Ecological condition and the knowledge we need for the future  – thoughts on environmental governance of interlinked social-ecological systems

(Speech was given at the International Conference on Natural Resources Management in Developing Countries, Feb 25, 2018, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources of University of Tehran.)

Author: Jieling Liu

February 22nd, 2018

The first time my awareness was raised to the environment, officially, was when I started training for my first half marathon in the early winter of 2012. Back then I lived in a northern coastal city in China called Qingdao, which is a beautiful city for beach tourism. I remember coming back from a night run along the seaside and wiping my nose, surprised to see how dirty it was inside my nose. Of course, now, everyone knows China has a severe air pollution problem and it is heavily fossil fuelled. My curiosity as a journalist, with some background in political science, drove me to find out what lies behind the dirty and health-threatening smog. A few years of observation and research on environmental issues opened my eyes and also frightened me. I experienced a period feeling very scared and hopeless, knowing that air pollution is not the only problem we have; in China and also in other countries of the world, we are facing, if put to the time of evolution of the Earth and mankind, quite a drastic degradation of environmental quality and biodiversity loss, rapid increase in human population leading to food, water and energy scarcity, and something that has been the “elephant in the room” much too long in silence until recently – climate change.

How we approach the search for solutions to environmental problems, depends on how we understand the state of the art in knowledge production and the current state of our environmental condition. It is equally essential to understand what kind of future we are heading to, whether we live in a status-quo mode not being able to make essential changes, or how we desire our future to be. As human beings living on a planet that has come through probably one out of a million chances to evolve into what it was to be so very inhabitable for us.

The World Urban Forum 9 which just had its curtain call in mid-February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and which I was fortunate to attend, through its KUALA LUMPUR DECLARATION ON CITIES 2030, called for “the deployment of all efforts, means and resources available towards the operationalization of the concept of cities for all, ensuring that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.”

To govern all the complex environmental risks, gain resilience, develop and urbanise further in sustainable manners towards the kind of future human settlements as aforementioned, we need to reflect and further emphasise on re-coupling the human and nature, or our socio-economic systems with the ecological ones. Acknowledging our human settlements and cities as socio-ecological systems that are intrinsically interlinked, complex and co-evolving systems, and recognising the status and limits of our common good resources, would be the first to start.

If we assume that all of us recognise the status-quo type of reality we are in and can imagine the type of future it leads to, which I assume at least all of us that sit here today recognise and can imagine; then, the next step is to go back to the problem of our efforts – the way we govern environment and the knowledge we use to govern environment, and try to enhance their potential and change their organization to co-evolve with a rapidly changing reality. There is a potential to conduct real changes, by changing their siloed, sectoral, specialized functioning characteristic.

We, therefore, need to think systemically and comprehensively for solutions to these complex environmental challenges and risks, which arise from our complex socio-ecological systems from the beginning. Thinking systemically requires the collective brains across disciplines, sectors, departments and professions; and thinking comprehensively requires a strong integration of both natural and social sciences, the “accurate” plus the fuzzy sciences, and it requires to respect the relativity and diversity of each unique cases of environmental challenges, to create solutions together that are place-based and people-centred, not driven by merely economic incentives nor political ambitions. It also requires the inclusion of diverse knowledge cultures, values and belief systems.

ecology and society author network

In my PhD, I am trying to understand how environmental governance in China takes place at the city level in the context of climate change, by looking at urban planning in the megacity Guangzhou, and how urban ecosystems respond. In addition, and also in order to facilitate my PhD research, I am an intern to the International Council for Science’ global science programme: Urban Health and Wellbeing – A Systems Approach. The programme strives to promote systems approaches to understanding health and wellbeing in urban settings, by understanding the functioning of the urban system as a whole. I believe it is very relevant to the environmental focus of our forum, as well as, I hope, for our generous host, the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of Tehran.

In my application to this forum, I wrote that I hope to inspire thinking from different perspectives and distinctive reasoning to enhance the sustainability discussion, which is currently dominated by Western perspectives. I still believe it is a good intention. I sincerely hope that we can discover the different perspective and different values in economic science and humanities in the Iranian society, as we gather here from all over the world, which can be enriching to our present knowledge, and hopefully also solutions for sustainability.

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