A new form of science is emerging that draws on the original meaning of the term: scientia – knowledge of structure, laws and operations through observation, common sense and intuition and welcomes back the discipline of philosophy from which it originated.
Prof. Timothy O’Riordan, one of the proponents of sustainability science, spoke at the Gulbenkian Foundation on February 19 before a surprisingly large and motivated audience.
Sustainability science is all about going back to our metaphysical roots, and going way beyond so-called conventional science and the technology that develops from it. Tim O’Riordan uses a language any scientist would shrink from. He starts by postulating that we are living not an environmental crisis, which we are trying half-heartedly to solve using technology and market-mechanisms, but a HUMAN crisis. Our planet is resilient. No matter what catastrophy, our planet will recuperate given a couple of million years.. But we now have the capacity to irrevocably transform our planet on a scale and within a timeframe that nature has never seen. Strangely, we also know what to do about it..
We’re living in what has been coined the anthropocene era. It’s all about us, humans. We have increased the carbon concentration in the atmosphere by 50% in little over a century and can and probably will repeat the feat in less than half a century. We have introduced POP’s, persistent organic particles, into our air, and have no idea how profound the consequences might be on our health, but are seeing its effects already: asthmatic children and other respiratory illnesses are a norm in cities. We are aware of climate tipping-points, such as the dying back of the boreal forest, the melting of permafrost, the melting of icesheets and the change in the circulation of oceans, which can provoke a step-change - a non-linear, unpredictable modification of the planet’s equilibrium - but have no idea when and how this might exactly occur nor have a real inkling of the interaction of several tipping points. Quite simply, nothing on this scale has occurred in our planet’s past. High-quality modelling has become the latest science and the models tell us we are going to see increasing species extinction, economic migration, scarcity, social tension, inflation, evacuation from coastal areas and the list goes on. This sounds so catastrophic that the only response could be profound change. But change upsets our comfortable lives, at least in the West, and therefore we prefer to challenge science, even in 2008, after all that’s been said, observed and proven. We are being extremely selfish and focus only on short-term decisionmaking (which is what gets politicians votes).
Sustainability science proposes to open a dialogue, based on commitment and companionship, not just partnership, between science, the public, private entreprise and politicians and work with longterm scenarios through adaptive learning that reconnects us with nature and a balanced community. We need global governance which is at once public, private and civil, linking bodies such as UNDP/UNEP and the Security Council with global sustainablity action plans to national and local networks of governing with local action plans. We need to reclaim the public domain and common knowledge, embedding folk knowledge back into scientific knowledge. We would do well to redefine prosperity and well-being: instead of focusing on GDP increases and short-term profitmaking we should look to improving self-esteem, building capacity allround and reclaiming slow time (balancing life-work and even embracing spirituality). We can make the sustainability transition if we stimulate creative evolution, companionship, virtue and justice, accept our responsibility and accountability to self and others and govern cooperatively between governments and citizens.
Is this sounding to you like the sermon of an engaged priest? Well, it comes from a scientist with more than 20 years of investigative experience and the author of “environmental science for environmental management”. And he’s not alone. Something very serious must be going on for reputable and widely published scientists to go on a limb and tell us to embrace virtue. I’m listening. The message is: for a human crisis a human solution. We cannot delegate our responsibility to politicians, scientists and corporations. All humans need to step up and redesign our world.
You can start small, by looking at your neighbourhood and see what you can improve, then move up to joining groups of citizens and finally, soon enough, these groups will link to others and promote global change. Don't wait too long, though!