Halt and Reflect

An open letter from scholars regarding global sustainability

A plea to our leaders

Whether you are a national leader, a journalist, an engaged religious person, or a school headmaster – this letter is directed to all of you who have a special voice in your community.

As global citizens and scholars, we urge the world’s societal leaders, at all scales, to instigate discussions on the simple question: “What is it that we value?”

We are a group of scholars with formal academic training. Many (though not all) of us would consider themselves “next generation scientists” – that is, many of us will be senior academics in the not too distant future. A minority of us already work in senior academic positions.

Traditionally, many people chose science as a career path because they were interested in how the world works. Many insights have now been obtained on this. Young people still enter scholarly training because they want to understand the world – but increasingly also because they are gravely concerned about the future of our planet. This provides immense opportunities for social change.

As a group of scholars, we regularly witness the production of science. And we regularly witness new evidence for ongoing environmental degradation. While there are local exceptions, the overall trajectory of our planet is away from sustainability rather than towards it. More science, on its own, will not solve this problem.

We work all over the world, and all over the world we see a common pattern. Existing policy initiatives, with very few exceptions, fall short of what is needed to re-align human activities with the fundamental limits of our planet. Despite heavy rhetoric on sustainability, most policy initiatives are not able to fundamentally change the global trajectory of increasing un-sustainability.

To solve this problem requires two steps. The first step is to recognize that what we collectively do for sustainability, as humanity, is currently insufficient. Something more fundamental needs to happen. A key problem is that the root causes of un-sustainability have been marginalized in public and policy discussions.

One of the most important fundamental questions relates to what it is that we truly value. Those values need to be discussed and expressed, and then supported through appropriate institutions and policies. At present, most established institutions and policies are geared around material growth. While material growth can be an important means to alleviate poverty, material growth as such is unlikely to be the most highly valued pursuit in life for most of the world’s citizens.  The important question of what is actually important to us receives virtually no attention in political or societal discourses about sustainability, nor in the media.

As a group of scholars who witness that most current sustainability initiatives are failing, we believe a new global discourse is needed on what we truly value. This discourse is needed so we can build institutions and design policies that support what humanity actually wants. We need to recognize that there may be a mismatch between our values and our current institutions.

Based on reflection in our communities and an evolving discourse of what humanity values, a second, later step will be to reform institutions and policies so that they support these values. This reform process will appear overwhelming to most of us. However, many influential leaders at present are failing to even recognize that there are fundamental problems in how we have organized our societies. Unless we recognize that there are fundamental problems, we will continue to put effort into ever more band-aids rather than finding a cure for the disease of global un-sustainability.

As global citizens and scholars, we urge the world’s societal leaders, at all scales, to instigate discussions on the simple question: “What is it that we value?” We believe this discussion, once it encompasses a wide range of sectors of global society, can fundamentally contribute to new visions for a better world. Unless we recognize that something fundamental needs to be considered, discussed, and reflected upon, we will continue to see ongoing environmental deterioration – to the detriment of the poor, to the detriment of our children, and to the detriment of other living beings that we share this planet with.

To all academic colleagues (PhD students or more senior): If you agree with this statement, please add your name to the list of signatories. Please state your name, your professional position, your institutional affiliation, your academic degree(s), and your age (if you like). We aim to attract a large number of signatories to generate momentum for “the discussion we must have” in our communities, from local to international levels. Please share this website with your academic colleagues, including through relevant social media such as those displayed below. Ready to sign? — Click here to sign and follow the instructions

And to all visitors, regardless of whether or not you are active as academics: Thank you for your attention. You are welcome to share your thoughts in the “Discussion” section of this website.

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