Questions asked at the Plenary Sessions (first three days)
It has been an exciting and hectic three days here at Planet Under Pressure where we have been covering a huge array of topics in depth: from paradigm & values shifts, the developing concept of ecosystem services, principles of governance, participatory methods enabling collective intelligence to foster voluntary collective actions (rather than individual actions), ecological & engineering constraints of last-resort measures such as geo-engineering, through to Social Media For Sustainability. Prior to the conference it was difficult to say what the response from our online communities would be but after three days I can say that we are pleasantly surprised and extremely gratified by the huge response and engagement that we have experienced so far.
In fact, the latest analytics indicate that we have connected with over 1 million people on Twitter via the #Planet2012 and Hashtag. Some of our Superstar tweeters who have helped us to spread the word include: @NewScientist, @CGIAR, @Revkin, @Oxfam, @SciDevNet, @pdjmoo & @NigelCameron, thank you to all of you and many others for your contributions and engagement.
Furthermore, thousands each day have watched us live from places as far away as Ghana, Thailand and Australia. Over the course of three days, we have received questions numbering around five hundreds via the online webcast, SMS and Twitter via #AskPlanet.
The number of questions received has been hugely valuable even if we have only been able to answer a small percentage of them during the plenary. Based on our analysis, we have identified six broad themes of ideas that people have expressed as being critical in building ‘knowledge towards solutions’ as we attempt to understand global environmental change and how we might shift to a more sustainable world. Each theme will be introduced along with some examples of questions and comments that were received.
1. Institutional/Political Change:
This first theme that emerged out of the questions is focused on many of the structural components of the system that make it either more difficult or amenable to change. At the conference we have heard from Institutional Scholars such as the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and the world renowned International Regime theorist Professor Oran Young. One Interesting question that came in from Ben Ramalingam drew on the insights of Ostrom’s work to ask:
What promising examples of scalable innovative ‘sustainable commons’ institutions do the panel see ‘out there’?
Of course as important as institutions are for changing behavior, they only represent one part of the puzzle. Another aspect of this is the changing face of participation in governance processes at the international level, well articulated in the following question by Xin Yiang of the UN Rio+20 conference Executive coordinator office:
How to connect the virtual world in the negotiation room with the real world (say the civil society) ?
2. The Global, the Local and the Glocal:
The second very strong theme focused on the interaction of the local and the global and recognized the challenge of addressing cross-scale interactions. This theme revolves around the question of where is the best ‘place’ or scale to focus action and change. two questions clearly articulate these concerns:
Bhopal Pandey from kings college London – How do you think centralised or top down approach in effective governance such as reforestation in china and community or bottom up approach in Nepal and India doing the same thing. Which is more effective in terms of good governance?
How can we empower people in Africa and Asia to create solutions for themselves? From Mark, University of Reading.
I think this question is particularly interesting because it gets at the issue of how the top down can empower the bottom up and how bottom up change is able to scale and create wider impacts.
3. Specific Tools and Actions to Drive Change:
The third theme of the questions represented the desire of many at the conference and watching online for practical solutions that can be implemented, if not immediately then certainly within the near future to drive change.
Dr Mike Slattery from the Texas Christian University in Fort Worth asked:
We have 1 billion without electricity and 2 billion on the way: if we have to shut down coal and are not going to engage in hydraulic fracturing, how do we move forward on supplying energy to a growing, ever consuming world?
The energy question, which provided a lot of questions is of course central to any debate around addressing the feasibility of a shift to a more sustainable world and how to mitigate the current impact of the fossil fuel based energy system on global environmental change.
Another set of questions about specific actions revolved around lifestyle changes, Vicki Hird of the World Society raised these concerns with the following question:
Can the panel say if they would support new measures to reduce and improve meat consumption and if so what clever new measures? Given that this issue keeps being avoided…
The Bridges to the Future Series of Participatory sessions at #Planet2012 made great progress on considering many new interesting approaches to moving forward, here is the information about the topics and methods: http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/participatory_sessions.asp
4. Mental Revolutions and Shifting Paradigms:
The ‘Paradigm Shift’ was a very strong theme that came out of an analysis of all the questions. People clearly understand that with all the knowledge gathered by scientists and others in understanding the challenges we face and the solutions that exist, something deeper is required to drive long-term transformative change. A couple of questions illustrate this eloquently:
Steffen Bauer of the German Development Institute said;
We know a lot about biophysical tipping points, but how to approach social tipping points that need to be reached to avoid the biophysical ones in a timely and equitable way?
Also the mysterious Fitz stated that we need to change the nature of the obsession of modern society, which builds on the points made by Professor Wilkinson on equality being a key ingredient to sustainability:
How do we change our fundamental obsession away from consumption. i.e. towards an obsession with equality?
This fundamentally about changing the conception of the good life rather than framing sustainability as Austerity, sacrifice and reduction.
5. The Science of the Anthropocene:
The Next theme comes from the recognition that something is fundamentally unique about the now, we are in a new era which requires not only new knowledge, governance and technology but a different kind of science.
One important set of questions by a number of people asked:
How in concrete ways could science engage more directly with arts and culture in order to move towards redefining the good life?
This is something that in most cases, Science has not done well but as such it represents new field of endeavour for communicating in a deeper way that is able to create emotional connections and consideration of values through two very different but equally creative fields.
A different angle was presented by Christian Schweitzer of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany when he asked:
What is considered as an appropriate approach to integrate complex scientific results in policy discussions/decisions? And how do you communicate this more complex, interdisciplinary and integrated science?
Two questions does not do this theme justice when it is very much at the heart of #Planet2012
6. The Role of Business in Sustainable Transformation
Business has a somewhat complicated role with respect to sustainability being simultaneously responsible for a fair amount of environmental damage now evident at the global scale but also responsible for astonishing innovation, for raising many millions of people out of poverty and providing many dearly loved and necessary goods and services. This dualism was evident in the questions that were received.
A really interesting question was raised by ‘J.S.’ that focused on business innovation and the potential for sustainability:
You say clean energy and biodiversity has a potential market of billions of dollars. Private companies of similar size like Apple and Google have transformed our way of life, what do you think is preventing such change in terms of the environment even though the potential is huge?
This is a key issue. Colleagues at the Resilience Centre have been developing the concept of Social-Ecological Innovation to try and articulate what innovation actually means in a human dominated world.
A second component of this theme focuses more on the potential for knowledge sharing between science and business. After all, collectively business holds a huge amount of resources and information that could assist us to collectively better understand the challenges we face and how to develop and implement solutions. One such question was phrased as follows:
How do we see the role of business in contributing new knowledge to respond to a planet under pressure + how academia should work with business to generate solutions?
Business must be involved as part of the solution but they like science must transform to deal with a rapidly changing world.
This overview of the questions and themes that have been raised at #Planet2012 in no way does justice to the 500 or so questions we received in only three days. It is encouraging though that many people are thinking about the challenges we face and the potential solutions across multiple dimensions and then connecting these dimensions as we together begin to start thinking more about systems amidst the recognition that there are no silver bullets, Panaceas or golden rules. It is going to be extremely difficult but humanity has never shied away from challenges and #Planet2012 plays an important role of facing these challenges head on.
And to conclude, here are collages of words coming from the collective questions people asked from all over the world, day by day, for your perusal…
Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 1: State of the Planet
Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 2: Options & opportunities
Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 3: Challenges to Progress
Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 4: Planetary Stewardship