Thursday, February 19, 2015

Interdisciplinary Culture Clash, Part 1: Sustainability in an Imaginary World

A conversation between Dr. John Robinson and Dr. Kai Chan

This is part 1.  Find part 2 here. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6 (conclusion).

KC preamble: As an interdisciplinary scientist, I well remember first learning about C.P. Snow's famous argument that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems." (Wikipedia). But never did I think that I would so strongly embody just one of those perspectives in a clash between the two, as I did during a provocative week of exchanges with one of my most valued colleagues, IRES Professor and UBC Associate Provost John Robinson (leading sustainability thinker, interdisciplinary researcher rooted in the humanities and social sciences, former Canadian environmental scientist of the year, and mastermind behind the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability).

As a natural and social scientist who also studied ethics and has a penchant for writing fiction, I thought I could help bridge the gap between these 'two cultures'. But in this exchange, which we'll share with you in pieces, I came to realize that the roots of these cultures run deep, and are so buried as to be invisible, until they manifest in the rumpled pavement of an upended conversation. Or so it felt at the nadir of this exchange, a tense moment in the wide open lobby of the Earth Sciences Building, when John and I both struggled, red in the face, to contain our escalating voices.

I will leave the unfolding of the drama and its resolution for this series of blog posts that John and I jointly agreed would be fun to post publicly, but what I will say is that the exchange made me rethink a great deal I thought I knew about interdisciplinarity and sustainability after over a decade of research and teaching.

What follows is that exchange, which started with a meeting at CIRS, in which John described to me a fascinating upcoming event at UBC (envisioned by John and RMES PhD graduate David Maggs) that takes a novel approach to charting a sustainable future. The one-pager below summarizes most of what John explained to me in person.

Sustainability in an Imaginary World
Historically speaking, the challenge of sustainability has been viewed as one of proving the world real.  Solutions to environmental problems come from science, providing the indispensable factual basis for telling people what to do. Despite success with tractable, reducible environmental issues (e.g. acid rain) this approach is proving far less successful with complex challenges where multiple factors interact strongly with sociocultural and political systems. The gap between our efforts and their intended results is palpable.

This project proposes a different track. We begin with a view of sustainability as an essentially contested concept, like truth or justice, giving rise to the idea of sustainability as an emergent property of negotiations amongst interested parties about what kind of world we want to live in, what we refer to as procedural sustainability. This view places emphasis on the imagination, as sustainability can no longer rely on determining the right path to a single sustainable future. Rather it relies on how well we explore and imaginatively inhabit multiple possible futures. This implies a significant shift in worldview: instead of a world made of objects whose reality can be established in absolute terms, we must contend with dynamic and contingent cultural forms which shape the ways such facts are constituted, expressed and interpreted. This may be precisely why persistent efforts to prove the world real offer declining traction in pursuit of sustainability. Engaging with the world as an imaginary place may be an essential alternative.

Our hope is to develop approaches to sustainability engagement which shift away from efforts to make people face some brute reality of their worlds and towards enchanting them with the openness of the world as an imaginary place. We aim to do so by combining two fields of sustainability engagement: scenario analysis and the arts, both of which have much to offer-and gain-from such a transition.

Scenario analysis evolved as an alternative to predictive forecasting techniques, introducing us to the idea of multiple incommensurable baseline futures. Using narrative and visualization in an imaginary world, we propose to extend the inherent storytelling possibilities of the scenario form. While the arts have been courted by sustainability as a means to elevate environmental issues into public concern, this amounts to a pedantic task of converting facts into values. Shifting sustainability's concern from facts to possibilities returns an epistemic quality to the creative inquiry of artistic practices.

Freed of the urgency to prove the world real, both fields might take advantage of an explicitly fictional stance, their capacity to make things up, inviting audiences to relate to sustainability in a similar fashion, an enchanting, imaginative exercise characterized by possibility, potentiality, play, beauty and agency.

Our goal is to create an interactive experience that is aesthetically driven, that prioritizes the capacity of the arts to engage, provoke and destabilize through its expressive powers, yet at the same time, draws audiences into an interactive, collaborative engagement with elements of future-making and sustainability. Building on a rich history of participatory sustainability research and recent work in multi-channel participatory engagement, while drawing upon the capacity of the BC Hydro Theatre (UBC) along with the team's artistic and technical expertise, we will collaboratively design, implement and evaluate an immersive, multi-media experience. Combining the conceptual framework (the world as imaginary) with our prototypical efforts could lead to widely applicable approaches and methods for engaging citizens on sustainability issues in new and fruitful ways.


KC: Below, John followed up with the email below, and I responded with a few thoughts that fermented after our meeting, as I traversed dark rain-sodden streets on my ride home.

From: <Robinson>, John
Date: Thursday, January 8, 2015 at 4:59 PM
To: Kai Chan 

Cc: "RobinsonJohn

Subject: papers


It is very exciting to think there may be some powerful convergence and hopefully synergy between your cultural ecosystems services work and some of our work on procedural sustainblity. As promised, I have attached the regenerative sustainability paper Ray and I have just had published, and also Rorty’s paper. I am very interested in any views you might have on either!

All the best,

From: Chan, Kai
Sent: Friday, January 09, 2015 2:24 PM
To: RobinsonJohn
Subject: Re: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary

Hi John, thanks so much for this! I’m excited about this convergence also.

One thing that struck me yesterday is that the choice of worlds in the exhibit sounds very individual, when in reality a big part of the sustainability challenge is that it is a collective problem. What might work for one person, or for a whole world of people thinking in the same way as that person, will not necessarily work for the world collectively given the diversity of worldviews. If the primary goal is to show that an open negotiation/discussion about choices and trajectories is crucial, perhaps it would help to have some element of the exhibit demonstrate that any ‘solution' must play out also for people who are living in all three worlds, and that if a given person’s world vision is one that is hegemonic, it may collide badly with others’ worlds.

Second, I’ve kept thinking about my argument that the three characters are not at all parallel. (I am sure that there’s little new to you in what’s below already, but I’m going to keep going with this, because I can’t help feeling that the current design of the exhibit implicitly contradicts the view below, which I feel strongly about.) Science doesn’t provide direction, as I’ve said, and as you yourself said, science is the only one that truly allows prediction and anticipation of responses and other future change, and also the development of new technological tools to deal with new challenges. You said that you and David are not inimical to science, but I can’t understand why your stance isn't a stronger positive one. I would venture that science is essential to most people’s notions of sustainability, whether they know it or not. As you also said, there was a time when religion was by far the dominant world, and that was the Dark Ages. If science were removed from today’s world, I’d argue that’s effectively what we would return to.

The literary world is great for imagining where we might like to ‘go', individually and collectively. But if the imaginary future involves intergalactic transponders and teleportation machines, we’d better be enlisting science to tell us whether those are likely to be possible and to help build them. And if the imaginary world involves maintaining current standards of living for nine billion people while rejecting science and technology and resorting to wizardry and the Dark Arts, odds are that kind of world simply won’t happen no matter how fancifully and vigorously people imagine. Just like the apocalyptic cults that keep predicting the world will end, the belief doesn’t actually make it happen; cultists might never get persuaded of the error of their ways (and so shaken out of their 'world'), but they do not have the power to bring about the world they envision.

I asked you about your goals for your and David’s fascinating, innovative idea. I would hope that the main message is not that we truly get to choose which worldview, and what kind of physical, social, and technological world we want to create, with unlimited potential. Rather, I’d argue that we can make these choices only within limits (I’d argue best understood through science). And in this context of the current rise of anti-science sentiment, with people increasingly taking science for granted, personally I’d want to make sure that people realize that science is needed both for understanding the limits on what’s possible, and for achieving most of those possibilities for a planet inhabited by billions of people.

Does that make sense? Again, thanks so much for the thought-provoking meeting!

I’m attaching three papers about cultural ecosystem services, making the argument I mentioned yesterday. I look forward to reading the ones you sent.


Continue to part 2

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