Towards a greener economy: notes from a meeting of ‘young’ scientists

Last week I had the good fortune to attend the FutureEarth early-career researchers conference discussing challenges and solutions to how we can build a green economy that supports human wellbeing and ecosystems. I was lucky not only for the incredible setting in an Italianate villa overlooking the postcard-perfect Lake Como with a heart-wrenching background story of tragic young love, but more importantly for the contact with such a broad range of both younger and more established researchers working in diverse fields from analysing tipping points in climatic systems, studying economic models for forestry products in Switzerland, understanding governance structures and their impact on agricultural land-use change to understanding individual’s perspectives on energy-use in the home.

You can listen to the interesting perspectives raised by some of the speakers in these videos. Long debates and discussions raged both during the sessions and in the evenings over a beer about how best to bring about a greener economy (as well as what is a green economy). Do we just need to change the economic system and rethink growth using alternative metrics to GDP? How does green technology fit in with wellbeing and ecosystems and are technologic ‘fixes’ overvalued versus social change? How can social movements or government institutions create change?

….and basically…we know there’s a massive problem, we have some of the solutions…how do we start moving the massive juggernaut of the fossil-fuel and consumption economy in the right direction as quickly as possible.

We came out with some great research questions and workshop outputs and you can follow the post-conference work on the wiki. You can also read a blog with more details of the discussions and see the photos of us hard at work.

I came away with the desire to connect my research in the lab much more closely with broader issues and questions of sustainability and to build into NESSE both interdisciplinary networking between people developing green technologies and to researchers that can help us understand how they fit and don’t fit into society and ecosystems. We need to be asking the questions: How do I know that this technology is sustainable? Is it environmentally sustainable? Is it socially sustainable? What are its limits and what are the trade-offs? Who is this technology for and who might it exclude/marginalise?

However, it also highlighted many of the challenges we face in terms of language and approach to successfully build these connections. I had a very interesting discussion with someone who had worked with a team of engineers and chemists looking at CO2 capture and storage. He had been studying the public’s perception of the technology. But there were real challenges. How do you bring together reports presenting quantitative about CO2 absorption rates and qualitative data on people’s worries that the CO2 running under their houses might be flammable?! How do you really get one to inform the other? We need to learn each other’s language, each other’s approaches, learn the art of listening and remain open and flexible to change the way we do things to incorporate other perspectives.

I also made some great connections with two other early-career networks, INNGE for ecologists and INET YSI for economists. Look out for more collaborations with them on webinars and events in the future.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on interdisciplinary working? How can we build a green economy that works for people and the planet?

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