Three ways for social science to help the environment

Climate & Natural resources07 Dec 2009Sara Hughes

I came to the 2009 Amsterdam Conference on Earth System Governance with a specific question in mind: what role can social science play in helping to solve environmental problems? This topic came up in nearly every presentation I listened to and every conversation I had. To me, this in itself is significant. If social science is to play a role, it should be conscious of this role and actively shaping it. That being said, there are no clear answers. My conclusion is that there are three ways social science can help, and it is up to researchers to decide which path (if any) they would like to take.

This item was part of the blog series ‘Navigating the Anthropocene’

The Earth system is changing rapidly due to human activity. The scale of human interference with planetary systems is such that our time could be recognized as a new era in planetary history: the ‘anthropocene’. The adverse impacts of human activities could, inadvertently, even change the Earth system irreversibly to a mode inhospitable to humans and other life. Navigating the anthropocene is thus a key challenge for policy makers and a challenge for (social) sciences because the institutions, organizations and governance systems by which humans currently govern their relationship with the environment are not only insufficient, but also poorly understood.

The 2009 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change – ‘Earth System Governance, People, Places, and the Planet’, will be held on 2-4 December. The event brings together about 400 international scientists to address the fundamental and applied research challenge to develop integrated systems of governance, from the local to the global level, that can help to ensure the sustainable development of the coupled socio-ecological system that the Earth has become – that can support navigation through the anthropocene. The Broker web editor Louise Stoddard and a number of conference participants will contribute to this blog before, during and after the event.

The first path is the traditional path. On this path, scientists work busily at their desks, are fairly removed from the everyday concerns of policy makers, and pursue research questions that fascinate and motivate them. I believe this kind of science path does contribute to the general knowledge bank we have at our disposal and can be of use to people looking for answers to policy questions. Especially in today’s world of research-savvy NGOs and evidence-based policy, it seems possible that the ‘trickle down’ effect of good science is alive. There were many examples of this type of science at the meeting this week: solid empirical works that could be used by people if they were to need it.

However, this path may not be a very direct one. A second path that I discovered this week is the action path. On this path, social scientists work actively with communities to achieve change through the research process itself. What does this mean? It means social scientists might organize meetings where stakeholders can engage in debate, demonstrate sustainability projects, or educate communities about their rights. This research path actively engages with communities to achieve the change people would like to see, and at the same time reflects on that change and uses the experience to improve social science. Some researchers this week told stories about their experience with this type of research, and the results were usually impressive.

This type of action research is not attractive to all social scientists. The third path social scientists can take to help solve environmental problems is the framing path. There are many ways to frame a given environmental problem, and researchers have control over how they make this decision. At this morning’s semi-plenary session on ‘New Theories in Earth System Governance’, each speaker spoke convincingly about the role framing plays in the policy process, and how people like Al Gore help change this framing. For example, it may not always be useful to frame environmental problems as climate change problems. Instead, perhaps our research should focus on production patterns, transportation systems, or property rights. This may help the research results to gain political traction and therefore produce faster improvements in larger issues like climate change. Our community and our funders don’t always make this easy for us. Even if climate change lacks political traction for our respective policy makers, it might have major traction for conference organizers, journal editors and funding agencies. The success of this path depends not only on our choices as individuals but our culture as a research community. Funny, it seems the change starts with us!