“Resource Use Unsustainable, but we Live in a Paradise”, Social Scientist Concludes

Basel, 29 January 2015¬†“Our resource use is unsustainable, also in the South, but it looks like we live in a paradise. Our quality of life, wealth, health, life expectancy has been increasing”, said the German sociologist Ulf Liebe (University of Bern) at the “From evidence to intervention” conference, organised by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW). He identified this social dilemma and proposed various policies to influence choices of individuals. Decisions are not only based on rational price and technical arguments. He referred to a study in which it was shown that households tend to stick to more expensive renewable energy packages as long as this was presented as default option, rather than selecting the renewable option as an extra in a standard conventional energy package.

The issue of sustainable resource use is not something which can be tackled using only technical means, according to SAGW. It requires measures on an individual level (behavior), a social level (structures, governance) and in the economic arena (recycling management, dematerialization of consumption). The conference focused on potential social and humanities research approaches. Michael Stauffacher, ETH Zuerich, referred to the ongoing series of workshops which is being carried out in cooperation with the World Resources Forum, aiming at approaching the resource issue in a multidisciplinary manner and fostering a stronger cooperation between social scientists and technical, engineering scientists. “A critical mass within the humanities and social sciences” he said, “is however yet to be achieved.” He recommended the establishment of a national Swiss platform, and developing a joint national research program. He referred to various international initiatives as well, including the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and the Resilience journal.

Andres Brenner (University of Basel) presented a historical overview, showing that awareness about sustainability is not a recent phenomenon. He quoted Sokrates (“take care of your soul”) and said that sustainability is justice to not only the future generations but also to oneself. Also Aristoteles commended a lifestyle in harmony with others and oneself. Thoreau wrote already in the 19th century about the real costs of industrial products, reflecting “the life that went into it”, whereas Leopold (early 20th century) stated that you learn about a civilization by its behavior towards nature.

The Basel University economist Frank Krysiak explained that environmental damage is still not incorporated in product prices and that alternative lifestyles often are hindered by existing infrastructure (lock-in effect). Implementing effective policies has proven difficult since impacts are often complex and not easy to predict.

a + logoThe meeting was organised as part of a series of events, aiming at better cooperation of social and technical scientists in Switzerland and beyond. Earlier events also included workshops and plenary sessions organised with the World Resources Forum (in 2012, 2013 and 2014). The series will be continued in the upcoming World Resources Forum 2015, to be organised in Davos, 11-14 October 2015, by SAGW and WRF. Contact: manuela.cimeli@sagw.ch or bas.deleeuw@wrforum.org

Find here all information about the conference, including program and presentations (most downloads in German only).