“Post-normal” sustainability technologies?

Frame and Brown published an interesting and intriguing paper in Ecological Economics 65(2008). The paper is titled “Developing post-normal technologies for sustainability“. The paer builds on the concept of “post-normal” science (a contrast with Kunh’s idea of normal science). The idea of post-normal science is that of dealing with problems with a great importance and trascendence, but that are surrounded by a lot of uncertainty, so that current scientific knowledge appears to be “not enough”. It appears to be not a a substitute of a more traditional account of science, but an extension for problems that can not wait to be addressed but for which a traditional scientific or engineering treatment is currently non feasible or incomplete. These are clearly the class of most challenging problems in sustainability science.

For Frame and Brown, post-normal sustainability technologies (PNST) are a kind of instrument of consensus reaching or knowledge management. More concretely:

[…] the current mismatch between the rhetoric of sustainability and actual implementation of sustainability principles can be addressed by post-normal sustainability technologies (PNSTs). These work with the complexity and uncertainty by enlisting stakeholders with diverse perspectives and multiple capacities in the co-production of sustainability know-how in what we term multi-actor heuristics.

The paper provides a detailed account and references for PNSTs, which encompass both classical scientific elements plus deliberation and participation within a multi-perspective framework. From that viewpoint, PNSTs are more collaborative tools than engineering processes, however they provide the required framework to deal with “wicked problems” and eventually reach at “clumsy solutions”.

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Sustainability economics

In volume 69 of Ecological Economics, 2010, Baumgärtner and Quaas face the difficult task of defining “sustainability economics” (SE). The point of departure is considering two main elements:

  • The relationship of humans and nature as a matter of justice.
  • The normative, ethical notion that humans should care for preserving the natural environments for us and for future generations.

The paper starts with aiming at a combination of these elements with the notions of individual wants reflected in the political philosophy of liberalism. This definition provides the synthesis proposed by the authors:

sustainability economics is ethically founded in the idea of efficiency, that is non-wastefulness, in the use of scarce resources for achieving the two normative goals of (1) the satisfaction of the needs and wants of individual humans and (2) justice, including
justice between humans of present and future generations and justice towards nature, in the setting of human–nature relationships over the long-term and inherently uncertain future.

While this definition retains the individual needs as one of the components, it is not necessarily supporting the liberal standpoint of individual decision as the cornerstone of ethics. It is theoretically possible (even though arguably unattainnable) to attempt to fulfill individual wants with centralized planning.  This presents a challenge to ethical positions attempting to conciliate individual freedom and inter-generational justice and/or physiocentric ethics. However, the same position can be seen from an individualist perspective, but extending the notion of other’s freedom space to his/her needs tied to the preservation of nature. For example, it can be considered that one’s needs are restricted by the need of future generations to enjoy non-degradated  water supply (this is closely connected to the old concept of negative externality).

However, ethical decisions regarding future states are pervaded by uncertainty. It is very difficult to assess the extent to which an individual present decision would affect the status of natural resources for the next generation. This uncertainty is the cause that normative frameworks for sustainability are completely dependant on two elements:

  • Our status of scientific knowledge, as the only resort we count on the assess the potential effects of today’s acts in the life of future generations.
  • Technology forecast, as patterns of degradation can change radically by the development and applications of new technologies, e.g. new technologies for cleaning water flows or new ways of reducing contaminants by the application of new techniques.

In consequence, science provides an outlook of the impact of our actions today, but technology can change radically that impact, modifying the way resources are used. The problem is that science related to the environment is subject to uncertainty, and technology forecast is even more of the same. This is why sustainability economics has an underlying class of ethics very different from that of moral decisions (considering that killing or stealing is inmoral is not dependant on our scientific knowlege or level of technological development).

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Approaching sustainability problems through DPSIR

A recent paper by Ness, Anderberg and Olsson in the Geoforum 41(3) issue presents a conceptualization approach for sustainability problems by combining the Drivers–Pressure–State–Impact–Response (DPSIR) model with a multi-level institutional framework. The paper illustrates the approach with the case of Baltic Sea eutrophication from Swedish agriculture to exemplify the approach more concretely.

The main strenght and novelty in the model is that it combines the causal style of the DPSIR analysis with a multi-level consideration, e.g. considering national, regional and local analysis, with the larger granularity behavior emerging for the lower-level layers, eventually reaching the level of analysis of individual actors (e.g. farmers). This kind of analysis has the potential to be used as input to build simulation systems in which the aggregated behaviour of individual agents can be simulated and the effects contrasted with the models at the upper layer.

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Sustainability Science

Sustainability science has been defined as a research area combining work in the area of environmental science with work in economic, social and development studies. TSRI fosters that particular inter-disciplinary research and broadens its consideration to sustainable practices in every aspect of human activity. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to every aspect of human activity. As such, technology in tself needs to be sustainable in the long term, so in addition to studying its impact on the natural environment, TSRI approaches how technological mediums as the Web can continue to be at least equally useful for future generations.

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