Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Empathy: What it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important for ecological systems thinking

    Contributors: Julie Gemuend and Mitch Goldsmith, members of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group(YPEG). Photos by: Julie Gemuend.


    How can we productively and meaningfully respond to emergent environmental and social crises in ways that remain open and attentive to the needs of others, including nonhuman others? At the same time, how can we protect ourselves from being so open that we become overwhelmed or despondent about the scale and urgency of the compounding emergencies that characterize our times, what many now call the Anthropocene — our current epoch of human-induced global environmental change? Systems thinking is an important part of grasping and responding to our current social and environmental precarity. Systems thinking understands humans and other beings, entities, and forces as interdependent actors irreducibly entangled with each other. These entanglements form a series of dynamic “systems” or networks that operate in ways inconceivable within a reductive, mechanistic framework. A systems approach to sustainability and environmentalism instantiates not only new ways of conceiving our relationships to nature, but also new ways of being in, and relating to, the world at large. Empathy activates our awareness of emotional and embodied relationships to both oneself, and others, and can be a crucial part of generating systems of care and environmental sustainability.  

    But what is empathy? Words, like people, are part of a lineage — a family tree — and though the term empathy is a fairly young branch, it nevertheless benefits from a rich, colourful, and complex history. First appearing in the English language in 1908, empathy, translated from the German term Einfühlung, literally means “feeling into.”i Einfühlung was theoretically developed within the fields of philosophical aesthetics and psychology over the 18th and 19th centuries and came to embody a strong connotation to physical responsiveness. In other words, it was a connection between bodies and other bodies, as well as bodies and objects. Einfühlung was also frequently applied to the experience of viewing art and in this way, empathy largely emerged as a term that concerned not only the enlivening of artifacts but the sensing and comprehension of those artifacts in and through the body, as well.  

    As the 20th century progressed, so too did the meaning of empathy. It abandoned its relationship to the body and settled within the domain of psychology, where it continues to be investigated largely as an emotional experience. This is how the context in which the term is commonly understood and used today, disembodied, and floating across our social media spheres — often as a dramatically reduced or misinterpreted version of itself.  In fact, many social media platforms have recently become saturated with empathy-related content that draws millions of views. 

    But something is missing in the transformation of empathy as an embodied and relational experience to empathy as mere psychological phenomenon or online clickbait. Arguably, empathy can perhaps be best understood as a powerful transformative tool that offers a pathway to radical intimacy and encourages us to rethink our relationship to the natural world. Yet its power to enhance our communion with ourselves and others in a sustained way has been compromised due to appropriation, misuse, and misunderstanding within the social media realms we frequent.  Thus, we must develop a more robust and nuanced understanding of the concept in order to use it constructively. This is especially important when considering empathy’s foundational role in building and maintaining ecologically sustainable relationships and institutions.  

    Within social media systems, for example, the rise of self-identifying empaths — those who believe they have heightened perceptual abilities, which they often describe as the ability to feel what others are feeling — have popped up across a range of platforms. This has been especially true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This phenomenon can be seen on Reddit, where, for example, the membership to the “Empaths” Subreddit forum soared from 20,000 members in 2019 to over 100,000 members in 2022.ii Data from Google Trends corroborates this increase in popularity, reporting a dramatic spike in searches for the term in January 2022, right around the time one “empathic” TikTok user went viral after their video provoked widespread critical reaction. The video has since been deleted but essentially the user frames their empathic abilities as a kind of superpower capable of immediately detecting nefarious undercurrents in individuals that no one else is able to sense. Detractors interpreted the video in myriad ways — as hyper-judgmental, insensitive, dangerously parochial — and created parodies of the video, which also went viral.   

    Critics of the term empath, and its appropriation, often argue that those who portray themselves as empathic, or empaths, are narcissistic and attention seeking. This, they argue, is the exact opposite of empathy. However, these online empaths are perhaps products of a larger system. Under the banner of capitalism, new age spiritualism appears to be a driving force behind this new “narcissistic empathy,” which places attention on individual self-improvement (often labelled as “self-care”) and leads to the online exploitation of empathy as a commodity. This commodification of emotion disempowers the capacity of empathy to enhance our relationships with ourselves, others, and the environment. It ultimately highjacks our desire for connection by putting it to work in favour of capitalist systems of power, all the while claiming to transcend those systems. Furthermore, no matter how seemingly deserving of scorn, the critics who mock these social media “empaths” perpetuate a kind of anti-empathy that reinforces the idea that what happens to one person does not affect another, that we are not connected, and that others do not matter. This worldview is one that positions itself in direct contrast to both empathy and systems thinking. 

    In light of these debates, we advance empathy as a loaded — but vital! — concept about care, interconnectedness, intimacy, compassion, and community, including community beyond the human. Central to empathy’s power, we argue, are the kinesthetic, embodied, and physical dimensions of the concept explored in its antecedent, Einfühlung. Empathy discloses that the psychological and the physical — the mind and the body, reason, and emotion — cannot be disentangled and marshals both into the service of understanding ourselves as/and others. Unfortunately, much of this complexity is missing in the online cache generated by TikTok empaths and their critics. The simplified conception of the term distorts empathy into a process of emotional contagion; when one contemplates another’s sadness, one becomes sad. Walt Whitman illustrates this phenomenon when he writes: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.”iii This is not how we should understand empathy. Empathy, we suggest, extends beyond this kind of projection, and should instead be understood as an oscillation between one’s own perspective and that of another (between first person and third person). It is a process of gathering knowledge about the situation and then assessing that knowledge, which gives rise to a genuine desire to help and to ease the other’s pain.  

    According to the philosopher Lori Gruen, empathy is best understood as the temporary suspension of the self rather than “a kind of narcissistic projection of our own interests and desires onto others, particularly nonverbal others,” such as animals and the environment.iv In her book Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals, Gruen argues that empathy can form the basis of a powerful environmental ethic that can ground our relationships with other humans, animals, and the more-than-human world in ways that are both caring and just. For Gruen, the key to this empathetic ethic is the understanding that we are already entangled. That is, we already always exist in complex webs of relationships, or systemswhether we like it or not. An entangled, empathic ethic, therefore, is accountable to these relationships and those they are inextricably linked to. There can be no individuals that exist prior to and separate from the entanglements that constitute them. 

    Ultimately, this attentive attunement to our entanglement amounts to, according to Gruen:  

    “[A] type of caring perception focused on attending to another’s experience of wellbeing… [and] [a]n experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another’s needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.”v 

    What would change, we ask, in the way we work, socialize, shop, travel, worship, and relax, if we prioritized the cultivation of empathy, including empathy for nonhumans and those most affected by anthropogenic environmental change?  What would our schools, offices, hospitals, governments, and other institutions look like if they prioritized care, that is, to quote Gruen, the “needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities” of others, including the planet, in their daily practice? What industries and practices would be deemed untenable in an empathic society? What would have to change? And what would remain? Far from frivolous, these questions, we argue, are central to adequately responding to this current human-induced age of climate crisis, deforestation, oceanic acidification, and mass extinction.  

    We are not suggesting that empathy alone can change the world. Indeed, empathy can go wrong. Sometimes there are things we don’t know or don’t perceive accurately, which leads to what Gruen calls “epistemic inaccuracies”. Other times, we may misunderstand others’ experiences, what Gruen calls “ethical inaccuracies” and, of course, we can become overwhelmed by demands on our empathy or else fail to empathize adequately, what Gruen calls “empathetic saturation” and “incomplete empathy,” respectively. However, despite these dangers, we believe that a shift in the way we understand, and practice empathy can help guide, inspire, and sustain ecological thinking and movements. Uncoupling empathy from perceptions, however real or unfair, of empathy as self-aggrandizing or commodified, as seen in the debates of Tik Tok empaths discussed above, is the first step towards rehabilitating the concept as a critical mode of ethical and embodied relationship-making. Empathy both acknowledges our irreducible entanglement with other humans, animals, machines, plants, and indeed the entire cosmosand calls us to be responsive to the complex needs of these innumerable others. While we can’t be everything to everyone all the time, empathy can serve as the organizing principle in our daily lives, including in our visions for a just and hopeful ecological future. 


    i British psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener is credited with the coinage

    ii https://subredditstats.com/r/empaths iii Merrill, C. et al. 2016. ”Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary.” University of Iowa Press, p. 113.

    iv Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 57.

    v Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 3

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Transformation to a Posthuman World: Can Systems Thinking Support Transformative Change?

    Contributors: Mike Jones and Liette Vasseur


    Transformation is the process by which systems or organizations change from one state to another. This occurs through the addition and/or removal of parts and the subsequent reconfiguration of the relationship between those parts. Transformations can be relatively small, such as those which occur at the individual level or within a household or small community. They can also be so large that they reshape the entire world. Climate change, created by the human use of fossil fuels, is a transformation that is affecting every aspect of ecology, economy, and society on planet Earth. The current Western models of capitalism and industrialization, and the belief that humans are separate from and can control nature, are at the centre of this planetary transformation. With this worldview so engrained in societies round the world, the question then becomes whether humans will be able to transform those societies to survive in a transformed world.

    Widespread pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss are undesirable consequences of global capitalism and industrialization. These crises arose from the belief that humans are both separate from and can control nature. Posthumanism is a new western philosophy that does not separate humans from the natural world. This is also consistent with evidence from the field of molecular biology, which recognizes that humans are an inseparable part of, and have co-evolved with, nature. This radical change in western worldview provides a foundation for thinking about how societies might change to meet current sustainability challenges. That is because worldviews often give rise to the laws and policies that govern the relationship between people and nature. image of a bike path on a bridge

    The ability to transform a system depends on the opportunities that arise from the stresses and disturbance that affect its ability to persist and the abilities of change agents (someone who promotes and enables change). Changing social systems is essentially a political process whereby those in power seek to maintain the status quo and resist the efforts of those seeking to create change. Systems thinking provides tools — such as the knowledge of how system traps can be released and how levers can be applied— to restore system health. Donella Meadows identified nine commonly occurring traps and remedies that occur when relationships between actors in a system are locked into patterns of behaviour that prevent change when change is necessary. Levers for system change vary from the use of relatively simple things like policy incentives that promote behaviour change to changing systemic goals such as redefining economic growth in terms of human wellbeing instead of GDP. Transformation to a posthuman world is the penultimate change lever because it requires societies to accept new beliefs and adopt new values which then affect the structures of the system and human activity. The ultimate system lever is to recognize that all paradigms are limited in relation to a constantly changing environment and that it is better to learn how to “dance with systems” because we cannot control the forces of life that propel evolution. 

    The broad adoption of a posthumanist perspective requires a paradigm shift or change in the western worldview about the relationship between people and nature. As mindset shifts are so difficult to achieve at a large scale, it is worth considering that smaller scale changes in communities or countries can serve as a first step that can eventually lead to large scale change. The application of policies and practices (at any level of scale) that establish balancing feedback to bend the curve of runaway global pollution and warming are considered to be levers, and those levers can contribute to a paradigm shift. In the case of unsustainable economic growth, balancing feedback would be developed and applied as a policy which sets a limit to growth and enables new forms of coexistence between humans and the rest of nature. If policymakers are unable to set that limit, pollution and degradation of the environment will exert balancing feedback until the human economy and population are in balance with the capacity of the Earth to provide the benefits of nature that are essential for human flourishing.

    Transformation in the relationship between people and the rest of nature is essential if humanity is to survive the crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Two major transformations that created the systems that characterize North America today began as small-scale local innovation that spread and grew are the agricultural revolution that began about 10,000 years ago and the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century. These fundamental changes in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature enables were highly successful for most people and enabled the emergence of a complex global economy. The fossil fuel and food energy necessary to maintain a global level of complexity are in decline so in general, future transformation will tend towards creation of local and regional systems that can reorganize around the biophysical resources available at those levels of scale. 

    There are many communities that can be looked to as models for others to learn from and follow. The voice of Indigenous People is North America is growing and their knowledge of human – nature relationships and their ethic that abhors exploitation for financial gain is slowly being included in decision-making processes about how nature might be used sustainably. In Latin America the concept of Buen Vivir “life in harmony” is based on Indigenous knowledge and widely applied as an alternative to western ideas of development. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the principles of Buen Vivir are incorporated in the constitution. Via Campesina is a global movement of smallholder farmers who resist industrial agriculture and practice many forms of ecological farming based on Indigenous and Local Knowledge that produce quality food for local consumption. The Transition Town movement has western origins but is global in extent and frequently draws on Indigenous and Local knowledge to transform food systems as well as local economies and energy infrastructure. All of these initiatives are based on the knowledge and the imagination of people who know that something different can be created where the desire for change exists.


    6th Assessment Report 2022 https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-iiBoulter, D.J. 2016. Posthumanism. The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy. John Wiley DOI: 10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect220 

     Capra, F and P.L. Luisi. 2014 “The Systems View of Life” Cambridge University Press.

     Meadows, D.H. 2008. “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”. Chelsea Green, Vermont.

     https://donellameadows.org/archives/dancing-with-systems/

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Neoliberalism and the Economic Beliefs That Took the World Beyond Sustainability

    Contributor: Mike Jones


    “Economics is the mother tongue of public policy and the mindset that shapes society.” — Kate Raworth 

    The term neoliberalism has been well-known by economists for decades — but what does it have to do with sustainability? 

    Neoliberalism is a political movement that supports free market capitalism and the reduction of government spending and control. The movement began in 1947 when a small group of economists (including Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman) formed the Mont Pelerin Society. At that meeting in Switzerland, they established a neoliberal agenda, based on the work of classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith, with the goal of countering the threat of state totalitarianism (i.e. centralization) that was spreading under the influence of the Soviet Union. The initial meeting led to the development of a social movement, supported by billionaires and businesses, and the creation of a network of free market think tanks, such as the Cato Institute. 

    The movement achieved major political support in the 1980’s, thanks to the backing of then United States President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The two leaders, who were both surrounded by advisors that were members of the Mont Pelerin Society, implemented a series of neoliberal economic reforms in the early part of the decade to combat the economic stagnation being experienced in their countries. Neoliberalist influences became global in nature through structural adjustment programs (loans or subsidies given to countries experiencing financial hardship to increase their economic viability) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the “free trade” rules of the World Trade Organization.

    Neoliberalism is based on the circular flow model of neoclassical economic theory. The circular flow model explains how resources and goods and services move throughout the economy. It has been a significant component of macroeconomic policy since the 1950’s. This simple mechanical model, however, makes invalid assumptions about rational actors, the availability of information, and perfect competition that are necessary to meet the conditions of a free market. Furthermore, the model excludes nature and society and seeks to privatize “the commons”: the natural and cultural resources that we all share.  It also promotes trade as “win-win”  despite the power imbalances that exist between overdeveloped and underdeveloped nations at the negotiating table. The structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank, aimed at poverty reduction based on neoliberal principles that privatize state assets and common property systems, removed subsidies for essential industries and privatized services such as education and healthcare.

    While industrial societies benefited from increased access to resources at favourable prices, developing countries were plunged further into poverty and debt. The so-called free trade rules negotiated under World Trade Organization tilted the terms of trade in favour of wealthy countries, reducing the ability of developing countries to escape the debt burden and develop their own economies.

    The power of the Neoliberal movement has undermined each of the three criteria for sustainable use of natural resources, as defined by ecological economist Herman Daly:

    1. The withdrawal of resources cannot exceed the regeneration of resources; 
    2. Waste generation cannot exceed ecosystem ability to process waste;
    3. In the long term, non-renewable resources cannot be utilized at all.
       

    Donella Meadows, based on her work forecasting the limits to economic growth, added that to be socially sustainable, capital stocks and resource flows must be equitably distributed and sufficient to provide a good life for everyone.

    The unsustainable use of natural resources by society has led to the point where they are declining at a greater rate than they can be replenished, a point known as “ecological overshoot”. In addition to the overexploitation, rapidly growing inequality has led to rising social tensions and displays of extremism, such as the storming of the US Capitol in 2021 and the migration of people from underdeveloped regions of Latin America and Africa northwards to the USA, Canada, or Europe as they attempt to escape the poverty created by the unequal exchange of neoliberal capitalism.

    The current overexploitation of natural resources and pollution of oceans and atmosphere led Earth System scientists to call our present position on the geological time scale the Anthropocene because it was largely created by the impacts of humans on the global environment. The change from the previous Holocene (a relatively long period of stable climate) to the Anthropocene with its rapid global warming mostly occurred during the Great Acceleration a period of exponential industrial and technological development that occurred after World War II. The IMF World Bank and the World Trade Organization were developed during this period. They established economic policies influencing the relationships among developed and developing countries that favoured industrial societies in the global north. Developing countries in the global south were treated as sources of cheap material and labour to support economic growth in the north. These neoliberal economic policies have reduced human relations to the cold-hearted and flawed logic of the market. This situation caused ecological economist Richard Norgaard to call the current geological period the Econocene, instead of the Anthropocene to emphasize the role of neoliberal economics and its underlying beliefs in the creation of global change and instability. 

    Goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relates to responsible production and consumption. This cannot be achieved until society at large is aware of how they are being driven by neoliberal economics to the self-destructive consumption that is exploiting the planet beyond sustainability. Goal 14 and 15, on protecting nature, and Goal 13, on climate change, cannot be achieved under the current premise of the SDGs that is based on the entrenched beliefs of mainstream economics and their influence on policy. Everybody has a role to play in changing their behaviour and changing economic policy. What will you do to change the economic policy goals that foster excessive consumption of everything and the overexploitation of nature? How can we change our behaviour to support the sustainable production and consumption of natural resources as required by Goal 12?


    1 Free-market capitalism means that the laws of supply and demand rather than central government regulates production, labour and the marketplace, giving the private sector much greater control over the economy than national governments.

    2 Hayek and Friedman were both members of the Chicago School of Economics and were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and 1976 respectively, lending academic support to the principles of neoliberalism (Hickel, 2018). 

    3 Mount Pelerin Society https://www.montpelerin.org/. 

    4 The Cato Institute seeks to create free, open, and civil societies based on libertarian principles that minimize the state and maximize individualism https://www.cato.org/about 

    5 Hickel, J. 2018. The Divide: Global Inequality From Conquest to Free Markets. W.W. Norton, London.

    6 https://www.investopedia.com/terms/circular-flow-of-income.asp

    7 https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/08/free-market-regulation.asp

    8 Raworth https://www.kateraworth.com/2012/07/23/why-its-time-to-vandalize-the-economic-textbooks/

    9 Daly, H. 2007. Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham UK.

    10 Donella Meadows 1999. “Sustainable Systems” Lecture at the School of Business Administration, University of Michigan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJ1STks8MUU&t=4s

    11 https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/10/hbo-four-hours-at-the-capitol-january-6-documentary-review/620464/

    12 Steffen et al 2018. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2015, Vol. 2(1) 81–98 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785. 

    13 Norgaard, R., 2015. The Church of Economism and its Discontents. The Great Transition Initiative. https://greattransition.org/publication/the-church-of-economism-and-its-discontents 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Systems Thinking: A Science for Life and Sustainability 

    Systems thinking requires an understanding of the fact that all parts of a system work together, creating effects that are greater than the sum of the parts of that system.

    Contributors: Mike Jones and Liette Vasseur 


    Since the 15th Century, western science has been based on the idea that people and nature work like machines and can be understood in terms of simple cause-effect relationships. This mechanistic view assumed that the behaviour of living systems could be predicted with deterministic research (preconditions dictate outcomes), and that living systems are no more than the sum of their parts. This scientific perspective was accompanied by the belief that humans were separate fromand could control—nature. The mechanical view of life also influenced the social sciences. This led to the development of simplistic economic theories that externalized the costs of exploiting nature for financial gain and the contributions of households and communities to the economy. This means that the significant contributions of people and nature to the economy are considered free” (gratis) resources. The mechanistic perspective of life and economy provides the technology and exploitative worldviews necessary for industrialization, globalization, and consumption. It has resulted in an endless growth mindset and the accumulation of economic power by industrial societies, corporations, and individuals. While modern science and technology have produced many benefits, both have also increasingly isolated people from nature. Each has also served to enhance the belief that people can dominate nature, and that nature (and all of its benefits) can be replaced or replicated by human ingenuity and technology. 

    The modern industrial worldview stands in marked contrast to older philosophies of Ancient Greece, Buddhism and Taosim, and the cosmologies of Indigenous People who view humans as an interdependent part of the community of life. In these worldviews, the relationship between people and the rest of nature is based on reciprocity (of giving, as well as taking) in order to achieve balance and well-being for all. It is not the one-way flow of exploitation needed to support the goal of endless economic growth. These older systems of worldviews and ethical values have enabled people to survive for thousands of years, drawing on knowledge passed down as oral traditions from one generation to the next. Many remnants of these old cultural systems still persist today, in concepts such as buen vivir” (or good living), which is incorporated into the constitution of Bolivia and Ecuador, for example.  

    Linear thinking as the foundation of modern western science gave us the industrial revolution: both the benefits from it and the undesirable environmental consequences that followed. We now know, however, that everything is connected through systems. Indeed, systems are everywhere and affect every aspect of our lives. To a large extent, we use and live in these systems without even being aware that we are doing so. Systems vary from the simple mechanical systems that regulate the temperature in our home to the highly complex laws and policies that regulate our lives. We also have systems of values and beliefs that define acceptable behaviour within society.  

    Systems are comprised of interacting parts that relate to each other through reinforcing or balancing feedback”. Reinforcing feedback increases the effects of one part on another. For example, the development of new technology supports economic growth, and economic growth, in turn, supports investment in technology. Balancing feedback brings a system to a desired goal, such as policy that sets the quantity of greenhouse gases that can be permitted in the atmosphere. Biological and bio-economic systems are complex and self-organizing. Feedback and non-linear patterns of behaviour are always presenteven if we don’t see it. This means that we should never think about living systems as linear and simple.   

    Systems thinking is profoundly different. It requires us to understand that all the parts of a system work together, creating effects that are greater than the sum of the parts of that system. Systems thinkers consider how a change in one component may have major effects on the system in its entirety. Using climate change as an example, the release of carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere has warmed the Earth’s climate with profound effects on almost every aspect of life on the planet. Learning how to think in systems is an essential skill for finding our way back to sustainability. Online courses that teach the basics of feedback are also becoming more common and are even being promoted as basic education for elementary school-aged children. Systems thinking, as it applies to our understanding of the process of life, only emerged in the 1970’s. With new mathematical theories and models that enable us to understand the patterns and processes of change in the evolution of life, however, we can now reflect the way that our actions may have consequences not only on us, but also on other people or even the world.  


    1 Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the ”father” of empirical science that would improve life for people by giving them power over nature https://hesiodscorner.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/francis-bacons-conquest-of-nature/

    2 Raworth “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist” Random House, Business.

    3 Weak sustainability versus Strong Sustainability https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/6569122-Pelenc-Weak%20Sustainability%20versus%20Strong%20Sustainability.pdf

    4 https://www.rapidtransition.org/stories/the-rights-of-nature-in-bolivia-and-ecuador/

    5 The dominant influence of Descartes (1596-1650) and Newton (1642-1727) on the philosophy of western science that viewed nature as a machine is described by Capra and Luisi 2014 “The Systems View of Life” Cambridge University Press

    6 https://futurice.com/blog/systems-thinking-and-sustainability#:~:text=What%20is%20systems%20thinking%20in,create%20and%20how%20we%20innovate.

    7 http://www.clexchange.org/

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • An Indigenous Youth’s Perspective on Attending the UNPFII

    Cassandra Carlson has been a representative of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) since March 2022 and recently attended the Forum in New York. 

    Contributor: Cassandra Carlson, member of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG).


    Did you know that the United Nations has a high-level advisory body that is mandated to deal specifically with issues impacting Indigenous peoples?

    Created in July 2000, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held its first meeting in 2002 and now meets annually to raise awareness and explore recommendations for addressing Indigenous issues within the UN system. This current generation of Indigenous youth are the first to grow up with, and see the progress and initiatives provided by this forum. We have watched the UNPFII shape our future.

    I became a new representative in this space in March 2022. Since then, I have been transiently working within two avenues: A learning avenue where I have started to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the UNPFII, and an avenue where I promote a youth perspective that describes and highlights the unique parameters of society that Ive grown up within. This balances the history of my people that I must carry with me— and the drive to use my voice to shape recommendations that will determine my future and the futures of other Indigenous youth. 

    Headshot of Cassandra Carlson

    Cassandra Carlson.

    One of the biggest learning curves I have encountered in this process is figuring out how to use this platform more efficiently as a tool to promote actionable initiatives among Indigenous peoples. The enigma about the UNPFII is that Indigenous peoples must work within the same colonial structures that they are to promote their own sovereignty and autonomy in decision-making processes. The speaking times are also allotted to only three minutes. For many, this is the only time where organizations have a chance to present their work, issues, and recommendations on an international stage — which is difficult to do in only three minutes. Member states — the colonially created states responsible for the dissemination of Indigenous peoplescommunity and culture — also have priority in speaking at the forum, followed by Indigenous peoples’ organizations. This includes the member states that do not currently recognize the Indigenous peoples living within their region.  

    While Indigenous peoples share similar colonial patterns that impact their regions, the problems we face are diverse and incomparable to each other. In an instance where my delegation was granted the opportunity to speak under time given by the Canadian delegation, that luxury is not afforded to all Indigenous peoples organizations, youth, or people that attended the forum. I have to recognize where I am privileged in this space, and who I am really fighting against. It has made me realize that the international stage is being treated as the tip of the iceberg; of it you want one of the many vegetables in the bowl of soup. That is, the availability of the international stage is so small that we are left competing against each other to gain access to that space. 

    But once we get access to that space, what exactly do we talk about? How will promoting areas of concern at this level provide meaningful impacts to the communities we return to, the communities we live with day by day? 

    Recognizing that the UN is a colonial space, there is very limited opportunity to celebrate Indigenous culture, resilience, strength, and perseverance. Many speakers from Indigenous organizations highlight the ongoing suffering that their peoples are currently enduring as a way to make people listen, while member states frequently promote how far they have comeand applaud their ongoing work. Before coming to New York, I initially thought that this forum would be different from other forums, in that everyone in the room, on some level, recognizes the reconciliation that is needed with Indigenous peoples. While I was right in that respect, I was wrong to assume that the scope of the United Nations has the capacity to sustain the dynamism that Indigenous peoples need. Put frankly, it should not take an international stage for states to listen to the needs of their local Indigenous communities, nor should an international stage be necessary to hold member states accountable for their actions. A three-minute speech simply cannot display the interwoven affairs that make problem-solving something as simple as access to clean water a complex problem. With regards to the UN, there is a certain level of autonomy granted to member states in how they run the governments within their countries. There is a need to create ethical processes and space to hold them accountable to international policies.  It will be interesting to see how this year plays on and the progress of this years recommendations. 

    One of the biggest limitations this year was that many of the side events had to be virtual. Ive found that the greatest progress occurred instead in the coffee rooms, at lunch, and in informal conversations with people. We need to connect with each other on a real and authentic level to truly to understand how important it is to help each other. For me, this is how I develop relationships and why they have importance to me. 

    My relationship and connection with the Earth are why I am so passionate about climate change justice. If I did not care so deeply about the environment, I would not have as much drive to put forth solutions. That goes the same with human relationships. I cannot expect the people I talk to or ask for support to care as deeply about the same initiatives I do if they do not first develop a relationship with my goals in a way that resonates with them and is derived from their own independent perspective. 

    While the forum carries colonial baggage and barriers to providing real solutions, there is another piece of the puzzle that has yet to be discussed: its growth. Since 2000, the UNPFII has served as a tool for Indigenous peoples to raise awareness, bring forth policy changes to other UN bodies, and influence the implementation of Indigenous rights on a local and national level. I question how the UNPFII has influenced change over the past 20 years. If anything, the greatest accomplishment the UNPFII has provided is the colonial documentation on the progress of reconciliation throughout the regions. One of the largest limitations in this theme is that there is a lack of youth engagement. Why is this important? Youth are the future leaders and change-makers in these spaces. Moreover, we deserve to have a say in the future that we will be living in, because if we wait 10-15 years, it will be too late. 

    There is also a unique subset of parameters within our society that hasnt been present ever before. In under a minute, I can hear and have access to any sort of world problem, where I can see real, on-the-ground footage of any event. Whether it be a bombing occurring in the Middle East, changes to current policies on a local level, advocacy work of climate activists, there has never been a generation of youth who have been able to hear events in real time the way we do today. The revolution of human rights works at warp speed, in that the way we treat each other is often creating more problems than solutions. There is simply not enough time or people to provide an adequate assessment of why these solutions have not progressed. 

    From my perspective, this isnt a new issue. This issue has been prevalent for so long that weve seen such an expansion of organizations made by Indigenous peoples to deal with each revolution. But what is the solution? Well, it certainly does not limit us (Indigenous people) by having a specific technical committee of sorts whose only capacity is coming up with solutions related to one issue. However, we subject ourselves to restrictions due to the fact that one of the biggest barriers Indigenous peoples face is the lack of proper inter-jurisdictional cooperation. As more organizations coming about, that also requires an increase in scope in terms of project management and assessment processes. 

    We simply do not have a proper structure in place to assess and account for each other enough in these spaces in terms of level of engagement, the successes and downfalls of partnerships, the limitations of resources that can be provided, and the capacity certain organizations have to complete a certain task. For example, many individuals come to this space as volunteers, with the responsibilities of their main jobs limiting their availability to work on themes of the forum full-time. 

    So, I am left with these questions: Has this space has grown at the same speed as the generation it serves? Will it ever be able to account for the warp speedof events we have to live in? Do local communities reap the benefits of the forum, or is the forum reaping the benefits of the community? Which is more important, the popularity of the UNPFII or the subjects it discusses? 

    Should we really be promoting the space of the UN and the international policies it provides to assist us, or should the UN being doing more to promote the goals of local Indigenous communities and grow with the current social environment? 


    The Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG) was assembled to advance the work of the Beyond Sustainability: Radical Transformation through Systems Thinking project research team. The goal of the YPEG is to leverage the student perspective to engage in meaningful discussions on sustainability and transformation, including (but not limited to) brainstorming public opportunities for participation and assessing the role of the next generation in these projects.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • What Sustainable Development and the Green Economy Still Get Wrong About Curbing Climate Change


    Contributors: Bernal Herrera-Fernández, Liette Vasseur

    International treaties, such as the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have taken on the daunting task of mobilizing the world against the civilization-threatening challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

    Two core concepts underpin these efforts: sustainable development and the green economy. In 1987, the United Nations formally recognized sustainable development as essential in seeking equilibrium between environmental, social, and economic development. Alternatively, the green economy attempts to integrate environment and economy. What these two efforts share, however, is an assumption that the economy can grow without limit and that the Earth’s resources are infinite and inexhaustible. We can always develop suitable technologies and new materials so humanity can continue its current trajectory driven by uninhibited growth— but what is wrong with that picture?

    In the 1972 book Limits to Growth, author Donella Meadows and her collaborators used a computer model of the world, known as World3, to show that the unlimited growth paradigm is not possible under certain conditions of population growth and natural resource use. The Club of Rome, a think tank comprised of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, modelled different scenarios for the future of planet Earth in the book, taking into account varying scenarios of human population growth, agricultural productivity, natural resource extraction, industrial production, and pollution. The authors applied various assumptions and policy options across 12 different scenarios, most of which pointed to eventual global economic collapse. Beyond the Limits, the 1992 sequel to that book, subsequently presented evidence that civilization had already surpassed Earth’s limits and that humanity was heading down an unsustainable development path. 

    Although both books were initially criticized post-publication, research has increasingly pointed to the alignment of the author’s forecasts to the Earth’s current trajectory. 

    So, what is the solution? Can these international treaties help change the forecasted path of this planet—or is it too late?

    These treaties, although they seek social, financial, and economic transformations to achieve sustainability, use a reductionist approach for solutions. Although this approach can make a large and complex problem seem less intimidating (by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces) this approach often loses sight of the interconnectedness of the overall situation. For example, the green economy argues predominantly in favour of green energies as the great solution to addressing climate change, especially focusing on the decarbonization of national economies. That solution centres on technological change without considering the multitude of factors associated with this necessary global transformation: such as the governance of natural resource management, or the impact of the materials required to build that technology (e.g., scarce chemical and nonrenewable mineral resources).

    Based on assumptions of unlimited growth and reductionism, are we not then headed toward a new form of extractivism? This acceptance of wide-scale removal and subsequent processing of natural resources stands in complete contradiction with sustainable development. 

    The answers are not simple, but the current international political architecture requires approaches to climate change and biodiversity loss that are systemic and holistic to achieve successful outcomes. They must consider all the components and interrelationships involved in true transformation. Then, and only then, can we work to avoid the collapse scenarios of which science warns.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • A Better Kind of Urban Development

    Two contrasting views of Front Street in downtown Thorold: before the revitalization project (on left) and afterwards (right). Photo of Front Street before the revitalization project taken by Paul Forsyth, provided courtesy of NiagaraThisWeek.com; after photo by Christine Daigle.

    New urban development sites have proliferated in recent years.

    The housing market in Canada is feverish, with many claiming that more housing needs to be built in order to satisfy the increasing demand. This will mean increased urban expansion and the conversion of land into brand-new neighbourhoods filled with cookie-cutter houses. Young trees will be planted here-and-there to grow through sidewalks. Conversely, sidewalks may sometimes be nonexistent in certain neighbourhoods that are poorly serviced by public transit. These areas will be designed with the assumption that residents will use cars to commute, with little thought given to the walkability of the neighbourhood.

    Urban developers who design these neighbourhoods may also plan for a green space or playground, especially when the area is meant to be family-oriented. Yards will be covered with roll-out grass to create instant lawns, with empty spaces left for the first dwellers to garden as they wish—or not. Plants that were naturally growing in these areas (in harmonious relation with the animals and bugs of the surrounding ecosystem), will become seen as “weeds” that need to be controlled and eliminated.

    What was once a natural habitat, with a variety of animal and plant species that all shared an ecosystem, will be destroyed. In its place will be a space designed by humans, and for humans, with the goal of eliminating as many “natural annoyances” as possible.

    Land clearing makes space for humans — while simultaneously eliminating entire ecosystems in the process. Furthermore, it brings humans and wildlife closer together, often with negative implications. Increased urban sprawl in Thorold has generated a surge of coyote encounters and even attacks. Closer proximity between animals and humans can also increase incidences of zoonotic diseases, such as bird flu or rabies.

    While there has been lot of work done in relation to sustainable urban development, it often focuses on mitigating the impact of climate change by planning for human movement that is not car-dependent, through the development of more efficient public transit, cycling and walking paths. But more should also be done to work with established ecosystems — instead of clearing and destroying them. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, “Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management. Key Principles and Approaches for Cities in the 21st Century,” for example, proposes a series of planning principles for integrated and sustainable urban development. This includes committing to an environmental ethic and the regeneration of natural systems in order to make cities green.

    Those principles, along with care for existing ecosystems, are unfortunately not always applied in real-world scenarios. A recent example of this can be seen in the Niagara region with the revitalization of Thorold’s downtown core. In recent years, a great deal of effort has gone into giving Thorold’s Front Street a facelift to attract new visitors, diners, and shoppers. Façades of buildings on the downtown street were redone and, as part of its recent push for revitalization in 2020, the city re-did the sidewalks, added parking spaces, and integrated benches, new light standards, and other streetscaping elements. Instead of implementing a design that kept the mature, established trees that adorned the street intact, the City opted to cut those trees down in order to facilitate new sidewalks. New, very young, trees were planted in their stead. While the change in landscape is indeed shocking, there is more than mere aesthetic enjoyment at stake here.

    Comparing the old to the new, the pre-revitalization to the revitalized downtown core, one might notice that nature has been almost completely evacuated. The little, new trees that were recently planted have been given only a small space in the ground to expand their trunks. This will lead to the “necessity” of eventually cutting them down in the future—a necessity created entirely by humans’ lack of planning for the tree’s needs. Beyond the drastic change in canopy, one needs to also think of how the changes impact the many creatures that were living in, or relied on, the mature trees for survival. Cutting mature trees down to satisfy the human desire for revitalization destroyed the habitat of creatures that were forced to relocate. Revitalizing the downtown core was not done with a view of the ecosystem that it was and in fact amounted to a devitalization: where mature tree dwellers, such as birds, squirrels and bugs had to leave the downtown core, making it less lively. If planners had considered the impact on nature and ecosystems, they would—and could—have done things differently.

    Making cities “green” and environmentally friendly by planning urban development with sustainability and respect for the integrity of ecosystems in mind is possible. It can — and it should— be at the forefront of our thinking as we continue building more space for human use.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Is reconnecting to nature the key to sustainability?

    Contributor: Christine Daigle

    According to the United Nations, more than 50% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, with a projected increase to almost 70% by 2050. While urban living may differ significantly between a megalopolis like Tokyo or Mumbai and a small size city like St. Catharines, it remains that for urban dwellers, keeping in touch with nature can be challenging.

    In the Niagara region, we are fortunate to always be somewhat close to the countryside with easy access to trails in Short Hills Provincial Park, as well as other fields, orchards and vineyards, and lakes Ontario and Erie. It is, perhaps, debatable how “natural” these sites are given that there is a lot of human management of land that goes into their upkeep, however. Even Short Hills, which appears to be the most natural of all the sites listed, has seen some human intervention in creating and maintaining the trails, through use or management.

    In smaller cities, those who own or rent a house sometimes have access to a yard that they can use to engage in vegetable gardening. Other small city dwellers, however, may not have this kind of access and their contact with nature may be limited to the plants and flowers they keep in balcony planters, or to the city parks they visit in order to enjoy some grass, trees, and birds. Inhabitants of large cities and megalopolises may not have access to any natural spaces at all other than city parks. Some individuals never go out of their cities—whether for lack of interest, lack of financial means, or both—and their only experience with nature is through manicured city-managed areas such as parks. To remedy this, “regreening” has become an urban strategy of restoring degraded or barren landscapes to a more naturalized state using trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. However, and despite many cities’ efforts to “regreen” themselves, not everyone considers green spaces to be important for their citizens, thereby limiting access to nature for a great number of city dwellers. For those, the only access might be through the scruffy trees growing through sidewalk cement. They may also have a mediated access to nature in the form of nature shows they watch on television (in which nature is presented as pristine and distant) or newscasts that speak of nature mainly when some catastrophic event is unfolding—such as a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, or floods—thereby portraying nature as dangerous and threatening.

    If the connection to nature is very tenuous or inexistent for many urban dwellers, how are the calls for the need to care for nature and adopt more sustainable ways expected to be heard? An expression coined by Latin poet Sextus Propertius captures this well: “Loin des yeux, loin du coeur” (literally: far from sight, far from heart). It is difficult to care for beings one has no contact with. Calls for saving the oceans and their inhabitants will not be heard by the person whose only contact with them are via the can of tuna they consume or the goldfish they once had as a child. Likewise, environmentalists’ pleas to save remote or even unknown species from extinction due to hunting, overharvesting, urban expansion, pollution, or the introduction of invasive species in some areas are unlikely to be heard by those with little or no contact with nature.

    If our goal is to co-exist on the planet with other species while not driving them to extinction, leaving behind a world that future generations can enjoy—the standard definition of sustainability—then we need to better understand why this is such a pressing issue. Reconnecting with nature, experiencing it directly and exposing ourselves to its beauty, its generosity, as well as its annoyances—such as the bugs that may want to feed from us as we enjoy a stroll in a provincial park—is key to understanding the need to change our exploitative approach to nature. To do so, we need to individually and collectively make efforts to reconnect to nature so that we may develop a better understanding of it, its innerworkings, our place in it, and how to care for it.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Beyond sustainability – radical transformation: What does that mean and how do we do it?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur and Jocelyn Baker

    Since the World Commission on Environment and Development released Our Common Future in 1987, all nations have been talking, at various degrees, about sustainable development.

    In 2000, for instance, the United Nations launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), directed towards developing countries only. These focused on three areas: human capitalinfrastructure, and human rights (social, economic and political) with the intent of increasing the standard of living for people around the world. These goals, however, made little progress to solve inequalities between developed countries and developing countries. It quickly became clear that much remained to be done. So, in 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The major difference from the Millennium Development goals was that these were designed to apply to all countries evenly, not just developing countries.

    But is this enough?

    The impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the global economy suggests that, like the MDGs that came before, many of the SGDs will also not be achieved. This is especially true, once again, for developing countries. The pandemic has also underlined the strong dependence and focus that all countries place on the economy. The two other pillars of sustainable development – society and environment – are generally left out. This demonstrates that despite the efforts made to convince the world’s nations of the importance of integrating the three pillars, we still base all decisions on the economy.

    We do not link the pandemic, environmental crises, and societal challenges to this lack of integration — and this is now endangering human society. It may be time to think beyond sustainability because the way countries, corporations, and even individuals, operate and make decisions is unsustainable. The fixation on consumption is pushing the world to the limit — and resources are depleting faster than they can recover.

    These current patterns of production and consumption must be changed, for our own well-being and that of future generations. Despite the fact that human health and the environment are intrinsically linked, we carry on as business-as-usual, guided by unrealistic notions of infinite economic development and growth that ignores the reality that we live on a planet with finite resources1.

    We need a new path forward that goes beyond the traditional sustainability discourse. Defining sustainability as three separate pillars (economic, society, environment) has meant that the environment rarely receives equal weight or treatment. It is often seen as something to consider if there is time and money left over from dealing with issues pertaining to the other pillars.

    A radical change in the way societies function is required in order to avoid grave future predictions, such as those seen in the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCCs) recent report. This will require all 200+ countries, and thousands of corporations, around the world to work together and create the deep transformations necessary to avoid greater disasters. To create a safe operating space for all of humanity, we need to change direction in a radical way.

    Going beyond sustainability calls for radical transformation of the current system and its underlying defective worldview. There is growing awareness that the current worldview of capitalism and consumerism is one which supports resource overexploitation, the accumulation of profit and infinite economic growth, and viewing humans as dominant over nature and other living creatures. This human-driven exploitation of the environment is the root cause of our current planetary crisis.

    Transformation is understood as a profound change which requires a fundamental shift in mindset2. Radical transformation, on the other hand, looks at the root cause of problems and gets to the core of the issue. This usually requires a shift away from the type of thinking that created the problem(s) in the first place. Changing mindsets, although challenging, is possible. The status quo cannot effectively address the environmental challenges we face. What is required is a radical transformation of how we envision ourselves and the world in which we live.

    To move beyond sustainability and protect people and the planet, we envision a new conceptualization with the environment at the foundation for sustainability reforms. In contrast to the three pillars of sustainability, we propose a pyramid: the environment is the base with society and then the economy as subsequent levels. The environment needs to be healthy and robust for the next level (society) to flourish, and only when all levels below are thriving and resilient can the top of the pyramid (economy) be strong. It should also be noted that the economy is not only a vessel for profit, as it is right now, in this model. Instead, the economy would be circular and no longer strive for endless profits (beyond what’s needed for sustaining the businesses), or have its objectives developed in order to fulfill human greed.

    Communities are facing significant challenges due to climate and environmental changes caused by human activities. This has resulted in land degradation, water, soil, and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Changing mindsets and increasing awareness, however, can create a new path for humans and the planet. Nobody can change the world on their own, but small groups of people, working together, can contribute positively to the goal of radical transformation. With every small change, the world will be forever altered for the better and, we can hope, bring us closer to a more sustainable world of all.


    1. Robinson, N. A. (2012). Beyond sustainability: Environmental management for the Anthropocene epoch. Journal of Public Affairs, 12(3), 181-194. doi:10.1002/pa.1432
    2. Massarella, K., Nygren, A., Fletcher, R., Büscher, B., Kiwango, W. A., Komi, S., … Percequillo, A. R. (2021). Transformation beyond conservation: How critical social science can contribute to a radical new agenda in biodiversity conservation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 49, 79-87. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2021.03.005
    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Sustainability Versus Sustainable Development: What’s the difference?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur & Jocelyn Baker

    Sustainability is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural, social, and cultural resources in ways that allow all living things —not just humans — to thrive long into the future.

    Sustainable development, on the other hand, aims to create growth and progress through the addition of physical, economic, environmental, and social components that can improve quality of life without depleting resources for the future.

    In the previous blog, we saw that sustainability comes from the practice of “nachhaltigkeit”, a German term coined in 1713. Except in technical articles, the word sustainability was rarely used until 1972, when a then-leading magazine published a series of articles entitled Blueprint for Survival. This series, which involved more than 30 scientists, recommended that we should live in small, de-industrialized communities to help prevent a breakdown of society. In this series, the meaning of sustainability was much broader than its original, 18th century usage: suggesting a change in lifestyle, the implementation of population controls. better management of natural resources, and the establishment of “no-growth” economies.

    Sustainable development first appeared in 1987, when the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission included a definition for the term in its Our Common Future publication. The author defined the concept of sustainable development as an approach designed to “meet the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    In 2002, the report from the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development prescribes the need to “promote the integration of the three components of sustainable development—economic development, social development and environmental protection—as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” (1 p.8)

    So where are we today?

    As part of the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, all UN Member States adopted a 15-year plan to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, for short. The 17 goals and 169 targets form the basis of a critical call to action to “end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.”

    The SDGs have become a set of guiding principles used to ensure that development is environmentally low impact, socially just, and economically efficient and fair, as well as to justify interventions. These principles apply to development of all scales and in all locations, whether it is the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Amazon or a plantation of trees in Africa. Even in these examples (and in many more), the economy still rests at the heart of all development.
    Even with environmental and societal considerations becoming part of the equation, is this model of development really sustainable in the long run? We only have one planet — and if we are to protect it, we must go even further to ensure sustainability for generations to come.


    1. Hens, L., & Nath, B. (2006). The world summit on sustainable development: The Johannesburg conference. Springer Science & Business Media.
    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog