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The Shift from a “Restructuring of Industrial Society” to Socio-Ecological Research

Logo; sozial-oekologische-forschung.orgLogo; sozial_oekologische-forschung.orgSince the year 2000 the funding priority at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has been on socio-ecological research. One of the main focuses is the development of realistic implementation strategies to promote the sustainable development of the economic processes which are the basis of our society.

In the 1980s the demand for a “restructuring of industrial society” was not only sniggered at as a political program, but also feared as an ominous spectre. Back then it was the “Ecos” – as the members of the ever strengthening environmental movement were known – who demanded a break with our growth-obsessed economies. This seemed quite definitely utopian to most people.

There were however other concrete demands also implied in the catchphrase such as the need for new transport concepts, cities designed more with the people in mind, waste prevention, better ways of saving energy and a deliberate departure from atomic energy. In the field of research the pursuit of new alternative strategies was recommended, the focus of which was to be centred more on ecological and social projects rather than on the interests of industry and business. The initial aversion that most politicians, people and “business” had towards ecological issues was then followed in the 1980s by a gradual re-orientation process that took place in society, politics and mainly in the field of science – not least thanks to the success of the German green party - “Die Grünen”.

Interdisciplinary environmental research

© Colourbox In many scientific disciplines the environmental problems, which were becoming more and more obvious, were tackled as new fields of research. Yet even into the 1990s the natural sciences and the social sciences were still working independently of each other; the natural sciences on the one hand were occupied with the effects of environmental pollutants on people, with analysing material flows and the development of new technologies; the social and cultural sciences on the other hand examined under what conditions people would be prepared to act “ecologically correctly” and whether our understanding of nature had changed.

This brought home the fact that if concrete problems were to be solved, then an interdisciplinary research approach would have to be the order of the day. What came out of all this was a form of socio-ecological research that analysed the interaction between the individual, society and the natural environment within a cooperative network involving the various disciplines to be found in the natural, social and economic sciences. This approach is to enable the development of realistic implementation strategies to promote sustainable development.

Funding priority at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Since the year 2000 the funding priority at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has been on socio-ecological research. One of the subject areas involved is the supporting of sustainable consumption. As our everyday lives are often governed by their own sets of rules such as time pressure, consumers avoid any complex assessments and considerations and are not particularly fond of changing their behaviour patterns. The development of ecological products and services however can only succeed, if they are geared to the needs of the consumers.

Sociologists have known for quite some time now that although environmental awareness does not necessarily lead to more energy-saving ways of running a household, the consumers do in fact react to monetary incentives. The reason for this is not to be put down alone to costs being the top priority for people, but to the fact that people often do not understand what their own consumption is made up of and how it works. One of the ministry’s top-priority, socio-ecological research projects is now examining what feedback-systems have to be like in order to make the workings of energy consumption more accessible to the people and, in doing so, to pave the way for a change in consumer behaviour. The development and implementation of such feedback techniques require cooperation on the part of scientists, energy providers, consumers and landlords.

Ecosystem services from cultural landscapes

Kulturlandschaft; © ColourboxAnother of the ministry’s top-priority, socio-ecological research projects is focusing on ecosystem services from cultural landscapes. These landscapes, spawned by an interplay between nature and man that has sometimes been going on for centuries, are able to fulfil many other tasks – besides their original agricultural purpose of providing food or timber. For example, they purify our air and water, promote bio-diversity and ensure the pollination of crop plants. Furthermore they help develop the soil, regulate the climate and retain rainwater, which is of great benefit when it comes to flood prevention. If farmers and landowners are to be rewarded for such non-profit-making services, the question then arises how these interests can be quantified and financially assessed, and how, for example, the process can be influenced with the use of subsidies.

Governance and sustainability

The two aforementioned examples reveal the complex relationship between man, nature and technology that can be found so often in the field of socio-ecological research. Non-linear effects which occur when threshold values are infringed upon, along with the effects resulting over longer periods of time and spatial distance make the analysis, prognosis and impact assessment of intervention more difficult. Socio-ecological research has set the goal of promoting a deeper understanding of such relationships and has thus set the conditions for the establishment of a sustainable society.

Just how the sustainability maxims propounded by socio-ecological research are to be enshrined in politics and society is at the centre of a sub-project known as “Governance and Sustainability”. If the changeover to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle fails, socio-ecological research will then have to devote itself completely to the quest for strategies to help us “adapt” to climate change.

Alban Knecht
is an assistant lecturer at the Munich University of Applied Sciences and at the University of Munich. His research focus is on social politics, poverty and social inequality.For further information about the author go to albanknecht.de.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2010

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