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Environmental Governance for Sustainability

MAHB researchers have been contributing to bringing social sciences and the humanities into environmental governance regimes—including the governance of risk and using democratic change to achieve sustainability processes. Midttun (2010) edited a special issue of Corporate Governance, called “Rethinking Governance for Sustainability”. Carson et al. (2009) investigated public policy paradigm shifts in the EU's management of asbestos, chemicals, climate change, and gas markets. Other resource-related studies from MAHB on environmental governance for sustainability include Baltic fisheries (Burns and Stohr 2011) and tropical forests (Nikoloyuk et al. 2010).

This governance research has been identifying and analyzing a variety of mechanisms of “soft means” for advancing public policy. “Soft means” stress noneconomic and non-coercive incentives and pressures. Of particular interest for further investigation are how issues are framed politically (such as defining a policy issue as “European”); how data are selected, collected, and distributed; standardization of measurements and classification schemes; monitoring of opinion and behavior; and support for forming informed opinions and mutual learning processes. This wide variety of means shows that, even though managing resources such as forests and fish might have traditionally been seen as pursuits in ecology or biology, integrating social science (e.g. governance, individual attitudes, and education) is needed to achieve effective public policy and action.

Inequity and Sustainability

When determining how to use and misuse resources, many discussions within sustainability refer to resource distribution, access, and choices. People's individual and collective behavior is often attributed to political ideology, whether it be the approach epitomized by the legend (and likely reality) of Robin Hood, through stealing from the rich in order to give to the poor, or through modern-day unchecked capitalism, often interpreted as being as much short-term profit as feasible. Yet empirical evidence suggests that the links between values or ideology and behavior are rarely linear or straightforward (Osbaldiston and Schott 2012; Schultz et al. 2005).

MAHB aims to contribute to research on this topic by trying to understand more about how and why inequalities are created and perpetuated for resource distribution, access, and choices. “Selfishness”, “greed”, “ignorance”, or “egoism” are answers which are too simplistic in themselves, because these characteristics, amongst many others, tend to be present to different degrees.

For instance, in terms of ignorance, commendable efforts to tackle deforestation in less affluent countries, such as by celebrities including Harrison Ford (, do not necessarily acknowledge that the deforestation is driven primarily by large-scale agriculture for markets in more affluent countries (Butler and Laurance 2008). That is, affluent consumers desire products which are cheap to produce through rain forest destruction. The affluent consumers then blame those working on the land which used to be rain forest. Those with the power and resources to change are blaming those without the power and resources to change for sustainability problems.

How could such inequalities of power and perception be overcome? Does the disparity between the thoughts and actions of the affluent consumers emerge from ignorance, greed, or other characteristics? Could consumer behavior be changed to reduce inequalities even if product costs increase (although life-cycle costs might decrease due to less environmental destruction)? These are questions on MAHB's research agenda regarding inequality and sustainability.

This topic connects back to topic (1) in terms of socio-cultural mechanisms of re-framing, re-definition, and other cognitive shifts. Ethical and value systems play an important role, which influence and are influenced by political ideology. That requires further work into how ethical systems such as “do no harm”, “risk/benefit analysis”, and “utilitarianism” view inequalities and overcoming inequalities both theoretically and operationally. Some also differentiate between equity, equality, and egalitarianism (e.g. Espinoza 2007). None of that addresses the fundamental challenge with respect to inequalities and sustainability: understanding and overcoming the disconnect between beliefs and actions so that certain sectors or institutions do not hoard or dominate control of available (and always constrained) resources (including information and knowledge).

In fact, one common thread through the above themes is that simple conceptual models of influencing behavior, and of understanding the root impetus of action, rarely manifest in reality, even when they appear in the literature. The reason is that these simple models are usually for highly specific cases in highly specific contexts, often with many variables controlled for the study which could not be controlled in reality. For instance, one model of behavioral change applies ABC referring to first influence Attitude which affects Behavior leading to the Change sought (Kumar 1996). Empirical evidence is not always supportive of the ABC sequence for sustainability behavior. Ample studies indicate that, even when people have an appropriate attitude, such as wishing to be environmentally friendly, and even when they identify the appropriate behavior, such as flying less to save fossil fuels, they do not always change in order to implement what they know (McKercher et al. 2010). Environmental scientists are a poignant example (Stohl 2008).

Whether with respect to socio-cultural change, ethics, population, or inequity, the fundamental objective within MAHB's research is to determine the underlying motivations to sustainability decision-making leading to successful action, rather than just attitudes and behavioral awareness. Part of that is drilling deeper than the simpler models which often do not work in practice, such as ABC. In particular, differentiating and conceptualizing values, attitudes, knowledge, and behavior is often poorly effected in studies. Overall, there is a dearth of research in determining how and why information and knowledge are and are not converted into behavioral changes and action.

The current status of integrating social science into understanding sustainability behavior has not yet fully described the links amongst values, attitudes, and knowledge—or how those lead to influencing behavior and action. MAHB, amongst other initiatives, contributes to engaging all science and other knowledge forms to build on and support ongoing work and to more fully engage everyone in addressing the challenges to the planet and humanity.

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