Expansive Research in Sustainability

When considering official definitions of sustainability a first port-of-call might be the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But the word ‘sustainability’ has a life of its own.  Do a quick internet search on ‘sustainability report’ and the search engine will reply with anything from the carbon emissions of organisations, to the extent to which companies are working with local communities and suppliers, to an analysis of the ‘sustainability’ of government finances. 

It’s why the Climate Change and Sustainable Futures at the University of Exeter is working with an expanded idea of sustainability research. The university not only works closely with the UK Met Office which relocated to Exeter in 2003, but has a range of specialist groups exploring different elements of sustainability: Earth systems science; Climate Dynamics; Attitudes and behaviour; Ecosystem impacts; Environment and health. Dr Tim Lenton, Chair in Climate Change and Professor of Earth System Science has been reviewing what directions sustainability research might usefully take.

Fascinating book

Dr. Lenton has a long-standing interest in environmental issues. As an undergraduate he contacted and got to know James Lovelock, known for proposing the Gaia theory that the earth is a self-regulating organism. Dr. Lenton was involved in running a student ‘science for the earth’ group where he met Andrew Watson, who would be his PhD supervisor and who is now at Exeter as a Royal Society Research Professor. Lenton and Watson co-authored the widely reviewed ‘Revolutions that Made the Earth’ in 2011 – The Economist magazine called it a ‘fascinating book’.

When Lenton moved to Exeter about three years ago he was by then, ‘juggling an interesting mixture of research in how the earth systems are developing and how life shaped the planet over 4 billion years.’ As well as doing his own work he was asked to take an overview of environment and sustainability research at the university which now has a new £30 million Environment and Sustainability Institute on the Cornwall campus.

Asked for a short definition of sustainability, Dr. Lenton suggested, ‘a sustainable state for humanity within the Earth system as one that can persist indefinitely, without running out of the energy and materials required to support the well being of the human population, and without disrupting the stable state of the Earth system as a whole – this means being fuelled by sustainable energy with a lot of material recycling going on.’

Sharing ideas

One question addressed in the overview of sustainability is moving from looking at analysing behaviors that are unsustainable and producing climate change, to looking at the broad range of practices and thinking that will help societies become more sustainable. This will involve assembling many different kinds of research and expertise – natural science, human science and the humanities.

‘We’ve got a strong cohort that are teaching mathematics for the climate statistics, or modelling the dynamics of the climate, people like Peter Cox, Mat Collins, Dave Stephenson,’ says Dr. Lenton. Part of the trans-disciplinary approach is reflected in the fact that the climate mathematics contingent have co-located with the Geography department. ‘You have people working on past climate change, on the carbon cycle, on land eco-systems.  We – myself and Andy Watson who is a fellow of the Royal Society of Oceanography and my former supervisor – collaborate and publish with the maths people. There is a move to bring together an interdisciplinary group of systems and climate change group of scientists as you get the best work when you are sharing space and whiteboards together.’ 

They have observational scientists and people trying to model and predict the future of the ‘Earth system’, and they are also connected ‘to a really strong group in ecotoxicology and environmental biology or pollutants who are in the Biosciences School,’ explains Dr. Lenton. ‘They’re thinking about not just how pollutants affect aquatic life, particularly fish but also the role of the marine eco-system in the global system. That has a lot of empirical work which has a great tradition here.’ There’s also the human geography component – psychology, behaviour change and economics. 

Involved students

Part of the framework for the approach to addressing sustainability at Exeter is ‘taking the complex science which is starting to mature and applying it across these complex range of science systems. There’s a lot of common theory around systems thinking which in a sense is becoming part of the identity here that we are good at researching complex systems.’  

There’s also the recognition that a science that is about the impact of behaviour on future generations is something that energises young students.  So research-led teaching is part of Exeter’s institutional identity. ‘Students are already motivated by the ‘grand challenges’ as we call them here, of the 21st century,’ says Dr. Lenton. ‘We ran a summer unit where they came together in groups to look at grand challenges like climate change. The underlying philosophy is an antidote to my experience 20 years ago, where we are giving the students access to the opportunity to think about these global problems.’