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Mobilising for sustainability: Celebrating and strengthening stories of connection

Three months ago, I started to tell a series of stories about some of the creative ways that non-scientists are getting involved in sustainability research.

On the Future Earth blog, we’ve profiled summer schools that take sustainability science out of the classroom and into the Amazon rainforest and French Alps; events that bring scientists and hackers together to generate tech solutions to global sustainability challenges; how virtual reality enables us to tell stories that move people and may just change the way they behave; a 30-day challenge designed by climate researchers to help people develop a new perspective on change; and how free online courses are enabling anyone with an internet connection to learn about sustainability.

These are stories about how people around the world are building the knowledge we need to make informed, crucial choices about our relationship to the planet. But above all, these are stories about connection.

Connection to self.
Connection to others.
Connection to place.

Celebrating and strengthening such connection stories is crucial for sustainability science, perhaps more so than any other scientific discipline. And it starts with what sustainability science is.

From fragmentation to connection

According to the U.S.-based journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), sustainability science is about examining “the interactions between natural and social systems, and how those interactions affect the challenge of sustainability: meeting the needs of present and future generations while substantially reducing poverty and conserving the planet's life support systems.”

That focus on interactions is different from most traditional scientific disciplines, which reduce the complexity and uncertainty of our world into separate pieces to study and understand, says Benjamin Warner from the University of Massachusetts. “As a result, we now know much about how the pieces of our world function in isolation, but not about how they relate to one another,” he wrote in an article in The Conversation.

Some researchers go so far as to call sustainability science a different kind of science. It’s different because it is interdisciplinary, applicable to real-world challenges and is committed to translating research into societal action. Sustainability science therefore has an inherent responsibility to ensure it is informing and is informed by what’s happening in the world. It is a science that is committed to changing how people behave and transforming systems.

Students in the Amazon Summer School lead a group exercise. Photo: Fundação Amazonas Sustentável (FAS)

That is what Raquel Viggiani found through her work with the Amazon Summer School featured in this blog series. “Living with communities in the Amazon has taught me that changing things doesn’t come only by studying papers. You have to live it. You have to feel it to change it,” says Viggiani, who co-founded the summer programme.

Fulfilling such a duty is no mean feat. But there are signs that the momentum is building.

The institutions that safeguard scientific practice are starting to transition away from siloed management structures and publishing and funding around science. Scientists, often typecast as the objective observer, are debating their changing role in society and their moral responsibility to act on crucial issues like biodiversity loss and climate change.

Innovative programmes and technologies, such as the ones profiled in this series, are enabling thousands of ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds to access sustainability science, connect with others who are interested in making the world a better place, live experiences informed by sustainability science and drive changes for sustainability in their own circles of influence.

From these and many other success stories – there are too many to cover on one blog alone – there are signs of a broader movement from fragmentation to connection, says Karen O’Brien. She is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oslo and co-founder of cCHANGE, the subject of another story in this series.

“Stories of connection are the necessary antidote to the disconnection narrative that plagues modern society,” she says.

“In an increasingly individualistic world, sustainability science is one of the tools that unites and connects us. It can create a space where we are each recognized for our strengths and where we can come together and each play a valuable part in creating a better world.”

Connecting to self

Plato wrote that “the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge.”

Self-knowledge is the ability to think about yourself and your relationship with the world around you. The ability to see how your emotions and perceptions are influencing your thinking and behaviour is important. According to author Michael McKinney in his work “Know Thyself!”: “Our behavior is a reflection of our thoughts. Yet very few people stop and think about what they think, how they think, and hence why they do what they do.”

This is what makes cCHALLENGE special. It’s a 30-day experiment in which people commit to making one small change in their lives, often around living more simply or sustainably. It’s informed by the latest behaviour change and climate research. Participants also share regular reflections that enable them to better understand the relationship between individual change and systemic change.

The story of Milda Jonusaite Nordbø  – a Norwegian woman who challenged herself to live on 6 USD a day for 30 days – illustrates this. Before she completed cCHALLENGE, she thought that her actions were too small to create change. She also came up against the structures that society had built to impede change, such as how difficult it became to socialize with friends on such a small budget. 

But as Nordbø started to complete the cCHALLENGE and wrote daily reflection blogs, she learned to see patterns and gain deeper insight.

“While my actions are small, each action is a vote,” she says. “Each time I spend [money] I vote for the production, transport, storage, marketing, consumption and waste of that product or service. I feel much more powerful now that I have realised how much my small actions matter.”

Increasing self-awareness was truly empowering for Nordbø, says Linda Sygna, a researcher at the University of Oslo and project leader of Future Earth Norway.

“She became the subject of her own life,” Sygna says, stepping outside of the “regular script that many of us follow much of the time.”

Humans don’t always relate so well to change – indeed our immunity to change is one of the most persistent barriers to progress.

“Changes often lead to new and unfamiliar situations, which can create discomfort and anxiety. The frustrations of change were voiced by all of the participants,” O’Brien writes in an article on the cChange website.

Connecting to others

As the poet John Donne said, “No man is an island.” Living systems, of which humans are part, are all about interconnections and relationships, says O’Brien who is also a member of the Future Earth Science Committee.

“Sustainable systems require that we move from fragmentation to connection, which may involve reconnecting, making new connections or, in some cases, breaking connections,” she says. “One can think of all types of connections that can lead to transformations – between disciplines, groups, sectors, institutions, and even head and heart or mind and body.” 

And it is the unlikely connections – those that occur at the edges of our knowledge and experience – that often result in truly exciting innovations. Take sustainability hackathons. By bringing together people who wouldn’t normally work together  – from scientists to coders, storytellers, artists and more – to solve global sustainability challenge, these events enable ideas to emerge that participants may never have contemplated on their own.

Efforts to build a diverse global community are also emerging. In 2015, the Youth in Landscapes Initiative brought 50 young professionals from 23 countries together for a week to try to solve five challenges in how humans use and exploit land. Participants then pitched their ideas to thousands of delegates at a conference called the Global Landscapes Forum.

Such a focus on problem solving helped the young professionals to build skills not taught in many universities: creativity, people management, coordinating with others, judgment, decision-making, negotiation, critical thinking and active listening skills.

It also is helping to create sustainable and resilient social structures, says Hannah Smith, a PhD student in Natural Resources and Society at the University of Idaho and one of the 2015 Youth in Landscapes program facilitators.

“We’re creating a social network that can produce ideas. In the face of climate change when things are changing so fast and we don’t know what’s going to happen, the least we can do is have a strong social structure that can withstand changing weather,” she says.

While local and global hackathons are often enthusiastically designed to solve problems and birth new ideas, we should be aware of the limitations of such problem solving approaches in complex systems, says Ash Buchanan, Director of Adaptive Development at the "innovationation agency" Cohere.

“There is growing consensus that taking a problem solving perspective is one of the greatest strategic flaws when trying to create lasting change. Rather than looking at what’s wrong and what needs solving, to inspire lasting generative change we need people to collectively envision and strengthen what could be right,” he says in a recent article.

Building a face-to-face collaborative global community also comes at a high cost, often making it impractical or unfeasible. As Internet access penetrates rural communities, educators are increasingly able to bring university learning to people living around the world through Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

But the idea that once someone is given information they will make more informed choices is becoming less relevant in the Information Age in which people are often overwhelmed with the amount of information at their fingertips. Some say that we are now in the Experience Age, which will be strongly driven by virtual and augmented reality technology.

When it comes to online learning, virtual reality is able to make course content resonate with people in ways that have never been seen before. It does that by taking exploratory and interactive virtual “field trips” to the depths of the ocean or the surface of Mars.

While digital innovation has become synonymous with engaging younger audiences, it’s a generalisation that we should be careful about reinforcing, says Linh Do, social change advocate who founded a campaign to switch a million incandescent light bulbs in Australia to LED or compact fluorescent lightbulbs when she was 15 years old.

“We have this idea that young people will default to suggesting innovative ideas to wicked problems because they aren't as jaded. Sometimes this happens, but not always. There's equal value in ideas from those with fresh or experienced eyes,” she says.

As many of the articles in the "Mobilising for Sustainability" series highlight, an intergenerational approach to sustainability can be more rich and rewarding than having programmes or approaches that target a specific age group. Perhaps this is because the most pressing global challenges of today – climate change, environmental degradation and social unrest – are intergenerational in nature.

Even though the Internet enables a broader connectedness with others, Jane Rowland Martin, an educational philosopher from the University of Massachusetts reminds us in a recent interview that it is still a connection with disembodied people.

“We have to proliferate the educational encounters with the three Cs of Care, Concern, and Connection … and expand our definition of ‘we’ to include all species on the whole planet,” she says in a recent article

Connecting to place

The Lurujarri Dreaming Trail is a nine-day trek along 83 kilometers of remote northwest Australian coast. Following the Goolarabooloo indigenous community, walkers learn the ancient coastal songline – an oral heritage map of particular places, ceremonial grounds, seasonal food places, medicinal plants and freshwater. Walkers also learn about how the six seasons dictate life along the songline, such as recognising the best time to hunt for different species or knowing where you will find water late in the dry season. This rich ecological knowledge has not only enabled indigenous people to sustainably live off the land for centuries but also better argue against its destruction.

Such deep, first-hand knowledge of ecology, however, is fading around the world. Humans have an innate, perhaps even genetic, affinity for the natural world. Research suggests that spending time in nature makes people "feel more alive" and might increase health in the workplace. Hospitalised patients may heal quicker when they can see outside.

And yet in the last 500 years, it’s estimated that people, in the U.S. at least, have gone from spending 90% of their lives outdoors to 90% of it indoors. Modern, high-tech lifestyles are competitive and curated; overemphasising technological advancement at the expense of the environment, resilience, community, cooperation, mindfulness, health and wellbeing. Peter Kahn, Jr., from the University of Washington says our society is suffering from "environmental generational amnesia," a state that normalizes environmental destruction, and that while we can survive without nature, we won’t thrive.  

We even teach sustainability science in a disconnected way – removing learners from the very places and issues they are implored to care about by putting them inside a lecture theatre for most of their education. Summer schools are beginning to reverse the trend by immersing learners in isolated rainforests and mountains to create empathic mindsets, awareness of cultural diversity and opportunities to work with a variety of groups to solve sustainability challenges. Students travel by foot or boat, swim in rivers, meditate in nature, sleep outside, eat locally sourced meals and learn about how communities directly depend on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods.

Indeed there was wisdom in Einstein’s words when he said “Look deep into nature and you’ll understand everything better.”

Live the science

Kim Nicholas is an Associate Professor of sustainability at Lund University. She has an impressive publishing record, supervises many students and communicates her research clearly and compellingly. But it’s her commitment to a low-carbon lifestyle (flying less, living car-free, eating a plant based diet), informed by climate research, that is creating ripples of sustainable change in her spheres of influence.

She has inspired her family, friends and colleagues to be more conscious of their lifestyle choices. She’s done this not by throwing facts or papers at her community to read, or blaming them for their unsustainable choices, but by showcasing how living sustainably has improved her life.

“Flying less has made me more thoughtful about how I spend my time, finding new ways to appreciate the beautiful world around us at a slower travel pace and creative ways to make work, work with fewer air miles,” she says. “Perhaps the biggest influence I’ll have is in my actions rather than my research.”

And surely that is the real-world, societal action that sustainability science is ultimately seeking to foster.

The author would like to thank a number of additional people who provided backgrounders for the "Mobilising for Sustainability" series: Anthony James, Bette Loiselle, Gesche Braker, Piyush Dhawan, Christina Nunez Godoy and Jose Arthur Botelho.