Building a Sustainable Future Requires More than Science

Schwarze Pumpe, a pilot thermal power plant south of Berlin that captures and stores carbon emissions, a method whose effectiveness experts doubt. Credit: Vattenfall
By Stephen Leahy

Contrary to popular belief, humans have failed to address the earth’s worsening emergencies of climate change, species’ extinction and resource overconsumption not because of a lack of information, but because of a lack of imagination, social scientists and artists say.

At a conference for the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) here in Vancouver, British Columbia, experts argued that the path to a truly sustainable future is through the muddy waters of emotions, values, ethics, and most importantly, imagination.

Humans’ perceptions of reality are filtered by personal experiences and values, said David Maggs, a concert pianist and PhD student at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

As a result, the education and communication paradigm of “if we only knew better, we’d do better” is not working, Maggs told attendees at the world’s largest general science meeting. “We don’t live in the real world, but live only in the world we imagine.”

“We live in our heads. We live in storyland,” agreed John Robinson of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

“When we talk about sustainability we are talking about the future, how things could be. This is the landscape of imagination,” Robinson told IPS. “If we can’t imagine a better world we won’t get it.”

This imagining will be complex and difficult. Sustainability encompasses far more than just scientific facts – it also incorporates the idea of how we relate to nature and to ourselves, he said.

“We haven’t yet grasped the depth of changes that are coming.”

Because human decisions and behaviour are the result of ethics, values and emotion, and because sustainability directly involves our values and ethical concerns, science alone is insufficient to make decisions about sustainability, said Thomas Dietz, assistant vice president for environmental research at Michigan State University.

Information plays a much smaller role than we like to think, Dietz explained. In order to truly address big issues like climate change or sustainability, we need to talk at a society-wide scale about our values and reach mutual understanding about the values needed for sustainability.

“However, we don’t like to talk about our values or feelings, because it threatens our personal identity.”

Engaging the public

Treating nature as an object, separate and distinct from us, is part of the problem, said Sacha Kagan, sociologist at Leuphana University in Germany. The current environmental crisis results from technological thinking and a fear of complexity that science alone cannot help us with, Kagan said.

The objectification of the natural world began during the Age of Enlightenment about 300 years ago. People saw the world and their place in it in very different ways before that, said Robinson.

Today, he said, sustainability will not be achieved without “engaging people in numbers and at levels that have never been done before”.

New social media tools like Facebook may help with such a monumental task, as “people certainly don’t like to come to public meetings”.

Current approaches to help the public understand the implications of climate change, such as graphs or iconic pictures of polar bears, have limitations and are ineffective, said Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

“We need to find new ways to think about the future under climate change,” said Hulme.

Art could be one such approach, suggested Dietz. It would serve not as propaganda but as a creative way to engage our imaginations. “Art can provoke thinking and actually change people’s perceptions of the complex issues associated with sustainability science,” he argued.

“When we’re considering questions about preserving biodiversity versus creating jobs, art can help us examine our values and have a discussion that’s broader than just scientific facts.”

It is tempting to believe the arts can help by softening and ‘pretty-fying’ the message and bringing it to a wider audience, said award-winning photographer Joe Zammit-Lucia.

“We need to go much further to provide a different worldview that can help us re-frame the issues,” said Zammit-Lucia.

Society’s choices are driven by people’s cultural perceptions of reality, which in turn are based on their values and their cultural context, he said. While helpful, scientific knowledge and experts are also part of the problem: by dominating the sustainability discourse, they narrow people’s visions of what’s possible.

“I also don’t buy in the idea we need to make the right decisions. What we need is the right process, ways in which the public can fully participate,” he concluded.

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31 responses

  1. Home on the RangeA Journal of the American West—Lavishly Illustrated I was reading the latest edition of a literary nature magazine… I was about to give up when I got to an article about a gently
    subversive artists’ group in Maine who tell important stories of people
    and nature with intensely researched and designed and metaphorically
    dazzling wall sized posters. Their most recent project? The Effects of
    Coal. They travel with their posters, telling their stories and
    educating those who listen.
    I decided to take a closer look at this group—the Beehive Collective. (
    I agree, these folks look like Hieronymus Bosch paints social issues.
    Their murals are frighteningly detailed, black and white “beehives” of
    activity. They look almost alive, pulsating. I feel if I look away and
    then back some bird will have flown, some frog will have jumped, a tree
    will have shed its leaves, the pond might have frozen. The art is
    monumental, uncanny, challenging, thought-provoking. Their first poster
    projects were about technology but over twelve years they’ve evolved to
    take on issues of free trade, women’s rights, corporate greed, planetary

    I’m not sure that the visual arts is a path through to a sturdy
    future. But I do know that, at some elemental level, it offers at least a
    glimpse.  Over at that eternal source of Yes We Can Because Yes We
    Must,, they’ve started a global project called eARTh, making art
    on a scale seen from space. The results? see for yourself on their
    video (  And they led me to this: Wow! What an eyeful!
    Can these efforts make a difference? I know they do for me. While I
    may remain not optimistic, these insightful artists (including our
    grandchildren) continue to give me hope.

  2. Bhutan to advise United Nations on a new economy: happiness
    Jo Confino for the,
    Thursday 29 March 2012

    “We need nothing less now than a new sustainability-based economic paradigm, with new progress measures, accounting systems and regulatory institutions, if we are to save humanity and avert disaster. We have a narrow window of opportunity before it is too late.”

  3.  It’s Not Easy To Be Green An Armchair Greenie Pontificates
    Why Trees Matter

    On Friday, the city cut down the healthy 50 year old ash tree outside
    my bedroom window. The reasons cited: streetlight and minor pavement
    damage. I’m no Julia Butterfly Hill,
    but when the notice first went up, I complained to the proper
    authorities, who assured me that the site would be re-evaluated. That
    was the last I heard when the men with the saws came. For six hours, the
     roar of the chainsaw ground through my bones. All day, I felt cold,
    queasy, and thoroughly ashamed at my species. What  kind of society values a streetlight and concrete over a beautiful, mature, living tree?

    Part of it was the timing. I’m currently reading The Man Who Planted Trees by Jim Robbins, which is about David Milarch‘s
    quest to preserve and clone the trees most likely to survive in an
    inhospitable future… Even if we stopped logging right now (78% of our ancient forests
    around the world have already been cut down), our trees would still be
    in trouble from climate change. As the author says, ”The only thing
    harder on trees than beetles, it seems, is people.” Ouch.

    If you consider yourself a tree person or even someone moderately
    invested in the future of humanity and this planet, you should be deeply
    concerned about a future with fewer or no trees. Trees matter. I’ve come up with an idiosyncratic and incomplete list of why. (Many are taken from Robbins’s book, which I recommend.)…

  4. Should Brands Be Using the “S” Word?
    by Nick Liddell

    November 1, 2012— Reporting on the UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit earlier this year, the Financial Times’ environment correspondent, Pilita Clark, became so bored of the term
    ‘sustainable’ and its derivatives that she decided to make life more fun…

  5. New York Times
    The Moral Animal
    December 23, 2012

    …we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters…

  6. How a sense of sacred can help sustainable business
    Sustainability leaders could learn from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who believes in a
    deeper human connection with nature and looking beyond purely material consumption
    Jo Confino Guardian Professional,
    Tuesday 8 January 2013

    “….we are not going to save ourselves and countless species from destruction with innovations in technology and business thinking alone, unless we heal our profound disconnection with Mother Earth.”

  7. Making Green Sexy and Spiritual
    By Richard Matthews

    Sustainability needs a new language that is more accessible and more compelling to the average person. Business, government, and other organizations are making strides advancing sustainability but we need wider involvement and faster growth. Although we are seeing increasing levels of environmental activism, we need to expand the message to reach a larger circle of people….

    A new approach to communicating sustainability must engage people on a spiritual and psycho-emotional level. Ecological awareness must be communicated as a heart-felt mind-set that people embrace and practice everyday.If the sustainability revolution is to expand and achieve critical mass, it must embedded into our core values.

  8. Living Green Magazine
    The Psychology of Sustainability: The Psychology of Courage
    Editor Post | October 8, 2013

    ….To approach much less achieve holistically sustainable societies requires cooperation. Cooperation entails integration of thoughts, values, perceptions, fears, and aspirations as expressed and experienced at the lot, block, and neighbourhood scales of our towns and cities, across our farms and factories, watersheds and forests. In general we must take into consideration with every step the conditions of people, places and spaces where we live, work, and play….

  9. Underwater cities
    Street artists trace against time — and sea-level rise
    By Greg Hanscom –

    This is a story about an all-American machine, and two women who are leading an unusual effort to prepare our cities for climate change.

    The machine is known as a Heavy Hitter. It’s an aluminum box about the size of a bulldog that rides on 10-inch diameter pneumatic wheels. Push the Heavy Hitter forward, and a spring-loaded gizmo inside sifts a dusty line of powdered chalk onto the ground below.

    You’ve probably seen one of these bad boys being used for its intended purpose: to draw the lines on a baseball field. But back in 2007, an artist named Eve Mosher found another use for a Heavy Hitter: She used it to transcribe a line….10 feet above sea level, tracing areas of the city that would be flooded in a serious storm surge — an event made more likely by climate change….

  10. A Carbon Tax to Rule Them All
    March 10th, 2014
    By Brendon Steele –

    “We engage stakeholders across these common divides to advance systemic, market-based solutions to some of our greatest challenges. Even amidst pitched partisan battles, innovation-positive solutions—like a carbon tax shift—point to closing the bitter divide between businesses and environmentalists, right and left. We fervently believe that building bridges to find unlikely allies is a needed step to advance a sustainable world.”

    The best of the worst: fossil-fuel extractors pave the way for the low-carbon revolution
    Commentary by: Owen Reynolds

    At the end of last year, the world got some good news on the green business front concerning a very unlikely set of participants. A recent market review revealed that Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, Duke Energy, PG&E Corporation, American Electric Power Company, ConAgra Foods and Walmart, among others, are including shadow carbon prices in their forecasts.

    This indicates that these hugely-profitable multinational corporations expect that carbon emissions will have a price put on its head soon…

  12. Brain Pickings
    George Lucas on the Meaning of Life
    by Maria Popova

    … one of the most profound answers comes from legendary Star Wars director George Lucas. In The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here — that remarkable 1991 anthology that gave us timeless meditations on existence from a number of luminaries — Lucas uses an autobiographical anecdote as the springboard for a larger meditation on the meaning of life and our best chance for reaching its fullest potential:

    “When I was eighteen I was in an automobile accident and went through a near-death experience. I was actually taken away from the scene, presumed dead, and it wasn’t until I reached the hospital that the doctors revived my heartbeat and brought me back to life. This is the kind of experience that molds people’s beliefs. But I have found that most of my conclusions have evolved from observing life since that time.”

    “… It is possible that on a spiritual level we are all connected in a way that continues beyond the comings and goings of various life forms. My best guess is that we share a collective spirit or life force or consciousness that encompasses and goes beyond individual life forms. There’s a part of us that connects to other humans, connects to other animals, connects to plants, connects to the planet, connects to the universe. I don’t think we can understand it through any kind of verbal, written or intellectual means. But I do believe that we all know this, even if it is on a level beyond our normal conscious thoughts.”

    “… If we have a meaningful place in this process, it is to try to fit into a healthy, symbiotic relationship with other life force. Everybody, ultimately, is trying to reach a harmony with the other parts of the life force. And in trying to figure out what life is all about, we ultimately come down to expressions of compassion and love, helping the rest of the life force, caring about others without any conditions or expectations, without expecting to get anything in return. This is expressed in every religion, by every prophet.”

  13. Grist
    Science alone can’t save us, says famous climate scientist
    28 Mar 2014 –

    “… This is why it’s such a difficult issue because it’s not just about facts, it’s about values and what’s in our hearts. It requires us to take a long hard look at what values are important to us, the things that we love and we care about.”

  14. TIME
    Big Flood for the Big Screen
    Irving Finkel – March 27, 2014

    Man can ignore, but never evade, the power of Nature. Reminders of this stark truth might come only intermittently, but when they do arrive it is with irresistible force…

    Such awareness certainly underpinned the psychology of the ancient Babylonians. They were dependent for life on the waters of the paired Tigris and Euphrates of modern-day Iraq but, at the same time, were always vulnerable to seasonal or non-seasonal flooding. On top of that they half-remembered a time, long before writing, when their world had
    been eclipsed by uncontrollable waters that swept over the flat landscape down to the Persian Gulf. The remotest Mesopotamian history, as constructed by the ancient chroniclers compiling their tablets in cuneiform, was categorized as before, or after, the Flood. A great deluge of ancient Mesopotamia surely happened, never to be forgotten.

    That the Flood became a focus for Mesopotamian myth — or what we call myth — is no surprise…

  15. Years of Living Dangerously Premiere
    1st Episode – Published on Apr 6, 2014

    Hollywood celebrities and respected journalists span the globe to explore the issues of climate change and cover intimate stories of human triumph and tragedy.

    Years of Living Dangerously (whose first episode is currently available on YouTube) presents evidence about how climate is affecting situations around the world, like the drought that potentially sowed the seeds for Syrian civil war. It’s all compelling and, frankly, terrifying, which makes it successful in its mission…

  16. 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten
    Sustainability Treehouse
    The Boy Scouts of America a treehouse that’s on target for Living Building Certification.
    By John Gendall, Katie Weeks, Annie Milewski –

    … The first Jamboree in the new location took place shortly after the project opened in July, and the Boy Scouts of America report that the project worked well and was also effective as an educational building, calling it a “smashing hit.”

  17. New Scientist
    The story of climate change gets star treatment
    23 April 2014 by Simon Ings

    Years of Living Dangerously premiered on Showtime, 13 April
    Sand Wars is directed by Denis Delestrac, next showing on PBS America, 9 June

    To engage the public, Years of Living Dangerously and Sand Wars take different approaches, one is a Hollywood behemoth, the other is shrewd and assailing…

  18. The Archdruid Report
    October 01, 2014
    The Buffalo Wind
    Posted by John Michael Greer

    … the current shudderings of the economy, the imminent risk of pandemic, and the distant sound of buffalo bellowing in the Montana wind are omens. The Buffalo Wind is rising now, keening in the tall grass, whispering in the branches and setting fallen leaves aswirl. I could be mistaken, but I think that not too far in the future it will become a storm that will shake the industrial world right down to its foundations.-

  19. The New York Times
    An Opulent Bet on Housing
    By ROBERT FRANK – JAN. 17, 2015

    … Mr. Greene’s ultimate wealth statement, however, is a 25-acre property, the Palazzo di Amore, in Beverly Hills, Calif., that he has been turning into a Hearst Castle of the second Gilded Age. The 35,000-square-foot main house has 12 bedrooms, 23 bathrooms, two kitchens and sweeping views of Los Angeles. There is a guesthouse, a 24-car garage and an “an entertainment complex” with its own bowling alley, rotating dance floor, D.J. booth and laser lights. The complex also has its own vineyard — a rarity in Beverly Hills — and a wine cellar that can hold thousands of bottles.

    Mr. Greene has put the estate on the market, after seven years of building it. The asking price is $195 million, making it what is believed to be the most expensive public listing in the country. “When you consider the value of the land and the quality of the construction,” Mr. Greene said, “$195 million is really quite reasonable.”

    … Mr. Greene likes to distinguish his palatial Palazzo di Amore from the Modernist-style homes popping up in Beverly Hills by saying it “is meant to be there for hundreds of years, just like any of the other great homes of the world.”

    And homes, after all, are the ultimate investment, he says. Mr. Greene’s four-acre compound in Palm Beach, which he bought for $24 million in 2009, is now worth well over $75 million, brokers say. He has no plans to sell. But he points out that even the most extravagant fixtures in the home — from the Picabia and Picassos on the wall to the 19th-century French chandeliers, can be resold for a possible profit at auction.

    “I’m very careful with how I spend my money,” he says. “When I spend money on houses, I’m not spending. I’m investing.”

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