Scientific Foundations for Commitment and Consistency

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 29. May 2011 - 16:53
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Arthur Lyon Dahl. Scientific Foundations for Commitment and Consistency, p. 220-224. In Dag Tangen and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Catalyzing Change. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of The Consumer Citizenship Network, Hamar (Norway) 2006. Hogskolen i Hedmark, Oppdragsrapport nr. 4 - 2007.

Paper presented at the plenary IEF Symposium
Consumer Citizenship Network, Third CCN International Conference
Hedmark University College, Hamar, Norway, 15-16 May 2006



Arthur Lyon Dahl
Geneva, Switzerland


This paper was published in:
Dag Tangen and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Catalyzing Change. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of The Consumer Citizenship Network, Hamar (Norway) 2006. Høgskolen i Hedmark, Oppdragsrapport nr. 4 - 2007, p. 220-224.


Our present consumer society is pressing against planetary environmental and social limits, with trends that, despite some progress, are still unsustainable. The scientific monitoring and assessment of the state of the planet document the dangers to humanity and provide indicators of the need for consumer citizenship. A first challenge is making this objective scientific information accessible to all citizens. Each person needs to understand the relevant facts both of the world environmental situation and of the consumer choices that impact on that situation. This requires universal education in the basic scientific skills of thinking in terms of cause and effect, evidence-based evaluation and individual experimentation. Personal experience of the reality of scientific information is an important first step towards commitment and consistency in sustainable consumption.

The science of sustainability has long faced a major challenge of communications because of the long time lags between damage done to global environmental systems and the evident consequences in terms of changed systems behaviour or lost services. Scientists trying to bring their observations to the attention of the public are too often seen as either crying wolf or playing Cassandra. For instance, from the early Club of Rome report on the Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972) to its sequels Beyond the Limits (Meadows et al. 1992) and the thirty year update (Meadows et al. 2004), the message has become ever more pressing and the impact on political and economic processes just as marginal. Only recently has the recent evidence of accelerating climate change, and the imminent threats of energy, health, water and food crises begun to produce significant reactions, at least in some forward-looking countries. However the major centres of power and population have perspectives that are too short term to take any notice. Public education on these issues has either fallen behind, or never begun.

It is no wonder that motivating individual consumers to commit to new forms of behaviour and to build those commitments into a more sustainable lifestyle consistent with their beliefs is an even more difficult challenge than getting governments to adopt declarations and action plans for sustainable development. This is one reason for launching the UN Decade of Education of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). For commitment to be lasting, it needs to be founded in both an intellectual understanding and an ethical, emotional or spiritual motivation, with each reinforcing the other.

One of the challenges to changing behaviour is the attitude fostered by the consumer society that we can have anything that we want and that we should be free to do anything that we like, provided only that it does not obviously hurt other people (and that we can afford it, if necessary on credit). Advertising tries at great expense to encourage us to consume without limit. Yet sustainability will require fundamental changes in life-styles, making choices, refusing temptations, voluntarily sacrificing some things in order to preserve other, perhaps less tangible values or possibilities. If we are to outgrow the mentality of spoiled children always wanting new toys, a significant transformation will be required, and that is the goal of consumer citizenship.

To motivate change founded on commitment and consistency requires two kinds of knowledge, which might broadly be labelled scientific and ethical, religious or spiritual (Dahl 1996; Dahl 2004). The latter provides a framework of values and a definition of our individual and collective purpose as human beings and members of society, and is the subject of a separate presentation. The rest of this paper assumes that this ethical dimension is adequately developed to balance and give an interpretive framework to our scientific understanding.

Scientific knowledge gives us an understanding of the world around us. That world is our physical environment, and provides the requirements of life and the resources for our economic development. It also defines the physical limits to that development and the risks that environmental damage can represent to our health, well-being and future survival. The place given to scientific knowledge in society and the way scientific understanding is viewed and valued are critical to its impact on behaviour.

The modern paradigm of science, since Western civilization gave up the concept of the "renaissance man" able to do everything well, is one of specialization bordering on elitism. Scientists are "men in white lab coats" (female scientists are rarely acknowledged in the popular image) who use inaccessible language that needs to be translated for the general public. Admission to this fraternity requires a lengthy initiation ritual called a Ph.D. where one learns the arcane language of one's specialization, with standards maintained and the purity of the field ensured by processes of peer review for publication and promotion. The concomitant of this image is the tendency to leave science to the experts, and to see it as something beyond the reach of "normal" people. This also accentuates the challenge of translating scientific knowledge for popular consumption, and raises a barrier to the use of science to change values and behaviour.

This was not always the case in human societies, and there is no reason why it has to be this way. Many traditional cultures and indigenous peoples accumulated wisdom about their environment and resources over generations, including explanations of natural phenomena like weather and disasters, the uses of plants and the behaviour of animals and fish, particularly those used for food, that are today in the realm of science (Dahl 1989). Often this knowledge was held by village or tribal "experts", the master of the yams, village healer or master fisherman, and was added to and passed down from generation to generation much as science is today. Unfortunately since this knowledge, although based on close observation and understanding of nature, was often interpreted in a cultural or intellectual framework very different from our own, it was labelled by missionaries and colonial administrators and educators as "magic" or "superstition" and discredited, if not actively stamped out. This process of "modernization" unintentionally deprived many people and their cultures of their sense of connection with and responsibility for the environment, and interrupted the maintenance and transmission of this valuable knowledge accumulated over many generations. However the example shows that there is a much wider human potential to understand and use science than is developed in Western society.

Today people have spread to every corner of the planet and are trying to live in a great diversity of local environments. Change of all kinds is accelerating, requiring a variety of approaches to adaptive management in different environmental situations. The "expert" approach to science will never be able to respond to all the present needs of humanity, and only the wealthy few have access to scientific solutions to their problems. Even in those countries with a strong scientific establishment, science is too divorced from daily life to have a significant impact on behaviour. Many people lack the powers of critical scientific thinking, and believe in, or are sometimes manipulated by, very unscientific or unsubstantiated forms of knowledge. There are even movements against science in some industrialized countries. For both these reasons, the approach to science and its role in education for sustainable development must change.

The solution lies in freeing the essence of science from the unnecessary detail and making the scientific method available to everyone. Skills such as understanding experimentation and cause and effect, thinking in terms of process and systems, evaluating evidence objectively, questioning hypotheses and assumptions, and more generally investigating truth rationally and independently, should be available to everyone at an appropriate level of understanding. For example, people such as resource users can easily learn to do their own local environmental monitoring, observe changes taking place, and adjust their behaviour or resource use accordingly, perhaps with some outside scientific assistance in the interpretation of the results. Even for complex systems such as coral reefs, simple monitoring methods have existed for more than 25 years (Dahl 1981) and are a well-established part of global scientific monitoring programmes ( In Australia, school children take part in local water quality monitoring (, Giving people a direct personal experience of scientific reality opens them to a better understanding of scientific evidence and explanations at all levels, and provides a basis for science to have a real impact on values and behaviour.

To make science accessible to everyone will also require new kinds of scientific institutions in every community, able to support this new model of participatory scientific investigation and use. Fortunately the revolution in information and communications technology is eliminating one traditional barrier to the generalization of science: the limited access to the store of scientific knowledge. Whereas before one had to have access to a good academic or research library with the necessary books and journals, today access to knowledge is limited more by the complexities of technical language and by concerns over intellectual property than by physical access. The day will soon come when everyone will have ready access to as much scientific information as they can absorb and use. The challenge is more how to present and structure scientific knowledge in new ways that make it more accessible and useful in meeting global, national and local challenges of sustainability.

One important element of this process is the rapid development of environmental observing systems, data collection mechanisms and statistical services able to generate and deliver indicators of the multiple processes at work affecting all the dimensions of sustainability. Building on the planning of the Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership (, governments are now assembling a Global Earth Observation System of Systems at the planetary level ( At the same time, work is progressing to develop indicators of sustainability useful to guide policy-making, management and action at the national, local and individual levels (Moldan et al. 1997; Hak et al. 2006). These information tools give simplified representations of data, trends and thresholds that can increase understanding of sustainability challenges and measure progress (or the lack thereof). The ecological footprint, for example, gives individuals, communities or countries an immediate measure of their relative impact on the earth ( There are a number of new composite indices that help to compare most nations' environmental vulnerability (, environmental sustainability (Esty et al. 2005) and environmental performance (Esty et al. 2006) and thus to raise awareness of the effort needed to move in a new direction. Indicators are one way to communicate scientific information quickly, widely and effectively, as these few examples show.

The goal of this process of scientific education and information delivery should be to provide all consumers with an objective scientific representation of the world environmental situation in dynamic interaction with human society and the economy. It should also enable each community to self-determine its own local environmental situation and sustainability, and thus reinforce the local sense of responsibility for its management. Together these should support the capacity to think globally and act locally. There should also be scientific information on the linkages between consumption patterns, lifestyles, consumer choices, and social and environmental sustainability.

Empowering consumers with science is one essential component of commitment, as it demonstrates the necessity for action in objective terms. The continuing reinforcement of that scientific understanding through participation in scientific processes, whether local environmental monitoring or investigation of consumer choices, will also reinforce consistency. When scientific knowledge is combined with the emotional commitment that comes from an ethical or spiritual framework of sustainability values, people will become effective change agents for sustainability.


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This paper was published as:
Scientific Foundations for Commitment and Consistency, p. 220-224. In Dag Tangen and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Catalyzing Change. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of The Consumer Citizenship Network, Hamar (Norway) 2006. Høgskolen i Hedmark, Oppdragsrapport nr. 4 - 2007.

Last updated 18 June 2007