What do we need to know?
"Sustainability is not a technical problem to be solved . . . Sustainability is a vision of the future that provides us with a road map and helps to focus our attention on a set of values and ethical and moral principles by which to guide our actions . . ."
By Stephen Viederman
This is a chapter from A Sustainable World (1995; see Sustainability). At the time of writing it, Dr. Viederman was President of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in New York City. A historian by training, he has held senior positions with the Population Council and the UN Population Fund.
On January 17, 1994 a major earthquake rocked Los Angeles. That event, combined with chronic problems of water and air, underline the obvious: that Los Angeles presents a textbook example of technology and science winning out over common sense. This bears directly upon our concerns today: knowledge for sustainability.
There are those who see sustainability as a problem of science. Harvard scholar and science statesman Harvey Brooks (1992) has written:
"There is a need for a relatively value-neutral definition of sustainability that permits consensus among people with widely differing value perspectives and world views to agree on whether or not the objective criteria for sustainability have been met in any given development strategy or project, but without necessarily endorsing that strategy or project in terms of their value system. In other words, whether or not a given development path is sustainable should, in principle, be a scientific rather than a trans-scientific question . . ."
Robert White, President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, has similarly argued recently that scientists are more capable of creating "rational" public policy than the public-at-large (White 1993).
Sustainability is not a technical problem to be solved or an "uncertain characteristic," as suggested by David Munro in his article [in A Sustainable World]. Sustainability is a vision of the future that provides us with a road map and helps to focus our attention on a set of values and ethical and moral principles by which to guide our actions, as individuals, and in relation to the institutional structures with which we have contact—governmental and nongovernmental, work-related, and other. I have argued elsewhere that sustainability is a community’s control of capital, in all of its forms—natural, human, human-created, social, and cultural—to ensure to the degree possible that present and future generations can attain a high degree of economic security and achieve democracy while maintaining the integrity of the ecological systems upon which all life and production depend (Viederman 1993).
We must begin by recognizing that many of the problems that we face today, as Barry Commoner observed many years ago, are not the result of incidental failures but of technological and scientific successes. Witness nuclear power and the problems of agriculture. The problems of environmental justice are also products of technological successes, without comparable social and moral development. Witness Los Angeles.
Science can describe, with different degrees of precision, what is, and to a lesser degree, can help us to assess what can be. Science cannot tell us what should be, and that is the key issue of sustainability. Science is a form of know-how: it is a means without consideration of ends. It underlines the differences between knowing how to do something, and knowing what to do.
Many have argued for new thinking about science at different times in this century. Einstein observed that "we cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them." John Maynard Keynes remarked that "the difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from old ones." And Friedrich Hayek, in his Nobel address, noted the irony that economists of his time were being called upon to solve the very problems which they had helped to create. Each of these observations should become an internal guide for each of us as we think about the role of knowledge in sustainability.
With this as introduction, let us return to the assigned question: "What do we need to know?" It may not come as a surprise to you by now that I think that is the wrong question on at least two counts.
First, the problem of sustainability is not a problem of lack of knowledge. Focusing on "need to know" as an issue assumes that lack of knowledge is the problem and suggests that there is a cure—namely, more and "adequate" knowledge. But as David Orr (1991) has correctly observed, "As important as research is, the lack of it is not the limiting factor in the conservation of biodiversity." The problems of sustainability are primarily problems of power, on the one hand, and political will, on the other hand. Debates over international whaling and wetlands in the United States reflect this. These issues, however, go beyond the purview of the task assigned to me, so I will focus more on my second concern, which relates to the nature of science and the limitations that are encountered in addressing issues of sustainability.
Sustainability confronts us with a situation where, as Funtowicz and Ravetz (1991) have observed, "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent." This is not a set of circumstances where conventional science excels, to say the least. Investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed research, as suggested by the proponents of the U.S. National Institutes for the Environment, is not likely to be responsive to such circumstances.
The problems of sustainability are systemic in nature. In a system there are no byproducts, there are no side-effects, nor are there any externalities, all of which are rather products of too narrow a paradigm. In a system there are only effects and products. Conventional science reflects the narrower paradigm, however, and is, therefore, often ill-equipped to deal with issues of significance for sustainability. Again, investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed research is unlikely to deal effectively with the system issues.
What, then, do we need?
First, I think we need to restate the question to conform with one of the key principles of sustainability. This is the humility principle, which states that we should recognize the limitations of human knowledge. The question then becomes: What is our tolerance for ignorance and uncertainty in order to act in a timely fashion with the highest degree of certainty possible while avoiding harm and doing good in the short and long-term? That is what Ravetz (1986) has called "useable ignorance."
Yes, there are immutable laws of nature. But despite the mythology of science, they are not always knowable to us, and most certainly not knowable—or rarely knowable—in the time frames necessary to right the wrongs of the past and prevent future harm. Yes, we humans are always dominating nature. We have no other choice, in many respects. The issue is do we dominate in ways that destroy nature, such as is the case of conventional agriculture, or in ways that can contribute to sustainability, as organic and sustainable agriculture are assumed to do. Can we dominate without or at least while minimizing adverse repercussions? This brings us to another dimension of the knowledge base—economics, which is increasingly being recognized as part of the problem of sustainability.
There are no immutable laws of economics. Nor are there what Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson has called "inexorable economic forces." Economics and the economy are human constructs. The assumptions and assertions that are part of conventional economics are key issues that we need to address if we are to achieve sustainability. Among these are the mantra of growth; the assumption that rising tides raise all ships; that increasing national wealth effects distribution and equity within a country; that comparative advantage and specialization apply in an economy where capital is mobile; that the market can deal with all issues, including equity; and that competition is good and natural, in all cases. The need for a new economics—an ecological economics—is clear.
What then are some of the things that we might need to know to achieve sustainability, along the lines of the definition that I have offered above that includes economic security, democracy, and ecological integrity? This is clearly not a research agenda. Rather, my purpose is to suggest questions that I believe are quite different from those more normally asked.
How can we design an economy that honors economic security, democracy, and ecological integrity? What would an economy look like that goes beyond socialism and beyond capitalism?
What can be done, working with indigenous peoples to help them to preserve their lives and cultures, as well as their habitats?
Can we begin technology development and product design with the question of need foremost in our minds, rather than simply worrying about how to do it better and in a less damaging way, as important as that is? What is appropriate technology? Does "industrial ecology" really deal with the fundamental issues, or simply postpone the ultimate problem?
What are appropriate measures of work and wealth that value sustainability? Ponder for the moment that the word "asset" once connoted "having enough." Can we move from "excessities" to necessities? How?
What determines the sustainability behavior of individuals and institutions, and how can it be encouraged? Finger (1993), for example, has completed empirical research in Switzerland that suggests that only environmental action, with values of equity and justice, lead to environmental behavior. Environmental experiences, linked to fear and anxiety and awareness about environmental problems do not appear to translate into environmentally responsible behavior. This runs counter to the usual suggestion that knowledge, values, and attitudes taken together create new behaviors.
How do we achieve a sustainable agriculture, one which includes sustainable communities? Is there such a thing as sustainable forestry? What are appropriate measures of production in agriculture and industry that reflect concern for sustainability? For example, why do we measure crop yields in terms of units of land, rather than in terms of, or in addition to, units of water used, land degraded, workers and consumers harmed, etc.?
How can we live in peace within and between families and communities and nations?
I would urge us all to add to the list, while recognizing that in many—in most cases—we sadly cannot wait for the answers. We must proceed with caution, respecting the two other principles of sustainability, beyond the humility principle already referred to. These are the precautionary principle: When in doubt (which, taken together with the humility principle, means most of the time) move slowly and think deeply; and the reversibility principle: Do not make irreversible changes.
We must make clear our own values, assumptions, and assertions and demand the same of others, in terms of the problem definition, the scientist’s response, the methods and models used, and the policy climate. We must understand the politics of knowledge, and the political economy of science. There are no knowledge products independent of institutional setting, financial support, scale, place, pace, and person. Fortunately, scientific bodies seem to be more accepting of this analysis now than has previously been the case, although the acceptance is far from universal.
Of particular importance is the recognition that much of the discussion of sustainability—all too often narrowly defined as ecological sustainability—has taken place in and is driven by northern elites. The South, no less interested in the concept of sustainability, has, however, spoken more of issues of poverty and inequity and justice. Only recently has there been a joining of the concerns.
But the northern paradigm of science still prevails. The prestige of southern institutions is still measured against a northern standard. Molecular biology is more highly valued than taxonomy as David Ehrenfeld (1989) has pointed out. As a result, what is taught, how it is taught, and what is researched all too often are designed to meet international standards rather than national needs. Thirty years ago Ali Mazrui referred to African universities as multinational corporations rather than national institutions (Mazrui 1975). The same is still too often the case all over the South. I have serious doubts that this contributes to sustainability.
The northern tradition of science has generally failed to value indigenous and experiential knowledge. While this is changing among some groups of scientists, the change is slow.
Knowledge generation for sustainability also demands that we involve stakeholders in the process because sustainability is more than ecological or economic. Sustainability is a statement of values; in effect, it is a vision of the future. Stakeholder involvement is also essential because, as I have noted earlier, "values are in dispute." In a democracy, value dispute requires participation.
In speaking of science for sustainability, it is important to observe that the corporate world has been stating its support for environmentalism more and more frequently in terms of support for "good science" rather than emotion. I suggest that is a smokescreen for inaction. The "good science" they want before they act—the exact answers to unanswerable questions—sounds good but is destructive. For example, the effects of the toxic soups that we are each exposed to by modern life cannot be assessed in a manner that reflects human variation. We do need science and knowledge to address the realities of sustainability, but it will be a new science, an issue-driven science. It will not pretend to be either value-free or ethically neutral, although it will certainly need to remain objective and unbiased in its approaches and continue to be based on rigorous hypothesis testing. The scientific enterprise in this new paradigm will have to accept the world as it is, rather than try to recreate it in ways that are more susceptible to its research needs. The circumstances that demand this new paradigm are worth repeating: "Facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent" (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1991). As a result, the new paradigm will focus attention on the qualitative assessment of the quantitative data available, recognizing that uncertainty exists. It will also extend the peer community involved in assessment to all stakeholders, as the only way to arrive at decisions that are both scientifically sound and politically tenable.
An "issue-driven" science would, therefore, begin with a problem orientation that is non-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary, recognizing at the outset that it is fraught with uncertainties. This distinguishes it from curiosity-driven science, where the effort is to minimize uncertainties. In this respect, the new paradigm is "post-normal," to differentiate it from the scientific paradigm that is now considered "normal." The characteristics of this new paradigm will include:
I would like to close with two observations. First, history teaches us that we should expect the unexpected. We should, therefore, study history as part of the knowledge base for sustainability, as a constant reminder of humans’ incapacity to manage the planet.
Second, knowledge is obviously better than ignorance. But wisdom is even better. We should proceed with caution and humility, and try to avoid doing something that cannot be undone.
Brooks, H. 1992. The concepts of sustainable development and environmentally sound technology. ATAS Bulletin 1(7): 1924.
Ehrenfeld, D. 1989. Forgetting. Orion 8:4.
Finger, M. 1993. When knowledge is inaction: Exploring the relationships between environmental experience, learning, and behavior. Paper available from author.
Funtowicz, S., and J. Ravetz. 1991. A new scientific methodology for global environmental issues. In Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability, ed. R. Costanza. Columbia University Press, New York.
Hayden, G. 1991. Institutional policy making. In Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability, ed. R. Costanza. Columbia University Press, New York.
Mazrui, A. 1975. The African university as a multinational corporation. Harvard Educational Review 45(2): 191210.
Orr, D. 1991. Conservation Biology.
Ravetz, J. 1986. Useable knowledge, useable ignorance: Incomplete science with policy. In Sustainable development of the biosphere, ed. W. E. Clark and R. E. Munn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Viederman, S. 1993. The economics and economy of sustainability: Five capitals and three pillars. Talk delivered to Delaware Estuary Program. Available from Noyes Foundation, New York.
White, R. 1993. Regulations shouldn’t be relics. Technology Review 96(4): 66.
The Copyright & caveats notice applies to the entire contents of this website.