First International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship Network
(UNESCO, Paris, 1-2 March 2004)
"Using, choosing or creating the future?"
Workshop 9: Science and Society
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
and Consultant Adviser, UNEP
The achievement of sustainable development requires both major changes in consumption in the North and addressing poverty in the South. Consumer citizenship is fundamental to the European contribution to more sustainable development, both through modifying excessive consumption, and through creating awareness of the wider social, economic and environmental impacts of that consumption. These impacts are largely demonstrated through scientific evidence and statistics, requiring a larger role for science in consumer education. The scientific approach should be used by every enlightened consumer: thinking in terms of process, cause and effect, experiment and analysis, can help to guide consumption and lifestyle choices. Yet science without values leads to unsustainable materialism. Science and values (including culture, religion, and other forms of spirituality) are two complementary knowledge systems that provide the foundation for consumer citizenship, and both should be part of any educational programme. Scientific evidence, when properly interpreted in a framework of values, can be a powerful motivating force for changes in behaviour. Values for sustainability, such as justice, moderation and solidarity, can themselves be rationally justified. The coming UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) will provide an opportunity for widespread efforts to build consumer citizenship in support of sustainable development.
Despite repeated commitments at the highest levels since the 1992 Earth Summit, the world has not advanced very far towards sustainable development. The environment continues to degrade globally (UNEP 2002). A significant proportion of the world population continues to live in extreme poverty, and the gap between rich and poor within and between nations continues to widen. The signs of social and cultural decay even in the most industrialized countries, and the rise of fanaticisms of various sorts, are symptoms of the increasing stress in an unsustainable world system.
It is not scientific understanding or resources that are lacking. What is missing is political will at the governmental level, and a willingness to change behaviour and lifestyles at the individual level. To achieve sustainable development in the North, the populations of industrial countries must change their patterns of consumption. Poverty reduction in the South will require a significant shift in resources, reinforced by improved governance and empowerment at the local level in order to accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.
Consumer citizenship is fundamental to the European contribution to more sustainable development, both through modifying excessive consumption, and through creating awareness of the wider social, economic and environmental impacts of that consumption. The present educational system has failed to prepare the citizens of Europe for the fundamental changes that would allow European society to shift from an unsustainable trajectory towards a more sustainable one. As the keynote talks in this conference have pointed out, we need a more fundamental change than anything attempted to date, bringing together both science and values. This paper explores the roles of these two as complementary foundations for any programme of consumer citizenship.
The role of science has too often been neglected in consumer education. Science is perceived by the public as a complex body of technical knowledge divorced from practical everyday concerns. Yet the environmental, social and economic impacts of unsustainable development are largely demonstrated through scientific evidence and statistics. Everyone uses an indicator like GDP (Gross Domestic Product) even though it is in fact a very poor indicator of development. Unemployment statistics make news headlines. Environmental impacts are reflected in hectares of natural forest lost to development, levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and concentrations of pesticides in foodstuffs. It is possible to define indicators for many aspects of sustainable development (Moldan et al. 1997), and these can in turn build public awareness. Yet a basic scientific literacy is necessary to understand and respond to such information, requiring a larger role for science in consumer education.
There is also a tendency in Europe to leave scientific issues to the specialists. This may be convenient for a bureaucracy that does not want the public to make life difficult for it, or that prefers to cover up problems. It does, however, exclude the public from significant debates of direct concern to their health and welfare. Indirectly, it also bars their access to scientific knowledge that might motivate changes in their consumer behaviour.
Even more than basic scientific literacy, the scientific approach should be used by every enlightened consumer. There is no reason why the scientific method should be restricted to technical experts with advanced degrees, or should require a complex vocabulary of specialist terms. The basic approaches of science are accessible to everyone if they are taught in the right way. Learning to think in terms of process can give people the means to understand the dynamics of natural and human systems. The principles of cause and effect can help a consumer to understand the consequences of his or her actions and purchases. There is even wide scope for the public to undertake its own experiments, say on the performance of various consumer products, and to analyse the results as a guide consumption and lifestyle choices.
This is not just true for the inhabitants of wealthy countries. The poor can also benefit from access to science and technology, as it can empower them to innovate and explore their own paths to development. Traditional cultures are rich in knowledge acquired by careful observations of the environment over generations, processes inherent in the scientific method. However because the information may be understood and interpreted in another intellectual and spiritual framework, it has often been labelled magic or superstition by missionaries, colonial administrators and teachers, and subjected to active efforts to discredit or stamp it out (Dahl, 1989).
More scientific knowledge of pollution levels, resource depletion and future environmental trends can be powerful arguments for changes in consumption. However science by itself is not enough. As our present industrialized society demonstrates, science without values leads to unsustainable materialism. Science and values (including culture, religion, and other forms of spirituality) are two complementary knowledge systems that provide the foundation for consumer citizenship, and both should be part of any educational programme. The present educational systems in Europe tend to exclude religion and other sources of values from the curriculum. If humanity is acknowledged at all to have a spiritual as well as material dimension, this may only be with reference to past ages and foreign cultures. While there may be good historical reasons for this, the gross ethical failures regularly uncovered in business and politics suggest that this exclusion is itself causing fundamental damage to society. One goal of education should be to help each individual to build her or his value system. This would not only help to form more discriminating consumers, but would also help to guard against fanaticisms and other forms of extremism that threaten society today.
Values are the basic determinants of social interactions. If a person is prejudiced, he will not want to build relationships with those outside his framework of acceptance, resulting in a reduction in social capacity or potential. Whereas in biological terms, evolution is driven by mutations in the genetic code that change the information stored there and may open new potentials for adaptation and progression, social evolution is driven by changes in the basic rules by which society operates as encoded in its values. Consumer citizenship inevitably has a significant ethical component, and changes in consumer behaviour must be founded in an appropriate set of values such as justice, moderation and solidarity.
The challenge for Europe is to find ways to integrate science and values in its educational systems. This should include ways to discuss religion and spirituality objectively and without proselytizing, allowing each individual to investigate truth independently. Religion can be explored with the rational tools of science, just as science can be judged within moral and ethical frameworks, recognizing their complementarity.
Scientific evidence, when properly interpreted in a framework of values, can be a powerful motivating force for changes in behaviour. This should be at the heart of education for consumer citizenship. An agreement on essential values for sustainability such as justice and moderation can also lead to questioning the basic assumptions of Western material civilization, such as Adam Smith's invisible hand of self-interest, that are at the heart of many unsustainable characteristics of the present economic system (Dahl, 1996).
Ethical concepts and values for sustainability, such as justice, moderation and solidarity, can also be rationally justified. Changing consumption requires sacrifices, but people will not sacrifice if they suffer the costs and someone else benefits. Justice is an essential prerequisite to cooperation in the common good. Moderation in consumption is necessary to stay within environmental limits. A lack of solidarity may lead ultimately to terrorist action.
Integration can also come through the wider use of systems thinking and information theory, which can help to demonstrate the behaviour of complex social and environmental systems, and to show how values operate to modify the functioning of such systems (Dahl, 1996)
The coming UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) will provide an opportunity for widespread efforts to build consumer citizenship in support of sustainable development. The International Environment Forum held a conference in Florida in December 2003 to assist North American communities to plan activities for the decade, including many facets of consumer citizenship (https://iefworld.org/conf7.htm). It is time to start stimulating the development of similar national programmes in Europe, bringing many organizations into partnership. Such partnerships should include not only educational, scientific and consumer organizations, but also the faith-based organizations that can contribute to a deeper consideration of values. As a variety of inter-faith activities have demonstrated over a decade or more, sustainable development is an area where all the religions agree on the ethical principles concerned. It will take some courage in the European context to open a dialogue with religious groups, but they can also be powerful advocates for consumer citizenship.
In conclusion, changing consumption patterns in Europe will only accelerate if scientific and value-based approaches are combined in educational programmes. Given the threatening crises in the years ahead from our unsustainable lifestyles, do we have any other choice?
Dahl, Arthur Lyon, 1989. Traditional environmental knowledge and resource management in New Caledonia. In R.E. Johannes (ed.), Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays. IUCN, Gland and Cambridge.
Dahl, Arthur Lyon, 1996. The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis. Zed Books, London.
Moldan, Bedrich, Suzanne Billharz and Robyn Matravers (eds.), 1997. Sustainability Indicators: A Report on the Project on Indicators of Sustainable Development. SCOPE 58. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.
UNEP 2002. Global Environment Outlook 3. Earthscan, London.