education geography urban

Technology as a tempting narrative

Josefin Wangel

There’s a strong technical solution bias – ICT is the new technical fix that will allow us to not change our lifestyles in order to achieve sustainability – and of course that’s hard to say no to, it’s very tempting to believe in such a narrative.

Dr Josefin Wangel is Associate Professor in sustainable urban development at the Division of Environmental Strategies Research at KTH in Sweden. Her focus is on how sustainability is understood and put to practice in urban planning and policy making. She uses futures studies (mainly backcasting and design fictions), systems analysis (including target formulation and sustainability assessments), stakeholder analysis and discourse analysis.

Talking points

I knew wanted to try to save the world through environmental engagement of some sort.

I studied sciences because I thought that if I knew the sciences then people would listen to me – today I can see that that was a naïve understanding of the workings of society.

As an 18 year old, my understanding of a lack sustainability was that it was a lack of knowledge that makes society unsustainable.

I quickly realised that people knew, that it was bad for the environment to drive a car, for example, but still they drove a car -and that is when I realised that my natural science based education wasn’t really apt for answering the questions that I had.

Today if I had to choose, I would place myself more in the social sciences than the natural sciences.

Why aren’t we behaving in the way we should be behaving in order to save the planet?

The discrepancy between our stated intention and what we actually do can be found at all layers of society from the individual, through the community to the planners and politicians. I think this is where we can find leverage points to actually start doing sustainability.

Environmental effects are disconnected in time and space. If I eat chocolate I know the effects on me, but if I drive the car everyday then the effects are somewhere else, ten years from now – these effects are harder to grasp.

Sustainability issues are the result of collective action, or collective inaction. I don’t gain weight when my partner eats chocolate.

Sustainability is more than the functioning of ecosystems, the other dimension is social issues. However, I don’t think sustainability is the right word for social issues, it should be social justice or social desirabilities – for me sustainability – the ability to sustain is very much connected to the ecosystems.

Three step model: Brundtland…pillars interact. Then de-construct…a discursive perspective, talking of multiple sustainabilities, that our understanding of the world is always socially constructed…then students have to make up their own construction…that links to their own discipline.

It is important to dare to be very serious about the threats implied by surpassing the planetary boundaries.

The trick is to get them to realise at the bottom of their hearts what sustainability is about, and how deeply unsustainable and unfair the world is today. And then provide them with the tools for doing something about that.

If want sustainability to last…then people have to care at a personal level,

“Sustainable” urban development areas in Stockholm…show window for Swedish sustainability and ecotechnologies…however none of these areas are actually sustainable if by sustainable you have an understanding of absolute levels of pressure that the ecosystem – if you look at resource use, these areas aren’t sustainable, and if you look at resource use in terms of the global population it becomes obvious these areas aren’t socially just either.

This does come very close to greenwash.

There’s a strong technical solution bias – ICT is the new technical fix that will allow us to not change our lifestyles in order to achieve sustainability – and of course that’s hard to say no to, it’s very tempting to believe in such a narrative.

We in Sweden have wonderful life, but that is only possible because people in other parts of the world have lousy working conditions and suffer environmental degradation that the production of consumption good sold in Sweden results in.

For us, the status quo looks like the best option, but at the global scale, and taking social justice into consideration, then it isn’t sustainable.

As an individual it is hard, sometimes impossible, to see the consequences of collective actions and take responsibility for it.

(is sustainability a luxury?) You choose what to invest funds in, you can choose to invest in highways, or you can choose to invest in railways.

Do it yourself urbanism: people having opportunity to influence built environments themselves.

(Success) Interview in a big daily newspaper, I was able to start a national discussion about alternative discourses of sustainability.

(Activist) I used to be.

(Your teaching and research is normative) if you have a title with the word sustainability in it, then you are, at least if you are doing what your title says you are.

(Motivatation) I really love my work. I get to work on something I find super interesting and important.

(Challenges) Getting married. I was just appointed of director of collaboration and impact.

(Miracle) That everyone would realise the two dimensions ecological sustainability and social justice – and that economy is just a part of the social. The wedding cake, but with only two layers.

botany ecology

Ecology: Connected science

Kath Dickinson

The essence of ecology is that it is all around us.

Prof Kath Dickinson is a plant ecologist at the University of Otago. She has broad interests particularly in plant-animal interactions. We talk with her about the science of ecology, and the role of people in ecological systems.

Talking points

It’s always a good idea to be very grounded in getting your feet wet.

I’m very glad I started with geography – the breadth can lead you in multiple directions.

Ecology is the study of interactions.

Ecology is a complex science, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to understand it. For me, ecology is inclusive of people.

It is easy to think in the linear way, but complexity means thinking in a non-linear.

We can think of a community as a spider web, hugely complex and very strong in some directions, but easily disrupted in others – by fast and slow disruptions.

If we look at ecosystems, there aren’t boundaries, but considering scale helps, we can say whether we are talking at scale of tree, or forest, or country level, or ocean level.

Ecologists as a field tends to attract people who are attracted to complex thinking, who are able to multitask – thinking about things across scales and in a non-linear fashion.

The term ecology is being taken widely…as a sense of understanding interactions, with respect to can we discern some patterns, some sense out of it. And if we can’t…what is the role of chaos?

That in New Zealand and Australia people are considered separate to the system, even in Australasian ecological science, probably represents the colonisation history…despite the integrated worldview of the indigenous peoples. But now we are increasing working with a message of integration – from mountains to the sea.

Social ecology is a recognition of the role of people in the system.

I talk with students about a play on words: a part from the system – two words – and apart from the system, one word. The writings stemming from the colonial, Christian ethic uses one word: apart from the system. The writings of sustainability, resilience, adaption, the ecosystem services approach all show a move to a part of the system.

(Can we describe the essence of a functioning ecosystem in terms that can be reduced to money?) In some situations, its a tightrope we walk, what economic value does one put on beauty? what economic value does one put on spiritual enrichment? what economic value does one put on a Cromwell chafer beetle?

We are starting to recognise the value of ecosystems…wetlands for example.

(But does this reinforce idea that nature is there for us to exploit?) If we look at the whole planet as a system, Gaia and the moon landings…ecologists might want to talk about integrating ecology with economics

Scale…whether timescale or spatial scale, getting understanding…means understanding scale. Be very aware of what question I’m asking, match the question to the scale. Not one scale fits every problem?

(Does ecology have an inherent ethics?) As a science yes. But it doesn’t necessarily require a care ethic.

Ecology is a continuum to sustainability. A broad philosophical debate.

As humanity becomes increasingly urbanised, the connection to nature becomes more distant. So we need an appreciation of natural history, a positive relationship with nature, rather than a fear or a distance.

Climate change is the biggy, but there are very rapid changes in land cover and oceans.

The rapidity of change is of immediate concern, this is not to dismiss the important and complexity of climate change, but the very rapid phase shift with systems around the world, much like the spider’s web analogy – it easy to destroy a spiders web, but try building it back up again – it takes time, even if it is possible.

There are several elephants in the room: history (decades, centuries, evolutionary) and often we don’t know that, what we see is what we can measure – usually 20 years if we are lucky…the other elephants: market forces; how particular decisions are affected by literal downstream effects – we need integrated land policy.

(Activist?) Out there waving a board saying no to nuclear power? No, but there people who are proactive in the sense of caring about whether it is a hydroelectric dam, or dirty rivers, or the quality of our soils. But as a scientist its a tightrope over maintaining credibility as a scientist and being out there wanting to make a difference. So endeavoring to make a difference.

(Motivation?) Endeavouring to make a difference. If you gather a group of people together to solve a complex problem, and you want to make a difference, it’s not the collective IQ you have in the room, it is the diversity that you have in the room. So there’s a motivation in listening to different perspectives, and valuing perspectives, which isn’t to walk away from fact that decisions can be difficult to make, and not everybody might agree, but the chances are that the diversity will lead to a more robust outcome.

(Challenges?) New courses starting. Interesting challenges of funding.

(Advice?) As individuals we can pull together to make a difference.