Questioning the normative aspects of sustainability research; and where I feel I am.
Jun 16, 2019
The certainty of the need to do something, when confronted with the WHAT well-summarises the challenge in sustainability science, and what I have experienced in the transition from business more into science. This article reflects on the four pillars of sustainability science from (Schneider, Kläy et al. 2019) who reflected on what is needed to ensure that the research is of value and independence, to those seeking to make environmental reform.
Schneider suggested that in sustainability science we need to be very clear about what values we use and where they are informed, that the criteria chosen needs to be clearly outlined from this and that contextualising the ultimate goals and who / what is impacted to be reliably outlined so the results have a ‘place’ in action. Finally, the nudge that we need to reflect on what values (ethics or philosophy) undermine the creation and interpretation is clear so utilisation of results can be placed within this context.
Four tasks to tackle the normative dimension of sustainability
(Schneider, Kläy et al. 2019) research was a wonderful Sunday morning reading for me to take a breath and consider what is driving behind my mind in this research and also the vital responsibility it is in sustainability research that we are clear about motivations, and values; outcomes and expectations. The contribution of the results to inform decision makers to establish ambitious and bold regulatory frameworks and business leaders to commit to paths of transitions rely on it.
‘First, to unravel and critically reflect on the ethical values involved in sustainability, values should increasingly become an empirical and theoretical object of sustainability research.’ (Schneider, Kläy et al. 2019)
A question I have asked myself a hundred times; what is the IDEAL measure for ‘sustainable cacao’. Currently, I have a list of approximately 60 elements collected from literature benchmarking around farmer health, cacao agroecology, pedagogy and agriculture in lower income countries. While decided on these criteria, eg. Connect indigenous farming methodologies and ideologies to farmer training content and delivery, I realise that my personal values, political history of colonialisation, the experiences of my family in farming, my own nurseries, wishes from our team etc, all come into subconscious factors. Since taking a year to systematically review literature and methods regarding defining the criteria about ‘what’ I consider success factors in ‘sustainable cacao farmer training’ to be, it has in fact significantly broadened my perspective (for example the efficiency of peer-diffused training for simple methods) while put narratives and reasoning around factors I had observed in the past, yet were unable to name until now.
‘Second, to ensure that research on social–ecological systems is related to sustainability values, researchers should reflect on and spell out what sustainability values guide their research, taking into account possible interdependencies, synergies, and trade-offs.’ (Schneider, Kläy et al. 2019)
While there is a myriad of internationally agreed environmental goals, voluntary standards in industries, NGO-led orientations and national climate and social programs - just prioritising the ones as it pertains to cacao farming is not necessarily the best. Classic paradox in the cacao is regarding shade trees with a significant volume of science and practice advocating no shade trees, while sustainability-oriented approach promotes the use of shade trees, multi-diverse cropping and ground cover; which naturally increases the time and cost of cacao farming for a household. The trade off of time for results, short-term and long-term approach and making the case as to WHY it is worth to consider extra effort for (hopeful) results.
As Newton’s third law well outlines: ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’
Yesterday I wrote about how climate adaption methodologies are not proven, because it is unprecedented change of climate change we live in these days https://www.changemaker.land/blog/ComplexityClimateChangeTriathlon which indeed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 Synthesis report (IPCC 2014) and later 1.5 degree report well explains.
Schneider goes on to explain:
‘Accepting that sustainability is an epistemic-moral hybrid implies that natural and social scientists investigating social–ecological systems and human–nature interactions need to carefully engage with value questions. We argue that making explicit what sustainability values underlie one’s research is an important task to assure an appropriate relation between research and values.’
Thus making sure my colleagues and I carefully choose elements that directly relate to concrete sustainability is key. Thankfully our industry has more independent researchers bringing analysis and engagement of the cacao growing science and praxis world where I can dive in and look for dissenting elements. Distinguishing between what is driven by lobby (representing non-sustainable ideas, agri chemicals or quick yield goals) can be difficult, especially when they promote environmental or social goals. The rise of voluntary industry standards or private / company-specific climate programs is a clear testament to this.
‘Third, to find common ground on what sustainability means for specific situations, scientists should engage in deliberative learning processes with societal actors, with a view to jointly reflecting on existing development visions and creating new, contextualised ones.’ (Schneider, Kläy et al. 2019)
Fundamentally this means for me, making sure the farmer’s needs and interests are prioritised. As Anna Laven https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-laven-56758a11/ well asked during a conference discussion earlier this year at Chocoa(Laven 2019) - > ‘Why, should we be advocating farmers to indeed farm cacao?’. An excellent question holding the needs of the farmer first, and the chocolate wishes of consumers as secondary. Why, when conditions are so poor and systematic poverty and land degradation is well documented, should we be advocating more cacao farming?
As my father remarked in the 1960s when glyphosate first entered the farming market and he was approached by sales agents on our family rubber plantation in Papua New Guinea ‘What good will this do for us?’. The answer, as my father retailed to me many times, ‘It will make your farm better’. My father responded with ‘What, in your opinion, is better?’.
Certainly taking an interdisciplinary approach is one very good way to expand the vision of my research. Thankfully, my two key professors are well established in their own fields, David Guest in Plant Pathology, Merrilyn Walton in Public Health, and my own background in business means that we are constantly talking with each other from different view points. I find that even our terminology, even when talking about the same thing, can be vastly different. Let alone when I am collecting data and details from farmers, family members, social colleagues, NGOs, companies, national governments and regional institutions as to the volume of difference they all might see a humble cacao bean and it’s impact on a farmer’s livelihood, health and goals.
‘Fourth, this implies that researchers and scientific disciplines must clarify their own ethical and epistemic values, as this defines accountability and shapes identification of problems, research questions, and results.’ (Schneider, Kläy et al. 2019)
Being highly reflective about development in the cacao industry is the reason why I undertake this research. In just the last year, I notice a significant difference to how science and business treat data and issues. In business, I am used to receiving a stimulus, and reacting; we would have cyclone on cacao plantation, and immediately start new nursery budding program within weeks to counter-balance mid-growth-seedling-mortality. In business, we are constantly re-adjusting our approach and methods to suit the conditions of what is occurring. In science, we consider more. We reflect and look for more reasons, interdependencies and wait for results before judging. This likely seems like a very naive statement however is fundamentally a massive impact factor. This reflective approach of science boils to the surface greater clarity on issues. It feels less caught in a washing machine and more calm about viewing the long-term issue of sustainable change. I see this greater in relation to the longer term sustainability measures, as well as in the social development of farming families. The role of philosophy and fundamental human ethics and anthropology has an even greater value in this sense. Schieder gives a good set of examples: ‘value-free/value- conscious, constructivist/positivist, empiric/hermeneutic, qualitative/quantitative, knowledge transfer/co-production of knowledge’.
In summary, being clear about the
+ Values and where they come from for my research is key to future unraveling of our results.
+ The criteria for sustainability elements chosen must be solid.
+ Contextualising what is being researched and why for the clear ultimate goal is vital.
+ Being reflective of the values used gives context for interpretation of results.
Schneider, Kläy et al. research was a wonderful Sunday morning reading for me to take a breath and consider what is driving behind my mind in this research and also the vital responsibility it is in sustainability research that we are clear about motivations, and values; outcomes and expectations. The contribution of the results to inform decision makers to establish ambitious and bold regulatory frameworks and business leaders to commit to paths of transitions rely on it.
IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. R. K. P. a. L. A. Meyer. Geneva, IPCC: 151.
Laven, A. (2019). Health of the cocoa farmer: food security & nutrition. Chocoa - CHOCONOMICS AND COCOAPOLITICS Conference, Amsterdam.
Schneider, F., A. Kläy, A. B. Zimmermann, T. Buser, M. Ingalls and P. Messerli (2019). "How can science support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? Four tasks to tackle the normative dimension of sustainability." Sustainability Science.