rethinking impact

Lucy Pei is a PhD student at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at University of California Irvine. Lucy was volunteering at a literacy centre for resettled refugees and could see problems with the things she and others were doing – even though they we doing it properly. This led to her paper We Did It Right, But It Was Still Wrong: Toward Assets-Based Design.  We discuss how interventions often fall short of delivering lasting impact in resource-constrained contexts,and the need for different ways of thinking about impacts, and different time scales.

Wholly different ways of doing science interventions

We need a willingness to try, but carefully.


Computing at the heart of culture change

Barath Raghavan in his rooftop garden at ICSI Berkeley

For better or for worse, technology is seen as the future; computing can shift culture in ways that are aligned with sustainability.

Dr Barath Raghavan is a researcher with the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California. We discuss how he brings together his research in networking and passion for sustainability – particularly gardening.

Talking points

I struggle that computing as a field is about virtual worlds…creating everything in an abstract space, computer programs have no physical boundaries – at least this is how computer scientists like to think of it. Yet at the same time…I’ve had concerns about energy and environmental issues. Those were always two distinct interests – I have my computing interests and I had my environmental interests, and they never crossed.

A formative experience at elementary school was an Earth Day…50 simple things kids can do to save the earth…awareness things.

(Little things like recycling) It’s the easiest thing, it’s immediately apparent, and you think you’ve done something…the danger is if that’s all you do.

Small things awareness building

(4 environmentalisms) if it’s all light green we’re not going to make any progress.

Computer networks enable long range communication in a way that was never possible before…

Networks in a broader sense – understanding how things interlock in systems. That connects to ecology in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.

Donella Meadows’ leverage points – how to effectively change large scale systems – she was a systems ecologist, but her principles apply equally well to how would we change the internet.

Thinking about one system helps you think about others. My hope is that I can bring more computing systems thinking people into the fold of thinking about ecological problems.

Modularity based on abstraction is the way that things are done…(Liskov)…we have computer systems built on a scale that would have been unfathomable only a couple of decades ago – the internet may be the single biggest system humans have ever built – and this system wouldn’t work with modularity, the ability to divide up the problem, and abstract it to simplify the way two different systems plug into each other…but now computing is so embedded in society it is important that we understand not only the upsides of modularity and abstraction, but also the downsides. What happens when you get too much complexity in a system?

(Are our systems too fragile?) Optimist: the reason the internet is so stable is that there are enough feedback loops, people who’s job it is to fix it. Pessimist: there are too many weak points, in interests of efficiency, we’ve engineered out all of the redundancy. We’ve seen examples of both of these perspectives being right.

Razor-thin margins require resources to run just-in-time. Will we be able to maintain that as we become more resource constrained?

The energy footprint of the internet…I got a question from someone…is it better for me to travel or use a Skype video conference?… The conclusion I came to was that if you have to travel more than 10-15 miles by car, then video conference is a lighter energy footprint. An hour video conference is about the same as driving 10 miles – that’s a bigger footprint than people imagine. The material footprint is considerably more than people think – all the devices had to be manufactured, have a fixed lifespan, depend on the power-grid…

With embodied energy and electricity consumption, the internet accounts for something like 2% of global energy consumption.

The easiest thing we could do is keep devices longer, next we should really use computing to help save energy in other aspects of society.

The fundamental issue is that the economic system is structured for obsolescence and growth – so if people were to keep devices for as long as possible, it would have ripple effects throughout the entire economic system.

Effective environmental thinking requires a restructuring of societal priorities.

(Tomlinson) Sustainability is a cultural issue, not a technological issue. So computing can only really help solve problems we as society decide are important enough to solve.

If we decide as a society that sustainability isn’t really important, then we can throw all the computing we want at it, it won’t make a difference

(so are we wasting our time?) It is natural for computing to want to be involve. Shower timers, reminders to recycle aren’t going to make a difference, but……effect of drought reminders in California….small shifts in thinking will eventually add up, and this is where social change comes from.

So there is some small value in doing the small things, the problem is when we only do the small things.

We need to go beyond the small concrete goal to broader systemic change.

For better or for worse, technology is seen as the future; computing can shift culture in ways that are aligned with sustainability.

Computing in the the Long Emergency…there are ecological limits that we’re facing, they’re likely to take a number of different forms rather than a single event, and they won’t happen all at once, they’ll play out of the course of a century…we’re seeing that right now…so how does computing have to contribute? how are we going to be affected?

Computing research is driven on the promise of more, the promise of progress, new prosperity through new invention. This long emergency future might make it impossible to have that better tomorrow future – it might be making do with less…At best the science and technology research will help us more gracefully go downhill, rather than falling off a cliff.

(How might computing learn from the positive demonstration of a better life, seen in the Transition Town movement?) The ability to communicate with people all over the world…we don’t know what we’re doing, its a giant planetary experiment, the best we can do is share what seems to be working…communication technology is pretty important for that.

The structure of the computing industry, like any industry, is about making profits, and that is not aligned well with the sorts of responses and solutions that sustainability minded people have identified.

Solving the sustainability of computing itself is a very small piece of the puzzle, it’s about using computing to make society more sustainable.

(Technology utopia or slow/fast decline?) I still think that a gradual decline is on the cards. I don’t believe that we can wriggle out of what ecology tells us – that we’re in overshoot, humans are exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet, so something is going to have to come down: our resource consumption, our industrial base, probably many things will come down…but I don’t think that many of the things we take for granted as part of everyday life are necessary for happiness. This is what the Transition Town movement identifies – you can still have a rich life, a happy life, without a materially wealthy life. The difficulty I have, is that so far I haven’t seen evidence from a broader society that we collectively make good political decisions, the rules that we apply to ourselves, we haven’t figured out that we have to make decisions that have short term painful consequences for long term benefits. We have to slow down the rate of resource consumption now so that we can have reduced climate change in the future. That’s where my worry lies – I think we will still have a slow decline, but the nature of that slow decline..will it be a harsh slow decline or will we come up with an alternative system that mitigate that decline?

I believe in community oriented responses.

In 50 years in the future, will we still have resources to run the internet? I’ve thought about this quite a bit, we wrote a paper Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: An Internet Quine (a Quine is a program that can reproduce itself)…do we have the knowledge, resources and machinery to rebuild the internet using local resources? Or do we really need the global industrial system to keep the internet going. A simple answer is that we have enough waste – chips sitting in landfill – to keep the internet going for a very long time. A more complex answer is that a lower bandwidth internet is certainly easy to do. The other question is will it be useful for society that people will care?

(Concerns about food production leads to local resilience activities such as farmers markets, community gardens and guerilla gardening…is guerilla networking possible or desirable?) Yes, I’m involved in several such projects.

(Success?): Tree planting. Working with a lot of businesses to plant fruit trees.

(Activist?): I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it. It would be fair to say that I am, but I do keep my activism separate from my research – that’s the traditional way, although these days I feel I am allowing the two to converge.

(Motivation?): Growing things. Looking for opportunities to plant something almost every day.

(Challenges?): Figuring out how what I think is worthwhile is Research, with a capital R. What is defined as research…a professor here likes to quote “researchers get paid to be clever, not to be right”, I’d like to be a little bit clever and a little bit right. I’d like us to do work that is important, but also come up with new ideas that are useful to society.

Thinking about how to convince a research community that is designed around novelty, rather than societal impact – that’s a challenge.

(Miracle?): I would implement some version of Herman Daly’s steady state economy.

(Advice?): Read something that if far afield from your field, something from some other discipline.

Although recorded in Barath’s rooftop garden in Berkeley, this Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

ecology education restoration ecology

Planting plants, growing understanding, nurturing passion.

Peter Bowler

Most of these students have never been to a wetland, never been to a’s exciting to awaken these feelings.

Dr Peter Bowler is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University Calfornia Irvine. His is Director of the UCI Arboretum and Herbarium, is Faculty Manager of the Natural Reserve System’s San Joaquin Marsh and Burns Pinyon Ridge Reserves, and Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability.

Extra: Field-trip to the San Joaquin Marsh.

Talking points

I grew up by in Idaho by the Snake River, and I worshipped nature, botany, I loved freshwater biology, It stimulated me. I became very interested in snails.

I managed to get four snail species listed as endangered, I was involved in a lot of dam controversies, even described a new new genus and species in one of them.

When I was a child, it was so remote, my parents were educated luminary people in the area, so every geologist and palaeontologist passing through would stay at our house.

My role has been primarily teaching, I ran an environmental education programme here at UCI

I teach a lot, a lot more than I’m required to teach, but I enjoy teaching.

(Developed a sustainability minor in 1994 only a couple of years after Rio) Before that I was involved in global peace and conflict studies – they’re very similar. One of the things I really about both programmes is the interdisciplinarity that is emphasised – the fact that cooperation, complementarity and hearing what other people have to say…learning about other fields is very important.

One of the most exciting things is the establishment of a formal initiative in sustainability.

Ecological restoration…a massive expansion locally…I was involved in a lot of controversy.

America was a leader in environmental ethics – we need to return to that.

The original idea was conquering the west, trying to be master of nature, fighting nature, trying to control it, bringing it into utilitarian causes. And then there came a time when the American consciousness changed, people thought maybe we’ve gone too far, we need to start setting land aside, we need to start going the other way – preserving things. Modern attitudes about desert are very different from what they used to be – it used to be they were viewed as wastelands, today people treasure them.

There’s a need for cities not to be ecological deserts.

People are realising that deserts have an intrinsic value unrelated to people, and that’s a very different kind of epiphany.

Most of these students have never been to a wetland, never been to a’s exciting to awaken these feelings.

You want to teach the intrinsic value of these sites – my this an area that has 273 bird species, I never knew that. Here is an area of 55 hectares of wetland that Dr Bowler and his colleagues got funding for, designed and constructed – for us and for wildlife..and if he can make a difference, I can too.

Ethical structures…land ethic.

Understanding expressions of culture has adopted. Compare the intrinsic values expressed in the Wildlife Act to a time of shooting buffalo from the train.

One of the wonderful things about sustainability at this point in time is that we can look back – we never should have built all those dams…

Sustainability: we share the planet with other organisms, and as the human population expands, and so do its needs and requirements, we have to do that in a way that does not further degrade – to the extent possible – the natural environment in which we live.

We are cohabiters with nature and life.

In my classes…(even the theory ones)…students go and plant plants.

Our urban landscapes are not restoration sites, but they can play a large role, particularly in softening the impact along the urban/wildland interface… and in providing corridors.

Restoration can’t be pure restoration everywhere, most places have been so severely damaged that you’ll never get the full complement of species, and the true goal of restoration is to do that – to bring back all of the biodiversity that existed at site using a natural model. Then ameliorating the impact of humans along the line. Expanding and connecting natural areas.

There are efforts to scale things up. While I was talking before about pure restoration maybe not being possible, it’s all worth trying. It may not be like it was when native Americans were here, but it can definitely be wild.

To me, to really be meaningful we should focus on expanding our natural areas and connect them…then native plants in urban areas to connect

It’s just about planting plants, it takes landscapes too. Today we’re going back…putting bends in the river…developing ways to hold water on the site rather than getting rid of it.

(Are roof gardens, community gardens, small scale restorations worth the effort?) Absolutely. Placement is important, but they are extremely valuable in educating students, they’re integral in having places for both resident and migratory wildlife, critical for linking habitats.

(Success) Area has had a history of grazing…the cattle had really bashed it…working with agencies I was able to get 12.5 acres preserved. We transplanted…native species…to remove non-natives, replace it with native known genetic stock, now besides the California gnatcatcher which is abundant there, there is the California coastal cactus wren which is almost extinct – and we have several pairs nesting in the cacti we have moved.

(Activist) Yes. I certainly have been in the past. Not so much marching and carrying billboards, as trying to provide sound scientific comment on management approaches, publishing, training. I consider teaching activism. Training students to be able to understand and think critically on their own.

(Motivation) I have a ridiculous number of everything to do. 748 students this past quarter. Every day I go to the marsh, and all the coyotes – we all know each other, they see me coming, we sort of salute each other, I howl at them a little bit – for me personally this has been beautifully fulfilling in my lifetime. I can show you picture of areas that had not a plant on them, and now is healthy coastal sage scrub with gnatcatchers living underneath it – I can’t tell you how rewarding that is.

(Challenges) Follow-up restoration…we have just completed removing 3,100 lineal feet of road,…my ultimate plan is to make the lower part of the marsh an area that salt marsh can migrate into, before flood control channelisation in 1968 you could row from Newport Back Bay and all the way up into the marsh…so I would to open it, so when sea level rises and we lose that 900 acres of salt marsh, we’ll be able to at least have 50, maybe 100 acres for the salt marsh for the highly endangered Ridgway’s rail. Its a salt marsh obligate, unless we do this it will go extinct. It’s very important, I’m going to get that done.

(Miracle) In the marsh it would definitely be developing the whole lower marsh as a salt marsh. I’d like to do a study of the succession that will occur as the relationship shifts between the landscape and the Pacific Ocean. In education it would lower class sizes, more interactive hands-on learning approaches will be more meaningful.

(Advice) We need to be more cautious and think really about our personal…karmas…behaviours. When I came to California in the 1970s there was so much smog, your couldn’t even see across the campus. And thanks to catalytic converters and other improvements, that’s gone. We can be little catalytic converters as well. We can make huge contributions as an individual among a larger group. I think that’s something people forget – they think “gosh, it’s too much, there’s no impact I can have”, but you can have. And it’s not just an impact for the environment, or society, it’s an impact for you. You can be personally empowered. You can be fulfilled. You can have huge reward as you work with others, share with your family – this is probably the most meaningful thing of all – is your own inner light.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

psychology sociology

Interdisciplinary approaches to complex societal and global problems


The value of interdisciplinarity is that most of the complex societal and global problems that we are facing can not be resolved or even ameliorated from a single vantage point.

Professor Dan Stokols is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus in University of California Irvine’s School of Social Ecology. We talk about the transdisciplinary, multi-level, and empathic nature of Social Ecology.

Talking points

Expose students to many vantage points, and teach them how to connect those different analytic perspectives

Three legged stool we were founding our programme on, first the ecological paradigm with all its conceptual and methodological implications – that is you look at problems from a very broad contextual perspective at different levels of analysis from gnomic to societal or global; the second leg is interdisciplinarity, we were committed to training students in an explicitly interdisciplinary way – so that when they framed problems they would not embrace the orthodoxy of one particular field or one level of analysis, but they would be flexible and able to move across different levels and be receptive to different disciplinary points of view; and the third leg of the school was application to policy and community intervention – what today is called translation to practice, translating scientific knowledge into practical strategies to improve the world.

The value of interdisciplinarity is that most of the complex societal and global problems that we are facing can not be resolved or even ameliorated from a single vantage point. They are complex, they have multiple origins or causes, they manifest at different levels, from individual organisational levels to community and societal levels. So to tackle those kinds of problems, it is important for students, researchers, practitioners to bring a broad multi-level, cross-disciplinary perspective where they’re able to span and integrate a lot of different fields. Now, there are some problems in science and society that can be solved quite nicely by disciplinary specialisation…for example vaccine development…but the social ecology comes in when you can have a wonderful new technology developed by one field…but when it needs to be integrated into society you need a broader model for how to facilitate that.

If we want to cultivate a transdisciplinary orientation in a student or a scholar, there are certain values that underlie that orientation – for example inclusive, being tolerant of other perspectives, not rejecting things that are different or foreign to what you are used to things about. Also there are attitudes and beliefs. If people believe that it’s way too time intensive to do interdisciplinary work, and they can be more effective working individually on smaller and more focussed problems, then that’s an attitude that will make it difficult for them to thrive in a large cross-disciplinary team environment. Then there are behaviours that reflective of a transdisciplinary orientation – such as reading material outside your main field of training, or going to conferences outside your main field, or getting together often with colleagues from different fields to integrate and share ideas. Finally, there is a conceptual or analytic stance – how people frame problems. What we try to focus on in social ecology is how would we train a student to think systemically, to look at the multiple levels of a problem – to be able to traverse those and be adept at doing that. How would we train them to think ecologically, so that they see that a problem is science or society may have roots in biological processes, in material geographic properties, it may be an economic phenomena…in other words the roots of complex problems may lie in several different fields.

Wicked problems are vexing because there are no easy clear solutions to them.

One of the attributes of wicked problems is that they are so intertwined with other problems, in other words, you cant identify the core wicked problem, but it’s wicked because it cross penetrates other problems that are related to it. Rather than taking a reductionist approach to a wicked problem it seems that the only hope to getting a sense of the multiple roots and manifestations is thinking more broadly – it’s patterns of wickedness, the ways in which different problems are synergistic that becomes vexing.

Climate change is pretty wicked…I don’t know whether the behavioural potential is sufficient to get us out of this predicament

Psychology in an age of crisis.

We’re going to need behavioural and social innovation for greater sophistication.

As humans we haven’t been very good at curbing some of those destructive impulses.

People get overwhelmed by the enormity of the environmental and social problems we’re facing. They see not only occasional references to these things, but through the internet and multimedia they’re seeing tsunamis and the terrible destruction that they can cause, real time. They’re seeing terrorism, and the aftermath of terrorism, and war and brutality, we’ve become so immersed in media coverage of these problems that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel that there’s nothing an individual can to try to be more sustainable, to try to promote civility…a learned helplessness in thinking about global problems.

We are in an age of crisis and psychology is important in trying to understand what are the bases for people’s tendency to give up on these problems, and how can we reverse those tendencies and get people more engaged in a collective active effort to stem those problems?

There’s a certain amount of defensive neglecting – trying to get problems such as climate change out of our awareness because they are just too disconcerting to think about them.

Whether we can reach Anthropocene 2.0 and pull that off, is anybody’s question.

We’re all in this together, no matter what area of the globe we live, but humans haven’t proven themselves to be very effective at political cooperation across borders. Our social limitations are just as important to address as our technological limitations.

Slow collapse suggests processes are happening so gradually, an almost invisible way, and yet there are tipping points where processes accelerate very rapidly

Social ecology in the curriculum – a missing systemic view of the world, we need to broaden the curricula. we need students to think broadly about the environment, and the way that different phenomena are interrelated, rather than encouraged too early to pursue a narrow curricula box.

We need to enable students to think in more innovative and broad ways about the world around us.

Social problems…high school students should be exposed to some of the underpinnings of violence – racism, poverty…

People in the top 1% of income bracket – global change may not seem as threatening. They may feel that they are insulated from it – they can always go to higher ground, or more luxurious ground, buy the water the need. But in fact, we’re all so interconnected that it’s really a mirage. A mirage for affluent people to think that way. The whole infrastructure is something they’re dependent on and if that collapses, they’re just as vulnerable. Certainly the poor are more vulnerable, they don’t have the buffers of income and affluence, but ultimately even the 1% need to take into account the protection of the earth’s ecosystems and equality.

Sustainability: many different definitions…one definition concerns preservation of resources for future generations so that the current generation doesn’t over consume…a quantitative assessment of the resources we have against global footprint of the current generation. Other definitions embrace the idea of equity and equability – sustainability for whom? for which groups? what’s being sustained? Many definitions prioritise the idea that sustainability preserves and takes care of the most vulnerable in society, whether that be be women, or people living in poverty, or minority groups often suffering from prejudice. So a combination of resource management and fairness, distributive justice and fairness.

(Intergenerational equity) a kind of visioning process, whereby imagined or projected needs of that population, those future generations are brought to the table.

As our world population grows fairly soon at 10 or 11 billion people, what would it feel to be living on a hotter, drier planet with so many more mouths to feed? How can we crack some of those challenges. So in some ways, our decisions need to be made as if we are already there. How would those more severe constraints shape our decisions?

I’m at times an optimist, at other times I’m less optimistic when I see the capacity of people to hurt each other. That bothers me because the climate change is going to require cooperation, some altruism. It’s going to require empathy. I would like to see more of that in the world.

We have to get our social and behavioural house in order before before we have a prayer of effectively tackling the environmental and technological problems we’re facing today.

(Success?) I really value my teaching. I value my research too, but when I see students in my classroom getting excited about ideas, and they leave a course wanting to do some good things in the world – that for me is a momentum for changing the world.

(Activist?) There are ways that I have been activist, in working to translate some of the research that I’ve done into guidelines for improved policy, public health. As far as environmental movements or at the frontlines of those, I haven’t been as active that way, but I’ve tried to be at the interface of research and scholarship, and the translation of some that into strategies that might improve public health, or urban design or environmental management

(Motivation?) Joy in my family. building a non-traditional interdisciplinary unit. Thinking freely.

(Challenges?) Working on a book on principles of social ecological analysis. Continuing my research into understanding the circumstances that enable cross-disciplinary teams to work effectively together to create integrate knowledge, to create transdisciplinary innovations that have a positive effect on society.

(Miracle?) I’d love to see major illnesses cured. Effects of global climate change reversed. I’d like to see more peace in the world, and less conflict, war and posturing in ways that have potential to create havoc.

(Advice?) If we to have any hope of resolving some of the problems we’ve been talking about at global level, it’s going to require individuals thinking broadly, acting cooperatively with each other, giving each other the benefit of the doubt – rather than being too judgemental or quick to criticise – I do think that so many of our problems are rooted in this proclivity for conflict and competition. So think as broadly as possible, give fellow humans the benefit of the doubt – everyone’s having a challenging existential existence, trying to get through their day so if we could all support each other that would be very valuable.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

food waste

Household as a place of change

Sally Geislar

The household is a place where change can happen, a place where change needs to happen.

Sally Geislar is the Founding Director of the Food Works Lab at the University of California Irvine. She is a Doctoral Candidate in Planning, Policy, and Design in the School of Social Ecology. Sally currently manages three funded projects on local food and food waste systems. Her primary research examines the role of household behaviour in successful kerbside organics collection programmes.

Talking points

I’m really interested in people, and how people have created the world we live in, but how at the same time it seems like it has always been this way.

The world is just the result of millions and millions of decisions, and realising that if there’s something messed up about it, we can make different decisions.

Daunting on one hand because there there were some many decisions, with momentum behind them, but at the same time hopeful because we’re humans making decisions and we can start to make different ones.

So my work is on those everyday behaviours…households.

If we could get all those people who are already on board with sustainability to bring their practices in line with their ideals, we would already be on a better track.

I’m interested in consumption, broadly speaking, and I’ve found waste to be a really interesting lens on that to understand the values of a culture.

Food waste…part of the momentum of previous decisions

Farmers markets…put us face to face with the humans who are producing our food.

Relationships that are more than economic

Food waste, at 22%, is the largest component of all the materials going to landfill.

Organic materials – food waste and yard waste – generate a quarter of the country’s methane emissions.

But we can’t just make a system and expect that everyone is going to fall right into place….there’s a human element to the technological solution.

How does kerbside collection affect households? Do people change their practices within the home?

For some people it will be “just build it and they will separate”, for others it will be a totally foreign thing.

For some who are pro-environmental in taking shorter showers or not watering their lawn, food waste can pose a psychological barrier of ick factor

But it is the same garbage you were making before, it is just in a different bin.

The household as a unit of analysis.

The household as a place where change can happen, a place where change needs to happen.

Little things…but don’t give up on the other things.

Culture has to change, along with the built environment.

Study…to what extent does culture shift, just by having changes in the built environment.

Norms change…in the 70s you could smoke on a aeroplane…now its unthinkable…if we play our cards right we might see that same sort of shift with foodwaste…the idea of wasting food by throwing it in a landfill will be unthinkable.

The kerbside bins are a powerful communication of norms, of change in behaviour in the home.

Sustainability…we live in a very complex world. The (Brundtland definition)…how will we know what needs they’re going to have in an unimaginable future.

For me it is about needs and systems being cyclical. A lot of our systems are linear and end in the landfill.

The more systems that we can bring back into the cycle , so that those materials that are waste from one system are raw materials for another…the closer we’ll be to sustainability – but it’s really not a destination, it’s a process.

(Success) Clear vision of how I can combine my passion and my career.

Growing up, the opportunity explore and to have un-manufactured experiences.

(Activist) An important question, one which environmental scholars are confronted with regularly. Our work does take a normative stance, of how the world should be, or at least how it shouldn’t be. To the extent that I am trying to change the way that policies are implemented, and developed, and change the hearts and minds of the people that are parts of those systems who are influenced by those policies, way that they react to those policies, engage with the goals of those policies, then in some ways I am an activist, but I think I’m a scholar first. There’s a certain level of data, rigour and truth-seeking that isn’t necessarily absent in the activist’s world but is at the heart of the scholar world. And that’s where I start from, with the goal of making the world a better place in that way – I think I may be considered an activist scholar, or a scholar activist may be more appropriate.

(Motivation) I really love what I’m doing, and other people getting excited about the issues that I’m excited about.

Seeing other people get interested in the possibility for change on these larger scales through the work that they are doing – that’s incredibly empowering and motivating.

(Challenges) Finishing my dissertation.

Continuing applied research with an interdisciplinary scope…bringing other people and organisations into that.

(Miracle) At the heart of it, I would wave a magic wand and people would see themselves as part of natural systems instead of apart from natural systems – and that awareness would change the way the prioritise things in their lives. If we could see more of that, we would see a lot more of the other things that we would like to see.

(Advice) Don’t be afraid to try new things, and if it doesn’t work out as you planned, look to people for whom it has worked and see if they are doing something differently.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.


Sustainable software engineering

Birgit Penzenstadler

If I put sustainability into the software system requirements, that means during testing I now have to test whether the system meets those sustainability requirements. What I’m doing now is finding those metrics.

Dr Birgit Penzenstadler is Professor for Software Engineering at California State University Long Beach. In her research Birgit explores the relationships between sustainability and software engineering.

We talk about Birgit’s background and motivations, her teaching and research, and the Karlskrona Manifesto,

Talking points

What are the things that we as software developers should pay attention to?

The first part (of the Karlskrona Manifesto) is about misconceptions that we have about sustainability….for example that there is a magic technical solution just around the corner that’s going to solve the sustainability problem, we’ve just got to find that one silver bullet.

…and for each of those misconceptions we explain what the reality is, and as sustainability is a very complex problem, a wicked problem – we can’t solve it with a magic bullet, it will take many things that solve different aspects of the problem and it’s unclear how we can do that.

The second part of the manifesto proposes a set of principles, for example we need to be looking at longer timescales when we develop systems, and we need to involve multiple disciplines, it can’t just be a bunch of software engineers trying develop a system, we need to get expertise from other people, for example from psychologists, ecologists…

At the end of the manifesto we give a couple of suggestions as to what people might do as the next step.

Start by discussing it, what it might mean and raising awareness.

The major push back I get is “I get my requirements from my customers, it’s not my place to say you should also look at the sustainability aspect”. So this should be part of our ethics standard, that I don’t just look at what is the maximum return on investment and is this safe for humans to use without getting hurt, but we should also look at other categories of damage.

We should always be free to point out social and environmental consequences, but the line at which we should walk away and say we’re not going to do a development…it’s hard to say where that line is.

At the moment we might be developing a lot of systems that we don’t really need.

Instead of inventing yet another system, and developing yet another software product, maybe we should be looking at simpler solutions.

Instead of products to buy, we should perhaps be better looking at sharing systems

The main intention of the Karlskrona Manifesto is to raise the discussion around sustainability, to make software engineers aware of the topic – look, it’s your responsibility to at least think about this and think what you are going to do about it.

I discuss four definitions of sustainability with my students: 1. To persist over an extended period of time.
2. To preserve a function over an extended period of time.
3. The next one (you taught me), ethics extended over space and time – this adds the notion of value.
4. (from Ehrenfeld) Life to flourish indefinitely – painting the vision of an even brighter future.

Then I tell students the other part, from Laurence Hilty – to scope your analysis well, what do you want to sustain, for whom you you want to sustain it, and what is the time horizon you want to be looking at.

For some reason, we humans tend to think that sustainability means preserving the human race on this planet, the truth is the planet would fare pretty well without us, but we still want to be around, so we strongly scope what we perceive as sustainable in that way.

I’m taking the liberty of using one of my 25 lectures on software engineering to discuss software engineering for sustainability because I think that it is important

use case

If I put sustainability into the software system requirements, that means during testing I now have to test whether the system meets those sustainability requirements. What I’m doing now is finding those metrics.

This is taking the requirements problem to the extreme.

If in requirements engineering I define what sustainability means in terms of this specific software, then I have as a starting point for the metrics that will help me determine whether that software system is sustainable…but that means I have to do work at the beginning, it means I have to do a life cycle analysis, which is not yet a standard method for software engineering.

(is it possible to write requirements to solve wicked problems?) It’s tough. I’m an optimist by nature. This sustainability research has sometimes brought me to the limits of my optimism, but I refuse to give up.

There’s a lot of challenge in doing this, but I’m going to try to find the best method that I can.

I can teach my software engineering students to start paying attention to sustainability.

I do think that every one of us, no matter what discipline we are working in, can find at least a small point of leverage.

If I have the freedom to develop a software system, what do I want the system to be about, then I can decide to make a software system that is a completely new solution that helps people to form a community and do something together instead of making small efficiency steps if the solution was not the best one in the first place.

Car efficiency versus car sharing…a case where optimising one solution further would yield far less benefit than going for a completely different solution.

(software engineering is by definition a systems view) yes, and at the same time, I think we software engineers often don’t step back enough. We’re thinking how can I break down this problem into manageable parts and solve those, when we should be taking a step back and trying to apply a systems thinking approach.

(if pushed for metrics) Environmental impact, social consequences.

The environmental impact is not just the hardware, it is what is the system going to be put to use for.

(success) Finishing up my Habilitation.

(Activist) I would say so, yes. It is not my job to teach my students about sustainability, but nevertheless I do it, and I really care about convincing them that it is worth having a discussion about.

(Not your job, but it’s not job to teach in non-racist manner, or non sexist manner either, can we get sustainability to same level? I’m teaching my students to behave professionally non-racist, sustainably…). I would make sure not be a racist in class, but I guess I wouldn’t talk about not being a racist in class during my class, I guess that’s the difference.

I implicitly adhere to good ways of behaving, because that’s what I’ve been taught culturally, and maybe we can get to that same point about sustainability.

(Motivation) When I go out into the mountains at the weekend, and I love the mountains, and I see all that beauty around me – that’s what I really want to preserve.

(Challenges) Californian in training.

(Miracle) Tough choice…I want our planet to have way left population than it currently has. Not because of a disaster, but it’s a magic wand – the population never grew to that many people. And we found better ways of using technology and not taking it to the extreme as we have over the past couple of decades. Maybe we just had a magic moment of insight a few centuries back.

(Is technology going to save us?) I don’t think technology is going to ruin or save us – it’s our choice as responsible human beings to put technology to good use such that it can help us to save ourselves and this planet.

(Advice) Listeners already care about sustainability and probably think about how they can put it into action in their personal lives – I would like to encourage all of you to continue doing that.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

computing development

Technology amplifies underlying human forces

Kentaro Toyama

Technology amplifies underlying human forces.

Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

Talking points

I realised that with physics you are trying to understand the universe that is not going to change – it exists and the point is discovery – there’s lots of creativity associated with how you discover those things, but it’s convergent, you are ultimately trying to find one solution to a problem. Whereas with computing and engineering, the interesting thing is that it’s diversifying. You are trying to innovate and create things that have never existed, that people have never imagined and may not come into being unless its creators create it.

I became a bit tired of working on problems that were only going to help people who are already quite wealthy and can afford a lot of gadgets. So in 2004 I moved to India to help start a new research lab there, and changed research direction to look at how technologies can be used to address global poverty.

Initially I thought that we could do projects where some kind of new digital technology would make a substantial contribution to alleviating poverty, to increasing healthcare, to improving education, especially in India’s poorest communities – rural villages and urban slums. But as I did more and more of that work I began to see that it usually wasn’t the technology that made a difference, but who we worked with – our partners…that made a difference whether our outcomes were positive or not.

Curiosity driven research with desire to have social impact

Technology amplifies underlying human forces. Ironically what that means is that often in the very places we want the technology to have a positive impact it fails to gain a foothold because there is either a missing human intention or a missing capacity.

The “cult of technology” is the idea that increasingly we are living in a world where we believe that there are technological solutions to just about everything…classically “there’s an app for that”…meaning that there’s a mobile application for just about any problem that you might have in your life. Technology is certainly powerful, and amplification means that for people who have solid education, who have good social ties, who know how to use technology – they can make incredible use of it. But technology’s positive power isn’t embedded in the technology itself, it actually comes from the use that people make of it – which means that ultimately it’s the people who decide whether a technology is going to have a positive impact, a negative impact or no impact at all.

In the context of international development, what this means is that exactly in those places where human institutions are not functioning, technology is not likely to help either.

Efforts (eg in democracy) are not doomed, work to the extent that they amplifying existing forces towards democracy.

Democracy is inherently a political thing, it requires human beings to push for it, argue for it, …those things can be mediated through technology, but it’s never the technology that causes them.

Very difficult to find good ways to use technology in areas of abject poverty, not because it can’t be done, but because people are missing other things that they need in order to fully utilise the technology…good solid basic education, politically marginalised without strong social ties to people in power…those constraints make it difficult to use the technology to dramatically change their situation.

(On the promise of wikipedia etc)..content is the bare minimum…role of education is motivation

I’m not saying we should give up on technology…better technology better engine, still need a driver.

It is extremely tempting to look for technology solutions for sustainability, certainly there will be technologies that we will have to use to attain a more sustainable civilisation. But ultimately the decisions are very human in nature, and at large scale are political. We have to win those human political fights before the technology will actually have impact.

At some level we all know what we have to do to achieve sustainability – we have to consume less, we need to be more respectful of the environment, we need to make sure that the resources we use are being replenished – and while better technologies can help us do those things better, we’re not even taking the most elementary steps as a society to do the sustainability things we could be doing. Which suggests that even if we had great technology, we still might not use them towards a sustainable ends.

Again, technology amplifies underlying human forces – as soon as we as a global civilisation decide that sustainability is sufficiently important, I have no doubt that we will use the technology that we have, and invent new technologies that will help us achieve it, but until we make up our minds to chase that, it won’t make a difference if we have the best technologies in the world, we’ll still not use them for the right purposes.

I think of social change being primarily driven by a process of human maturation – in the sense of people becoming wiser and better and kinder human beings, we can debate exactly what that means, but most of us have a sense…that there’s a continuum…criminal drug lords…saintly, and there’s a sense of a spectrum of humanity, I think that as people our greatest challenge is trying to move up that escalator, being better versions of ourselves. I think the social change we want to seek is a world where all of us are better versions of ourselves. If we can achieve that, even by increments, then the technology will follow, we will use the technology in better and wiser ways.

(Success) Small internal incremental changes – spending more time on work that has social impact, being less concerned with achievements that have public recognition.

(Challenges) Trying to make the world a more equitable place. The two biggest challenges of our civilisation are inequality and sustainability. They’re both incredibly challenging problems that I’ll be happy if I can make even a small contribution.

Research – find forces that technology could amplify that we have overlooked…for example channelling powerful religious motivations

(Activist) Generally not, but because my impact is through other people, my students or partner organisations.

(Motivation) I think that all of life is basically a succession of moments of consciousness…and each one of those moments has the capacity to be either painful or happy, or somewhere in between. I think that our purpose from moment to moment is to try to make as many of the future moments of consciousness as happy as possible. Those might be my own, but also other people or other forms of life, or other animals to some extent. So to the extent that I can, I would like to ensure more happy moments of consciousness.

The questions of sustainability are whether future generations will have the same potential moments of happiness. Are we right now taking massive withdrawals from the potential for human civilisation to continue having happy moments of consciousness at the level those wealthy of us now are enjoying?

Technology will help as soon as we commit to sustainability as an issue that is important to us. Until then, it’s not a technological question.

(Challenges) I’m very conscious that most of my challenges are internal…I’m aware of a need for comfort, while not doing everything that I can for the goals that I have. I can expect anyone else to change if I can’t change myself in those ways.

(Miracle) Everyone to have increase in some percent wisdom.

Each one of us to pursue whatever we aspire to in a single minded way

(Advice) Follow your heart.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

economics transport

Reimagining our communities

Jean-Daniel Saphores

We have to re-imagine our communities…what we have built is unsustainable

Working at the crossroads of environmental systems, civil engineering, transport economics, resource economics and sustainability, Jean-Daniel Saphores is holds multiple roles at University of California Irvine. He is: Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering in the The Henry Samueli School of Engineering; Professor of Economics in the School of Social Sciences; and Professor of Planning, Policy and Design in The School of Social Ecology.

Talking points

I was always concerned with the environment, and the impact of the environment on our health…I thought we could do better at how we relate to the environment.

Building structures to take advantage of what nature has to offer to fulfil our needs

Uncertainty could come in many forms, it could be uncertainty in natural processes, uncertainty in prices…in the real world we face a lot of

Uncertainty, but in economics most models are deterministic – that assume we know everything, of course this has limitations, because, as you know, we don’t know everything.

Assuming we know everything may not be the best way to go

Using a deterministic framework can be the wrong thing to do

So many things we don’t know

Doing nothing is not the solution if we’re facing dire problems

(can values be represented in economic models?) They can be captured to some extent.

For your work to be useful, you want to try to apply models.

My main interest is the the link between transportation systems and environmental systems: so environment, transportation and health.

Many facets of the transportation system are important to welfare

More than just efficiency of transport, the idea is to try to change urban form

We have to reimagine our communities…what we have built is unsustainable

I like electric cars, but we still need to rethink our urban form

Shared services could really improve our situation

We get the society we deserve but it is important we understand the implications of our choices

(Are people generally good?) Values and norms drive peoples behaviour…norms are more important than incentives

Children good way to bring message home…school benefits programmes

Reluctance in the US to rely on economic instruments

Recycling isn’t a herculean task, it just requires you to be consistent…and once you have a habit you are set

Recycling…but these are just marginally changes, if we really want to make a bigger impact, we need to revisit our way of living

It’s pretty clear not everyone can enjoy the lifestyle we have in US…but even here it’s entirely unsatisfactory to have 15% poverty rate including one out of five children, if we look at that we should be very unsatisfied with our current economic system if we have any kind of
ethical values.

We need to have convergence – economic development in poor parts of the world, the type of economic development that avoids environmental degradation that was generated the way the US, Europe and Japan developed, then in our part of the world we need to really take into account the impacts of our decisions to consume. I believe that most people would take steps to change their lifestyle, and we also need to take a look at how we organise our lives on a daily basis in our cities and so on, change our codes so that over the next two decades we can have convergence. We can not deny reasonable affluence to other parts of the world…in any case if we carry on the current path we may be in for trouble.

We can do better to separate growth and resource consumption. I’m an optimist, I believe it is possible to decrease poverty and enhance
people’s lives without completely ruining the planet.

I do believe in economic instruments, so trade is important, better trade, trade that takes into account the environmental impact

I believe that over time convergence will happen…otherwise we’re in trouble

(Success) Adopting my son

(Activist) Not yet. I’m a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, but I’ve only been moderately concerned so far. I’m going to become more concerned and more active. Poverty and environmental quality – together.

(Motivation) Future of planet and our legacy to our children.

(Challenges) Upgrade academic skills and do good.

(Miracle) We face the challenges

(Advice) Do good and enjoy yourselves

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

education geography

Educating global citizens

Ellen Schlosser

Giving students a holistic view – how we’re both interdependent and integrated is essential both for their futures and their ability to positively impact the world.

Ellen Schlosser is the Foundation Director of Global Connect and the Curriculum Development Advisor of the GlobalScope Curriculum Guides at University California Irvine.

Talking points

Working on something with meaning beyond the campus

Learning from experience fundamental to developing leaders and developing activism

Bringing social sciences to high school…information about the 21 Century world.

Telling stories that students could both academically and personally invest in.

Giving students a holistic view – how we’re both interdependent and integrated is essential both for their futures and their ability to positively impact the world.

You are not only a member of your local community, you are one of the seven billion people who inherit and are charged with caring for the earth.

We do need to challenge the American Dream. We can show inequality in America.

When things come close to home, they are much more easily understood.

The Project of Change is our call to action book…we help them to set up their own NGOs to address the Millennium Development Goals…it is really a recipe for action.

Agent of Change is one of our lessons.

Science is being shared as a global commodity

We have to change thought in order to change practice, to improve the environment

We’ve done such a good job of marketing science and social science separately, we’ve forgotten how to integrate the disciplines

We need the science…but to activate – to help a country in need, you need the humanities, you need the social sciences to help develop the narrative, to have a real impact, to really change the way we look at the world. It needs to be both.

(Success?) Being recognised as a viable course, acceptable, and building the bridge can open it the pathway for other projects

I would like to write a biographical sketch of what the students involved in this project have gone on to achieve…it’s amazing what they have done.

This programme honours serious students, but with communication skills to bring it to the high school classroom.

(Activist?) A late blooming activist? We have to start early on. Being of service to others should be taught in the home and carried through in the schools.

(Motivation?) Education – how your life can be transformed through school. When you write something that makes sense to someone else, enlightens someone, this is a great gift that I had no idea I would be academic. So I want to hold the light out for everyone.

(Challenges?) I would like to use my energies to help share this material

(Miracle?) I would love schools across the world to tell their students that they live beyond their immediate surroundings. And to enlighten them about others. You can’t keep your children hidden from the realities of the world, they’ll never function if you do. Enlighten the kids through global studies, and 21st Century – let’s not teach what was taught in 1955 – it’s not going to work.

(Advice?) having a formal education is vital to opening so many doors in life, but it is the curiosity and creativity that we each possess that can lead all us to new solutions. Remember to put yourself in the centre of what you are learning.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

game design gaming

Exploring possible futures

Josh Tanenbaum

How to use narratives as a way of exploring possible futures – both desired futures and frightening futures.

Dr Josh Tanenbaum Assistant Professor at UC Irvine. He runs the transformative play lab, focussing on the experiences of traditionally marginalised. We also talk narrative games and ask what can we learn from steam punk?

Talking points

Designing for character transformation in games

How do you design a game that gives people an understanding of what the experience of being transgendered? Or the experience of living below the poverty line? Or the experience of being racially marginalised. Without stereotyping or appropriating. It combines participatory design, designing within these communities.

How to produce empathy?

Games that are successful in transformation are not that those tat providing with knowledge – what games do really well is provide experiences.

“Tomorrow as it used to be” provides a retrofuture lens, that has values for sustainability, it does a really good job of re-appropriating technology.

Steam Punk struggles a lot with the fact that the era that it draws its aesthetic inspiration from is really politically problematic -it was the colonialist time, women were treated terribly, ethic minorities were treated terribly – it was not an era of equality by any imagination. But the retrofuturistic lens provides a means to critique those aspects.

The closest analogue is the Arts and Crafts movement, and if you look at Ruskin you can see that it was a reaction against industrialisation, against mass production, against mass labour, it was a return to handicraft, a return to individual practice, the Arts and Crafts returned to the ornamentation of baroque and Gothic, and steam punk returns to the ornamentation of the Arts and crafts perion in a fantastic bit of historical cannibalism.

You see the same ethos in the Steam Punk making where you see people say I don’t want my mobile phone to look like everyone else’s I want it to reflect something about myself. People are rejecting at the cheap plastic things that result from industrialisation – these material outcomes of mass industrialisation are no longer satisfactory or acceptable.

Steam punk is characterised by a sense of optimism. This can be problematic if people whitewash and sugar-coat the past. There are post-colonial and indigenous steam punk researchers that doing very interesting work.

Unknowable what is the right thing to do.

Right now we are living with the consequences of choices just being made in the Victorian era, the outcome of 150 years of “isn’t this amazing we have all this power now!” but not realising the consequences of the power that industrialisation gave us. Its more nuanced than simply saying let’s learn from the mistakes of the past.

Every technological epoch is unable to look past its own assumptions.

Previously inconceivable resource consumption.

Modernism believed that there was a knowable truth in the universe that if you designed things according to the principles of modernism, that you would produce something that was empirically and objectively good, and good for all people. But in the process it spackled over and covered over a bunch of historical beauty – it tried to reshape into the vision that it had, of this attainable perfection. And then the post-modern realisation that we were only designing one vision of perfection, and that this vision didn’t serve the majority of humans in the world. We’re still grappling with that.

We have an infinite diversity on this planet with an infinite set of optimum needs, how do we reconcile that with a system that’s been designed to produce material goods and industry… in a way that tends to be very homogenising.

Games allow consequence free exploration of alternatives.

(How can games go beyond resource use?) What explores spatial impacts? Minecraft. Experiments where resource areas are limited, quickly result in decimation of the game landscape. But in games there’s very little promotion of living harmoniously, as soon as you take away the resource frontier, most game environments fail.

There has been a successful pacifist WoW player – but he was so unusual he made the news.

Journey is based on helpful interactions, cooperation and a sense of connectedness to other people and the world around you.

We have sunk ourselves into spatially biased communication. And sustainability asks us to move more to the temproal bias (see Harold Innes – bias of communication).

Games to experience loss of agency – it’s easy to judge someone of not properly exercising agency when you have lots of it.

Situations where you are given only bad choices

(Success in last couple of years?) Captain Chronomek

(Activist?) More and more so. Activist is a title like “artist” in that you are one if you say so. Meaningfully express changes I want to see in the world.

(Motivation?) Doing more things I love. For a long time that was enough, but now we’ve got a kid on the way, that’s changed a lot of my motivation, it’s changed a lot of how I think about the future. Its very easy when presented with the realities of our current situation, our environment, to give in to despair, but the current situation is the result of people giving into the easy choice. So giving in to despair as the easy choice is not the right choice. If I can do work that in some way participates in the conversation that leaves a little bit more of the world for my daughter, then I guess its worth it.

(Challenges?) Articulate work in a way that attracts funding.

(Miracle? or smallest thing that would make the biggest impact?) Tell a story that could actually stir people to reexamine deeply held partisan biases, tell a story that would really stop and question.

(Advice for listeners?) Take ownership of what you what want to do in the world – its not enough to wait for other people to do it for you. You have to determine what your goals and values are, and work your ass off to acheive them. If enough of us do that, we’ll find the world that we want.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

health public health

Public health

Oladele Ogunseitan

If a country can afford to keep its population healthy, then it should do so.

Dr Oladele Ogunseitan is Professor and Chair, Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention, Programme in Public Health; and Professor of Social Ecology at the University California Irvine. He is interested in the environmental and human health effects of industrial development with respect to prevention and remediation of hazardous pollutants. We start by talking about growing up in Nigeria and what led him to public health.

Talking points

You would think that we would have learnt our lessons

Regrettable solutions to long term problems have become a sustainability term.

In our quest to solve problems that took many decades to understand and find alternatives we often don’t learn the lessons of doing the work ahead of adopting the alternatives.

Despite all the research about mercury and lead, these chemicals keep turning up in new ways.

Understanding things we don’t see.

The role of public health as a profession is to prevent disease and promote health.

Human health has immediate effect- we want action now – the effect on ecosystems and wildlife takes longer but is no less a problem.

It is a mistake to take humans out of the context of nature. We are part of it, all of our activities, our behaviour, our inventions.

We didn’t bring anything extra to the planet. Having a planetary view requires that we include everything else into the sustainability equation.

The public health impacts of climate on health are beginning to sink in for many regulatory agencies.

It is very difficult to draw the link (between climate change and health), causality is the core of Public Health scienc…but the link is strong enough that we’re about to have a summit on climate and health. And we can frame issues, clearly health increases resilience.

How to deal with scientific uncertainty? It is the responsibility of all scientists to communicate uncertainty, but this is not a licence to not act. Take smoking for example, we know smoking causes cancer but it is not a perfect relationship, some people smoke and don’t get cancer. We cannot afford to wait to get rid of all uncertainty before we before we formulate policy. When the weight of evidence is strong, and we use statistics to identify that strength, we say “let’s protect people, even if not everybody would succumb.

Public health is pitched against some economic interests, people want to sell things and make money doing so, and this group always underestimate risks, it’s the same with climate change.

Public health is grappling with population growth – just how many people can the earth sustain.

In the petri dish there is a plateau coming followed by a crash, that’s the normal cycle and we may not be exempt from that. We’re very clever though and we can keep the lag phase – the growth phase going indefinitely, on and on and on – but we know that’s not the nature of things.

Understanding limits does not give us instruments to regulate ourselves below those limits.

We don’t have to follow the course of what took America to a quality of life that it is desired by most people on earth, but it was extremely expensive. Msot houses in California still don’t have solar panels, but there’s no reason why African countries have to brun through a ton of petroleum to have lighting in every house, running water…we can do that with current technology and not have to reinvent the wheel in an expensive way.

How can we get to what we really want, without going through that expensive process?

(how does ethics scale in public health). One of the biggest challenges is equity.

I set my students this question: “If public health was to accomplish its mission, is that a desirable goal? That is to say, does disease play a positive role in human society? Can we imagine a world that didn’t need public health, what would that look like?”. We are so far from accomplishing this goal however, we need to put all our energy and passion and resources into correcting the equity issues.

If a country can afford to keep its population healthy, then it should do so. And I believe that every country on this planet can do that. Part of the reason we have not done so, is we prioritise other things more than health: we spend more on defence.

You can’t imagine how angry I am that African countries, including Nigeria, spend more on defence than public health or education.

We need to keep vigilant on expenditure on health care, and it’s not just about money, it’s investment in translating what we know – what we we already know how to do for actual benefit.

We get close to tipping points, and retreat. How do we recognise what is desirable and here are some ingredients, we’ve already taken two steps, maybe another one, lets keep going. How do we engineer getting to those tipping points?

(Success in last couple of years?) Strength of programme in Public Health. Maintaining collaboration.

(Activist?) Yes, more recently than in my earlier days as a professor. I think I was reluctant to put my own ideas expressed more in a message way than just reporting the science. These days I’m very conscious of the importance of discussion section of a paper. I’m responding positively to journalists – I want this work to mean something to people because it can move things forward. I’m part of California Greening Panel – I wanted to be part of the process of translating science.

(Motivation?) Opportunities to change things. The t-shirt says reflect, reveal and reform. I’m challenged by students to keep doing those things.

(Challenges?) Forming a School of Public Health.

(Miracle? or smallest thing that would make the biggest impact?) A world where we all die of old age.

(Advice for listeners?) Collectively we can move if we all individually take a step.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.


Inspiring community engaged sustainability scholarship

Abby Reyes

The role of the scholar, the engaged scientist and the engaged citizen are compatible, complementary, and in fact necessary.

Director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University of California Irvine, Abby Reyes on creating opportunities for community engaged sustainability scholarship.

Talking points

We work to make community engaged sustainability scholarship integral to UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching and service campus. We do that so our students, faculty and staff have the tools, training and resources they need to take bigger roles in addressing the critical sustainability challenges in our region and across the globe.

We’re doing that because the University of California of which we are part has a drive, a purpose, to accelerate the shifts we need to see to decarbonise the university and accelerate the shifts in other areas of our lives to reorganise how we relate to the planet and each other.

Re-imagining economy and tackling the big questions we face.

Sustainability leadership training…new set of skills that we belive the rising generation of sustainability leaders need to be able to be the knowledge brokers…the interpersonal skills and mastery to work together across traditional divides on these cross-cutting issues where what can make or break progress is how well people relate to each other and how outside of our own positions we can move to get to our underlying interests which are more often than not common about what kind of future we want to see for our families and our extended communities and our planet.

The approach we use is strategic questioning – a form of inquiry to enable young people to lead change processes in their community, from focussing on what’s concerning us most, through what do we want to see instead, through to what needs to change to get there, and then designing action for change.

We’re living on the front lines of a changing climate.

My mother raised us with an ethic of service and conservation.

Service is the path to freedom, to liberation in the spiritual sense, closer one’s self.

What we’re doing is offered in a gesture of creativity and joy and not a lot of attachment to the outcome. Very focussed on getting to our desired outcomes, but also not attached.

Inside the classroom students are definitely understanding the scale and pace of the deterioration of our critical life support systems in the planet. Outside the classroom we build community, then we draw upon tools to express fear, emptiness, sorrow and anger about the state of the world, we allow that some airtime, because they’re not getting that in the classroom and because our way of relating with these issues through social media is online and solitary endeavour even though it has the illusion of being connected with others it is often ill-processed or partially processed at best.

So we give that airtime, then help students see that the energy of anger is the same energy that drives passion.
The same energy that drives emptiness is the energy that enables us to work with equanimity and the letting go. The same energy that drives fear, the flip side of it is hope.

We help students go through that transition, then we get into what are you going to do about it?

I developed the analysis that carries me today – the inextricable relationship between environmental and human rights.

If we are working for protecting the earth, we also have to be working for protecting people.

Scholars and communities together, enabling the shifts that we need.

Working with solidarity and integrity with indigenous communities

When we talk about creating circumstances for young people to be the knowledge brokers, I’m thinking “what does it take to unleash the capacity of more young people to go out into the world and stand with the truth?”.

To stand in our knowledge of what it will take, right now, to transform our current systems and cultures of our industrial growth society into new systems and cultures of a life sustaining society. That is an unprecedented agenda, and it is one that is squarely on the shoulders of young people.

We train the workforce, and the more they have a sensibility of their place in the larger scheme of things, the more likely they are to place themselves in their organisations to step up and make transformational shifts.

We create circumstances to light the light about the roles people take.

We’re teaching people to look for windows of opportunity.

Academic freedom for faculty, but all students in both curriculum and co-curriculum.

Rolling this out 250,000 students is new, and people are excited by it, taking it to scale.

We find with young people, even the ones who are not yet activated, when we ask the right questions, the introspection and reflection is there – the awareness is there. It doesn’t take that much to get it to come to the surface in a students own words – in his or her own community and family’s relationship to the complex global

What does it take to awaken that conversation for all 29,000 students on our campus?

Campus as a living laboratory

What I’m finding now, is the under-current is not so far under we’re at a tipping point of conceptions of ourselves

(Sustainability at UCI…) has a long legacy…scientists here found the ozone hole, and went beyond their science to make sure it was addressed.

Our purpose…community engaged sustainability scholarship integral to UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching and service campus…what this means to us is engages our students, faculty and staff in the understanding that the role of the scholar, the engaged scientist and the engaged citizen are compatible, complementary, and in fact necessary.

Resilience…is not an effort of bouncing back, but bouncing forward. The key elements are not only mitigation and adaptation, but also deep democracy.

The story we tell is simple: eco means home; ecosystems are relationships of home; ecology is our study of home, our knowledge of our relationships of home; economy is our management of home; our economy our way of managing should reflect our knowledge of our relationships of home; our fundamental relationships of home are interdependence; it is time for our economy to reflect our interdependence; it is time for us to do the work of releaving humanity back into the web of life; that means a lot of creative work to create new systems and cultures of a life sustaining society.

The American Dream is being constantly redefined. The version with the white picket fence and every man has his castle didn’t turn out to work for many people at all. The coyote trickster beauty of this moment of ecological transition is that we are talking about distributed power, we’re talking about people coming together to figure out their waste management and their food production, and their water gathering and energy storage, and when communities need to reorganise in this way then they need to know each other, they need to talk with each other, get in each others’ business and this is where the personal mastery comes in.

It needs a spectrum of strengths: people work to change the systems and cultures of industrialised growth society through actions like service, resistance, governance and reform, and people also dedicate themselves to create new cultures of life sustaining society. Transformation happens over time, and the most effective communities I have seen have people working all parts of the spectrum of strengths and knowing their location on that spectrum and that of other…so people aren’t working in isolation.

It is not my place to answer if what we are doing is radical enough, we do the training to set up young people to know how to ask the questions.

(Success?) We’re in the middle of the process, successes are around conversations. Some high points of success, Obama speaking about sustainability and climate change at UCI, the Dalai Lama.

(Activist?) I’m a life-long activist.

There are ways to walk in the world, characterised by action, without a stickiness around the outcome. Doing this work from a place of joy and integrity so that we can be here for the long-haul no matter what the long-haul brings. Our understanding is that if we do this work right now, we are developing the strengths of relationships and of inter-being that we will need to call on later if and when systems move towards collapse.

(Motivation?) I am here on this planet, I am alive, I am lucky enough not to have had my life taken already, there are plenty of people who are similarly motivated whose lives have been taken – if I’m still here the only work worth doing is work that enables people to have the space to life in freedom and live in the right relationships with each other and the earth.

(Challenge?) (UCI has set…) aggressive targets with lots of moving parts. But if we do it right it could be the blueprint for how to do it nationally and internationally. How to integrate South and North. Deepening students’ understanding of interdependence.

(Miracle?) Authentic engaged dialogue with communities. The shift I’m most interested in is what happens when we do the hard work to build communities right where we are to accelerate the shifts we need to see.

(Advice?) The perspective I would invite listeners to entertain is how would your life be different if you truly believed you belonged in the web of life, and how would your actions be different if you saw you had a critical role in the web of life to weave humanity back in.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.