Features of a sustainability science

Features of a sustainability science

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Photo credit: ESSC

Ecojesuit shares this article that was published in La Civiltà Cattolica , a magazine published continuously by the Jesuits in Rome since 1850 and originally available only in Italian.  For the first time, its 4000th edition is also in English, French, Spanish, and Korean, and was launched in January 2017Pope Francis met the Jesuit writers for the magazine, and “shared with them the importance of poetry, art, and pioneering intellectual research (as frontiers) and defend not just Catholic ideas but must also witness to Christ in the world with a restless, imaginative, and open-ended spirit (as bridges).”

In 2020 the success or failure of the twenty-first meeting of the Commission of Parties of the United Nations (COP21 Paris) will be remembered as it gave the responsibility to each nation to go home and review commitments.1  Over 110 countries signed up to the Nationally Determined Contributions scheme.2  The year 2015 was also notable for a retake on human needs and action to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) released in New York.3

Not tangential to these events and embracing the whole of humanity was the Holy Father’s encyclical of Laudato Si’, “Care for our Common Home.”4  Others might remember the disasters of the year associated with changes in climate5 and some of the climate records reached.6

There is something else happening, as scientific knowledge is gathered and a social dialogue of needs is strengthened: the actual way we think is changing.  Now as the world focuses on the problems, a growing matrix of human values is challenging how we live.  People and institutions are thinking with the times as basic values now enter the realm of why and how we do science, and what we communicate and teach. 

The challenge

Some scientists seek to solve with people meaningful problems, others seek transparency in corporate scientific investment and production, while students have a growing number of integrative scientific courses to choose.  These are part of the hope for a global society that cares for others, for the land and seas, even if at present we cannot even manage our waste on a personal and community level.

What will the world be like when we have whole universities functioning solely to transform the SDGs into reality with people?  What can guide our decision-making processes for this?  This is the challenge.  With the limits to our planet, it will take all our energies to foster a human science that cares for humanity and the continuum of our environment.  We do not know yet what sustainability science will look like, but the path to establish much-needed priorities is becoming clearer in some institutions, communities and societies.

Drawing on local and regional interests, some researchers, practitioners and Jesuits met to discuss sustainability science, local wisdom and risk resilience.  First, a group met in the Asia Pacific regional meeting in Mindanao Philippines7 where they saw local recovery after typhoons Washi and Bopha.  They met farmers and indigenous communities in the uplands to understand the impact of intensive mono-cropping systems of corn and sugar on land use, socio-cultural fabric and the challenges to the youth. People spoke with local officials on what was needed in a transformation of land and water governance.

In South Asia, a group met in Kolkata and focused on water needs, visiting communities in the Sundarbans.8

In Nairobi for the Africa-Madagascar region, the focus was water and the plight of urban basic education while also considering the other eight planetary boundaries as experienced in the landscape.9

The final regional meeting at Namur University in Europe drew on challenges in philosophical and academic aspects of teaching today and the personal transformation needed.10

Jesuits and partners from these four regional meetings of more local contexts were already discussing “a world at risk” and wanted to hear other thoughts on how to make a difference.  This led to an invitation to join the Stockholm Environment Institute where a group of 40 scientists, educators and practitioners met in November 2015 to better understand the need for integrating sustainability science and values in a meeting titled: “A Call to Dialogue on Sustainability Science and Values.”11

Practitioners of science, academics, lawyers, doctors, engineers and social advocates acknowledge the interdisciplinary challenge of sustainability and need for broader social participation, which is too massive for any one discipline or institute.  Higher education has already half a million professors in the United States in 5,000 universities, and a similar number in Europe.  It is expected to grow rapidly; UNESCO speaks of “massification”12 in Africa and Asia, while the approach to learning needs to radically shift to meet the sustainable needs of different peoples.

How do we enable this process of meeting peoples’ sustainable needs with clear discussion of values and priorities?

Out of these regional discussions emerged elements needed for institutional and personal transformation in establishing a science of sustainability that serves societal transformation and addresses the source of concerns.  Nine points emerged affecting institutions and four that focused on personal transformation.  They are presented here along with various thoughts.

(1) Dialogue at a societal level is critical in gaining participation and diversity of thoughts and with this the necessary acknowledgement of the need to change.  When all the debates are processed, this can lead to a deeper understanding of (2) the clarity of priorities, use of knowledge, and what needs to be done.  The precautionary principle is critical as society talks of risks as already a reality suffered at the margins.  What then is the process of (3) decision-making that gives society the priorities and policies needed?  Societies need to publicly set clear standards to protect itself in cases where multinational corporations heavily contribute to the economic planning and development of the country that otherwise may allow for massive exploitation.

Civil society and public gatherings are increasingly under pressure of suspension given the fear of violence, but (4) as a point of social awareness, gathering consensus, (5) advocacy and (6) developing other points of leadership, they are much needed.  How does society advocate for a greater (7) global social engagement in a world globalized by economic agreements and the businesses of social media and communications?  The (8) experience of landscape and its impact on peoples and ecosystems and the (9) options for the poor must get into the picture before the final agreements are made.

Though professionally and scientifically we talk of our institutions and professions, we are first human beings and our personal attitudes and choices do matter.  We are all called to change, radically many would say, to meet the present global challenges.  Much as we want to transform society and others, real change begins with self.  Elements of such a process include (1) a mind shift in how one thinks, (2) greater depth and understanding of all aspects of globalization, recognizing the (3) human spirit and value of spirituality in a life-affirming engagement, and (4) committing to a context that builds hope.

In the November dialogue at the Stockholm Environment Institute on sustainability science and values, the main panel covered many of these points.

Dialogue and relativism

The need for dialogue opens common ground for people to participate in a democratic way and the university is a primary pillar for such dialogue in society.  Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding, Vice-Chancellor of Stockholm University, has been discussing how the university fosters change as an arena for analysis and dialogue on the role of values in decision-making processes.

Swedish schools require sustainable development as a core value for integration in all subjects for present and future generations.  The challenge is to develop the competence amongst teachers and with efficiency.  Prof. Widding questions whether the university should have a similar ambition, to have aspects of sustainability in all disciplines.  Stockholm University is environmentally certified and so she says “we have included this amongst our ambitions, but it takes lots of time and effort even though we have very strong environmental sciences.  It is not clear to everybody how it is to be integrated as a perspective in all higher education.”

The Swedish Higher Education Act requires universities to contribute to a sustainable development.  She asks, “does this also mean that in addition to transmitting scientific knowledge, we are supposed to contribute to forming values?  Given that values are formed by the way we perceive the world, scientific knowledge is extremely important.”  The crux of the challenge for any university is to understand its role in value formation within the cultures and society it represents and to communicate those values.  The values of nature and consequences of over-exploitation of the natural resources also need to be transmitted through science.  Prof. Widding argues, “the paradox of the ideal of the university is to form free individuals and critical thinking, while communicating and transmitting certain values and norms.”

The ideological tension with the concept of sustainability must also be aired.  There are those, she argues, “who advocate solutions within the system, techno-optimists, and those who claim the necessity of a shift of paradigm and a change in our habits and lifestyle.”  The value of nature can also be contentious, “between those who take an anthropocentric strand and take human needs and values as their point of departure, and those who claim the inherent values in nature.”

Prof. Widding speaks of three ways of viewing higher education: “one could regard it as fact-based with the ambition of transmitting facts as the ultimate goal where environmental questions are seen as a problem of knowledge and where we should strive for a common basis of knowledge.  The second is normative, where environmental questions are questions of attitude and lifestyle, and higher education should contribute actively to adapting the world and the norms that can be deduced from scientific facts.”

The third way is pluralistic, “where environmental questions are seen as political problems partly based in conflicts between different values, views and interests. Students should be taught to critically reflect on the fact basis and values.”

Very significantly she asks, is there a risk of relativism when conflict in views and values is allowed?  She hopes not, “because I believe when individuals are allowed use their intellectual capacity to build and develop arguments, the position that they finally take becomes both more well grounded and nuanced.  I believe it would be of great value to have more decision-making exercises to really train students in how scientific knowledge can form the base for and be included in the decision-making in society.”

Earnestness and decision-making

Sverker Sörlin (professor of Environmental History at KTH Royal Institute of Technology) addressed the use of knowledge and decision-making.  He had just attended a meeting of the History of Science Society of America in San Francisco and found it one of the rare occasions in his life where he had such discussions.  Why was it so good?  “I think the virtue in that conversation was the people who spoke were very earnest.”  It was not an academic event, professors shared their experiences and how they addressed real problems using their expertise.  People, for example, who become victims of medical company practices, need expert advice in presenting their case in the courts, but when professors give expert opinions there is a politics that affects their appointment in universities.

Sörlin says, “We need to be as honest and earnest when we talk about our commitment to sustainability and to climate change.  I fully agree this is about values and the relationship between knowledge and values.  Regardless of discipline, our knowledge matters!”  He spoke of John Henry Newman as the philosopher of higher education, and the role of shaping the human person; “part of the problem with experts is whether they think of themselves as human first, second or third.  The most inhuman things can be done when expert first.  Josef Mengele was the doctor in Auschwitz, an expert, not a human being, when he conducted experiments in that place.  In higher education and science, we deal with the most dangerous things, and we need to treat them very responsibly.”

Reflecting on the recent history of science, Sörlin said after the Second World War most societies had a narrow view where science was primarily targeted to serve the military and secondarily, industrial purposes.  Remember, he says, “the 1990s when the catchword for research policy was competitiveness?  Certainly development and many goals are mixed into this picture, but sustainable development has been subsumed under these overarching concepts.”  “Everyone seemed to have been rounded up to agree that economic growth and competitiveness are good ideas; these are very primitive values.  Some see (change in) incremental steps, and hope for the best.  Let’s not give up on these primary values and if we could expand these to include sustainability, it would be a good thing (and) this includes loyalty to transformation.”

On free choice, he says, “I don’t deny this must be offered to the students, but what is the outcome?  Business education has grown the most, and there is nothing innately wrong with this.  But our priorities have not been well taken cared of; they have not been thoughtfully shaped to address the sorts of problems we face.  What sort of priorities at the outset can society establish in taking up the necessary responsibility?”  “Can we have a research policy regime that has made certain priorities at the outset and directs the things we do in a better way?”

The language of the European Union is addressing some of these challenges in society and along with the tighter measurements for SDGs, these can affect social operations and higher education, giving substance to needed priorities.  The knowledge enterprise has not been sound, it lacks a prioritization necessarily discussed in society, all of which calls for a major transformation.  “There is a mission,” he says, “of teaching values and reflecting on them, and to teach the facts and take the facts and values and reflect on them.  But we need time also to do the research. Is that basic work then not responsible?  Yes, I think we can make that work very responsible.”  Value tensions are not going away and there is a need to more broadly discuss them and push the sustainability agenda.  Sörlin is optimistic and stresses the need to be earnest, “speak our mind, some things here cannot be based on science.”

Education and global social engagement

Fr. Michael J. Garanzini, SJ serves as Secretary for Higher Education of the Society of Jesus and was recently appointed as Chancellor of Loyola University Chicago where he was previously the President and CEO.  He speaks of the global work or mission of the Society of Jesus and how the broader Jesuit family must work as one.  He says education must be globalized.  There is a tension now between being thoroughly local and inculturated and an education that is not just about this local context, but also about preparation for a world, which can be a threatening experience.

Fr. Garanzini says, “the nature of a university is that ‘we become’ a university by becoming experts in a field.”  Today a university is challenged to engage fully in this “collaborative and reformative” science yet this is “counter to the instinct in academe.  It is very hard to get a faculty member before a class to speak outside of her discipline, but she has to.  Does she have an opinion, a point of view?  Does she read more broadly than the science or ethics she studies require her to know?”  Great commitment and integrity is required when talking of sustainability science and problem-solving engagement in society and much adjustment is needed from all sectors to be able to trust and work together.

On the other hand, how does a university deal with advocacy when the professor seeks to respond to a situation?  There is no reward system for this.  If one gets socially involved, then one is told to become an anthropologist.  He asks, “how do we get the university out of the ivory tower?  Breaking in or out is difficult.”  He sees this as part of Pope Francis’ challenge to be with others.

The Society of Jesuits is challenged to revise its perception of its apostolates, high schools, universities, social apostolates, and see them not as separate entities but as one.  Together they form the same mission representing one work to the world, that of using the intellectual life to help people change their hearts.  All of us have to think of ourselves differently in relation to the other apostolates.  We have an opportunity we have not used – to work as one. It is a globalized world and sustainability is an immanent challenge.”

Experience of the landscape

The Paris agreement made slow progress but a momentary surprise was when Tony de Brum, Foreign Minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, called for a “high ambition coalition”  as their island country and other islands will be under the sea with a 2-degree Celsius rise.  And so de Brum sought a firm recognition of a 1.5-degree target, a long-term goal defining how the world will decarbonize, and support for developing countries.  The coalition has over 100 members including the European Union.  Simply put, the timing of personal input can be occasion for creativity and the expression of a recognized need that gives hope.

Rural people belong to a landscape that sustains them, however poorly.  They know since childhood the ways of the land and, if marginal or degraded, are most directly affected by climate change.  Their sensitivity to the landscape is essential in any management for recovery, sustainability of ecological services and biodiversity.  Many communities live from drought to flood, evident in El Niño followed by La Niña.  Involvement with local government and understanding broader governance affecting the inclusion of these communities and values into the operations and planning is vital.  They need meaningful participation to process concerns and incorporate needs within broader societal systems. Otherwise community is left with the lack of opportunity and burden of risks.

Many people are already convinced of the changes necessary but on a daily basis are limited to what they can, in their sense of simplicity, achieve.  Communities of practice13 may share a common area for market gardening, zero waste management or work in soup kitchens on a daily or weekly basis.  In sharing a common set of values and living what they believe, they are also more likely motivated to join broader social events and campaigns for change as they share a deeper and far-seeing hope that does not despair in the sight of failure.

In changing the game of global trade and geopolitics, the logic of business must change and be more relational and committed to sustainability. Recognition of the common good as a basic value has to be strengthened in reformulating public policies, regulating economic and financial markets and promoting of decent jobs.14

Science and technology do not impact without personal, political, and economic commitment.  The focus on values helps form a broader social engagement that is gravely lacking in guiding social actions and political decisions necessary to stay within the planetary boundaries.  Science can more actively support societal transformations by engaging elements of society in their concerns.  Researchers can document approaches that work well and lessons that may be transferable to other problems and locations.15  This gives a practical common ground for better understanding the need to integrate sustainability science and values.  The goal is to promote a collaborative engagement and understanding among those doing environmental science and those working with local communities for sustained initiatives on resource management, transformative education and simpler lifestyle.

The Call

Johan Kulyenstierna, the executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, speaks of the challenge of being “able to communicate scientifically in a way that can be applied.”  Local concerns that may not be the most critical globally are obviously connected to the broader pattern of events. It is this growing awareness of global with the local and local with global that must motivate actions relating to the sustainability of people and their landscape.

Science already shows us the boundaries of our natural and physical world and where we exceed the thresholds for our safety.  These boundaries are experienced in the landscapes where we live, in cities or rural communities, in artic, temperate and tropical environments.16  Science alone will not provide solutions, the key target in responding to the call for environmental balance comes at the cost of together addressing our own lifestyles, society’s priorities and the world’s inequalities.

Transformation requires conversion.  First is a mind-shift, where we re-calibrate our values for the Anthropocene, not simply scientific but integral of all different human components. How do I really want to live?   Second is depth in more critical understanding of globalization processes so to respond more adequately and decisively where people are excluded and unjustly used.  This means cooperation over competition.  Third is the recognition of the human spirit key in forming the scientific mind to transcend the self in a life-affirming engagement.  This is earnestness, justice and spirituality, without these, ethics and accountability are difficult to achieve.  Fourth, to engage the youth we must be a source of hope, not of condemnation or doomsday prophesy.  Fear of the future reminds us of the youthful need to have a context that builds hope; without hope it is difficult to mobilize people toward a meaningful action.

How then do we sustain further dialogue and collaboration?  Stakeholder participation is essential in designing the research topics as the knowledge derived is intended for communication and implementation.  This requires engagement with communities at the margins to understand what is meaningful change for them and how they express this through cultural values and renewed practices.  Participants from different disciplines can explore environmental challenges alongside poverty and justice in the context of values.  There is a need to identify what values come into the conduct of sustainability research at the local level. In working with stakeholders in local communities, what values are critical in achieving transformation on the ground?  How can science effectively communicate in a world of change by drawing on local values?

The questions that arose during the dialogue illustrate these needs.  How can researchers engage ethically in working with local communities?  If one works with an indigenous community in northern Sweden, how can one write without imposing external perceptions or analysis?  If a community does not want to drink chlorinated water provided by a company for free, does this imply that the company has imposed its standards rather than perusing the community’s desire for locally sourced clean water?  How can scientists validly express their findings in relation to cultural and social values where they engage?

And again we ask, how does a community value the knowledge of sustainable science?  How does it experience sustainability and what of this does it value?  How do communities explore developments in their values and practices for greater sustainable landscape management?  How can community traditional values be sustained in the face of economic and trade policies and power that are seemingly a given?

The universities and institutions of society need to take these insights and broaden the discourse, and further engage the three United Nations Conventions of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification.  Every effort needs to be taken to connect and give occasion to bring the process to wider participation and policy initiatives.  The responses to these challenges are still to be found in further dialogue and collaboration.


  1. COP21. www.unfccc.int/meetings/paris_nov_2015/session/9057.php (30 November – Dec. 12, 2015).
  2. See United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  3. See Sustainable Development Goals. www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/.
  4. POPE FRANCIS, Laudato Si’. Encyclical letter on care for our common home, 24 May 2015.
  5. See S. KREFT – D. ECKSTEIN – L. JUNGHANS – C. KERESTAN – U. HAGEN, Global Climate Risk Index 2015: Who Suffers Most From Extreme Weather Events? Weather-related Loss Events in 2013 and 1994 to 2013 in www.germanwatch.org/en/download/10333.pdf. The countries affected most in 2013 were the Philippines, Cambodia and India. For the period from 1994 to 2013 Honduras, Myanmar and Haiti rank highest.
  6. See NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION (NOAA). Global Analysis: State of the Climate Reports, February 2016. National Centers for Environmental Information, in www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201602.
  7. See www.transformativegovernance.essc.org.ph.
  8. See X. JEYARAJ, “Water security discussion during the Global Earth Summit IV in Kolkata, India”, in Ecojesuit, 15 April 2015 (www.ecojesuit.com/water-security-discussion-during-the-global-earth-summit-iv-in-kolkata-india/7805/).
  9. See JESUIT AFRICA SOCIAL CENTERS NETWORK, “JESAM Ecology Water Week 2015: Access to safe drinking water for all”, Ecojesuit, 15 September 2015 (www.ecojesuit.com/jesam-ecology-water-week-2015-access-to-safe-drinking-water-for-all/8634/).
  10. See GIAN (Global Ignatian Advocacy Network)-ECOLOGY, “Broadening the dialogue for transformative values: attitudes, simplicity and social inclusion”, Ecojesuit, 15 September 2015 (www.ecojesuit.com/broadening-the-dialogue-for-transformative-values-attitudes-simplicity-and-social-inclusion/8641/); “A call to dialogue on sustainability science and values”, Ecojesuit, 31 July 2015 (www.ecojesuit.com/a-call-to-dialogue-on-sustainability-science-and-values-3/8412/); J. I. GARCIA and P. WALPOLE, “Climate change and the dialogue with values”, Ecojesuit, 15 September 2013 (www.ecojesuit.com/climate-change-and-the-dialogue-with-values/5725/).
  11. C. DEVITT, “Objectivity and urgency driving the Stockholm Dialogue,’ in Ecojesuit, 30 November 2015 (www.ecojesuit.com/objectivity-and-urgency-driving-the-stockholm-dialogue/8940/); J. I. GARCIA, “Seeking a sincere and committed Stockholm Dialogue that deepens and transforms”, in Ecojesuit, 15 November 2015 (www.ecojesuit.com/seeking-a-sincere-and-committed-stockholm-dialogue-that-deepens-and-transforms/8899/); GIAN-ECOLOGY, “Shifting minds and hearts for a sustainable world: The Stockholm Dialogue on sustainability science and values”, in Ecojesuit, 31 October 2014 (www.ecojesuit.com/shifting-minds-and-hearts-for-a-sustainable-world-the-stockholm-dialogue-on-sustainability-science-and-values/7169/).
  12. See P. G. ALTBACH – L. REISBERG – L. E. RUMBLEY, Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution. A Report Prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, p. 24. (www.uis.unesco.org/Library/Documents/trends-global-higher-education-2009-world-conference-en.pdf).
  13. The term “community of practice” appears at the beginning of the 1990s in the writings of Etienne Wenger. The “communities of practice” and learning are social groups that aim to produce organized consciousness of quality, which any member may accede to liberally.
  14. See “Justice in the Global Economy”, in Promotio Iustitiae, n. 121, 2016/1, 29.
  15. See D. M. HALL, “Sustainability science for urban pollinator research and conservation”, in Ecojesuit, 15 January 2016, (www.ecojesuit.com/sustainability-science-for-urban-pollinator-research-and-conservation/9135/).
  16. See www.stockholmdialogue.ecojesuit.com/index.php/category/blogs/page/3/.

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