Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Quine, redux? (who doesn't?):

Over the past two decades, our understanding of the many and various facets of global environmental change has grown enormously. We have gained knowledge ranging from fundamental discoveries concerning the mechanisms that underlie chemical cycles to new observations of how societies adapt to environmental changes.

This new knowledge has been accompanied by a growing appreciation for the scale and complexity of the interconnected systems we are attempting to understand and manage. At the recent World Academies of Science Conference on 'Transition to Sustainability in the 21st Century,' Robert Kates, a scholar from the United States, succinctly stated, ...if almost everything is connected to almost everything else, then how is one to avoid the practical impossibility of having to study everything in order to know anything? Over the last several hundred years, the answer for science has been reductionism: the procedure by which a thorough understanding of the parts of a problem and their interactions will lead to an understanding of the whole.

Unfortunately, two factors complicate the application of this procedure to environmental issues. First, interactions between ecological, climatological, and social systems are highly nonlinear and in fact may be chaotic, settling in meta-stable states that might not be predictable from any level of knowledge of the individual parts.

Second, reductionism tends to operate on a long time scale. Traditional academic activities operate on time scales much longer than the decision processes of the political and private sectors. In fact, the time scales associated with scientific study may be longer than that of evolution between meta-stable socio-environmental states, so even if we reached understanding of one state of the system, it might already have jumped to another. This kind of reasoning has led to the ?precautionary approach? behind Principle 15 of the UNCED Rio Declaration (1) which urges preventive political action to prevent possible harm before full scientific certainty is reached.

In combination with political reality, reductionism has left us with a fractured system within which international environmental conventions are developed and implemented separately, even though they are actually interdependent in a physical sense. We believe that rising carbon dioxide levels may be mitigated by planting forests, but we have little understanding of how this practice would affect biodiversity. National systems for environmental research, monitoring, assessment, management, and policy are loosely coordinated at best, both within countries and internationally. For the present, the political and financial capital required to produce a globally coordinated response is perceived to be too large for most countries. However, the problem is more complex than a lack of political and financial capital.

We are only beginning to understand the primary socio-economic drivers behind global environmental change. When the development path followed by countries has a far greater impact on emissions than actions taken under environmental agreements, as is now the case, large amounts of capital are expended on trying to resolve problems that are likely to be secondary. The precautionary principle is well-intentioned and may claim some preventive successes, but in periods of high uncertainty it will inevitably also result in expensive efforts that lead to naught.

How then is society to tackle the multiple scales of organization inherent in these socio-economic drivers, which span everything from understanding molecular-scale phenomena to managing biomes, and in another dimension, from understanding the social attitudes of individual consumers to formulating macroeconomic policy? How can science maintain a credible role within social processes that require action based on imperfect information? Specifically, how can global environmental change science contribute to trajectories of development that reduce vulnerability and increase resilience?

For science the answer is an uncomfortable one. The answer will also require scientists to undertake a process of inquiry that is more adaptive, integrative, interdisciplinary, and synthesizing than at present (2,3) Such a process challenges a central tenet of the scientific method because it requires that the scientific community be a social actor, and not simply an independent observer. It requires a change in scientific culture.

To a certain extent, this change is already under way. Early concepts, like those set forth in James Lovelock's Gaia (4), Barbara Ward's Spaceship Earth (5) and the sometimes impenetrable ramblings of Buckminster Fuller (6), provided a contextual seed that probably contributed to various physical sciences' interacting to produce "climate change science." Further combinations produced "Earth systems science," and later, in combination with biology and ecology, the health and socio-economic sciences produced "global environmental change science." Today the discussion is moving towards what is being called "sustainability science" (7,8,9) -- an adaptive, integrative, interdisciplinary, and synthesizing interaction of the kind described above. What is perhaps more important, sustainability science is beginning to lay the foundations of hard data and sound science that have been lacking in previous attempts at defining 'sustainability.'

It is vital that discussions about sustainability science involve substantive participation and contribution by developing nations. Environmental change is of the highest priority to the developing world because these regions are the most vulnerable to the effects of change, but their societies are the least resilient, with little ability to mitigate and adapt to those effects. The developing nations must be encouraged to contribute their local knowledge and experience to sustainability science. Furthermore, they should be encouraged to take actions that will reduce their overall vulnerability, such as strengthening infrastructure and capacity in order to help mitigation efforts, and formulating adaptation strategies that make sense locally. As far as possible, sustainability science research should be done in the developing world, by scientists from the developing world, and for the benefit of the developing world. In what context can discussion, development, and practice of sustainability science be carried out? What new structures must come into existence to allow it to succeed?

First of all, the discussion must take place among peers, and the development must be fully cooperative. If a sense of local ownership is to emerge, researchers in the physical and social sciences disciplines must interact with one another, with private sector interests, and with policy-makers in the context of a single problem. Second, the practice must be consistent over a long enough period, and over a large enough geographic area, to appreciably contribute to a solution of the problem that will result in a 'livable community.'

I suggest that some of the required social structures and some of the tools and requirements for the integrative process already exist, or are about to emerge. For example, the convergence that is about to take place among geographic information systems, decision support systems, information technology, and communications will undoubtedly produce some very useful techniques for analysis of the complex problems involved in sustainability science. This convergence will also make possible the collaboration of interdisciplinary teams from widely dispersed geographic areas at a much reduced cost. A cautionary note?these converging systems and technologies are still relatively young. Standards for their interoperability are being established, and they are undergoing needed experimentation. The explosion of data on the Internet has also created what may perhaps be called 'data chaos,' rather than easy access to larger quantities of well-managed data and information. There will certainly turn out to be many false starts in the process of realizing these opportunities.

The beginnings of the necessary scientific structures already exist in the form of regional global change research networks: the Asia-Pacific Network (APN), the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI), and the System for Analysis, Research, and Training (START). These networks have already forged highly competitive, interdisciplinary teams of scientists that are working to make information available for decision-makers. The networks are contributing to the strengthening of local scientific infrastructure and encouraging local young scientists to become involved in integrative science. These regional networks are poised to make a strong contribution to sustainability science. There is also the question of equal access, both to the data and to specialized analysis tools--and in this respect a 'digital divide' (10) separates the developed world from the developing. While many developing countries have a robust research, communications, and computing infrastructure, many others have extremely poor systems. The regional networks provide a framework for attacking some of these problems, through their visiting scholars programs, infrastructure grants, and team-building activities. Many grants provide computer hardware and, in some cases, the necessary telecommunications infrastructure. Each of these regional networks places a great emphasis on training young people to use new concepts within an integrative, multidisciplinary context. International global change research networks are emerging as a plausible response to the challenge of carrying out sustainability science research. They operate on a scale that provides a good fit to most of the problems to be tackled: they are fundamentally regional. Significant advances in sustainability science must take place on regional scales.

The local scale is too small to include many of the important systemic interrelationships (and is also too small to provide significant relief), and the global scale is simply unmanageable?in addition to being politically problematic and often irrelevant in a scientifically comparative sense. The regional scale provides a context within which the full complexity of these problems is both evident and tractable. Reductionism certainly still has a place within science, but it cannot remain a central paradigm for science's approach to society's critical problems.


1. United Nations, 1992. Annex I, Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 3?14 June, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

2. Kates, R. W., W. C. Clark, R. Corell, J. M. Hall, C. C. Jaeger, I. Lowe, J. J. McCarthy, H. J. Schellnhuber, B. Bolin, N. M. Dickson, S. Faucheux, G. C. Gallopin, A. Gruebler, B. Huntley, J. Jaeger, N. S. Jodha, R. E. Kasperson, A. Mabogunje, P. Matson, H. Mooney, B. Moore III, T. O?Riordan, and U. Svedin, 2001. ?Sustainability science,? Science, vol. 292, pp.641?642.

3. Friibergh Workshop on Sustainability Science, 2000. Sustainability science: Statement of the Friibergh Workshop on Sustainability Science, 11?14 October, Friibergh Manor, Örsundsbro, Sweden.

4. For a good discussion of the Gaia hypothesis, see Schneider, S. H. and P. J. Boston, eds., 1991. Scientists on Gaia, American Geophysical Union:3-10. MIT Press, Cambridge, in particular the article of James Lovelock, ?Geophysiology?The Science of Gaia,? p. 4.

5. Ward, B., 1966. Spaceship Earth, Columbia University Press, New York.

6. See for example, Fuller, R.B., 1971. Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth. E.P. Dutton & Co., New York.

7. NRC (National Research Council), 1999. Our Common Journey. Board on Sustainable Development, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

8. NRC (National Research Council), 1999. Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade. Committee on Global Change Research, Board on Sustainable Development, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.

9. NRC (National Research Council), 1992. Global Environmental Change: Understanding the Human Dimensions. Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change, Commission on the Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.

10. Although the original study was strictly within the United States and for domestic purposes, the origin of the term lies in the correlation between income disparities and access to communications technologies found by a study published in July 1999 by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide (PDF link).

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