The Scientific Imagination and Sustainability – by Michael F. Weinstein

In sustainability science, we often speak about “thresholds” or “tipping points,” those that move ecosystems or the processes therein to new stable (or unstable) states.  My own interest in pursuing this discipline did not originate as identifiable milestones, epiphanies or single moments of enlightenment, but rather from individually small, cumulative impacts that gradually drew me into the field.

Among these are my life-long interest in nature, not necessarily as an environmentalist, but as an individual who likes being outdoors and participating in outdoor activities. Over a five year period, when I was between the age of eight and twelve, my parents rented a summer cottage at Rockaway Beach, Queens;  while I enjoyed the beachfront and swimming, I became a true denizen of the Jamaica Bay salt marshes, spending endless hours (to my parents’ consternation) exploring the flora and fauna of these wondrous ecosystems.  It is no surprise therefore, that my professional training and research discipline focuses on coastal ecology and the links between tidal wetlands and fisheries production.  As an avid follower of Ray Forrest’s children’s show, the Forrest Rangers in the late 1940s, I became a biologist by age six.

In my latter professional years, somewhat influenced by graduate student descriptors of aging (i.e., highly experienced) faculty as “silverbacks,” I have become conscious of my own mortality and possessed by the drive to take forty plus years of learning and turn it into some kind of legacy. After all, I must have learned something in that time that might constitute “sage advice” for future generations.

But I try to not be a hypocrite. I believe in a balance between ecology and economy, together protecting the ecosystems that sustain us and afford humankind maximal quality of life.  I am also keenly aware that we cannot have it both ways.  Creating the balance requires compromise, sacrifice and trade-offs that will leave some stakeholders unhappy — the root cause of the “we versus them” mentality that too often pervades the dialogue of sustainable development.

The solutions to resolving the emerging differences that will arise on the path to long-term sustainability will, in part, require the continued development and refinement of conflict management and social learning.  Nowhere is this more manifest than in the call for a new “social contract for science” championed by Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — better communication of existing knowledge, and better guidance about decision making in the face of uncertainty.

Toward that end, I believe there must be transdisciplinary training of a new generation of scientists with the “savvy to work at the policy-science interface,” along with changes in university curricula to accommodate this training.  The “new contract” will be predicated on scientists’ willingness to engage the public and address the urgent needs of society; disseminate new knowledge widely in order to inform decision-making; exercise good judgment, wisdom and, most importantly, humility (often scientists appear arrogant and “above the masses” in assessing their own importance); and, finally, recognize the magnitude of human domination of the planet.

Transdisiplinarity is critical because a sustainable biosphere is not only ecologically sound, but economically feasible and socially just.

The Institute for Sustainability Studies at Montclair State Universitywill build upon four major “pillars”: (a) the biological system emphasizing the intertwined fates of humanity and the natural resource base — biodiversity, restoration ecology, and conservation biology are essential components; (b) the geophysical system addressing climate and biogeochemical cycling and grounded in efforts to understand the earth as a system; (c) the social system concerning itself with how human institutions, economic systems, and beliefs shape the interactions between society and the environment; and (d) the technological system enhancing basic technological knowledge, designs, and processes that produce more social goods with less residual environmental damage. 

 

Humans are a true force of nature; more than most species, we have created the ecosystems we live in; and, like the weather, forecasting the consequences of our actions is extremely complex.  Understanding the interplay of multiple interacting drivers (along with a healthy dose of stochasticity), will require highly sophisticated systems tools to build confidence in the accuracy of our predictions.   For example, if you ask the simple question – “Have human activities warmed the earth?” — the answer has required a huge investment in human intellectual capital, highly advanced systems models, and a decades-long debate to reach general consensus.

Salman Rushdie probably did not have sustainability science in mind in 2005 when he commented in an interview, “It seems to me that the nature of true tragedy is when something is so badly broken that, with the best will in the world, you can’t put it back together again, and what was broken has to stay broken.”

Undoubtedly, the world’s ecosystems are increasingly “broken” and may reach new thresholds of irreversible decline.  To address this issue, sustainability scientists, decision-makers and ecosystem managers world-wide have joined the debate on how best to reverse the trends of past centuries. The challenge is to reconcile society’s desire to conserve, preserve, restore and rehabilitate the life support systems that surround us and their concomitant natural variability, complexity, resilience and biodiversity while at the very same time ensure the reliable and predictable provision of goods and services from these very same systems.

From October 25-27, 2010, two dozen of the world’s top scientists will convene before an audience of 400+ attendees at Montclair State University in a forum to address sustainability challenges and discuss what is working, and what is not; and how we can do better.  The symposium will provide a fertile ground for “cross-pollinating” ideas, and offer a platform from which to assess progress, present current research, and discuss emerging curricula in sustainability science; identify information gaps and new data requirements; and evaluate current models and other forecasting tools.

Dr. John Sterman of MIT, a symposium participant, offers this provocative observation as a context for the coming debate: “As the world changes, decision makers and the scientific community increasingly recognize that we are not only failing to resolve the persistent sustainability problems we face, but are in fact causing them.”

 

— Michael F. Weinstein, PhD. Director, Institute for Sustainability Studies, MSU

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