‘Thousands of models’: Planetary boundaries, values & power

The role of current patterns of human habitation in earth systems processes is pushing beyond planetary boundaries; which is to say our impacts on climate and biosphere risk tipping our environments into states dangerous to our societies. As Katherine Richardson from Copenhagen University puts it, “Earth is familiar with large environmental changes, but modern human society is not”.

Such are the findings from an updated analysis of planetary boundaries led by a team of eminent scientists linked to the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). The STEPS Centre also has a partnership with the SRC, and, having worked closely with them, I know how committed they are to rigorous, engaged research. Later this month, Johan Rockström, the SRC’s Executive Director, will present the updated analysis to the world’s economic and political elite at Davos. Another instance of speaking truth to power?

Some elites already get the message, and are trying to green their businesses and policies. They have been attempting so for many years now (perhaps insufficiently, given the latest report). Indeed, it was a group of wealthy industrialists at the Club of Rome who commissioned the Limits to Growth report over 40 years ago.

The Limits to Growth report was perceived by some in the developing world as an attempt to deny poorer countries the right to modernise and industrialise (as development was seen back then, and still is in many quarters). Thus was born the impasse between environment and development that we still experience in climate negotiations today.

However, not everyone in development saw things this way.

Social justice and the environment

The environment is a vital issue for the poor and for development. A response, involving researchers and activists in Latin America, and networking with key figures globally, led to the Brundtland Commission and an argument for sustainable development. Social justice is a necessary component for effective environmental action.

An important document from that era, largely forgotten now, still provides a useful starting point for thinking how to respond to Planetary Boundaries now. The document was a response to Limits to Growth written by a team of Latin American scientists led by Argentinian geologist Amílcar Herrera at Fundación Bariloche. Incidentally, Amílcar spent a few years in my department, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), in the mid-1970s as a refugee from dictatorship, before moving to Brazil and becoming a key figure in the founding of science and technology studies in the region.

SPRU also produced a response to the Limits to Growth report. Both reports were critical of a lack of institutional and political reflection in the Club of Rome exercise.

"Catastrophe or society?" report coverThe Latin American team in particular were accustomed to viewing science, technology and development from the periphery. They saw on a daily basis how structures of economic, political and, increasingly, cultural power influenced the kinds of science that got undertaken, and the forms of technology produced, as well as the absence of other voices and viewpoints in elite world development. Their report, Catastrophe or New Society? A Latin American World Model, consequently took quite an overtly political stance to questions of truth and power. The opening paragraph of their report read as follows:

Any long-term forecast of the state of humanity is founded on a perception of the world that incorporates a system of values and a concrete ideology. An attempt to describe the current world structure and project into the future does not (as it is sometimes maintained) constitute an ‘objective’ vision of reality, but necessarily implies the acceptance of an ideological position. For this reason, it is not justifiable to differentiate between extrapolative and normative models.

The Club of Rome sponsors of the Limits to Growth report tended, as the audience in Davros probably will, to interpret environmental limits on the basis of central values in their society now. Back then, developed world elites saw limits as a problem stemming from growing populations (rather than industrialisation). Today, global elites tend to view it as a problem stemming from lack of effective markets in environmental goods. But boundaries can be viewed, understood and pushed quite differently.

“The major problems facing society are not physical”

Recognising this, Herrera’s team went in a different direction. They argued:

“that the major problems facing society are not physical but sociopolitical. These problems are based on the uneven distribution of power, both between nations and within nations. The result is oppression and alienation, largely founded on exploitation. The deterioration of the physical environment is not an inevitable consequence of human progress, but the result of social organizations based largely on destructive ideas.

The Latin American model was quite openly normative. It was not an attempt to divine what would happen, but rather it tried to indicate a way to a desired future based on experience, needs and aspirations in the region. So, their report was not objective in the sense of being value free.

On the other hand, it is objective in that it starts from a distilled but realistic view of the problems facing the world and seeks solutions based on the capacity for change and creativity that human societies have demonstrated so often in the past.

Their norms were based on values of equality and full participation; and the regulation of consumption and economic growth in ways that rendered societies compatible with their environments. The material viability of their desired pathway for development became the analytical task at hand, and which they sought to demonstrate in their report by modelling production systems in relation to nutrition, housing, health, education, and the social and cultural environment.

Building pathways

Whilst we might argue today about the modelling done by the Herrera team, I think the fundamental point about normativity and the need for reflexivity in research exercises remains true. Moreover, what was striking about their model is how social and political variables were put centre stage. Hence questions of power and agency to build pathways to more sustainable developments were brought into the open.

Since the 1970s, a rich and varied repository of interdisciplinary research, and that includes key roles for social sciences, has arrived at similar conclusions: we need to look within societies to understand and act upon their relations with their environments. The STEPS Centre makes its latest contribution next month, with a new book on The Politics of Green Transformations.

However, a growing body of researchers (and funders) are also realising, as Herrera and his team did, that research simply reflecting (or even critiquing) the socio-political processes pushing at planetary boundaries, whilst undoubtedly helpful, does not constitute the limits of useful research. Analysis can and should contribute to the normative task of building pathways towards more socially just and environmentally sustainable societies.

The Latin American model suggests one way to do that. More recent exercises in transition studies that envisage scenarios and back-cast for action now are also following in that forgotten tradition.

However, in practice, there already exist thousands of models. These are the everyday initiatives by groups of people in neighbourhoods, amongst communities, within business, and inside government that are experimenting with new ways of meeting social aspirations more sustainably. Groups have been piloting possibilities for decades now.

So how can research better engage with these practical models in ways that provides support, but also critical reflection? How can research provide analysis of the highly structured world of uneven (and often unjust) power relations in which these initiatives struggle, and do so in ways that help emancipate rather than further debilitate their development pathways? How might the institutions that develop research capacity be transformed, so that analysis is better equipped to work in value-laden realities?

Adrian Smith is a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit and a member of the STEPS Centre. He tweets at @smithadrianpaul