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Science as a tool: the impending launch of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Or “What has Josh been doing for the past 11 months?”

By Joshua Tewksbury

Almost a year ago, I took on a very different job.  My family and I moved to Switzerland, and I have been working to bring life to a new venture, The Luc Hoffmann Institute (website live October 10th).  I started with one page of text on the vision for the Institute, a new employer (WWF), and a new culture (NGO).  The move  feels a lot like going from the machine shop that makes the bolts that holds the ship together (professor doing research)  to the watch tower that is looking out for the rocks that the ship might hit.  After a year of working to build from this page-long starting point to a functioning institute, I now see it in a number of ways.  The Luc Hoffmann Institute reaches into civil society and out to academic institutions and thought leaders to try figure out where evidence, and particularly synthesis of evidence, can make a big difference for current conservation and sustainability efforts.  It is also a mechanism allowing people from very different backgrounds  – academics from around the world and from different disciplines, NGO experts, thought leaders in the private sector, think-tanks, and Intergovernmental Organizations – to come together and collectively generate evidence-based tools, products, and solutions at a pace that can serve decision-makers. It is also a platform for training and supporting the next generation of global conservation science leaders.

In this new space, knowledge and evidence are tools, and the trick is to focus on the evidence that fits the needs of users.  And the users are all somewhere in the Panda ecosystem.   WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of our planet’s natural environment, and help build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.  The focus of the Luc Hoffmann Institute is then to help provide the knowledge needed to achieve that mission.

So, in the past year, I have gone from a place where, for the most part, all knowledge is considered to be worthwhile as long as it ends up in high-impact journals, to a place where knowledge is worthwhile if it can be served up as an implementation tool with timely impact. I now spend as much time thinking about how we create the knowledge we need (process), as I do thinking about what that knowledge is (content).

Let’s start with the Anthropocene.  Its good to have a label like this, and it’s a good label for the world we live in. We have converted a tidy 50% of the total terrestrial land area of this planet for our use, we use over 55% of the fresh water and many fundamental planetary processes are profoundly influenced by, and in many regions, dominated by human activities.  In today’s world,  the human footprint is everywhere, and all this influence has had a powerful, positive impact on how we live, allowing more people to live longer and better lives than in any time in human history.  And because we have gotten better at quite a few things in the past hundred years, we have managed to quadruple the human population, increase global GDP 17 fold, and dramatically reduce extreme poverty while only increasing our “take” of terrestrial biomass production (called Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production), from about 13% to 25%.  Not bad, until you realize that we are sharing the planet with millions of other species and that doubling our take of the planetary pie has had altered some basic planetary processes.

One way to think about this is our influence on the planet’s energy balance – energy comes in from the sun, bounces around inside our atmosphere, warms us up, and a good bit of it then radiates back into space.  But our success as a species has been fueled by an extractive energy economy that is fundamentally inefficient. So much so that we are shifting the energy balance of the planet and heating up the whole system.  None of this is new news, but Jonathan Lung, over on Steve Easterbook’s blog, has done a nice job of putting this into perspective.  He pointed out that the amount of energy that our activities are currently adding to the planet is equivalent to about 13.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs being dropped on the planet every second. What’s kind of amazing about this is that we have only recently begun to see the earth starting to push back on global social systems (eg honey-bee collapse, water scarcityclimate-driven changes in commodities).  There is quite a lot of resilience in the planetary system, but the fact is that our ability to change the fundamental properties of the earth system is now growing far faster than our capacity to predict the consequences of our actions.

In the next 20 years, we will add another 1.5 billion people to the earth.  We will also likely add 3 billion people to the middle class, more than doubling the number of people living relatively comfortable lives around the world. How you see this global shift depends on your perspective, but the pace of change is astonishing.  One thing that is hard to argue with is this: the dramatic decline in poverty that we have already witnessed, coupled with the wholesale lifting of this huge percentage of humanity out of poverty and into the middle class will be an incredible accomplishment.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free lunch. All of this increases the demands we are making of our planet, creating the potential for much stronger planetary push-back.  As Johan Rockström recently put it in a meeting I attended at the Stockholm Resilience Center, what we are feeling now is perhaps best thought of as an Apéritif.  The full meal associated with continued growth in the next 20 to 30 years is likely to be a lot harder to digest.  Regardless of what you think about the digestive aides of technology and innovation, I think it is fair to say that the sustainability of the human proposition, as it is currently laid out across the world, will require a profound, perhaps even a fundamental transition. This transition will usher in a very different sort of society.  Such a society will need to focus on the growth of equitable, inclusive value within clear global boundaries; it will need to value the connections between human and natural systems and seek to minimize ecological externalities to economic systems.  This kind of shift will be big, it is probably necessary, it is possible with current technologies, and its outcome is desirable for the vast majority of people.  Most importantly, I think, this change is already in motion.

Recently I had the pleasure to work with Frank Geels at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester.  He has spent a large part of his career looking at these big system transitions (his 2002 paper on this is a good read).  I like his general argument (sketched out in the image below) that large-scale socio-technological systems (the middle level ) have a lot of inherent inertia, and that pushing them to change requires both a disruption of the current system from above (often imposed externally, typically at large scales) and, simultaneously, it requires innovations that might form solutions to be sufficiently protected and nurtured to allow them to take off when disruption takes place.

Image modified by Deon Nell of WWF South Africa, based on Figure 1 of Geels and Schot 2007.

This transition is on a lot of people’s minds. Major environmental and development NGOs, multinationals, and to some extent, governments around the world, are all struggling to engineer, or at least influence, the current transition. I think this is one place where the Luc Hoffmann Institute can play a role. There is a huge amount of undigested academic work out there that could make make a difference.  This ranges from work on  globalization, demography, urbanization, food systems and water scarcity, to the importance of governance structures, the nature of human decision making and the architecture of complex systems.  A lot of this work could have a big influence on decision-makers, but the current links between evidence and action are distorted, indirect, dynamic, and not at all easy to navigate. For a good feel for the problem, I highly recommend Roger Kasperson’s framing of the issue in his introductory chapter in “Integrating Science and Policy”.

From an academic perspective, getting from research to impact sometimes feels a bit like going through a maze full of bent mirrors and optical illusions.  I think boundary organizations like the Luc Hoffmann Institute can play a big role here, but there are many other pieces to this puzzle. I look forward to digging in here as we move forward.

To hear more about these issues, and the wide range of research and synthesis we are involved with at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, follow the institute on Twitter (@LucHoffmannInst), and we’ll keep you up to date.  In addition, if you happen to be on the east coast next week, I will be talking about all of this at  Yale on the 9th and at a Fuller Science for Nature Seminar, in DC, on the 10th.

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