are, it’s hard and we’ll never succeed…when we know that if society is designed in such a way that will result in us approaching those limits, it’s unsustainable.

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to increases in systematic degradation by physical means – mismanagement of land, capacity of ecosystem….

We are currently working on elaborating the social dimension.

(chess metaphor, not overlord) importance of self benefit of companies…society is on a non-sustainable route…it is becoming more and more difficult for companies to do things that continue to contribute to unsustainability.

We need to change the system we have from within, we have no other option. People that have realised where we need to be on a principled level need to strike that balance, by moving ahead as fast as fast as possible, not faster or slower. This being strategic and is not easy. It’s not easy to play chess just because you know the definition of checkmate.

(But do we know the know the rules of sustainability?) We know some rules, we know the scientific laws for example, they apply regardless of politics. Then there are rules that might change – politically decided laws and regulations might change during the process. So we have a mix of rules.

(can we see the whole board? some things are unseeable, there are things we don’t understand and won’t understand) We can see the whole board depending on resolution, in a very concrete term the first astronauts saw the earth from outside. Then at a more refined level of resolution, a single organisation might not see it everyday, but they can relate to that full picture.

All the things I have done in sustainability come from childhood. When I was kid, my parents were engaged in sustainability. Especially my father, he was chairman of a local environmental association.

I chose…engineering so I could design a problem out of a system.

We see sustainability as a design problem. Society is designed in a way that is not sustainable, and operated on a basic level that is not sustainable.

I decided to go for engineering as my formal education…I thought it would be easier to change the system if I had that credibility.

(Activist?) Yes. I act to create change.

(Challenges) Huge challenge in academia of compartmentalisation. People doing research and people doing academic education are divided into disciplines – which is not bad in itself and we need more and more detailed knowledge in specific fields – but not if we do that instead, or only. If we don’t have some people doing a structured overview. How can you bring together all that wonderful knowledge?

How can you combine all that knowledge in the best way relation to the sustainability challenge that we have? That is, by nature, interdisciplinary academic research. That is problematic, because when academic groups are evaluated, they are evaluated from the disciplinary point of view. It is hard for interdisciplinary groups to get fair evaluations.

(Miracle) One of the first things would be to have every person in the world be knowledgeable about how to reach strategic sustainability.

We have the physical resources, we have energy coming from the sun that would be sufficient to keep all of humanity in very good living standards, if we do it in the right way we have enough food, and so on…so it’s about managing this in a sustainable way, and that takes knowledge and competence.

(Advice) Try learn about those things and try to do what you can. Many people think “this is so daunting, so huge, so what I do as a little person is meaningless if I do something the system is so big and unsustainable it will collapse anyhow” but it’s not, try to do what you can. If every person does what he or she can, then we are a good part of the way.

Don’t be scared off, do what you can do. If every person does what he or she can do, then we will move our position forward, and then it will be apparent to those people that we can change things.

education systems

Transforming education

Stephen Sterling

Professor Stephen Sterling is of Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the University of Plymouth. His argument that education needs to both transform and be transformative has transformed Education for Sustainability, both in the UK and internationally.

Talking points

I was an environmentalist before the term was coined

I read a book Teaching for Survival, about the time of the first big environmental conference in Sweden… and I thought, I’m going to get into environmental education, because that’s what’s going to make the difference.

(When did it become sustainability as we know now?) There was sent discussion pre-1987 but the Brundtland report was the turning point…the debate shifted up a gear and sustainable development became part of the currency.

1992 was a key point with the two streams really coming together

(Masters programme developed by WWF) Originally called Masters in Environmental and Development Education, it brought together the two streams, later it changed its name to Education for Sustainability.

“What’s your definition of sustainability?” is not a sound bite kind of a question. I tend to get round it by saying it’s the sorts of approaches (to education and learning) that we need if we are to assure the future economically, socially, and environmentally.

I see sustainability as a set of system conditions…conditions that for all intents and purposes can last forever, whatever system you are talking about. Sustainable Development is a pathway towards those conditions, but it’s a dynamic state.

I remember Crispin Tickell…talking about those three dimensions…not just in terms of having the three dimensions – because people think if you’ve got the three that’s it – but in terms of “seeing them in terms of each other”.

I make the distinction between the weak and strong sustainability diagrams. I go for the strong sustainability diagram – a systems diagram with concentric circles – economy being a subset of society, society being a subset of environment. The Venn diagram is good as a teaching tool – asking what is right and wrong with it? – but in terms of representing reality we have to go with a strong systems diagram.

Recently I’ve been working on, if you’ve got the philosophical ideas, how do they apply in a practical setting. The application of the ideas and their implications…is a challenge…how to reorient (higher education) towards sustainability.

I think one of the key problems with our western psyche is a reductionist mindset

People think that’s something that geographers and scientist should do, but we put it into yet another box

Sustainability is not the key issue…the problem is unsustainability

The key issue is why is a lot of what we do unsustainable?

What informs worldviews and mindsets…what does the required change in mindset mean, and what is the role of education in getting us there?

Education itself is not necessarily a solution unless we look at the assumptions and paradigms that influence educational policy and practice.

How can we rethink educational paradigms, policy and practice so that it is more amenable…the challenge of unsustainability and the opportunities of sustainability?

We need transformation in learner and process

We need learning processes that go deeper than content…engagement of deeper parts of our beings…requirements for teaching contexts

Getting people to think about deeper questions, their own assumptions and social assumptions…that’s where reflexivity comes in, and you can’t achieve a level of reflexivity with learners unless you have teaching and learning situations that stimulate that kind of reflection.

Always it’s a matter of bringing in sideways views and surprises in teaching methodology. For people to think “oh, ok, well..” and starting thinking and questioning and making enquiries that they wouldn’t otherwise not have made.

A lot of it is focussing on issues that are not amenable to standard solutions, maybe present ethical dilemmas and so on. That demands a deeper level of reflection than simple factual stuff.

Different disciplines will have different content bases, but sustainability demands a deeper response, making connections which otherwise wouldn’t be made.

I’ve made a career of trying to encourage teachers and learners to think in more holistic ways.

(How much do you need to front-load with gloom?) Not an easy question to answer – differences of opinion. Reality or disempower? Tendency…is to front-load too much around big issues and trends.

I think we need a degree of realism…there’s enough research reports to refer to…but balance that content around all the considerable initiatives, positive, driving forward that sustainability is inspiring.

Relational thinking.

Adjectival education…all about trying to improve relationships with something – relationality. ‘Education for change’ movements are all about trying to change relationships for the better.

Gregory Bateson in 1972 said we are governed by epistemologies we know to be wrong – objectivism, materialism, reductionism, dualism and so on. These ideas are part of the western intellectual legacy. These ideas cut us off from each other and from the environment. What we need to do is what Peter Reason calls an extended epistemology: embracing the other. Our relationship with others, our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with animals, our relationship with future generations. That idea of relationality is key to sustainability. A lack of relationship – a lack of identification, a lack of empathy – at it’s heart underpins unsustainbility, because we’re left with individualism.

We live in a systematic world

Everything is highly interconnected, and that’s been exacerbated by the technological revolution and globalisation, we need modes of thinking that are adequate to that highly interconnected world. If we think in a reductionist and individualist way, also an aggressive and competitive way, that’s going to cause more harm than good.

We need to think in a way that we are more aware of systemic consequences because they happen anyway

We need to use everything we’ve got at our disposal, some people are dismissive of social marketing “that’s not proper education”, but we need to use everything we have, time is short, if you can give people financial incentives to ‘do the right thing’ then that’s a start, and they might go beyond that to ask why they are encouraged to do that.

There’s no single answer to any of this.

All the issues tend to be related, we can’t just tick off climate change and say ‘well that’s done’, it has huge links with other issues, that was pointed out by Club of Rome, 40 years ago. We need to see issues together. That aside, the issue that worries me that doesn’t get much attention which I think is addressing biodiversity.

People tend to think biodiversity is ‘just a few plants and animals, very nice but we can afford to lose a few’, but that’s the web of life that supports everything else.

Quite apart from the arguments for the intrinsic value of nature – they have a right to exist in their own right – that’s whole idea of ecosystems services. The functions the ecosphere performs are vital, if that breaks down you can forget economic growth.

Clearly putting everything in terms of what nature does for us is important, but it shouldn’t be the only reason we’re looking after nature – intrinsic values not instrumental values

The Future Fit thinking framework is a practical guide

Focus on problem solving worries me

We live in a culture…coming out of our scientific legacy…we tend to think if we can define a problem then there must be a solution.

Clearly a lot of problems are amenable to simple problem solving…but not all problems are, and sadly a lot of sustainability problems are not of that character – they are complex, wicked problems that are not amenable to simple problem solving.

Learners need to be given a range of problems, from simple problems right through to complex issues – and get them to think how they should be approached differently, and that gives them an intellectual toolkit – to recognise that there’s no single category called problems, and that there’s a whole spectrum of different problems of different nature that require different approaches

Wicked problems can be approached…we can take actions which have beneficial systemic consequences. But if you take ill-considered unwise actions you start having a number of negative consequences that you didn’t foresee.

Critical thinking, but then what? What is your response to that? If you manage to raise someone’s critical awareness about an issue, but then don’t offer them a way of taking that inquiry forward, allowing them any form of engagement – that’s a bit of a half step – leaving the inquiry half way through

(Motivation) From when I was a kid, I’ve felt part of the whole, I’ve been outward looking, been aware of others – nature, animals, people, people and my place in relation to them – I’ve always felt that way and wanting to make a change for better

(Activist?) In a kind of way, yes, but not in the way that term often implies. I can look back over the last 30 years and know that I’ve enabled quite a lot of change to happen. To that extent yes, but I’m not out on the streets with barricades.

(Challenges) I find myself in a fortunate and privileged position, I want to use it wisely and well because it’s a responsibility.

I don’t write a lot of academic journal papers because I don’t think they make much difference, I’m in this game to change thinking and action.

(Miracle) What’s been frustrating has been a lack of real understanding by government and senior civil servants…if governments really understood the depths of challenges we’re facing nationally and globally over the next 20-30 years, maybe they would be more supportive the changes in education that I’ve been advocating

The reason governments don’t respond is for one of two reasons, one is that they don’t understand it, the other is that they do understand it. Because if they do understand, it means a radical shift in policy…and they’re not necessarily up for that.

(What could we do to simplify sustainability narrative?) An extremely good question, we’re stuck in a semantic problem, for some people we need to get away from the sustainability narrative itself and put it in terms people can come to terms with on their own terms.

Systems thinking is a way of getting people to recognise the dynamic nature of things, and their place in it, and the importance of taking note of consequences.

(Advice) Get informed, and get involved. There’s so much people can do at any level. At lot of it is possibly difficult but it is in many ways exciting.

Note: this interview was recorded in the week of the Scottish Independence referendum in early September 2014.

climate change systems

Carbon footprint of everything

Mike Berners-Lee

We’re spending a lot of time chasing the wrong things. We’re pursuing things that don’t make us happy, and don’t make us healthy, and do trash the planet.

Mike Berners-Lee of Small World Consulting is an expert in greenhouse gas footprinting and organisation development. He is the author of How Bad Are Bananas?:The carbon footprint of everything, and with Duncan Clark is co-author of The Burning Question.

Talking points

Trying to give us an instinct of where the climate change impacts are in everything.

None of us are born with that instinct, this sense of the climate change impacts…this invisible gas carbon dioxide and all the other greenhouse gases, and the emissions take place, not in front of our eyes where we can see, but the emissions take place down long distance supply chains that most of the time most of us haven’t got a clue about.

I ended up doing a physics degree…but it bored me rigid, I couldn’t really give a monkeys whether the Higgs boson exists, but I’m much more interested in questions about how we live and how to better peoples’ lives and how we build a global society.

I got a job as an outward bound instructor, and that was all about people and how they live together and how we make the most of our lives – how we think about about how we want to spend our time.

I saw that by and large, environmental consultants didn’t have the ability to bring about change…they could comment, but they didn’t seem able to make the business world or the political world do what the evidence was suggesting would be a good idea.

With climate change increasingly clear as a big deal, I thought perhaps I’d better have a go at seeing what I could do, so I formed an environmental consultancy focussed on climate change.

There’s a breakdown…there hasn’t been enough understanding of all the different perspectives that need taking into account if you’re trying to create change.

If you look at the world getting on top of sustainability issues you need much more systemic thinking – who are all the stakeholders in the world? And what really are their world views, and what can they and can’t they respond to in order to create a realistic model for change.

Small World – it is an increasingly small world. Everything that Small World does is in response to the fact that it’s an increasingly small world in relation to the power of our species.

If you look at the way that we traditionally operate as a species, we can understand the impacts that occur in front of our eyes – we’re quite good at living in small communities, no one in this room is likely to hit anyone in the next few minutes, we’d all be shocked by that because we would have seen it and understand it, but we’d be much more likely to do something that has a much more indirect and diffuse negative impact – we’re much more likely to do something that triggers a carbon footprint, which causes a diffuse negative impact on seven billion people spread over the next decades.

We’ll probably never understand what we need to become much better at tuning into that kind of abstract impact.

You can get bogged down in defining sustainability. I think we can all agree that it is about living well in a way that enables others to live well now and in the future.

Over-consumption is a part of the problem. The reason we’re doing it is we think it will enable us to live well, but it doesn’t enable us to live well.

We’re spending a lot of time chasing the wrong things. We’re pursuing things that don’t make us happy, and don’t make us healthy, and do trash the planet.

Lots of us are working harder than we need to, buying things not because of their intrinsic enjoyment but because we’re subconsciously hoping they’ll give us some sort of surrogate measure of our human worth – and of course that’s completely spurious.

It’s deeply embedded and I’m not going to pretend I’m free from this either…we’re all susceptible, we all get trapped into cultural influences.

I thought I’d outsource the number crunching and I’d do organisational change, but I couldn’t find anyone doing a practical but robust job of supplying good enough management information about the real full carbon impacts of everything we do.

You can do a process based supply chain analysis: map out all the stages back to theoretical limits, but this hugely underestimates the impacts. There are infinite pathways of infinitely long supply chains – even if you do the major ones and cover all suppliers suppliers suppliers you have billions of pathways and might only have half the impact.

In some industries there is a massive underestimation…telecoms 80% underestimated, construction something like 50%

Input/output analysis…maps out the economy by industries and attributes emissions to industries then maps out the flows between industries in economic terms…the result is capable of tracking supply chains, with some major assumptions, but it doesn’t systematically underestimate.

The best route to a credible answer is a combination of methods.

The IT industry…data centres are about half a percent of the global emissions and rising fast, a pretty big deal if you think that paper has only ever been about 1%

So is digital a route to saving carbon? If we stored the same amount of information as we once stored in filing cabinets, then it would be, be the reality is that because it is millions of times more efficient, we stored millions of millions of times more information – and not only that, we’ve still got the filing cabinets as well.

This is a classic example of a really important effect – the efficiency improvements that we assume are going to bring about less drain on resources and less environmental burden, end up increasing environmental impact. Counter intuitive, but critical for us to get our heads around.

If you track greenhouse gas emissions from 1850 you get a mathematically exponential 1.8% increase per year…some tiny variation, but exponential growth, resilient, impervious to change – short term dents around wars and so on, but the curve bounces back.

What’s going on? Surely we should be seeing some dent on the curve. Efficiency gains by default don’t bring about a reduction in total burden.

This astonishingly simple reality has passed by policy makers and politicians the world over. That’s why we wrote the Burning Question.

This astonishingly simple, uncontestable science which was so so important you couldn’t hope to get on top of climate change without integrating it properly and hard into the psyche and thinking of anyone making decisions under this agenda.

If climate change was just a bit of science and politics and technology then we would have sorted it out by now. Our species is good at solving this kind of problem, but climate change isn’t one of those problems.

Climate change is the most fascinating, as well as most pressing puzzle humans have ever had to deal with. In addition to the science and politics and technology, it involves psychology, sociology, culture…probably inescapably about art as well.

How do human beings function as a seven billion unit on a small planet?

It doesn’t work to try and solve the problem in silos.

You would think the bulletproof scientific case would translate in a problem we were taking seriously

We’re good at facing up to some pressing problems, if I were to punch you on the nose everyone in this room would wake up to a problem and we’d all start dealing with it. But climate change is abstract. It’s about an invisible gas. There’s a whole lot of difficult science you need to get on top of in order to understand what is going on, there’s uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, it’s a problem about the future (increasingly about now, but primarily about the future), so we have to start tuning into what’s going to be happening in 40 years time, thinking about our kids in ways that we’re not used to – so far into the future. Somehow we have to tune into people on the other side of the world who won’t ever know that you or I exist in person, and we’re never going to meet, we’re never going to know them, and we’re going to have to start caring about them in the same way that we care about our own families and our own street.

All of those elements have completely caught us off balance. Our normal ways – of doing science, communicating science, and doing politics and economics – has be proven unfit for purpose: shown to be lacking in helping us get on top of the climate change problem.

There’s a disconnect between science and politics

How we dealt with ozone was encouraging in that it showed we can respond internationally. But dealing with the ozone problem didn’t need a fundamental reworking of so much of our economic fabric.

A carbon constrained world is an enormous opportunity to huge chunks of the business world – any industry in the business of providing efficient utility should be seeing carbon constraint as a massive opportunity.

One of the great questions is to what extent is the current economic model broken and unfit for purpose? Most people jerk to one end of the spectrum. At one end – “the way we do economics has to be taken as a given , and you can’t change that, we have to have economic growth in the way that we’ve always understood it”. And at the other end there are people who think that “all of that has been the root of all evil anyway, and we need to get away from it and climate change just gives us one more reason why we should”. This needs to be a much more balanced discussion.

This is clear. Although we’ve never managed to achieve economic growth without increasing our environmental burden in the past, it is unproven that we couldn’t do that.

We have absolutely got to have a global cap on carbon coming out of the ground.

Science tells us we need to cap the total amount of carbon ever coming out of the ground, and we’re not far from that – it could be a couple of decades on our current trajectory. Because of lags and that exponential curve…if we go past two degrees and stay on trajectory, we’ll very rapidly go past 2,3,4,5,6…

We absolutely, urgently need a cap on the carbon that ever comes out of the ground.

We can burn something like half the proven reserves, if you look at the the total amount in the ground, we can only ever burn a minuscule proportion of it.

There’s no chance that fuel scarcity will get us out of this – there’s just too much of it. As a species we’re going to to have to commit to leaving it in the ground.

If you are a fuel company and your business strategy is to sell fossil fuel, then your position is similar to being a tobacco company – trying to get people to smoke as many cigarettes as possible and your only route is to try to dodge the legislation, delay the legislation, pull the wool over as many peoples’ eyes for as long as you can – that’s the kind of business you’re going to have to be.

If you are in the business of providing utility for households, for example, so that people can be warm and comfortable – that’s a different proposition. That allows you to move away from fossil fuels, it allows you to encourage people to be efficient in households, it allows you to invest hard in other energy sources, and it gives you a pathway (at least in theory, there’s detail to work through), to be a thriving business contributing to a sustainable world.

A global carbon constraint would change the value of all kinds of product and services.

If you were in the business of enabling people to have more utility through less use of resources, then you would be a pig in shit. And that case is just starting to be grasped by large organisations.

The psychology of human denial is quite fascinating…difficult news, dealing with grief…the same applies to climate change…the difficulty is the are so many new ways in which we can put off the bad news.

If your loved one dies, there’s a hard reality, your brain can’t wriggle out of it. Climate change isn’t like that, there’s a lot more wriggle room – it’s abstract, it’s going to be going on for a few years, it doesn’t start next Tuesday,…and there’s lobby funding to create a whole storyline to help persuade you that you can put this off for another day.

Even if you accept the facts, you’ve still got a whole bag of excuses why there’s nothing htat you can can do – it’s not my problem, it’s somebody else’s, it’s really down to the politicians, businesses, consumers or maybe it’s down to people in other countries…everybody’s got a reason why it’s not them that has to be them that has to do anything about it.

We’ve got layers and layers of defenses between the evidence and the hard reality that all of us have an important and urgent role in confronting the issue right now and we can all do something about it.

The business opportunity shouldn’t be the root reason why businesses should change what they do. We should be clear and unembarrassed about this – the reason why we as people, individuals, businesses, and as countries should respond to climate change and sustainability is because it is the right thing to do. Fullstop. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about that.

Whether or not it is the most profitable thing to do, we should do it because it is the right thing, because we care about our kids, and they’ll look us in the eye and ask what we did about it.

People will look back and think “what were they thinking?” and they’ll have every right to.

They’ll look back and say “what were you doing?”.

They’ll wonder how we got swept along, they’ll wonder at our inaction and they’ll be disappointed by it, and we won’t like that feeling.

We won’t like this question “when you saw climate change fully in the face, what did you do about it? Did you really just carry on? Because you couldn’t think of anything to do or weren’t you brave enough because everyone around you was just carrying on? Were you really that weak?” I think we would all be embarrassed to think of ourselves like that.

(Activist?) I roll my sleeves up in some ways. I try to target my efforts, I could always do more.

You have to find a way of responding properly to this agenda in a way that also that works personally, and that is difficult. The person that works out the answer to this will be so infectious that our species will get it.

Young people are getting it, they’re on the case.

(Motivations) Anyone who pauses to think about it wants to be constructive in their life.

I tend to see the bigger picture better than I see little details. Once you see the bigger picture, it’s pretty hard to ignore sustainability as a big deal.

(Challenges) The Burning Question remains, if you have a clear understanding of uncontestable important realities (that we need to urgently cap fuel coming out of the ground, efficiency on it’s own won’t help us, and renewables on their own won’t help), then the biggest crunch is the gap between the evidence base and the action.

It’s all too easy to collude in just being part of the problem, doing things that look like they’re great but if you look at what is their contribution to creating the conditions, we find it doesn’t really make a perceptible contribution.

What can any of us do to be meaningfully part of creating the conditions under which the world leaves its fuel in the ground?

All the little things add up if they create meaningful cultural change.

It is possible to get quite bogged down and depressed about the state we’re in, the scale of change we need and that we need it pretty fast. I could also get quite optimistic, because the way that things can change is by systemic tipping point.

The conditions will suddenly become more right. A blend of politics, culture, science and technology…all the pieces of the pie will come together in one go and we’ll realise that we don’t have to be trapped in this exponential trajectory – we can do something different.

Those conditions will have come about by all sorts of small things that look as though they’re nothing, beating heads against the wall, all looking as if pinpoints in this economic global dynamic, that’s taking us down the long road, but they’ll all add up together, and suddenly it’ll feel like things are beginning to move a little bit.

Unfortunately we can’t really set goals on getting to tipping points, spurious really, it’s too complex, and we don’t know what we don’t know, but we are gathering momentum

(Miracle) That we create conditions for world leaders to go to the Paris 2015 climate summit knowing that their careers depended on getting progress that is commensurate with the scientific evidence.

(Advice) Think out of the box. Think really differently about how you live, what makes you happy. Go back to first principles and think about it. Break out of and challenge all the constraints about how we have to do life.

We can have tonnes more fun that we’re currently having, by being more sustainable.

This is not a doom and gloom agenda, sustainability is a let’s have a party agenda.

climate change computing systems

Understanding systems

Steve Easterbrook

The 95% certainty is itself problematic, because it is a very high level summary of lots of different details…if you pick the science apart there are some areas where we are much more certain than that, and there are other areas where there is a lot uncertainty…the basics of how the greenhouse effect works and then what happens if you add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – that’s not 95% certain, that’s 100% certain. It’s a stable piece of science that’s been around more than 100 years.

Dr Steve Easterbrook studies contributions of computing and software to the challenge of dealing with climate change at the University of Toronto. His focus is on climate informatics, in particular, how climate scientists develop computational models to improve their understanding of earth systems and climate change.

Talking points:

Large complex pieces of software that have been built over many many years by large teams of people.

Each climate model is something like a million lines of code, that has taken 10-20 years to build…and there are around 25 models being built around the world…and they take different approaches. Each is building coupled systems, they sometimes swap parts.

Contributing to the models is a long slow peer-reviewed process.

What surprised me the most, I thought the models are for predicting the future – that’s what we see in the media, we see these projections of climate change over the coming century…I thought these people were essentially futurologists, how is this going to play out in the medium and long term…but it turns out they build the models to do experiments…comparing how well the model performs with observational data of recent past or even the distant past.

How they do experiments, they might have an area in the model that they know is weak, that it doesn’t match the observational data very they’ll set this up as a formal experiment, they’ll create a hypothesis that says “here’s a way of improving the model by changing the way it simulates a particular part of the process”…so the hypothesis is that changing model the will improve how it simulates a particular part of the climate….my favourite example is getting the Indian Monsoons right…they run these as experiments with the existing model as the control, then go through a peer review to get the change included in the model…so on a day to day basis, almost everything they do is set up as an experiment.

With a faster machine they increase the resolution, each simulation takes two weeks.

Simulating typical weather, not what it going to do on any given day

For some scientists the broader politicisation is very frustrating, they want to keep their heads down…they’re not trained to communicate their work to wider audiences.
The other reaction is people that want to get out and give their side of the story because they feel the media does a very poor job at representing the science and what the scientists do.

The science is unbelievably complicated.

There’s an asymmetry, saying “it’s all bunkum” or more subtly “we’re not sure enough, there’s too many uncertainties, we shouldn’t take action yet”…that’s a very easy message to say, especially when faced with a complex science, especially when the public hears “this is a complex science, how can the scientists be that sure?”.

The 95% certainty is itself problematic, because it is a very high level summary of lots of different details…if you pick the science apart there are some areas where we are much more certain than that, and there are other areas where there is a lot uncertainty…the basics of how the greenhouse effect works and then what happens if you add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – that’s not 95% certain, that’s 100% certain. It’s a stable piece of science that’s been around more than 100 years.

Scientists like to become famous by overturning existing bodies of knowledge, and when a piece of science endures for 100 years or more, we’re not 95% sure, this is uncontentious science in anyway whatsoever.

The broad story that if we keep on adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere the planet will keep on warming, there’s no doubt in the scientific community about that, the uncertainty is around exactly how much warming and exactly when will it occur.

The big picture there is no doubt about, the uncertainty is about the details.

The email leak has brought many of the climate scientists to the realisation that they have to do a better job of the communication, they can’t leave it to others to do because there aren’t any others..there aren’t other communities that understand the science enough to explain it.

I’d like to see more telling the story of what what scientists do on a day-to-day basis in terms that other people can understand.

The more you change the climate, the less you can be sure that the models are capturing it correctly.

Tipping points are really hard to predict, we can see that they might be there, but making predictions about exactly when they would occur is really hard.

It might be counter-productive…to put a date on climate change such as a 5 window to take action…because as the end of that window approaches you undermine your entire message, because people take from that “5 years and then disaster occurs, we’ve got to 5 years and where’s the disaster?”…the right message is climate change is already with us, and it’s causing all sorts of chaos around the world, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Specific windows are a bad idea…specific goals as well, 2 degrees of warming, we’re approaching that now, or at least we’re approaching the point where we are locked into two degrees of warming…as we get closer and closer to the point of no return, what’s the message about that? well we were wrong about 2 degrees, maybe we can go to 2 and a half, maybe 3…and you are completely undermining the message about consequences when you set these thresholds -it’s an incremental change, it will occur and it is occurring at different rates and different severities around the world.

Climate change is an incremental problem with a huge degree of inertia, we have to act now to affect what the world is going to be like in fifty years time, that’s really hard for people to comprehend, on the other hand, if we talk to people about making our cities cleaner, making the air cleaner, that’s a very easy message and where there are immediate impacts, so one of the things we can do around climate change is work on solutions that have those immediate benefits, but that also contribute towards the longer term problem.

Climate change is the elephant in the room, no matter what we achieve in terms of sustainability, if we don’t tackle climate change then it’s going to be serious, it’s going to undermine our other efforts, but on the other hand you could turn that around, and say why don’t we build a network of sustainability initiatives that together add up to more than the sum of the parts, that add up to a solution to climate change, even though if you pick them apart and attempt to measure them…they don’t appear to add up. And that’s important because we can’t get them to add up…if you look at what the IPCC says we need to stay below 2 degrees of warming, it looks like it’s impossible. Because if you don’t start somewhere and if you don’t start building efforts that get people engaged then you won’t achieve anything so it becomes self defeating.

The more I’ve worked with climate change and thinking about solutions, the more I’m tending to thinking about sustainability in it’s broader sense as opposed to direct action on climate change.

Even if people don’t really understand (the science) then give them things they can do as individuals and communities

Get people thinking about change first, and doing things that are new, getting used to the idea that change is necessary.

A farmers market gets people talking… in terms of carbon accounting it might look like nothing, but in terms of getting people changing what they do and thinking about what other changes are needed, I think it’s massive.

Climate Science Rapid Response Team

Joel Pett’s “What if it’s all a hoax and we create a better world for nothing” cartoon.

More SustainableLens on the work of climatologists and climate models: Naomi Oreskes, Andrew Tait.

innovation systems

Complex systems

Henk Roodt

Rocket science is simple compared to the complex systems that involve modelling people and the environment.

Dr Henk Roodt knows about the development of technology. And about making that real. A Scientist/Engineer with 25+ years experience in high technology environments, he is currently Research Programmes Manager at Waikato Institute of Technology. We asked Henk to talk about his background (it’s rocket science), whether 3D printing will really change the world, and innovation processes as applied to Green-Tech. Henk is associated with Audacious – Dunedin’s student business incubator, where he is Entrepreneur in Residence.

Talking points:

It’s only when it is really big, and audacious that you go for it. Big things in the history of science were driven by real world problems.

Need to model the environment and the people at the same time. Not the physical model then slap in the people as an add-on. Start with people, the complexity of the people and their culture.

So how do you pitch the right level of modelling? (for complex problems such as hunger in Africa)…one of the things I’ve discovered is that doing mathematical models at that level is stupid. non-quantitative models, morphologies that show how things fit together, that opens up the discussion rather than bringing it into a fixed framework. A model like that gives you an instant picture at a moment in time. This sets the scene for the next level, and the next, the whole model is a work in progress.

Modelling systems is not like modelling airflow over the wing of an aircraft – sure that’s super-mathematics…but to model complex systems and people you often only need a piece of paper and a computer to help you look at all the options.

You have to make certain choices, and that comes down to ‘what are those guiding principles you have in your life that you are willing to live by?’. You have to set those up in your mind and listen carefully to that voice.

Opening up a social good category in Audacious meant they could put their emotions and their hearts into their businesses. They are mixing the social responsibility and the business – this is the edge that will deliver the social good.

I ask myself: can I change things by applying my skills?

Shane’s number of the week: 2.07&#176C is how much hotter the >Australian Spring was above average, producing the warmest spring on record.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: Sam is working up a survey into the values and educational expectations of incoming IT students.

Henk described Ken Erwin’s book Communicating the New.

education systems

Systematic activist educator

Liam Phelan

Connections between education, social justice and sustainability are of key interest for me. This is why I teach.

Dr Liam Phelan‘s biographical note at the University of Newcastle starts with “My primary research interest is sustainability and how to achieve it”. We talk about that.

Liam works at the nexus of climate change, finance, human rights and ecological sustainability. His recent research interests have focussed on governance of the Earth system as a complex adaptive system comprising human-social and ecological elements, and its key characteristics, including thresholds, non-linear change, and capacity for surprise. We talk about education, perverse resilience and much more.

We face a sustainability paradox: maintaining the desirable familiar stability of the Earth System requires a radical change in the human-social systems nested within it.

We have a pressing ecological need for radical social change to ensure the ongoing viability of human society’s ecological foundations

How many concerned citizens does it take to change a light bulb? Probably just one. But the magic really comes from a community approach.

Transformation is essential.

When did we last have an argument about gravity?

Think about how you want your world to be, and make it so.

From a systems perspective, the idea that something on planet earth is not part of planet earth is plainly nonsense.

Some realism is important, but we also need the idealism so we know where we are going.

(Am I an activist?). Yes. Absolutely. I feel that university is a place you can do activism. You could also work at Greeenpeace, go to parliament, wherever you like. There are real places you can do activism. Activism is an activity, it is an active approach. (That doesn’t conflict with the objective, critical thinking role of the academic?) Activism requires critical thinking – that’s how I came to be teaching at the university. The privilege of being required to do critical thinking in the cause of activism…with civil society organisations…exposed all the time to cutting edge thinking, but sometimes without the time to spend thinking more deeply – theorising – these things are possible in academia. (You’re OK with wearing your heart on your sleeve?). Yeah, (Stanley Fish, critical thinking and nothing else). That worked for a while, but those days are past. The idea that scientific research, critical thinking can exist without some explicit normative basis is silly.

Trainspotting: Liam references Rebecca Solnit’s work but the title eludes him. Here are two of the likely suspects: Hope in the dark (2004) and Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007).

economics systems

Ending extraction economics

Nicole Foss

There’s not going to be any economic growth – live with it

Describing herself as both a systems analyst and an investigative journalist, Nicole Foss is co-editor of The Automatic Earth. Nicole describes our financial predicament, vulnerabilities, and the end of economic growth. Our expansionary system is at – or beyond – the point of collapse. We explore how our wealth extraction from the over-leveraged economy and environment cannot last. This system has reached out spatially to extract wealth, and now that is gone, we’re borrowing from the future by raising debt to bring forward demand. Growth she likens to the logic of the cancer cell and any politician who promises it is either deluded or lying.

For the future, she says “there’s not going to be any economic growth – live with it”. Amid increasing volatility the general trend will be down. Defeatist we ask? Realist she says.

Talking points:

(Am I an activist?). I’m an information processor. So, I bring information to people, I like to inform decision makers. I like to give people the information and the tools to make decisions that matter. So I’m not sure that I would necessarily say activist, but I suppose I am, in a way. But it’s just about trying to process the information and bring to people in a form that they can use it to hopefully achieve a better future than they would otherwise have had. So I couldn’t sleep at night if I couldn’t do this – if I didn’t think it was possible to achieve anything I would have just stayed back on my farm, and not bothered to do anything, not bothered to reach out to people at all. But because I think there is a great deal to be gained from building community and doing things fundamentally differently if we do it in advance, then even if the odds of success are not always particularly high, depending on where in the world you are, I still think it’s absolutely worth the effort and worth the attempt because we know from the lessons of history that if we fail we’ve in for a bleak period that won’t be very much fun for quite a long time.

Having humans live within their limits is a good thing. The particular human beings probably aren’t going to like it very much because in the meantime they’ve gotten used to an extraordinary lifestyle.

Trainspotting: You can hear Sam’s pencil scrawling rapidly in recognition as Nicole tells how she was told to focus, “focus is not the point”, she says “the point is breadth”.

The Sustainable Lens conversation with transdisciplinary scientist Dr Sylvia Nagl would be a good companion to this talk.

India science systems

systems across scales

Sylvia Nagl

Dr Sylvia Nagl is a transdisciplinary scientist specialising in systems thinking. Her research focuses on complexity of the human body and its interrelations with natural and built environments across multiple scales. We talk about the basis of systems thinking as it is applied to scales ranging from the cellular to the landscape and community and even global in climate change models. Prompted by questions of the relationship between the computer model and the real world, Sylvia is working in India with the Daughters of Yamuna where she hopes to mainstream womens’ knowledge through the creation of new knowledge economies.

In this wide ranging interview we talk about; the relationship between art and science; the coherence of community; democratic knowledge ecologies; resilience and culture; computational thinking and slime moulds.