lördag 12 november 2016

Critical perspectives in sustainability research (seminar)


This past week I went to a half-day event, the "Stockholm PhD. Student Dialogue on Sustainability" at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE). I thought it was an event that SSE had organized all by themselves but it turned out that it was done in conjunction with my university (KTH) and it also turned out this was not the first but rather the fourth time such a dialogue was organized. 

The actual reason I went was due to this year's theme and the (as it turned out) excellent speakers. The theme for the event was "Critical perspectives in sustainability research: The Sustainable Development Goals".

The event was opened up by Lars Strannegård, the SSE president, and that was a nice touch. He could only stay for a short while and the academic host of the event was Susanne Sweet who is an Associate Professor and the "platform leader" for MISUM (Mistra Center for Sustainable Markets). While it's always nice to listen to Susanne, the event for me was the two keynote speakers. Each was very good and they were terrific together, as a combo. 

The first speaker, Caroline Åberg works for the UN/UNDP (the United Nations Development Programme) where she is the UNDP representative for Sweden. Her talk was called either "All you ever wanted to know about the SDG:s" (title in the program) or "UNDP and the Global Goals for Sustainable Development" (title in her slides). Caroline has a solid background and has worked for the World Bank in Argentina, Latin America, Myanmar and elsewhere and she has worked with the UNDP for the last 12 years. She rattled off a presentation of UNDP and then went right into her fact-filled but also hope-filled talk:

- UNDP is the largest UN entity. Their focus areas are Sustainable Development, democratic governance and peace building, climate and disaster resilience and gender, but, UNDP does not want to limit themselves and regard their mandate as larger than these specific focus ares.
- The Swedish UNDP office communicates the UNDP goals, present at events and festivals, do lectures and seminars, work with education, press and media, develop and entertain digital platforms and are present in social media. They also work with the website "Globala Målen för hållbar utveckling" (http://www.globalamalen.se)
- It is important for UNDP to make sure that politicians and policy makers have access to correct research and data. Surveys show that people consistently have a too negative view of the world. This is bad and UNDP works on trying to disseminate correct data as this is necessary to make correct funding and policy decisions. 
- What then is new with the SDGs (2015-2030) compared to the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015)? The SDGs are of course in line with UN charter but they are also more comprehensive and inclusive than the MDGs that focused only (or primarily) on social and economic development in poor countries. The MDGs to a higher extent aimed at and calculate on the level of national averages while the SDGs are formulated in such a way that no one (in poor or rich countries alike) should be left behind (i.e. the most vulnerable and the most excluded should also be included).
- Caroline also talked about the UN My World survey (try it - I did!). There is also a companion site where data from 10 million votes are summarized and displayed. It is abundantly clear that social sustainability is prioritized (most popular categories people voted for: good education, better healthcare and better job opportunities) and ecological sustainability less so (least popular category to vote for: action taken on climate change). 
- Important barriers for progress are conflicts (e.g. Syria), shocks of various kinds (health/disease, climate), violent extremism, political instability, a negative gender balance, rising inequalities and people left behind, lack of respect for human rights, lack of political will, lack of available data and lack of funding. There might have been more but this is what I have notes about.
- Key challenges that follow from this are refugee flows (65 millions today), an increasing number of conflicts, climate effects, rising inequality, the fact that half of the global population is under 25 (job creation etc.), urbanization, rise in violent extremism and a lack of data. There might have been more but this is what I have notes about.

I liked Caroline's talk, she showed a couple of very uplifting movies with positive messages but there was still something rubbing me the wrong way. This became apparent to me at the very end when she said we have to "keep the enthusiasm going". This made me think of Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world". I felt there was an undercurrent of forced enthusiasm to Caroline's pep-talk. Yes, there are some positive trends in the world but there are also some very negative trends and it felt to me like Caroline only or at least for the most part emphasized what is good or what is getting better and delivered a for the most part one-sided view of where we are and where we are going.

Caroline did a mini-survey about our own knowledge of trends and also the ph.d. students and researchers in the room had a too negative view of world poverty, life expectancy etc. It was more or less the same questions Anna Rosling Rönnlund had asked as a keynote speaker at the NordiCHI conference a few weeks earlier and I did slam her talk in a previous blog post. I also posed some hard questions for Caroline (see my objections to Rosling Rönnlund two weeks earlier), but I think her answers were good. Two of her answers were:
- We need to have a positive agenda or nothing good will ever happen. And the SDGs are a very good starting point and a support for doing The Right Things.
- Some problems can only be solved at a UN level even if there are various levels at which various problems could be solved (or at least worked on).

The second speaker, Ranjula Bali Swain, is a professor of economy at Södertörn University (and a visiting professor at SSE/MISUM) and her talk was called "The Sustainable Development Conundrum?". After having seen Carolines title ("All you ever wanted to know about the SDG:s) she wittily changed the title of her talk to "All you never wanted to know about the SDG:s". 

Ranjula has a Ph.D. from Uppsala University and has worked a lot with issues of financial inclusion, development finance, micro finance, sustainability and resilience and she has also worked very interdisciplinary with people from government, sociology, mathematics, statistics, hydrology and more. Here are some of the things Ranjula emphasized in her talk:

- Economic growth is not a linear process (that can be collapsed and measured with one scale, e.g. GDP). Economics and economic development is a complex process and there are interactions, tradeoffs and various conflicts between goals, between the local and the global level etc. It is not possible to simplify this complexity and "economic growth" is not as simple as growing the pie. You can grow in different manners and the growth in question can then have different (both positive and negative) impacts on society
- Sustainability is intertemporary. It's about now, but it's also about the future. It's also about different planning horizons. This makes it exceedingly hard. A CEO might work towards the results that will go into the next quarterly report, work on a time horizon of the next few years or on the next two decades. Politicians naturally work with election cycles. These time scales/time horizons might work with some sustainability concerns and goals but not with others. 
- The SDGs are also about different levels; about individuals, companies, states/nations as well as international levels. This makes it hard to work with them. We need to solve problems at the international level (climate change) but we also have to come down to other "lower" levels too.
- Global government institutions can make decisions that affect us and other people but this is today to a high extent left only to markets. But markets don't work everwhere and everytime (ex. environmental degradation). Change is to a high extent driven by incentives at different levels, but there are also things we just have to do (climate change) even if there are no strong incentives in the here and now.
- The 17 SDGs and the many subgoals (targets) are more universal that the MDGs and the intentions are good, but, they are also grossly anthropocentric. They goals are concerned with the development and wellbeing of humans, but less so about all other plants and creatures that we share this planet with. [Let me simplify: it is clear that human wellbeing will be valued higher than species extinction when human vote for what is important (to us) - see the survey above.] But what then about the things we just have to do even if there is no huge and immediate benefit to a lot of people?
- The SDGs will also be a lot harder to track and evaluate compared to the MDGs. It is very possible that you advance on one goal while at the same time taking two steps back on another goal (or in the worst case, as a consequence). It is for example easy to see that socioeconomic growth indicators will often be in conflict with environmental indicators since "no country has managed to grow economically without dirtying their environment".
- Such conclusions are however based on historical data, so it is at least theoretically possible that things could change - nothing is written in stone! But it's not going to happen by itself and definitely not if we continue with Business As Usual (BAU).
- Ranjula also discussed the SDG Index and Dashboard (by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (Jeffrey Sachs) and Bertelsmann Stiftung. The say they have (incomplete) data for 193 nations, and they only made data for 34 OECD countries available in a recent report (which might have been a later/final version of this report: "Preliminary Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Index and Dashboard". Ranjula and her colleagues had dug deeper into the metrics and I believe her point was that it might look a lot better in the report than what it actually is (not the least taking into account that most non-OECD countries will be worse off).

I just loved Ranjula's talk and have already downloaded and printed her latest paper, "The sustainable development oxymoron: quantifying and modelling the incompatibility of sustainable development goals". Here's a short press release about that paper (and here's a link to the paper). Ranjula expressed a more nuanced and considerably more complex view of the SDGs than what I have heard before - about what they are for, what constitutes progress (or "progress") and the conflicts between different goals (as far as I understood primarily based on the conflict between gols for social and ecological sustainability). Nor did Ranjula shy away from raising the issue of population. She said something I have never heard before and that is that an important reason for why Sweden and other Scandinavian countries are doing so well in a lot of different measures of welfare and sustainability is due to the fact that these countries are not densely populated and that the population pressure is low - since population pressure is a huge disruptor on the environment!

Another interesting perspective of Ranjula's was that it's very easy for activists of different stripes (and aren't we all in some way) to choose a specific SDG and highlight the importance of that specific goals. It's easy to say that SDG number X (quality education, gender equality, good health and well-being etc.) is key to all the others, when in fact all of them are important and each of them "is the key" to all the others. That's an important perspective that is easy to forget in the heat of the moment (as we are all routing for our "favorite" SDGs). 

Finally Ranjula also referred to an upcoming paper of hers (Bali Swain and Sjöberg, Nov 2016, SIEPR working paper from Stanford University) about "sustainable preferences" and where the paper's subtitle included the phrase "tension: market's bias against future" which sounds very interesting indeed.

I think the talks were excellent and I made some new friends (contacts) at the event. I jumped both the speakers after their talks and invited them to be part of a panel discussion we are organizing in our course about sustainability on December 12. Ranjula could not come (she's abroad on that day) and I'm still waiting for Caroline's answer. Caroline and Ranjula are in front in the picture below. 

Oh, and the snow chaos in Stockholm was probably a contributing factor to the fact that only 22 out of the 39 who had signed up for the event showed up.


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