Category Archives: What is Sustainability to Me?

Sustainability at the personal level

Unconference – Making a Space for Open Exploration

Unconference – Open Space

A time to raise your own issues.  A moment within the busy schedule of the Planet Under Pressure conference for delegates to come together in inquiry around their own questions, concerns, issues & explorations.

One in a series of events designed to give space for reflection, this session used Open Space as its operating system, offering each an opportunity to engage others in what they are most passionate about.

Participants were welcomed into Open Space as a place where they could bring the topics, issues, explorations and questions that haven’t been covered in other parts of the conference. This was a time when they could put forward what they most wanted to discuss & invite others to join them.

Engage in your own conversations starting from where you are, enjoying this fine Open Space’s harvest on burning & unanswered questions the delegates had [PDF doc].

My Takeaways from Planet Under Pressure

By Nisha Pillai, Conference Moderator

Looking back on Planet under Pressure I can’t help feeling a touch dazed. What an extraordinary event to have moderated at, with the next Earth Summit, Rio +20 looming on the horizon. The sheer scale of the conference was mind-boggling, as three thousand people – scientists, NGOs, policy makers, a sprinkling of business folk and about a hundred journalists – descended on London’s ExCeL Centre from the four corners of the world. Yet somehow the level of debate was mostly high, the boiled-down, ten minute-long presentations were the most memorable I’ve encountered at many a conference, and the electronic questions, despite my initial misgivings, were a triumph…

A short digression on the use of social media and electronic questions, if I may. With time of the essence at such a vast event, the Planet under Pressure organisers decided early on to abandon conventional questions from the floor – and rely entirely on electronic questions sent in via Twitter, or text/sms, or directly through our live webstreaming page. And it worked! Reams of questions poured in: well over five hundred over the four day event. That, plus the ability to scan the questions on my ipad, gave me a far better chance to connect the audience to our plenary speakers and panellists than if I had simply called on random contributions from the floor. It also meant that a further three thousand or so people joining the conference via the live webstream could also participate by sending in their comments remotely. Best of all was: “no mic hogging from the floor”, as one tweet so memorably put it.

Other personal highlights: Sandra Diaz’s beautiful slides illustrating her presentation on biodiversity in peril; Lord Giddens of LSE’s humane wisdom; Bina Agarwal from Delhi University’s plea for small scale projects involving women; Richard Wilkinson’s persuasive evidence on how equality, not growth, is what delivers wellbeing; Oran Young and Maria Ivanona, who did the seemingly impossible and made governance interesting, even imperative. But the biggest surprise was Anne Glover, chief scientific advisor to the European Commission – was there ever such a blunt, outspoken, kick ass advisor as she?

Those are some of my personal takeaways from the crazy jamboree that was Planet Under Pressure. Please take a moment to add your own comments below – how was it for you?

PS: And I made a whole family of new friends too. From the IGBP: Wendy Broadgate, Owen Gaffney, Reed Evans, Hilarie Cutler, and my ace Twitter guru, Andrew Merrie. Also, Priya Shyamsunder, Felix Dodds and Nigel Cameron, not to mention the incomparable duo, Lidia Brito and Mark Stafford-Smith, plus always smiling, ever so helpful, John Ingram.

My Takeaways from Planet Under Pressure was published 3 April 2012 by Nisha Pillai at Nisha Pillai’s blog site with the author’s permission.

Young Scientist/Youth Declaration

by a group of young delegates to the Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference, reprinted with permission from 

Dear leaders of the world,
We are young delegates to the Planet Under Pressure conference, and we ask you for concrete action based on the scientific knowledge of global challenges outlined in the State of the Planet declaration from the conference.
Problems of environment, economics, equity and social justice are intrinsically linked. Any action addressing one affects them all.  Science (including social science) can help to identify solutions, but citizen engagement is vital for solutions to work.  Where solutions exist that improve all of them, we ask you to implement them. If they have already been implemented, we ask you to enforce them. Where solutions exist that address one at the expense of the others, we ask you to rethink them.
Where solutions for environmental, economic, and societal problems conflict, we commit to finding better solutions. To start, we propose the following:
·      Replace GDP with a metric that also incorporates environment and social equity
·      Remove barriers for developing countries to have more voice and decision-making power in international dialogues
·      Reform market mechanisms to allow participation in decision-making from stakeholders at all scales
·      Offer financial incentives to young eco-social entrepreneurs and social and environmental researchers, especially in developing countries
·      Regulate open access to knowledge in all arenas of business, policy, and science
·      Transition from short-term projects to long-term programs for education and sustainability-oriented decision-making
·      Make the sustainable development activities of business and government more accountable to citizens
We promise to:
·      Make science more accessible and translatable across sectors and interests so that it can be used for policy making and long term business decisions that will ultimately drive a sustainable society
·      Expand trans-discliplinary research and engage with user communities in efforts to develop integrative solutions for sustainability
These lists are incomplete, but they are a good place to start. You will have to take hard positions against vested interests standing in the way of such decisions. We, your constituents, support you in this. You the decision-makers and we the citizens must stand together to achieve a stable and sustainable future for our children and for future generations.
During the Planet Under Pressure conference (London, March 26-29 2012), young natural and social scientists from throughout the world drafted an address to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro, June 2012). This was the Final Draft, re-printed from the Youth/Young Scientist blog  Their blog chronicles that process. 


The voice of the people at #Planet2012

Questions asked at the Plenary Sessions (first three days)

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:

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.

Concluding Comments:

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 - Tuesday Day 2: State of the Planet

Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 1: State of the Planet

Plenary Sessions Questions - Tuesday Day 2: Options & opportunities

Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 2: Options & opportunities

Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 3: Challenges to Progress

Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 3: Challenges to Progress

Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 4: Planetary Stewardship

Plenary Sessions Questions - Day 4: Planetary Stewardship

Inside and outside the bubble

by Pamela Collins, doctoral student in palaeobiogeography at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland.

I just spent the day in a large and ultra-modern conference center in London, England, listening to an impressive array of very important people discussing all the major environmental issues of the planet. Almost everyone had a laptop computer and/or a smartphone. Everyone was well-educated and well-dressed. Many had flown from far-away countries to be there. Talking. Networking. Sharing their ideas and their experiences and their excitement over vegetarian lunches and fair-trade coffee. The air was charged with enthusiasm for the conference mission: finding (and implementing!) sustainability solutions for a planet under pressure.

Afterwards, I went to my hotel, exchanged my laptop for my running shoes, and entered another world. A world sandwiched between the towering walls and smokestacks of a not-so-modern sugar factory, a major international airport, and old dockyards along a dirty river. Here, the air was loaded with the rumble of trains, planes, automobiles, and machinery, but also with the sounds of seagulls, songbirds, and playing children. I passed churches, schools, community centers, small businesses, and apartment buildings of every shape, size, and vintage. The streets were filled with people walking home from work, chatting with friends, or playing soccer (ok, ok, football). The whole neighborhood was riddled with sidewalks and patches of green space. I didn’t see any laptop computers, and I rather doubt the topic of most conversations was related to climate change or sustainability. Yet, this neighborhood struck me as a decent example of sustainable urban development: people worked and played where they lived, and the sense of community was evident, despite the less than glamorous surroundings.

Inside our conference bubble, we know that global environmental troubles are already happening and that the horizon looks grim. In here, we’re keen on taking action now to keep the planet’s natural ecosystems functioning and to safeguard our children’s future. But outside this bubble, what are people most thinking about? Do they worry about the dizzying array of different environmental problems they hear about in the news? Or do they prefer to focus on things that they feel they can actually control, like doing their jobs well or taking care of their homes or raising their families? What concrete tools or messages can we deliver them that will help them to make sustainable decisions on a daily basis? How can we convey the message that every individual decision matters? And, do we actually know what sustainable behaviors they’ve already adopted?

And even within our bubble, how aware are we, really, of our own impact on the issues we’re discussing? Do we know where and how the meat and plant materials from last night’s dinner were produced? Do we know where all the materials inside our laptops and smartphones and running shoes came from? Do we know anything about the environmental costs associated with extracting the raw materials for these products or assembling them into the commodities we use on a daily basis? Do we feel like we have any power or influence about how those production decisions are made? Do we care?

Is there such a big difference between the worlds inside and outside the conference bubble?

A lively topic of discussion at this conference has been the imperative need for effective communication on environmental issues between the scientific community and the voting purchasing public. However, we must go further than that. Not only must we empower and inform those who have not chosen science as a profession, but we must also look into the mirror and examine our own choices.

Every individual citizen of the western world sits in a position of power, and most of us are not even aware of it. With every single purchase we make, we tell the global economy what we want it to produce, in what quantity, and how much we’re willing to pay for it. The businesses that extract and process the natural resources we consume on a daily basis need a reason to adopt more sustainable practices. Regulations and internalization of externalities are a good start, but without our consistent demand for sustainable products and our support of the businesses that provide them, they will not be able to change their practices because they must compete to survive.

In addition to supporting sustainable business practices, there is no alternative to rethinking our entire consumer culture. Resource extraction, by definition, disrupts the healthy functioning of the ecosystems where it occurs. The same is true for waste disposal. All matter in the universe is limited, and every atom that is used for one purpose cannot be simultaneously used for another. The natural resources we consume in the developed world are thus not available for use by our brothers and sisters in the developing world. We deprive the natural ecosystems around us of their rights to land and to clean air and water with every resource extraction project we develop.

It’s really quite simple, in the end. The less we consume, the more is available for the rest of our human family, and for the incomprehensibly complex and beautiful natural world that surrounds and sustains us. How did we forget that most basic lesson of childhood – to share?

Pamela Collins was a panelist on Day 2 in the plenary discussion: Innovative solutions for a planet under pressure on Tuesday, 27 March, Day 2.  She also created the Planet Under Pressure Youth and Young Scientist Forum.  Pamela joined our conference from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland as a doctoral student in palaeobiogeography.