A Research Agenda for and from MAHB

Ehrlich and Kennedy (2005, p. 563) earlier defined a five-point research agenda for MAHB to highlight social sciences and humanities integrating with physical sciences:

(i) what social scientists and others know about mechanisms of cultural evolution and how changes in direction might be steered democratically; (ii) how scarce and unevenly distributed non-renewable resources are used and some of the ethical connections between distribution, economic opportunity, and access; (iii) ethical issues related to the world trade system; (iv) conflicts between individual reproductive desires and environmental goals; and

(v) economic, racial, and gender inequity as contributors to environmental deterioration.

This section specifies expanded research questions for MAHB within reconfigured categories, as future opportunities for social science integration for resource management and sustainability.

Socio-cultural Change for Sustainability

Behavioral factors for socio-cultural change are frequently missed from technical perspectives of meeting sustainability challenges. In particular, for problems such as resource management, technical solutions are often imposed without considering how the problem might be overcome through behavior or how the solution itself might unintentionally alter behavior (e.g. Wilde 1994). By integrating social science and the humanities into physical sciences and policy processes, the risk of unintended consequences is diminished and policy making is likely to be more effective.

For example, in speaking with people owning hybrid cars, the authors have noticed a tendency for the owners to assume that driving is not a problem because their car is a hybrid. In fact, they often drive more than before. A useful solution to reduce fossil fuel consumption exists, through hybrid cars, leading to increased driving which counteracts some of the gain while increasing congestion and the need for road maintenance. Further investigation of two key classes of behavioral factors in conjunction with the technical solutions could assist in overcoming such challenges.

The first class is socio-cultural mechanisms of re-framing, re-definition, and other cognitive shifts so that problems are seen from new perspectives and new solutions are envisioned. That includes developing new narratives and discourses which play a major role in many cognitive shifts. One classic baseline is 'paradigm shifts' (Kuhn 1962), a concept which has been critiqued (Toulmin 1972) with the debate raging ever since, but nonetheless applied to public policy paradigm shifts (e.g. Carson et al. 2009). As is usual, reality seems to display both sudden and evolutionary changes in ideas, thoughts, and actions. Much more work is needed to understand the traits of changes at different time scales and how the time scale of behavioral change could be influenced. For example, some attribute a sudden change in U.S. forest management towards wildfire suppression as a result of the movie Bambi (Nash 1985). That compares to a later, much more gradual shift towards different regimes of managed burns (North et al. 2012).

The second class of key behavioral factors is understanding the main players who influence behavioral change with respect to policy and institutional shifts. The categories players which are particularly underrepresented in studies are:

(a) Social movements, because they raise awareness and play critical roles in cognitive changes and the development of new identities (Carson et al. 2009). Examples are “Corporate (Social) Responsibility” and “Green Citizens”.

(b) Institutions exercising social power which may facilitate or constrain sustainability-related behavior. Advertising plays a key role. An example is airlines and car companies using environmental imagery and identities to sell their products. Another example is brandjacking, such as an environmental organization hijacking a corporate brand as epitomized by Greenpeace mocking Shell's “Arctic Ready” campaign (arcticready.com).

(c) Specific champions or icons, individual and organizational, in promoting a new sustainability ethos and new sustainability practices. Performing artists and sports stars often play key roles. United Nations agencies, for instance, use celebrities as Goodwill Ambassadors and Special Envoys. Midttun (2013) highlights the role of “cultural educators and protagonists” in developing a sustainability ethos and sustainability practices.

Within socio-cultural change for sustainability, several MAHB members have embarked on a study of island communities. Many island communities seek sociocultural change because they are now highly vulnerable to the forms of social and environmental disasters which will be expected to affect most of humanity in the future, unless sustainable pathways are chosen. This research focuses on innovative responses, particularly to climate change challenges, from technical, economic, governance, and cultural perspectives. For example, innovation in energy technologies and policies, which often need to be self-sufficient for isolated island communities, are described by Baumgartner and Burns (1984) and Woodward et al. (1994). A related research program involving MAHB partners identifies ways in which human agents (individuals and collectives) bring about technical, economic, governance, and cultural innovation in response to climate change through case studies of cultures and institutions in Scandinavia, China, and Ghana (Midttun 2009).

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