Can we communicate our way to sustainability?
Humans have transformed Earth to such a degree that humanity is becoming a force of nature. Turning this into a positive force of change – at scale and speed – is crucial for our well-being.
These two sentences capture the backdrop for today’s meeting in Oslo, organized by Future Earth Norway. The following questions will be addressed:
• What role does communication play on the road to sustainability?
• How can communication connect and inspire action and engagement to meet the challenges ahead?
• Do we need radical communication for brave actions?
• What does that entail for journalists, scientists, communicators, designers and others working to communicate to inspire positive change?
Few questions are as pressing as these. And few are as complex. Expertise from a broad range of disciplines is required to deal with this complexity. In this perspective, I am pleased to note that Future Earth Norway aspires to provide an arena for a multidisciplinary approach to sustainability, drawing on knowledge from the natural and social sciences, humanities, engineering, and law. The University of Oslo is happy to host the secretariat of this excellent initiative. And I am grateful for having been invited to open today’s seminar, even more so since sustainability and global governance are special interests of mine.
That man has contributed to climate change has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt. Politicians from most of the world and from most – but certainly not all – political beliefs and parties agree that we need to act on climate change. However well proven and however well backed by governments, politicians and civil society, the green transformation is yet to come. We still live in a carbon based society, and despite the bleakness of future scenarios, the will to change our ways is not in evidence. There is not a strong enough connection between what we know and what we do.
As for today’s question “Can we communicate our way to sustainability?” I am confident we all agree that communication alone is not enough to ensure sustainability. Nor can we attain sustainability by relying solely on research. We have to connect: research must connect with communication, education must connect with research, and disciplines must connect with each other.
The role of Future Earth
One of the most innovative aspects of Future Earth is its emphasis on co-design and co-production of knowledge with the people who need it and use it. Future Earth benefits from Knowledge Action Networks developed around themes such as Cities, Oceans, Health and Transformations. One recent example of interdisciplinary research from The University of Oslo is «SMART» - a project on Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade, led by professor Beate Sjåfjell at the Faculty of Law. This project addresses the following question: How can global value chains of products be made environmentally and socially sustainable? The project involves 25 research institutions and more than 50 researchers from various parts of the world, and is truly interdisciplinary. It connects excellent research with impact in society.
Global governance and collective action
The following quote powerfully communicates the challenges facing the environment:
The present decade has been marked by a retreat from social concerns. Scientists bring to our attention urgent but complex problems bearing on our very survival: a warming globe, threats to the Earth's ozone layer, deserts consuming agricultural land. We respond by demanding more details, and by assigning the problems to institutions ill-equipped to cope with them. Environmental degradation, first seen as mainly a problem of the rich nations and a side effect of industrial wealth, has become a survival issue for developing nations. It is part of the downward spiral of linked ecological and economic decline in which many of the poorest nations are trapped. Despite official hope expressed on all sides, no trends identifiable today, no programmes or policies, offer any real hope of narrowing the growing gap between rich and poor nations. And as part of our "development", we have amassed weapons arsenals capable of diverting the paths that evolution has followed for millions of years and of creating a planet our ancestors would not recognize (Our Common Future, Chairman’s Foreword, March 1987).
The above quote – written by the mother of the term sustainable development Gro Harlem Brundtland 19 years ago – could have been written today, with the obvious exception of the reference to the threat to the ozone layer. Two years back a UN panel of scientists reported that the ozone layer was recovering. "It's a victory for diplomacy and for science and for the fact that we were able to work together," as Nobel Prize winning chemist Mario Molina put it in an interview with AP. Regretfully this victory stands more or less alone in the realm of international environmental diplomacy.
Tomorrow global leaders convene in New York to sign the Paris climate agreement adopted last December. It looks as though the agreement could enter into force more rapidly than expected, as many countries are moving quickly. We must nurture the hope that in twenty years from now, we can look back and see a victory akin to that obtained for the ozone layer.
I am grateful to Future Earth Norway and Anders Lundell for input to this blog.