May 29, 2010

The challenge of maintaining public commitment to sustainability

One of the biggest barriers to the transition to a sustainable society is public attitude. In essence, sustainability involves transforming our economy from one that consumes excessive energy and resources. This requires a focused dedication to long-term objectives over a time period spanning 50 to 100 years. Although there are many other metrics to define sustainability, global warming has been the one single indicator on which we’ve focused to-date. Maintaining public support to address this challenge is critical.

What is distressing is a recent article in the New York Times about the drop in support for action against man-made climate change, especially in Britain - the forefront of climate change initiatives in OECD countries.

The NYT article quotes a BBC poll that finds that “only 26 percent of Britons believed that ‘climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,’ down from 41 percent in November 2009”. UK politicians, including new Prime Minister David Cameron, who have previously led the charge on climate change action are now soft-pedaling the issue. Similar trends though not as strong are appearing elsewhere in Europe.

Causes for this cooling of attitudes have been attributed to the growing visibility of climate change skeptics. Encouraged by the media, they have been making hay with last year’s email scandals at East Anglia University. Other contributing factors were some minor errors in IPCC reports, e.g. exaggerated rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers. And the coldest European January in recent years didn’t help either. The scientific community is beginning to fight back with letters and editorials in prestigious journals like Nature and Science.

But there is a deeper question. Unlike the January 2010 Haiti earthquake which galvanized world attention for almost half a year, climate change is a slowly progressing but far more pervasive and dangerous natural phenomenon. It has to be addressed through mitigation or adaptation strategies and the move to a sustainable society. But making the transition to a sustainable society requires consistent focus. This transition will require some short term sacrifices and tradeoffs. More impoertantly, it will also require a steadfast commitment spanning several elections at all levels of governments.

What’s the take home message? We have a simple challenge: how might we present sustainability as a long term critical societal goal, in a sufficiently attractive and compelling vision, to maintain the commitment over the next several decades.

Any suggestions?


Dan said...

Hi Franscois,

I was interested in your reference to the Uof O Transition to a sustainable
society. Our Ecoparc project in Cormier Village is aimed at the same transition
from a very local, rural, approach. The ground work for national policy changes
need to have the ground prepared by knowledgeable population that understand the
possibility and benefits of moving in the sustainable living direction. That is
what we are trying to do using a community mobilizing approach in a rural
community.This include education, social, cultural and economic development
aspects of sustainability. By staying local and rural there is a great advantage
for the population to include work on all these aspects of the transition to
sustainability at the same time. Once the major institution in our society are
taking the lead the various aspect of the move to sustainability become
compartmentalized and the real meaning is lost to the individual.Of course we
eventually need to have national policies in all these area but real change
needs to start with a bottoms up approach. Remember citizen are elected for
life, politicians for four year. Let me know if you want the details of our
project or if you know of individuals or groups that may help us in any aspect
of what we are doing.

Andre Potworowski said...

Thank you for sharing your views - is there a URL link to your Ecoparc we could post here?

Anonymous said...

"We know what we should do - why don't we do it? I don't get it."

Hi André - You likely know Paul Steinberg's ideas on 'conservation systems'? Looking at the specifics of the extinction crisis, he sees that no single approach will work. He takes a useful next step - looking at the systems that we've developed to sustain more fully-supported public goods, such as child protection, chemical disaster prevention, and patient care. He concludes we need 1) multi-actor, multi-tool systems capable of responding to diverse threats, 2) safety nets, 3) a political economy approach to system design: modify the economic behaviour of those who can do harm, and create diverse political constituencies who can mobilize on behalf of valued resources when they become threatened.

Another perspective, from the EC: How to ensure (brave word!) that research results get integrated into actions and values? Answer: a transdisciplinary approach, recognizing 4 levels of knowledge & values - what exists, what is possible, what is desired, what should be done.

Maybe these categories can help consider how to get to sustainability of particular social goods in specific circumstances. And why not use the Bhutan set of indicators/criteria for happiness as the social goods to be achieved...

Tim Lash