Do we need the social sciences?

There is something peculiar about the way industrialized nations are responding to the pressures of global environmental threats. On one hand, there appears to be a growing recognition, throughout business, political, educational and governmental sectors to address head-on the human dimensions of these threats. This means attending to the psychological, social, spiritual and cultural factors playing a huge role in how these issues came about and how they are to be treated. There is evidence of some sort of change around us. Environmental psychology as a viable field is on the rise. The former Sierra Club president in the States now runs a project at a major advertising firm. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently released a bold, innovative report challenging the environmental movement to critically rethink their approaches to changing behaviour, and move from a focus on individual, consumer actions to more fundamental, social changes. Indeed, WWF-UK’s new programme Strategies for Change reflects a sea change in how environmental groups are addressing human dimensions – demonstrating courage and leadership in reaching out to different disciplines, researchers and sectors.

However, it appears there is a retrograde movement taking place. For a start, only two weeks ago the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research announced it was cutting its social science programmes. This move has puzzled, shocked and angered people around the world. Around the same time, a prominent American cultural pundit published a piece in the New York Times bemoaning eco-friendly practices. There is little doubt he is expressing the private (and sometimes public) feelings of many in prosperous countries, who are inconvenienced by the threat of ecological problems.

Perhaps our conflicting and contradictory responses are a reflection of how confusing and difficult these struggles are. As the Republican Party Platform recently put it, “The same human activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere”, however solutions should not “force Americans to sacrifice their way of life or trim their hopes and dreams for their children”. Indeed, here’s the rub. There is probably no way around radically rethinking our most basic values and hard-won ways of life. It won’t come easy and we need more than light bulbs and recycled toilet roll. The WWF report eloquently made this clear. And yet how can we move forward? Perhaps by starting to acknowledge how strange and confusing these issues are. Then we may get somewhere.

Posted by Renee Lertzman

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