You can buy my heart and my soul by Andries BothaThe issue confronted in the World Social Science Report 2013 is global environmental change, a phenomenon that encompasses all the biophysical changes occurring on the planet’s land areas and in its oceans, atmosphere and cryosphere.

Many of these changes are driven by human activities such as fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanisation, the over-exploitation of fisheries, and waste production. Global environmental change includes biodiversity loss, large-scale shifts in water resources, fundamental changes in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, ozone depletion and ocean acidification. It also includes climate change, which according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the most serious of today’s global environmental issues for humanity.

All these changes are intimately connected to accelerating production and consumption, a growing population, socio-economic and cultural globalisation, and widespread patterns of inequality. Together they comprise a major feature of contemporary life, requiring innovative policy and social transformation.

Why a social science report on global environmental change?

Global environmental change has potentially grave consequences for the well-being and security of people all over the world. They are so grave, in fact, that warnings about an impending global humanitarian emergency are proliferating (e.g. Rockström et al., 2009; Brito and Stafford Smith, 2012; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2013). Such warnings are indeed pertinent: most environmental trends are negative, accelerating and in some cases mutually reinforcing, and the consequences of these changes are real and unfolding, affecting individuals and communities everywhere. When it is recognised how these problems interact with and exacerbate other social, economic and political crises – including persistent poverty, increasing inequality and socio-political discontent – a clear sense of urgency emerges. Equally clear is the challenge before society: to secure a sustainable world through effective responses to today’s interacting processes of environmental and social change. Global sustainability requires concerted action to protect the planet’s bounty and, simultaneously, to safeguard social equity, human dignity and well-being for all

The World Social Science Report 2013 picks up this challenge by issuing an urgent and decisive appeal to the social sciences1 to research more effectively the human causes, vulnerabilities and impacts of environmental change, and thus to inform societal responses to the sustainability challenges that society now faces. It urges social scientists to work closely not only with each other, but also with colleagues from the natural, physical, engineering, health and human sciences on accelerating the delivery of credible and legitimate knowledge for real-world problem solving.

Today’s global environmental problems are shared problems that require joint effort, not only across the sciences but also between science and its many stakeholders and users. In this collaborative context, the burden of today’s unrelenting pressure on science to be relevant falls particularly heavily on the social sciences. What makes it so? There are three defining attributes of today’s changing global realities that call for a fundamental rethinking of how we understand and address global environmental change. Each calls for intensified, and in many instances refocused, social science research.

The inseparability of social and environmental systems and problems

Environmental problems cannot be separated from the other risks and crises that comprise current global realities. They are not disconnected challenges; they do not occur in discrete, autonomous systems rooted in the environment on the one hand, and in society on the other. Instead, they are part of a single, complex system where the environmental, political, social, cultural, economic and psychological dimensions of our existence meet and merge.  Consequently, global environmental change is simultaneously an environmental and a social problem.

For this reason, researchers across the disciplinary spectrum have for some time spoken of “social-ecological” or “coupled human-natural” systems. Social science research helps us to comprehend the complex dynamics of these systems. It examines how problems are connected: for example, how climate change interacts with water and food security, economic development, social inequality, poverty, migration and conflict. It explores how people’s vulnerabilities to different types of change are interrelated, and what human consequences the actions taken in response to one set of problems may have for another.

If society is to be serious about slowing or reversing global environmental trends, about reducing vulnerabilities, minimising impacts and improving human well-being, the social sciences must step forward more forcefully to inform understanding of these social-ecological systems. Social science can help explain how these systems unfold and interconnect across space, from the local to the global, and in time, from the past and present into the future. These insights will help unblock the inherent limitations of our current thinking and language about these systems, articulate new narratives that transcend the nature–society dichotomy, and identify opportunities for new and more effective solutions.

A human condition without precedent

Humans are living at a time when the Earth’s land surface and climate, its elemental cycles, oceans, fresh water, ice, air and ecosystems have all been altered fundamentally from the state they were in even just a few centuries ago. This is a remarkable and unique trait of the conditions in which society now finds itself. And scientists know with great confidence that these changes are attributable primarily to human activity. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen (2002) proposed calling this unprecedented time the Anthropocene: a new geological era in Earth’s history, in which humans are the defining geological force, and the first in which that force is “actively conscious of its geological role” (Palsson et al., 2013).

In the Anthropocene, people assume centre stage. This makes the causes, consequences and responses to global environmental change fundamentally social in nature. Global environmental change is about humans changing global environments, and about humans, individually and collectively, shaping the direction of planetary and social evolution. The social sciences thus have a vital role in enriching society’s understanding of what it means to live – and maybe thrive – in the Anthropocene, and in raising awareness of the  opportunities, accountabilities and responsibilities this brings with it. The social sciences need to help answer questions about how the role of humans as environmental culprits can be reconciled with their role as inheritors and even victims of the environmental problems we create. They must also help society understand what defines or increases the human potential to break out of either mould, and explore what makes people into agents of deliberate change. Finally, the social sciences can help explain how people find the will and creativity to deploy their agency to safeguard human security in an equitable and environmentally sustainable manner.

Urgent and fundamental social transformation

The third defining trait of this time pertains to the fundamental nature of change that society may either seek out deliberately, or be subjected to involuntarily. If society takes seriously the fact that the planet’s systems are under rapidly growing and unsustainable pressures, and that human systems are inextricably linked to their fate, it becomes clear that human security is at stake. Human security is understood here in the broadest sense. It involves people having the options they need to reverse, mitigate or adapt to threats to their basic needs and rights, and the capacity, freedom and sense of responsibility to pursue these options (GECHS, 1999). Deep social transformation is needed if societies are to maintain or establish human security, and pursue the larger quest for global sustainability in the face of human-caused degradation of essential life support systems.

The social sciences are uniquely placed to clarify what this means. Through engaged research, they can help society as a whole understand the nature and scope of the changes required at individual, organisational and systemic levels, and how such changes could be realised in politically feasible and culturally acceptable ways. A further important task for the social sciences is to understand the role of science in fostering deliberate, inclusive, democratic and hence deliberative processes of transformation. And it is equally vital for the social sciences to advance society’s understanding of how scientific and other forms of knowledge can be integrated to achieve culturally sensitive, locally appropriate, yet globally effective transitions to sustainability.

Given these features of today’s global realities, the case for greater engagement by the social sciences is clear. Their knowledge is indispensable for a clearer understanding of the causes and consequences of global environmental change, and for informing more effective, equitable and durable solutions to today’s broader sustainability problems. This is what makes the World Social Science Report 2013 on global environmental change both relevant and timely.

The World Social Science Report 2013 has five specific objectives:

  • develop a social science framing of global environmental change and sustainability.
  • showcase some unique contributions that the social sciences can make, taking different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives into account, and writing from or about different regions of the world
  • explore and assess how well social science knowledge about changing global environments is linked to policy and action
  • influence research programming, science policy-making and funding at national, regional and international levels
  • mobilise the wider social science community to engage more effectively, and take the lead in developing a more integrated and transformative science of global change and sustainability.

The call for knowledge integration

The social sciences have been and remain marginal to global environmental change research in the post-war era. As contributions in Part 2 of the report show, it is a field that has been and continues to be dominated by the natural sciences. At the same time, and as further discussed in Part 7, global environmental change has failed to capture the attention and imagination of the more traditional, mainstream social sciences, the core of the disciplines which view the social and human world as their focus. For them, social phenomena, relationships, interactions and human behaviours may take place on an environmental stage, but they tend to be understood as being determined by humans alone.

To remedy this, social scientists and their supporters face a dual task: to secure a space for the environment within the social sciences, and an equally important and central space for the social sciences within the broad field of global environmental change research.

Environmental change research now aims more than ever to integrate the social, natural, human, engineering and health sciences. Integration in this case does not imply the loss of disciplinary strengths or identity. On the contrary, it means being confident in one’s disciplinary base whilst remaining open to other ways of viewing and studying the world, open to asking new and different kinds of questions that emerge from an appreciation of the contributions that different disciplines and perspectives bring. Integration means engaging with colleagues from other disciplines and fields in the joint, reciprocal framing of problems and research questions, and in the collaborative design, execution and application of research.

Obstacles to knowledge integration

This emphasis on integrated science is dictated by two related facts: the complexity of the interconnected environmental and sustainability challenges that society faces, and the inability of any single discipline or scientific domain to understand, let alone address, such complexity. This emphasis is not new. Appeals for closer collaboration, particularly between the social and natural sciences, date back to at least the 1970s (Tsuru, 1970; UNESCO and ISSC, 2010; Mooney, Duraiappah and Larigauderie, 2013). Yet despite the progress that has been made by many academic groups and in many scientific institutions across the world – reflected in a number of the contributions to this report – the task of bringing the different sciences together in integrated global change research remains difficult. As a result, the track record on which to draw remains limited.

There are many reasons for this difficulty (see Part 7, World Social Science Report 2013 and Chapter 10, World Social Science Report 2010). Generally, disciplines still dominate academic and funding practices, and differences persist in the research cultures, standards and norms of different fields. Integration depends on the effective building of relations of trust. Trust is emergent and cannot be imposed. It requires time and supportive rather than competitive institutional environments. Global environmental change research brings yet further challenges. Researchers from different fields frequently accuse each other of naiveté regarding their understanding of the social or the physical world, and while the natural sciences often give preference to analysis at the global scale, the social sciences tend to work at a local or even individual level.

Another obstacle to integration stems from the fact that assessments of what knowledge is or is not relevant to the question at hand have traditionally been determined by the natural sciences. Much work remains to be done beyond this report, to clarify what integration means in practice, find effective ways of implementing it, and adjust institutional practices to support it.

New opportunities in integrated, solutions-oriented research for sustainability

Such work is now being undertaken within Future Earth, an ambitious new ten-year international programme of research for global sustainability. This initiative seeks to deliver a step change in the way science for sustainability is produced and used. Central to this ambition is a commitment to engage a wider scientific community and to effectively integrate efforts across scientific fields, in order to find the best scientific solutions to complex, multifaceted problems. Equally important within the Future Earth vision is an emphasis on bringing policymakers, practitioners, business and industry, as well as other sectors of civil society, into the co-design, co-production and co-delivery of knowledge for sustainability.

Future Earth marks significant progress in securing a real commitment from researchers, science policymakers and funders to integrated, solutions-oriented research. It provides a unique and robust institutional basis for accomplishing something that has long been called for: research that brings the natural, social, human and engineering sciences together in timely, meaningful dialogue and collaboration around joint agendas. It fosters knowledge production guided by a vision of science working with society to find solutions for global sustainability. This approach defines the context within which this report has been prepared and within which the challenges it poses to the social sciences must be understood. See Future Earth and The Science and Technology Alliance for Global Sustainability.

Framework for the report: Transformative cornerstones of social science research for global change

The engagement of the social sciences will be critical to the success of initiatives such as Future Earth. What can the social sciences bring to integrated global environmental change research? What are the unique contributions they can and must make to deliver solutions-oriented knowledge for global sustainability?

These are the questions that the ISSC set out to answer in a 2012 report entitled Transformative Cornerstones of Social Science Research for Global Change (Hackmann and St. Clair, 2012). The knowledge framework presented in that report identifies six sets of questions that have to be answered if research on concrete environmental problems is to inform actions that result in ethical and equitable transformations to sustainability. These questions are critical social science questions, bringing the full spectrum of theoretical and empirical, qualitative and quantitative, and basic and applied social science knowledge to bear on the urgent challenges of today. The six transformative cornerstones form the thematic framework for the World Social Science Report 2013.

The World Social Science Report 2013 does not represent a single, unified social science voice, nor should it. And while it makes an effort to cover some of the biggest problems of global environmental change, and related social challenges confronting contemporary society today, it cannot cover everything. The contributions reflect current preoccupations and trends in a constantly changing and expanding area of work, as much as existing and growing capacities to pursue them. It is indicative of past accomplishments but does not limit future possibilities. The field is growing, wide open, and rife with opportunity to broaden and deepen what social scientists do on the topic of global environmental change and sustainability.

Much like an artful elephant installation appearing unexpectedly on an urban plaza or at the edge of the sea, this report invites its readers to consider new or unusual perspectives, gather new insights and understandings, and perhaps walk away thinking differently. The implications of using a social lens to examine global environmental change and sustainability, and taking the insights resulting from that changed perspective seriously, are indeed profound.

This article is adapted slightly from the original version published as the introduction to the World Social Science Report 2013, see full text including references.

World Social Science Report 2013: Changing Global Environments