From Social Science of Climate Culture to an Interdisciplinary Transformation Research
Environment and ecology were for decades the domain of highly specialized sciences and professional groups such as climate research and earth system analysts, to which other disciplines were without access. Now the call has become louder for input from the social and cultural sciences and the humanities, especially with respect to coping with the man-made risks and “natural” disasters.
Both sides had an obligation in the matter: natural scientists recognize that the accumulation of knowledge and the furnishing of expertise is not enough when it comes to the perception and subsequent treatment of climate change; social and cultural scientists in turn have to realize that their focus on the symbolic level, on texts or signs “about” nature, and above all its classification as a “construct”, comes close to being a denial of reality. And in view of the threat to the planet both kinds of scientist feel the social responsibility of science to make a contribution to preventing or diminishing the danger.
An area where they can work together is in providing scientific advice to inform policy and in directing research funds, where a remarkable change has also set in. For example, in energy research, technicians and economists no longer remain isolated from each other, while natural and cultural scientific aspects are more and more referred to one another in this still technologically dominated and technocratically oriented domain. But in cultural education too there has been an increasingly transdisciplinary tendency that includes so-called “lay people” from the outset.
Climate change is cultural change
The formula with which we at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KWI) encapsulated a few years ago our intuition of an overdue paradigm change was “climate change is cultural change”. This means that global warming, the rise of sea levels, and the increased frequency of extreme weather events signal not only a change in climate; they also cut deeply into cultural habits, mindscapes and institutions. Just as climate influences society, so social practices change climate. This can be a very long-term development, but the consequences of migration and outbreaks of violence can also bring about social change very abruptly. If we take seriously the talk about anthropogenic, man-made, natural development, then the industrialization process that has been driven by fossil fuel consumption throws a new light on the forms of socialization and the formation of cultures in the last two centuries.
People do not learn directly from history, which as we know does not repeat itself, but they can, if they are historically informed, develop an awareness of watersheds and a sensitivity for transformations. Mike Hulme has recently put the matter very similarly in his article “Meet the Humanities”, and in a journal (Nature Climate Change) that has already expressly committed itself to transdisciplinary climate research. Of these there are now several, and it may argued that the study of the social perceptions and consequences of climate change is now established not only among geographers, but is also anchored considerably more widely in anthropology, visual studies, the historical sciences, literary studies, media and communication science, the social sciences and the philosophy and history of science.
What we do
By establishing the additional research area of “ClimateCulture” we want to make a contribution to and advance into the core areas of research in the humanities and social and cultural sciences. I cannot sketch here the individual projects that are sponsored by public and private foundations, and will instead confine myself to highlighting only a few of their common characteristics. First, they address the interpretations and consequences of climate change in the previously indicated sense of basic research, since they affect the fundament of high-carbon economy based modern civilization. The forms of technology and society are certainly not related to each other deterministically, but it is safe to say that the transition to a “low carbon economy” will constitute a turning point similar to that of the industrial revolution.
Another unifying element of the KWI’s research projects is their practical approach and focus on application. This is not only because of the subject itself, but also because of our situation in one of the geographical heartlands of industrial modernity, which has long been subject to sometimes brutal structural change and so effectively functions as a laboratory and field for experimentation. It is therefore only logical that the results of our research are fed into scientific policy advice and that the KWI is represented in diagnoses of the times (cf. Claus Leggewie/Harald Welzer: Das Ende der Welt, wie wir sie kannten. Klima, Zukunft und die Chancen der Demokratie [The End of the World as We Know It. Climate, Future and the Prospects of Democracy], S. Fischer, 5. edition, Frankfurt/Main, 2009 and Claus Leggewie Mut statt Wut [Courage instead of Anger], edition koerber, Hamburg, 2011). In addition we conduct a large number of dialogues with interested target groups from business and banking, civil society organizations and consumer organizations, which amount in sum to intensive social consultation in discursive and deliberative formats.
Another feature of our program is the active promotion of young scientists. It is well-known that working in a still very unstructured field of scientific analysis is not without risk for PhD candidates, PhDs and postdocs, since though professional societies and funding institutes always assume inter and transdisciplinary work, it is not really acknowledged in evaluations and applications. Nevertheless, they accept this risk because here they can explore uncharted territory both in substance and methodologically and so decisively advance the state of research and our knowledge of the world. At the KWI we have two small research training groups: ClimateWorlds. Global (media) Ethnography, conducted together with the Berlin Graduate School in History and Sociology (BGHS), and Climate Change’s Challenges to Democracy, financed by the Hans Böckler Foundation (HBS). Young scientists also work in the research projects Shifting Baselines and Disaster Memory. Relevant here is also the humanities Summer School “Prometheus 2010: Where Will the Energies of the Future Come From?”, which was organized in as part of the Cultural Capital Ruhr 2010 and whose proceedings will be published in 2012/13.
Citizen participation and global cooperation
Finally, I should mention new work on change agents, forms of citizen participation and the demands of global cooperation, which have gained particular importance as part of the “energy turnaround” (which we, incidentally, already called for in 2008). By “change agents” we mean people and organizations that act directly or indirectly as pioneers of change; they may be found both in the narrower fields of sustainability policy itself and in the surrounding areas of civic engagement. An important finding of the new policy based on non-fossil, renewable energies is that a broad socio-economic transformation cannot take place without the inclusion of “consumer citizens”, that is, of the politically aware consumer, and a corresponding infrastructure policy comprising appropriate forms of citizen participation. Finally, a transformation of this magnitude does not permit single countries going it alone; on the contrary, it requires an unusually high degree of global, cross-border cooperation in science, technology, economy, culture and politics. The related questions are addressed by the staff of the KWI as members of and consultants to the Scientific Advisory Council on Global Environmental Change to the German Federal Government (WBGU) and diverse projects sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, including the Käte Hamburger Collegium “Global Cooperation in the 21st Century” (GC21), set up in 2012 at the University of Duisburg-Essen for an initial period of six years.
The cultural and social scientific analysis of climate change has thus already consistently expanded into broader transformation research, which has taken up the inherently transdisciplinary questions of natural, cultural and social change and placed them at the center of various disciplines and methodologies. This kind of research has systematic, reflexive and prognostic dimensions; it also takes into account from the outset the participative dimension of gaining and applying relevant knowledge about transformation. A parallel strand is transformative research, which actively promotes transformation by producing and supporting innovations in areas such as financing models, consumption patterns, product design and so, in turn, by finding systemic solutions.
is Professor of Political Science and since 2007 Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KWI).
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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