Human activity is affecting the Earth's natural systems and resources
Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video
A meeting in London this week will show whether science can not only diagnose our environmental crisis but also provide effective solutions.
One of the most significant achievements of science over the past few decades has been to provide convincing evidence that human activity has had a growing and potentially unsustainable impact on virtually every aspect of our planet.
The scientific community now needs to help society find a way out of this situation and on to a sustainable course of social and economic development that is compatible with the planet's natural systems and finite resources.
An opportunity to showcase how this could be done arises next week in the United Kingdom, at the major international conference Planet Under Pressure (PUP), held in London on 26–29 March 2012.
The meeting takes place in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012, two decades after Brazil hosted a landmark meeting where treaties were signed on climate, biodiversity and desertification.
The organisers of the London meeting face the challenge of ensuring its recommendations are both concrete and viable if they are to have any lasting impact, not only at Rio+20 but beyond.
The conference must not merely project a litany of warnings of impending catastrophe, voice complaints about the lack of progress in achieving the goals of earlier treaties, or propose new research initiatives without a clear indication of how their results will be used.
Politicians need evidence
The warnings of catastrophe are, of course, still essential, particularly at a time when the minds of most politicians and their electorates in Western nations are focussed on financial issues of more immediate concern.
As economists in these countries struggle to handle vast deficits, they need reminding that the easy credit which, in part, led to the debt crisis, has fuelled a rapacious consumerism that has exacerbated the environmental crisis.
It is no longer sufficient for economic solutions — and the political actions they require — to be based on fiscal arguments alone.
It is also essential to consider the viability of the natural systems on which all social activity depends as an integral part of any path out of the financial crisis.
The more evidence that scientists can gather to support this, and the better they outline the likely consequences of failure to change current trends, the higher the chances that politicians will adopt policies that are sustainable both economically and environmentally .
But demonstrating the scale and urgency of the problem is not sufficient. It is equally important to ensure that scientists become directly engaged in efforts to draw up and implement solutions at all levels of society.
This means, for example, that the scientific community needs to reorganise itself so it can interact more directly and effectively with policymakers, rather than lecturing them from a distance.
One way that this can be achieved is by ensuring that research priorities are determined by the problems that society needs solving, rather than issues researchers find intellectually stimulating. Increasing the amount of interdisciplinary work required to solve the kinds of complex problems at hand is another option.
Better engagement also means strengthening science advisory mechanisms and local governance. This will ensure that policymakers are adequately informed about the implications of their decisions, for example on steps to mitigate the effects of climate change, and that decisions are guided by scientific evidence. This is already on the agenda for Rio+20.
Finally, it means scientists must link their problem-solving to practical mechanisms that can put solutions into effect — for example, by establishing effective technology transfer mechanisms to get novel solutions to the marketplace where they can be disseminated, and by taking measures to fill the gap if the market fails.
Science for society
There is plenty of evidence that, in planning next week's Planet Under Pressure meeting, the organisers have accepted the need for greater engagement of scientists working to meet social needs and priorities. Indeed, they have designed the meeting with this in mind, which some of the organisers describe as unique.
For example, it will involve an unprecedented mix of disciplines debating issues such as the creation of sustainable development goals, and the viability of 'planetary boundaries' as a key concept in tackling sustainability problems.
Also, many of the sessions will focus directly on how best to get science into policy.
Both features of the meeting have already generated a high level of excitement among participating scientists at the prospect of an event that is unique both in its multidisciplinary approach and its commitment to science as the proposer — and assessor — of solutions to planetary problems.
This enthusiasm seems likely to be reflected in a final declaration that emphasises how science can serve society more effectively, as humanity faces the crisis ahead.
But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating: discussions, detailed analysis and bold declarations of intent alone are not enough. They require commitment and follow-through.
Urgent action is needed to steer the planet towards a more sustainable future. Scientists can draw up the charts of where to go, and the lists of what society must do to get there.
But they also need to help directly, and in practical ways, to ensure that it does. The stakes are too high to fail.
Charles Dhewa ( Zimbabwe )
26 March 2012
Dear David, This issue is too big for scientists alone. We need to bring in other sources of knowledge which science take for granted. The world is no longer as linear as science has always wanted everyone to believe. The Devil is in What Science doesn't know and will never know. Disciplined experimentation no longer produces explicit, objective knowledge. We have to start taking into account several different kinds of human knowledge out there. The sooner we do this the better. For too long we have been sold the myth that the only valid knowledge is cumulative (acquired through reading many books and peer review processes). Ironically, in spite of advances in science and technology, poverty is increasing and threats from climate change are becoming more real.
Knowledge Transfer Africa
Montanus ( United States of America )
27 March 2012
Scientists talk to policymakers - but nobody engages the public effectively. The people resist whatever change is proposed because it doesn't come from them and doesn't represent their opinion (or understanding). "Policy makers" may matter more in Europe, but as long as no one is cultivating popular culture scientists and policy makers will not have the consent of the governed. I have more hope for implementation of "bottom up" strategies and solutions than for all the piled up shelf-paper.
Arnoldo ( Mico University College | Jamaica )
29 March 2012
As usual, well said David,
Space may not have permitted you to emphasize the pivotal roles of the informal and formal private sectors in the equation of survival. These sectors must be educated sufficiently to undertake support and development, as well as the application of the sustainable principles of science, by the uninhibited employment of more knowledge workers to ensure increased efficiency and responsibility.
arasheedyassin ( Yemen )
5 April 2012
It was/is supposed that science finds sustainable solutions for problems. in the process, we have come across "bottom-up approaches, problem oriented approaches, technology transfer, generation of scientific solutions, two-way channel approaches, participatory approaches, socioeconomic surveys/solutions, so on a and so forth".
We have spent billions on mitigations, motivations, training, incentives, support money, aids, etc. over a span of 70-80 years of persistent research/science.
The globe is getting poorer in every aspect. May be science has not prioritise or did not move simultaneously with the problems risen by science itself during the course of implementation. We should learn from our mistakes and look for solutions and do not conduct approaches which are very often non-relevant to the problems generated by science itself. Dr, A. Rahed
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