Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Bounding the Planetary Future"
It is clear, as Johan Rockström explains, that we need a great transition in values and lifestyles to remain within planetary boundaries, but the big question is how. There is little evidence from recent years that a top-down approach would initiate and carry through the necessary changes. A combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches might indeed lead to niches of change, but it remains hard to see how these changes become global in time to avoid going beyond tipping points and experiencing serious consequences. Once that happens, then the take-off phase of a global transition could perhaps begin.
What is the role of science? We need to think carefully about the roles played by scientists and their relationship to political institutions and wider publics. For me, science is one of the knowledge-holders within a process of dialogue, and it is necessary to balance scientific knowledge with the knowledge of all of the other knowledge-holders in order to identify and discuss the trade-offs that will have to be dealt with along transitions towards sustainability. The social sciences have to play a stronger role as we move forward, and a wide range of other actors (and agents of change) must be involved in the open and iterative dialogue.
In light of the experience of the past thirty years, I have little faith that a top-down global governance scheme that provides a suitable framework for action at lower levels will emerge. Entrenched national and ideological interests are currently too strong. So the work has to start from the bottom up: working with communities and engaging in long-term processes of dialogue and experimentation, evaluation, and learning. In these processes, scientists provide input, and social sciences in particular can help to design and monitor the dialogue. Our academic and research funding systems still do little to support the participation of scientists in such endeavors.
I would like to end with one note of caution after reading the essay: the words “stable” and “stability” are used many times. We should avoid giving the impression that what we want or what could be achieved would be a world in which nothing changes. The Holocene provided a conducive environment for human development, but it was also characterized by environmental change that led to human suffering. Natural variation would continue even if we avoided going beyond environmental tipping points. Bottom-up processes will need to develop the capacity to cope with and adapt to adverse changes, the capacity to transform towards sustainability, and the capacity to find and implement integrated solutions.