Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB): Integrating Social Science and the Humanities into Solving Sustainability Challenges

Ilan Kelman, Eugene A. Rosa, Tom R. Burns, Paul Ehrlich, Joan M. Diamond, Nora Machado, Donald Kennedy, and Lennart Olsson


Dealing with Scientific Silos and Uncertainties

Comprehensive assessments have shown the wide variety of severe environmental problems facing and caused by humanity (e.g. Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013; IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2007; MEA (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) 2005; Mitchell et al. 2006). These problems result largely from the activities of a human population whose consumptive patterns have already exceeded the long-term capacity of the Earth to support that population (Rees 2006, 2013).

The problems fit a general pattern of diminishing marginal returns (Klare 2012) that Tainter (1988) saw as indicative of the coming collapse of complex societies. Despite the physical science knowledge establishing the current, threatened state of the Earth, concerted action on this knowledge is lacking.

Irrespective of the lack of substantive, concerted action, many examples exist of improvements. One instance has been policies and pressures to reduce the use of leaded gasoline to cut the amount of lead contamination in our bodies. Thomas et al. (1999) conducted a meta-analysis of nineteen studies on blood lead levels across all six inhabited continents. Seventeen of the studies measure blood lead levels before and after major reductions in the use of leaded gasoline. The remaining two studies surveyed populations with limited exposure to gasoline. They conclude that reducing lead in gasoline reduces the amount of lead in people's bodies.

Another example of an environmental improvement relates to acid rain. Acid rain refers to emissions of sulfur and nitrogen compounds, such as from coal-fired electricity generation plants, reducing the pH of rain. When acidic rain falls, it harms ecosystems such as by reducing the pH of soils and lakes, among other effects. Legislation to limit sulfur and nitrogen emissions in places such as North America and Europe reduced acid rain, permitting the ecosystems to recover (e.g. Reis et al. 2012).

Nevertheless, at least two overarching sustainability challenges remain. First, new environmental problems have emerged. For instance, recent research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals has highlighted humanity's ignorance of both their direct effects on human and environmental health and the myriad of potential synergisms among these toxins (Vandenberg et al. 2012). Another poignant example concerns negative, unintended consequences of the otherwise major achievement of The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer from 1987. This protocol phased out the production and use of a list of chemicals which, when vented into the atmosphere, depleted the stratospheric ozone layer. Many were also greenhouse gases. Ironically, the substitutes for the ozone-depleting chemicals are also significant greenhouse gases, although it is hard to determine which chemicals are worse because complete life cycle analyses are needed (Velders et al. 2009). A “solution” to one environmental problem can cause or exacerbate other ones.

The second overarching sustainability challenge is that major differences in environmental conditions are evident based on location. For example, the UK has significantly reduced urban air pollution leading to an improvement in human health (Seaton et al. 1995) in contrast to Beijing where air pollution and associated human health impacts are staggering (Zhang et al. 2007). Acid rain also continues to be a major problem in China (Zhang et al. 2012), compared to the improvements in Europe and the USA mentioned above. Similarly, forestry regulation for multiple uses including logging is detailed and is enforced in Oregon leading to intensive management of forestry ecosystems (Boyle et al. 1997), compared to rampant unregulated and highly destructive deforestation in Papua New Guinea (Bryan et al. 2010). These examples illustrate a remarkable contrast. The threats to humanity's future are often clear from the scientific evidence. Environment and sustainability problems can be solved and have been solved in some locations. Other locations do not apply the available knowledge for action while some new problems continue to emerge. Overall, the conclusion is that society has been unable or unwilling to take comprehensive steps to address the well-documented and continuing environmental and sustainability challenges, including with respect to resource management.

One difficulty in making sense of the scientific evidence and applying it for concerted action is the large degree of disciplinary silos. Plenty is published on, for instance, factors influencing pollutant transport to the Arctic (e.g. Downie and Fenge 2003; Eckhardt et al. 2003), but the work has varying levels of engagement with different disciplines and varying levels of resultant action from the knowledge. Sometimes, publications provide only a physical or chemical description without connection to any form of social science or policy. That is not inherently detrimental, since the physical science is a needed input and deserves publication in its own right. Nevertheless, much more than physical science is needed to understand society's interaction with resources and the environment—and how to inspire and formulate action addressing the problems identified.

Often, caught in their disciplinary silos, physical scientists will aim for full and comprehensive knowledge of a problem before being willing to recommend any form of action. Social science indicates that is not necessary, since techniques for decisionmaking under uncertainty exist alongside approaches for selecting action pathways which are likely to be beneficial over the long-term irrespective of the uncertainties and irrespective of what is not known. In fact, many positive examples exist of tackling sustainability problems without full physical science knowledge. These examples emerge from recent history, such as cleaning up Lake Erie and The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer mentioned above.

Current initiatives exist as well. As a prominent example, little scientific doubt exists regarding observations about contemporary climate change and the human influences on it (IPCC 2007). Much work remains to be completed regarding, amongst other physical science challenges, feedback mechanisms from clouds (Dessler 2010) and the impact of climate change on tropical cyclones (Knutson et al. 2010). Supporting such physical science research would not only better understand the ultimate consequences of climate change, but would also highlight the importance of supporting curiosity-driven research with its unknown, and often spectacular, gains for humanity. While that research is ongoing, many communities are nonetheless taking action on their own, based on what is known, irrespective of the uncertainties and any knowledge limits.

Despite, or perhaps because of, any scientific uncertainties regarding climate change, Transition Towns (Barry and Quilley 2009) and relocalization movements (Kelman 2008) aim to transform entire cities toward pathways that are sustainable, irrespective of the climate pathway which emerges. Sector-specific approaches include “guerilla gardening” to use open space for food (Reynolds 2008) and community teams to reduce disaster vulnerability and to improve disaster response (Flint and Brennan 2006). These initiatives accept the physical science description of the problems, including the uncertainties and unknowns. They nevertheless aim to act on the basis of social sciences and humanities knowledge that exists, in order to help society to effect change irrespective of which pathway the climate pursues.

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