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10 years later

The Ecological Economics conference has long been on my bucket list. Finally, I managed to go there to present my work and connect to researchers in the field. The Ecological Economics conference was a joint event with the Degrowth Conference. I have been following Degrowth for some time. I participated in, I think what was the first, Degrowth Summer School (back in 2014). I must have just finished my master’s and I had decided to stay in academia. I wanted to connect to like-minded people and hoped the Summer School would offer just that. I wrote my thesis about Environmental and Ecological Economics. Through this comparison, I became even more convinced of Ecological Economics and the urgent need to change the current system. I also got in contact with the concept of degrowth, which is why I attended the summer school in Barcelona in 2014. Little did I know that certain themes and topics would accompany me since.


I have since been fascinated by worldviews that separate scientific fields and that seem to trigger human behavior. When I wrote my thesis, I used the term pre-analytic vision, because that was the term that Herman Daly (a founding father of steady-state economics) used. Now I often use the term paradigm and I learned that this opens a pandora's box. In any case, I did not plan on focusing on worldviews in my research. Though, it is a topic that re-emerges constantly.


Fast forward to 2021 when I started my first postdoc about human behavior and the energy transition. Not having a background in behavioral science, I studied a bunch of concepts from psychology, sociology, social psychology, environmental psychology, etc. Sure enough, I again ended up with worldviews, values, and beliefs as factors that trigger behavior. I truly think that worldviews influence our behavior, but I still do not know how they are formed or how we can change them. I am not so sure about the power of simple interventions such as nudging. The jury on how to change human behavior is still out I would say. If it was all that simple and if there would be agreement, we would only have one scientific model. If it was that simple, we would not have libraries full of self-help books that promise to hold the key to behavioral change and self-optimization (like the book atomic habits).


Recently on the Huberman Lab podcast, I watched an episode with Dr. Robert Sapolsky who talked about his book Determined (Sapolsky, 2023). I was not too sure what to think about this idea of humans not having free will. But it is an intriguing thought, so I promised myself to follow up on it. If this is true, it has massive implications for questions about behavioral change. On my way to the conference, I stopped at a bookstore (at an airport – shame on me) to look for Sapolsky’s book. Sure enough, I found it and started reading it on my travels. I have not read the whole thing yet, but I have to say, what he writes sounds legit. I am not yet sure what to do with this or how to apply it to behavior change and worldviews, but I am hooked. Though, at the conference, there was a presentation by Marisol Manfredi and Jakob Nitschke (The hidden truths of the Twin Transition – CRMs, extractivism & indigenous dispossession) addressing epistemicide. They argued that the globalization of Western culture also destroys the diversity of worldviews. This overlaps with Sapolsky’s writing, where our brains (thus how we think and perceive the world) are determined by our experiences (our past). Although there is a cause-and-effect relationship, I still do not think this allows us to predict behavior. Thus, we can neither plan, manage, or design behavior change. At least not when we think of complex systems (and Sapolsky addresses this in his book). This is where I think it links very much with socio-ecology. But I have to write about these potential parallels in another post.


What seems like a tangent (and it does so too in my real life), actually leads to the conference (here we would be back at Sapolsky, and the notion that all is serendipity, and we have no influence on what actually happens in our lives).


During my first postdoc, I not only thought about behavior change, but also about how to understand transitions. I studied several transition concepts and ended up using the adaptive cycle by Gunderson and Holling (2002). Because I was more interested in social dynamics, I amended the adaptive cycle. This is not where it ended. I also connected these insights with the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn (2012), as well as, neo-Gramscian thought. I did not do this on purpose. Research is not a straight line. It is a quirky road, that sometimes leads to a dead-end. On the way, I hit dead ends or was forced to deviate from research streams. For example, during my second postdoc, my focus shifted to science-society dynamics in the context of transitions. This led me to finally revisit Gramsci (whose work was introduced to me during my masters. I could not forget it since, and I genuinely do not know why).


At the conference I presented during a poster session as well as during a parallel session. The poster can be found here and the conference paper to my parallel session presentation is here. In the former, I connected Kuhn with the adaptive cycle to discuss changes within a scientific field. Here I applied it to Ecological and Environmental Economics. Writing this master thesis 10 years ago created a ripple effect. And it took me 10 years to present at an Ecological Economics conference… For the other contribution, I connected neo-Gramscian thought to the adaptive cycle to discuss the role of intellectuals within transition processes. Thus, it is about science-society dynamics in change processes. I have written about this in another blog post. There, I had a critical stance towards mixing science and society spheres. I still believe in this. That is as, science is portrayed as neutral and objective, whereas it is clearly not (Rose & Rose, 1976). Gramsci describes this with the concepts of traditional and organic intellectuals. This distinction allows us to see that what is traditional is really only so, because it is in line with the mainstream (hegemonic) worldview. There is no neutrality, only historically grown dominance of certain worldviews, which are labeled neutral. Generally, these insights merit a discussion about the role of science within society and how we as scientists deal with the normative stance we take. Apart from discussions about ethics regarding e.g. research on technology (e.g. geoengineering), we also need to discuss implications for social science. As I have argued earlier, when we interact with society in co-creative processes, we hardly have the education to deal with the side effects. I might be trained in developing a semi-structured interview, data collection, handing out informed consent, and data analysis. Though, I am not a trained coach, mediator, therapist, etc. But if we intervene in people's lives, should we not have the necessary skills to support people if adverse effects of these interventions emerge? I would argue that transdisciplinary research, co-creation, or post-normal science, require scientists to acquire a whole new set of skills. I would argue that most scientists do not get these skills throughout their formation. When I did my PhD, informed consent forms started to become a thing. Recently I was reminded, that some universities in Western Europe are still not up to speed with this rather simple thing (and that getting approval from the ethical committee is neglected). So if these simple things are not even state-of-the-art, are we then really equipped and ready to co-create with society? Are we as reasearchers just co-creating to do our reaserach? Or are we doing this for people? Are we pushing people to make changes that we deem necessary. Or are we neutral?


Apart from skills, when we conduct transdisciplinary research, we have to discuss the normativity that might be implied in the research goal. Achieving sustainability and pushing people to live more sustainable lives is normative. Research in line with a growth-based worldview is just as normative as research following a post-growth lens. Yet, we do not discuss these things. As a young researcher, I entered academia completely naïve, thinking it was not political. Surely it is. I though it is apolitical because, science is portrayed as objective and neutral. Surely one can question this (Rose & Rose, 1976). That is not only about science --> society dynamics but also about society --> science dynamics. Just as Gramsci describes, the education system, what is researched (thus what is funded), etc. is influenced by the hegemonic worldview. The political aspect of the scientific sphere is though not discussed. But for sure, ask any scientist who tries to push the frontiers. They will tell you about politics.


That is basically the tough job of scientists involved in ecological economics or degrowth. These fields reflect a change that is also taking place within society. A change that is about power; economic power, political power, the power of knowledge and information. It is about pre-analytical visions, values, beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews.

 

 



 

 

References:

Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th edition ed.). The University of Chicago Press.

Rose, H., & Rose, S. (1976). The Political Economy of Science: Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences (H. Rose & S. Rose, Eds.). The MacMillian Press.

Sapolsky, R. (2023). Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will. Penguin Press.


 

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