In conversations around tackling climate change and creating a sustainable future, we've tended to forget one very important piece of the puzzle: creating healthy and just societies.
The key to building such a future may depend on our ability to understand how our own well-being is tied to that of the natural world, some psychologists say.
In a new paper published in the journal Science on Friday, social scientists from the U.S. and the U.K. called for environmental science and the social sciences to come together in combating ecological destruction.
"Sustainability is ultimately about balance -- balancing people's differing needs and desires with those of their environment so that both people and nature can persist," Dr. Christina Hicks, a lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre in England and the paper's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "People will necessarily strive to achieve greater well-being, but what that well-being consists of can and will vary."
The paper identifies seven key social indicators that should inform policies and practices around sustainability:
- agency (self-determination)
These concepts have largely been absent from society-wide sustainability goals, according to the paper's authors.
"Sustainability is ultimately about balance -- balancing people's differing needs and desires with those of their environment so that both people and nature can persist." Dr. Christina Hicks, environmental social scientist
Without some focus on these concepts, we might risk taking actions that may protect the planet but are incompatible with human well-being -- or vice versa. Any large-scale measures taken to protect the environment that do not promote equality, for instance, are unlikely to be successful in the long run, the paper's authors explain.
"Lasting sustainability will hinge on fair and just solutions," Hicks said in a statement.
In creating these solutions, the paper's authors argue that we need to bring together the expertise of many disciplines -- including psychology, sociology, economics and other social sciences.
"We are really beginning to recognize what an important role social science has to play when it comes to climate change and ecological destruction," Hicks said. "Whereas there is solid scientific agreement on what needs to happen, we are struggling when it comes to how we should get there. ... Social science can help us understand how and why we have gotten into the situation we are in, how people are likely to respond to changes in the near and long term future, and why in the face of so much evidence there is still inaction."
Here's an example of how social science can inform sustainable solutions: A two-year anthropology project examined and tracked the progress of wild food practices as part of Seattle's Urban Forest Stewardship Plan.
"The Forest Commission consulted the research and determined that urban wildlands have diverse values for people," paper co-author Melissa Poe, a social science liaison with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Sea Grant, told HuffPost, noting that the study resulted in changes that made the program more effective.
And in terms of inequality, social indicators have been used to identify "climate equity hotspots," where risk factors like poverty, poor education and low access were used to isolate communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to climate risks, according to Poe.
The new paper is part of a growing movement to bring the insights of social science into the fight against climate change. Creating a sustainable future is a challenge with emotional, moral and psychological dimensions, and behavioral scientists are now taking action to better understand the complex relationship between humans and nature.
“It’s a very new terrain we’re in,” said Dr. Renee Lertzman, a San Francisco-based psychosocial researcher whose work focuses on promoting climate change action in organizational settings, told HuffPost in a previous article. “That’s the exciting part … It’s very innovative and it’s very emerging. But we have to get to the point where we really can be open to new and different ways of looking at things.”
Hicks agreed that it's time to take risks, build respect and merge disciplines to come up with new solutions to the global ecological crisis.
"We need to be bold and step outside our comfort zones to develop methods for assessing complex concepts that can be communicated and heard across disciplines and at a variety of policy scales," she said. "We need to consider different forms of knowledge, try understanding familiar things in different ways and let this form the basis for sustained dialogue and debate about how sustainability is understood."