DURHAM, N.C. – Global efforts to protect the planet will fail unless we take social concepts like equality and wellbeing into account, according to a peer-reviewed commentary published today in the journal Science.

Governments around the globe are grappling with the challenge of shaping a sustainable future for both people and nature – a challenge that requires putting into place new practices and policies to address a wide range of complex issues, from fishery depletion and crop failure to biodiversity conservation and climate change.

The new paper – which is co-authored by 17 leading social scientists including Xavier Basurto, assistant professor of sustainability science at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment – argues that achieving fair and lasting solutions to this challenge will require greater engagement with seven key social concepts that currently are often marginalized in policymakers’ and scientists’ efforts.

These concepts are: wellbeing; culture; values; inequality; justice; power; and agency, a sense of self-determination.  

“Our quest to achieve a healthy and sustainable environment utterly depends on understanding how human wellbeing is linked to the environment and impacted by our management of it,” says Phillip S. Levin of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Greater engagement with the seven social concepts will be critical to informing decision making and making policies fairer and “more fit for purpose,” the paper’s authors say. They note that while these concepts are harder to quantify than GDP or carbon emissions, they can be measured. The paper highlights methods already being developed by academics and policymakers to quantify some of them, including well-being, self-determination, values and inequality.

Without these perspectives we risk going down a road which protects the planet but is incompatible with human wellbeing, cautions Christina C. Hicks of the University of Lancaster..

“It all comes down to creating a more fair world – we can act to protect our environment but sometimes those actions can increase inequality and that approach is not going to be sustainable in the long term,” she says. “For example we have created marine parks and terrestrial parks to protect nature and biodiversity, and quite rightly so. But in doing that we have sometimes taken away people’s livelihoods, moved people off their own land. People have suffered. Lasting sustainability will hinge on fair and just solutions.”

“Social science is fundamental to unpacking how people interact with their environment, but often the complexities of that relationship and the languages in which it is expressed can become a barrier to how it is used by other sciences and policy,” says Sarah Coulthard of Northumbria University.

The new paper, Basurto says, underscores the importance of social scientists working alongside environmental scientists and policymakers to help avoid these problems.


CITATION:  “Engage Key Social Concepts for Sustainability,” Christina C. Hicks, Arielle Levine, Arun Agrawal, Xavier Basurto, Sara Breslow, Courtney Carothers, Susan Charnley, Sarah Coulthard, Nives Dolsak, Jamie Donatuto, Carlos Garcis-Quijano, Michael  B. Mascia, Karma Norman, Melissa R. Poe, Terre Satterfield, Kevin St. Martin, Phillip S. Levin, April 1, 2016, Science; DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4977