Humanities & Social Sciences for Sustainability - Conference Report

The online conference "Humanities and Social Sciences for Sustainability", organized by the UNESCO Chair at the University of Jena (Germany), was held from October 21-22, 2020 at the virtual Dornburg Palaces. Under the auspices of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, 24 speakers and discussants from all parts of the world debated new strategies to strengthen humanities and social sciences perspectives in sustainability research and policies.


Investigating New Ways for Sustainability Research

The online conference "Humanities and Social Sciences for Sustainability", organized by the UNESCO Chair at the University of Jena (Germany), was held from October 21-22, 2020 at the virtual Dornburg Palaces. Under the auspices of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, 24 speakers and discussants from all parts of the world debated new strategies to strengthen humanities and social sciences perspectives in sustainability research and policies. The conference offered a broad variety of topics relevant to different groups, from researchers in the social and natural sciences and the humanities, to decision-makers in science policy, leaders of scientific institutions, or social activists and artists. The online event attracted almost 1.000 views during the two days and dozens of comments and questions in the digital live chat. Partners of the conference included the German Commission for UNESCO, the World Academy of Art & Science, the Academia Europaea, The Club of Rome, the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences as well as the International Geographical Union.

Requirements of Global Solutions

In the first session, five panelists discussed the epistemological, organizational, and political requirements of global solutions to current sustainability challenges. Mamphela RAMPHELE addressed the need to decolonize knowledge and promote pluriversal views. Without a decolonial turn, she stressed, new coalitions to address planetary problems and true "Emergence from emergency" are hardly feasible. Garry JACOBS emphasized the crucial role of qualitative social sciences, the humanities, and the arts in understanding social processes and instigating processes of social change. The key to addressing the current ecological, political, economic, social and cultural crisis, he highlighted, is to mobilize people and change attitudes, values, and behaviors. For tackling the sustainability crisis, Sander VAN DER LEEUW emphasized the need to move away from an ecological perspective toward focusing the societal challenges. With regard to the organization of research and teaching, he stressed that organizational and epistemological silos, career structures, time frames of funding, and the publication system limit capacities to think outside the box. Along similar lines, Mathieu DENIS sketched prerequisites for a genuine participation of the social sciences and the humanities in sustainability research. In particular, he highlighted the need to design procedures in inter- and transdisciplinary research that allow for a genuinely joint problem framing at the beginning of the research process. Furthermore, he urged for putting current social transformation processes at the core of social science research. Thomas REUTER in the final paper of the session underlined that the changes required in today's age of the Anthropocene are deep and systemic, and that answers to current challenges not only emerge from transdisciplinary research, but are also much more likely to be found at the margins rather than at the center of academic debates. In order to promote social change, academically, culturally and geographically diverse voices thus need to receive stronger recognition.

Challenges to Current Sustainability Transformations

The second session took a fresh perspective on some of the more concrete challenges of current sustainability transformations. The session involved six speakers. Hartmut ROSA outlined some paradoxes of the alleged greening of current societies, such as the simultaneity of growing ecological awareness and increasing ecological footprints, arguing that experiences of resonance possess greater significance for true social change than knowledge alone. His talk emphasized the role of affective relations and the necessity of "response-ability" to change everyday behaviors. Tiago DE OLIVEIRA PINTO shed light on the cultural dimension of sustainable development, in particular the cultural interpretation and use of natural resources. Using the example of musical practices involving instruments made of local resources, his paper focused on the role of intangible cultural heritage as a medium of exchange between societies and their environments, and a central element of sustainable development. Martin LEINER from a perspective of reconciliation studies outlined the social preconditions for constructing common futures together. What is divided, he argued with regard to current social divisions, cannot be sustainable. He foregrounded mutual trust and cooperation as essential prerequisites of truly sustainable development. Tilo WESCHE investigated property regimes and the implications of nature being declared a legal person and subject of property rights. As he argued from the standpoint of practical philosophy, an obligation to conserve natural resources and thus create sustainable property regimes can be derived from nature's own property rights. Sustainability is thus not a claim external to property, but results from the very nature of property rights. Lutz MÖLLER thematized amongst other things the current attacks on scientific expertise through conspiracy theories, lies and "alternative facts", emphasizing the urgent need to defend empirical facts and (scientific) knowledge as the basis for decision-making. He presented UNESCO's efforts on Open Science as an approach to strengthen the role of scientific expertise in the public sphere, and in sustainability transformations in particular. John CROWLEY in the session's final talk addressed the problem of energy systems from a humanities and social sciences perspective. As he suggested, energy systems have to be understood as "total phenomena", representing a complex entanglement of physical structures, power structures, physical, financial and symbolic flows, patterns of behavior and social imaginaries. Serious engagement with the transformation of energy systems thus not only needs to take it as a political challenge into account, but as well as a conceptual and methodological challenge.

Transdisciplinary Research and Knowledge Mobilization

The papers presented on the second conference day focused in particular on questions regarding transdisciplinary research and knowledge mobilization. In the first session, seven papers were given. Luiz OOSTERBEEK in the first paper addressed the challenges of making the "wicked" nature of today's global problems comprehensible and building institutions that meet the requirements of the current world. He pointed to the need of processes of co-creation, co-distribution and co-management of knowledge are essential to overcome non-sustainable development. The social sciences and humanities, he underlined, are the backbone of the transformation processes needed today. Melissa LEACH put the idea of "equitable sustainability" at the center of her contribution and criticized instrumental conceptions of knowledge and managerial approaches in sustainability policy. She emphasized the need for "transformative knowledge" and argued for transformational pathways that are democratic, diverse, and equitable. Lucilla SPINI in her paper addressed the concept and the history of knowledge mobilization. In her short outline of the history of knowledge mobilization practices, she reconstructed the emergence of the "knowledge broker" and its role in the growing public awareness of environmental issues. With regard to recent trends of using social media as tools for communicating scientific insights, she stressed the importance of boundary organizations like UNESCO for successful communication between scientists and policy-makers in particular. Carlos ÁLVAREZ-PEREIRA drew attention to the problem of societal learning and contended that the incapacity to raise fundamental questions poses serious threats to addressing the current crises. Getting rid of mechanistic interpretations of the world and respective solution strategies, he argued, requires new patterns of learning, in particular creating (more) safe spaces for true dialogue. Anne SNICK emphasized how deeply concepts of development, progress and growth are engrained in current societies’ culture, language, institutions etc., and how this often impedes envisioning a world after the crisis. Today's transformation processes, she argued, resemble the psychological stages of grief and loss, with many technology-focused approaches still being stuck in the phases of denial or anger. Accepting the need for deep transformations and envisioning a life beyond the current crisis requires self-reflexivity and the capacity to grasp the bigger picture of society – the domain of the social sciences and the humanities. Howard BLUMENTHAL drew on his work with children and young people from all over the world to outline the requirements of education for the 21st century. In particular, he urged for better harnessing children’s natural curiosity and willingness to learn by building new curricula that better connect today’s crisis phenomena and shed more light on causes, mitigations, preventions, and individual contributions. In the last part of the session, conceptual artist Branko ŠMON presented his "Earth plastic view" Matterhorn art project. The project attempts to raise awareness about plastic pollution by visualizing the amount of plastic in use today worldwide. By contrasting the beauty of the Matterhorn landscape with the polluting and harmful effects of plastic, he argued, art can produce emotional responses that can help bringing about social change.

Envisioning Institutional Strategies

In the final thematic session of the conference, three papers addressed current institutional strategies for knowledge mobilization. Ursula GOBEL presented the latest funding strategy of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to promote research on urgent social problems and emerging issues. The "New Frontiers in Research Fund" is geared towards enabling high-risk, fast-breaking, multidisciplinary research done by small, international teams. In particular, she highlighted the fund’s aim to provide opportunities for early career researchers to engage in transformative research. Joanne KAUFFMAN and Benno WERLEN presented the thought leadership paper on "Knowledge mobilization for deep societal transformations" – a contribution to the aforementioned project of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the UNESCO Chair on Global Understanding for Sustainability – and outlined some key recommendations for a more democratic, epistemologically diverse, and boundary-crossing research. Amongst other things, they reflected on the necessary shift from "voice of authority" to authentic participant in transdisciplinary research and the need to build partnerships with communities to better address "real-world" problems. Paul SHRIVASTAVA took a fresh perspective on universities and their role in the Anthropocene. As he outlined, universities need to fundamentally re-imagine their purpose and self-understanding to help shape the deep disruptions the world is facing today. They must become community change-makers, embedded in local and regional networks. Furthermore, he argued that universities are challenged to reduce the über-fragmentation into disciplinary silos and must develop organizational forms that fit the requirements of inter- and transdisciplinary work.

Roundtable Debate

In the concluding roundtable debate, the ten panelists revisited some of the key results of the conference and tried to derive recommendations for future sustainability research and policies. A recurring topic was the need to further promote bottom-up action and build new partnerships between science and all sectors of society, including the business and financial sectors. To achieve that, a new culture of mutual learning that enables participation and benefits for all are necessary, as Mamphela RAMPHELE stressed. There was great consensus about the idea that particularly the humanities and social sciences are asked to build networks and bring people from different backgrounds and domains together. Also, humanities and social sciences should engage on a broad scale to find translations between academic and everyday languages, but also between different intellectual languages. Especially collaboration with the natural sciences, as Sander VAN DER LEEUW emphasized, requires speaking in their own language. Thomas REUTER and others also pointed out that traditional science does not foster imagination and therefore has problems to envision sustainable futures. With regard to current sustainability policies, a recurring critique addressed the SDGs and their underlying mindset. The "goal-target-indicator" framework, John CROWLEY remarked, does not leave open spaces to explore solutions outside-the-box and impedes open-ended cooperation. New Public Management approaches towards sustainability were viewed critically by all participants and deemed an obstacle to democratically co-creating sustainable futures. As Anne SNICK conclusively pointed out, one of the main challenges is to make institutions and organizations learn to harness the energy and ideas of students, stakeholders, local people, etc.

The results of the conference will be summarized and published as a declaration.