Supporting a societal transition to sustainable development places new demands on universities

Humanity finds itself at perhaps the most exciting and challenging juncture in its history! When our ancestors traded their nomadic ways for fixed addresses, they presumably initially allowed their waste products to fall where they were produced and took freely of game for food and trees for energy. Later, they must have realized they needed to manage how they used their resources as they were getting ill from water polluted by their own waste and that local food and energy sources were being rapidly depleted. As the global population grew, it became obvious that management of resources at the regional level was also necessary as the quality of air and water around any given region is influenced by actions in neighbouring regions. Climate and other global changes have now convinced society that we also need to manage our resources at the global level!

The Earth’s resources are not infinite
This phase in human history opened when Apollo astronauts, in the 1960s, took a picture of the Earth from space. This photo continues to fascinate us and it clearly shows two features of Earth that picture that we seldom pause to contemplate. The first is that our ancestors were wrong to call this planet Earth!  More correct would have been to christen it water or ocean, as the ocean covers over 70% of the Earth’s surface. The other salient feature is that the Earth has no connection to any other celestial body.

Thus, this picture provided proof that, once we have used the natural resources upon which we are dependent, they will not be replenished. This picture also showed us that it is essentially impossible to really rid ourselves of “waste”. Plastic in the ocean? Where else would it be when we since the 1950s have known that it is essentially non-degradable and our culture has embraced its one-time use? Climate change? Our society has, since the Industrial Revolution, relied on the combustion of nearly inert solid carbon products which has resulted in an excessive production of carbon containing greenhouse gas waste, including CO2. As in the case of plastic, we cannot see this waste but it is still with us.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Although we have had visual evidence since the Apollo photo that the Earth’s resources are not infinite, it was not until 2015 with the adoption in the UN of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs that a global convention was adopted acknowledging resource limitation. A possible explanation for the long gap between having evidence of resource limitation and its acknowledgment in the political arena could be that acknowledgement of resource limitation immediately raises the question of how they are to be shared. Thus, the SDGs can, in effect, be seen as a vision for how we want to share the Earth’s resources among what will soon be 9-10 billion people – all with a right to development. This makes the SDGs relevant for every person, country and company on Earth. Many assume that the SDGs’ primary focus is developing countries but, when it comes to resource (over)use, it is the developed countries that are the greatest sinners.

Business as usual cannot lead to sustainable development
The SDGs must be seen and addressed together. In the aftermath of the introduction of the SDGs, we are seeing a tendency for companies, municipalities and even countries to “brand” their sustainability efforts with the selection (“cherry picking”) of the SDGs where they have the greatest potential to make positive contributions. In reality, however, all human activities will have both positive and negative effects with respect to sustainable development. Focusing only on the positive effects (“win-win” or “synergies”) will not, in itself, lead to sustainable development.

(This “win-win” approach corresponds, incidentally, pretty closely to the current political and business darling of “green (or blue)” growth.) Of course, societal development must capitalize on synergies between different goals. However, in order to contribute to sustainable development, synergies between goals must be maximized while at the same time minimizing “trade-offs”, i.e. negative interactions on other goals. If trade-offs are ignored in business and societal development models, sustainable development is not possible. Thus, plotting a sustainable development trajectory for society and societal actors requires a systemic understanding of the interactions individual actions have throughout all sectors of society and in the environment.

Katherine Rickardson is Professor in biological oceanography and Leader of the Sustainabilty Science Centre, University of Copenhagen.

Universities and sustainable development
Traditionally, universities are not good at instilling systemic understanding in their students. In northern Europe, our universities are almost universally organized along disciplinary lines. Our teaching is usually “research -based” meaning that it is carried out by researchers who, by definition, are experts in highly specialized fields. Course offerings are designed within disciplines and progression through a disciplinary field of study usually implies an increasing focus on detail and specialization within that discipline. This teaching tradition is ill-adapted to the production of the “sustainability professionals” increasingly being sought after by both businesses and public administration.

SDGs address societal challenges that cut across disciplines. Sustainable development is not a field of study in its own right but a concept that must be integrated into ALL study programs. Meeting the SDGs requires that business mode need – as never before – to respect and understand the global challenges being addressed as well as the metrics that can be applied to measure progress against goals. Thus, in addition to rethinking teaching in our own universities, we need also to consider how we better can link the curricula of universities traditionally focusing on business, technical sciences and more general basic research. In short, supporting a societal transition towards sustainable development requires a total rethink of our university traditions!

/Katherine Richardson