A Tale of Two Conferences (science & policy)

Recently I keynoted at two conferences in the same week that both reflected the state of European dialogue on sustainability — from two very different perspectives.

The first, on Global Systems Science, seemed to me a major step forward on how systems thinking can be applied to sustainability issues. Attending this conference were not just the usual climate experts and ecological economists with a systems orientation (though there were plenty of these); there were central bankers there. And experts in high-end supercomputers. And the whole thing was funded not by the environmental part of the European Commission, but by the part that manages policy on information technology (“DG-CONNECT”).

When I say “major step forward,” I mean a chance for real novelty. For those who like the geeky world of computer models and who know what “agent-based” means, there was plenty of that. But there was also a 200-page background paper that noted, among other things, that the state of the art in modeling for sustainability really had not advanced much since the publication of The Limits to Growth and its application of system dynamics — at least, in any paradigmatic sense.

What was new was … well, unfinished, more like a groping, but the groping was pulling together complex adaptive systems theory, high performance computing, archeological time scales, and more. It was enlightening to listen to a panel of central bankers (from the ECB, Bank of England, etc.) reflect on the “sustainability” of their “systems” … though it was still clear that these systems have very little meaningful coupling to the actual, physical world.

That could change, if the world’s reserve currency (currently the US dollar) changes. In what can only be described as a bold move, Klaus Töpfer, former head of UNEP and now director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, presented a paper that takes seriously a suggestion by the governor of the Chinese central bank, made a few years ago, to move gradually toward a new global reserve currency, starting with greater use of the IMF’s “Special Drawing Rights.” The oft-cited metaphor was “feeling for stones while crossing the river”: take one step at a time, and trust that the next step will emerge. Eventually, we would arrive at a new international reserve currency based on a basket of commodities — that is, linked directly to stuff in the real world. Most of those are, in turn, affected by things like climate change. That would be a huge shift, even though the typical answer to questions about money’s link to the real world is that, well, it already is linked. That is a hard answer to swallow when one looks at the historical data, which shows pure financial transactions rocketing upward until they dwarf, literally, transactions that involve real stuff.

In any event, if these kinds of big-concept sustainability and systems think-fests are of interest to you, I recommend a visit to the GSS blog, where you can download all the papers and share in the intellectual groping for yourself.

Two days later, I was in Vienna, joining friends and colleagues in the European Sustainable Development Network (ESDN). This network gathers Europe’s top national policy makers on sustainability to reflect on where the field is now, in much more practical terms. Lately, the ESDN annual meeting has not been the most celebratory of gatherings: sustainable development is widely considered to have been sidelined in Europe. Economic growth, and the “Lisbon Strategy,” is dominant and still ascendent, thanks especially to the ongoing economic crisis.

But hang on, I noted to my ESDN friends and colleagues: if you look closer, a big part of what’s happened is that the sustainability agenda has been absorbed into the mainstream of European policy making. Sustainability goals are clearly integrated into new multi-billion-euro R&D programs, development strategies, legislation … In fact, this is what partial victory looks like. The role of sustainability policy professionals must, however, continue to evolve: government officials holding the SD portfolio must now become something like the “sustainability conscience” of these programs, making sure that these newly adopted goals really mean something, across the whole of government.

Of course, the above is a gross simplification of both two-day gatherings, which explored the complex worlds of systems science and sustainability policy in depth, and in nuanced ways. But I could not help but notice the differences: the first meeting was pushing out ahead and breaking new ground, while the second was dealing with the realities of institutionalization — and trying to related to the rest of European policy making. The first meeting involved big concepts that were dizzying and sometimes a bit vague; the second required a marshaling of one’s energies to keep scaling the walls of apparent indifference. Two very different contexts and challenges, for the people involved, even though both are dealing with the same issues and problems.

So, to both groups, and to all of us pushing forward on sustainability, I say: courage!

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