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Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB)

MAHB's Mission and Structure

Extensive literature (e.g. Brown et al. 1987; Gatto 1995; Santillo 2007) compiles and critiques definitions of “sustainability” and “sustainable development”. While recognizing the importance of definitional discussions, MAHB adopts a comparatively generic and succinct definition. Paraphrasing the Oxford English Dictionary, “sustainability” is societal processes (e.g. livelihoods and governance) that are maintained and continued without the long-term depletion of human or natural resources. Based on this definition, MAHB's mission is to foster, fuel, and inspire global conversations and actions to shift human cultures and institutions toward sustainable practices, through dealing with the drivers of environmental degradation, yielding an equitable and satisfying future.

These conversations and actions are conducted through three connected activities on human behavior for sustainability (Ehrlich and Kennedy 2005; Rosa et al. 2011):

1. Knowledge generation, i.e. producing new science.

MAHB facilitates and supports research which integrates physical sciences, technological knowledge, social sciences, and the humanities to better understand human sustainability-related behavior. One example of ongoing work is Ehrlich and Ehrlich's (2012) analysis going beyond the standard mantra that perpetual economic growth is the antithesis of sustainability in order to demonstrate how it is “biophysically impossible” (pp. 558–559; see also Bartlett 2004). For a sector-based approach, food is a theme with Jerneck and Olsson (2014) seeking to understand povertyagroforestry connections in Kenya so that the poorest people could have better opportunities to improve their situation without harming their land's sustainability. As another example, in September 2012, MAHB opened the Institute of Foresight Intelligence at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, California. The ethos is that, like “emotional intelligence”, a set of human characteristics exists producing “future smart” individual and institutional actions. Future smart actions are concerned with the gap between our understanding of the threats to humanity and effective action. Why does society know so much about what is coming in the future, yet fails to act in ways that will result in a more equitable and sustainable future for all?

As such, the knowledge generated through MAHB is both theoretical and empirical, as well as connecting the two. Frameworks are being developed for determining how and why human behavior does and does not aim for sustainability, but then those frameworks are focused for on-the-ground analysis in specific locations and specific sectors. Other, specific practical studies which are ongoing to test and refine the theory include small island sustainability and energy use for transportation.

2. Knowledge dissemination in scientific and popular science venues.

Generating new knowledge in the form of scientific publications is important, but MAHB's approach to knowledge supply does not stop with academic publishing. Videos are part of the outreach effort, such Ehrlich's efforts for academic audiences through the Jack Beales Lecture on the Global Environment ( and videos aimed at more general audiences such as radio interviews ( GQ) and clipson climate change( Speaking about the potential collapse of global civilization and what could be done to avert it (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013) naturally draws media attention which helps to engage those beyond the scientific world, including non-Anglophone audiences (e.g. Foucart 2013). MAHB also runs an online library (mahb.stanford. edu/library/mahb-library) for members to share relevant material in any media. That covers scholarly work alongside children's books, popular media, and public lecture notes. The criterion for selecting library material is fact-based presentation of the sustainability challenges emphasizing solutions related to human behavior.

Using multimedia approaches does not preclude face-to-face contact. Several MAHB workshops have been organized, in locations including Stanford University, Gothenburg and Lund in Sweden, and Lisbon, focusing on fostering collaboration among social and natural scientists as well as humanists while engaging with concerned citizens, including those with policyand decision-making power. Topics have including environmental modeling, governance, and risk analysis; sustainability in island communities; new forms of governance, especially when government is an inhibitor to sustainability processes; and business pathways to sustainability. In larger academic settings, MAHB members presented MAHB's work at conferences including the Ecological Society of America, the World Congress of Sociology, and the American Sociological Association.

Sustainability Summits in Oslo have also been a core venue for MAHB since 2007. The Sustainability Summits are designed to accomplish three purposes. First, to support the social sciences and humanities as global players regarding environment and sustainability topics. Second, to provide a platform engaging the greatest diversity of people to establish dialogue and mutual challenges among different sectors that often do not communicate. Social scientists, natural scientists, and humanists interact with non-scientists, including leaders of business, non-governmental organizations, and government—plus concerned citizens who attend. Third, to bring university students from around the world to formulate questions and to propose conceptualizations and strategies that are alternatives to those presented by the researchers and leaders at the summits. These “young challengers” collaborate to prepare their questions, arguments, and proposals, with the aim of positioning themselves as the new generation of leaders and researchers who will achieve a sustainable future.

3. Knowledge brokering, i.e. engaging non-scientists in sustainability-related action based on science.

Knowledge dissemination cannot just be one way, from the ostensible “expert” to the masses of the public. Instead, MAHB further serves as an intermediary matching up those seeking sustainability knowledge with those who have ideas and actions to offer. The key is bringing together scientists and non-scientists to provide desired science to those without a background to or in science, as well as to indicate to the scientists the form of knowledge which is requested in order to act.

As an example linked to the knowledge dissemination workshops mentioned above, in January 2013, MAHB hosted a meeting at Stanford University titled “Can Foresight Intelligence Prevent the Collapse of Civilization?” A diverse group met for a 2-day conversation on the psychological, economic, historical, sociological, and natural science dimensions of that question. The aim was to inspire discussion on all sectors acting against such a collapse.

Another example of MAHB's engagement beyond the scientific community is the work of Bob Horn from Stanford University who collaborated with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to assess the business vision for a sustainable world in 2050 (WBCSD 2010). A major feature of this project is assessments of where we are now, with a significant component of assessing human behavior—of businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations, communities, and everyday citizens—with respect to sustainability. Strategists from more than two dozen companies went through an 18-month process of setting 350 milestones and 70 metrics for achieving a sustainable planet. They distilled these lists into 40 “must-haves” that would be essential to achieve the sustainability vision, indicating how each of the next four decades needs to look like to reach the 2050 goal. For example, for materials, during the 2010s, new legislation is needed to reduce dependence on landfills and to encourage reduction, reuse, and recycling. For agriculture in the 2030s, productivity in Brazil will need to be double the current levels while in Africa, it will need to have increased five-fold.

A major goal of MAHB is reaching out to its members to help those involved in social action to have access to understandable information for their work on sustainability. MAHB membership includes a substantial list of “concerned citizens”, including those from business, religion, non-governmental organizations, youth groups, and home-makers of many socio-economic statuses. The key is to go beyond knowledge generation and dissemination towards knowledge-based action. MAHB's network and media offer opportunities for members to share ideas and experiences, with discussion and exploration of ideas being an important component but also ensuring that action results. To facilitate this, MAHB is developing a set of measurable impact goals which focus on working with scholars and concerned citizens to include the primary drivers of environmental degradation—namely inequality, population, and over-consumption by the wealthy—in their literature, public outreach, and activism.

To enact these activities of knowledge production, dissemination, and brokering, MAHB's basic structure is an informal, international network of social scientists, physical scientists, humanists, academics from professions, and other engaged scholars, alongside members of business, political, and civic communities. The openness ensures that anyone who joins the mission can do so on their own terms and contribute in the way in which they feel most comfortable. For that, MAHB uses various media: a website with blogging, a facebook group generating debates, seminars, and workshops—all with academic material as well as popular science content. As such, MAHB media and venues serve as meeting and interaction points between scientists and non-scientists.

MAHB members can also create their own meeting and interaction points, to pursue MAHB's mission in their own location, by setting up a “node”. The term “node” implies a connection point within a network or a vertex where several lines or vectors intersect in a large graph. MAHB's nodes are semi-autonomous groups to bring people together locally for pursuing the overarching MAHB goal. They draw on common MAHB information sources and goals to pursue actions locally pertinent to each node and each node's location.

MAHB nodes and partners exist across the globe. The first node was set up from 2007–2008 at Stanford University, California. The Stanford node focuses on a program of seminars and workshops designed to draw in researchers from across Stanford's academic strengths, such as energy engineering, climate change science, and environmental sociology.

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