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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

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SDSU assistant professor of geography Arielle Levine (standing) facilitates a mapping workshop in American Samoa. (Photo courtesy of Arielle Levine) SDSU assistant professor of geography Arielle Levine (standing) facilitates a mapping workshop in American Samoa. (Photo courtesy of Arielle Levine)

Sustainability's Social Core

An SDSU researcher is part of a team studying how social indicators influence the goals of sustainability.
By SDSU News Team and Lancaster University News Team

From flooding and crop failure to air quality and water pollution, governments around the globe are grappling with the challenge of shaping a sustainable future for both people and nature. Yet these global efforts to protect the planet will fail unless concepts like equality and wellbeing are taken into account, according to a new paper published today in the journal Science.

“Our quest to achieve a healthy and sustainable environment utterly depends on understanding how human wellbeing is linked to the environment and impacted by our management of it,” said the project’s principal investigator, Phil Levin of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Physical and economic indicators such as carbon emissions and gross domestic product (GDP) are frequently tracked in sustainability studies and monitoring programs, mainly because it’s comparatively easy to account for such numbers, said San Diego State University assistant professor of geography and study co-author Arielle Levine.

“For the most part, researchers and policymakers are trying to find things they can easily quantify,” Levine said. “Things that you can’t quantify easily—values, human agency, power, cultural context—often get lost in the process.”

The paper, led by Christina Hicks of Lancaster University, argues that researchers and policymakers need to engage with these key social concepts as well as science if fair and lasting changes to the environment are going to take hold. 

The authors, who also include social scientists from the University of Northumbria and the University of Washington, identify seven key social concepts that are often marginalized in efforts to meet sustainability goals.

The concepts identified are:

  • wellbeing

  • culture

  • values

  • inequality

  •  justice

  • power

  • agency (a sense of self-determination) 

The authors argue that these concepts are critical to informing decision-making and shaping policies for a more sustainable future.

The researchers suggest that, while these concepts are harder to quantify than GDP or carbon emissions, they can be measured. The paper highlights methods being developed by academics and policymakers to quantify such concepts as wellbeing, self-determination, values and inequality. Without these perspectives, the authors argue, researchers risk going down a road that focuses on protecting the planet but is incompatible with human wellbeing.

“For me it all comes down to creating a more fair world,” Hicks said. ”We can act to protect our environment, but sometimes those actions can increase inequality and that approach is not going to be sustainable in the long term. For example we have created marine parks and terrestrial parks to protect nature and biodiversity and quite rightly so, but in doing that we have sometimes taken away people’s livelihoods, moved people off their own land.”

“Without attention to whose well-being is measured and the values that underlie goals, we risk exacerbating inequalities and eroding the connections to nature that motivate people to practice stewardship and care for one another,” said co-author Melissa Poe of Washington Sea Grant, a Washington state–based research and outreach organization.

The paper highlights the importance of social scientists working alongside environmental scientists and policy makers.

“Understanding how people rely on, relate to and shape their environment is critical to creating more informed and sustainable environmental policies,” Levine said.  “Interdisciplinary collaborations that assess how these policies influence both people and nature are an important step toward meeting global sustainability goals.”