Halt and Reflect

An open letter from scholars regarding global sustainability


Only signature comments will be published on the homepage.

For comments or discussion on the actual content of the letter, please use this page, and comment in the space provided below.

Please note, you are free to distribute this letter as you like, to the media, local politicians, or whoever you feel ought to be aware of it. Normal ethical principles of “truthfulness” should be adhered to in those cases.

Two publications related to the rationale underlying this letter are “Mind the Sustainability Gap“, and “Human Behavior and Sustainability“.


8 thoughts on “Discussion

  1. Joana Canelas on said:

    Good initiative, however I would like to add two comments: i) I don’t think the discussion is, nor should be, limited to academics, as any person involved in the problem may benefit and contribute from and to the discussion on the possible solutions; ii) although the problem is well framed, in my perspective the question asked does not totally address the problem: in my opinion one might need to start by asking what are the root causes of un-sustainability? I believe this brings in the discussion on values, but does not try to find a common frame for all that we, as humans, might value. The discussion on values brings also at least two additional problems: the tendency for its quantification and a human-centered, often utilitarian, perspective; while at the same time brings hard to deal issues in order to encompass its individual subjectivity without, while looking for solutions in a context of policy-making, constrain the freedom of choice and ideologies. In my opinion, the question we need to address is to unravel and identify the root of the problem, which are the values that we do not have? or, in a more optimistic way, which values do we have with which we are not acting accordingly to? Thank you for the initiative!

  2. I do not think groups of scientists and other academics should go to those with political power with a plea, begging for them to help. We must go to them with a warning, a demand that they pay attention – if only for their own sake at first, until we can help them understand that their own futures are intricately interdependent on state of the environment and greater social justice. We must be more serious. We must not go begging. We must not plea. This campaign would be much stronger if you changed ‘A Plea to our Leaders’ to ‘A Warning from Academy’ – or ‘A Warning from Academics and Scientists’. It is up to all of us to be much more serious about accepting – or not accepting what is happening. Our supposed leaders have demonstrated they they will ignore us if they can get away with it.

  3. This open letter addresses an excellent question. It is a sad state when there is a rift between clever natural science and engineering (what? how?) and something more like ‘wisdom’ (why, really?).

    The why question can be approached from psychology and social science: what do which people answer to it? Another approach is from philosophy: what might be consistent arguments for certain answers? Both can in turn be informed by science’s insights in physical limits, and in the biological and cultural drivers of values and actions.

    Now to integrate all that, plus praxis.

    Note: I second J.Boehnert’s critical comment — how about “An address to anyone in charge”? But thumbs up to “Halt and Reflect”.

  4. Fernando on said:

    Hello: nice piece. I have signed it. I would suggest trying to broaden the language in the letter to really appeal to those individuals outside academia. Even though the header of the letter states that it is addressed to a broad group of people, the letter is written from the perspective of PhD level young scientists. And I think this will be a turn off for some people (although not me). Just a thought…

  5. geosinstitute.org submitted the following, but in the “wrong place”, so I’m copying it here:

    Most of the world’s ecosystems are in rapid decline and climate change is accelerating. We need a global sustainability vision that is bold enough to invest in a new future for our children and the life support systems we all depend on. It needs to come from the grassroots so world leaders will step up and listen!

  6. Thanks a lot for this letter, Joern.
    Since being a PhD student I have been working in an organization whose primary goal is to cause action instead of words to ‘make the world a little bit a better place’ (www.synagieren.de). By now, I have to admit that causing long-term action is the hardest part…
    I am afraid the same will happen with this letter, but it is still worth drawing attention to this fundamental question.
    Personally, I find that it is closely related to the post-(economic) growth economy (slightly awkward translation of the German word “Postwachstumsoekonomie”) which is supposed to be based on what we truly value and need. I had a long discussion with one of its advocates, Nico Paech, about the place of science within this sort of economy. Nico agrees with the upper comment, i.e. with doing work that is important instead of work that adds to more papers in high-ranked journals, which, according to him, would automatically reduce the overall number of scientists and particularly of those doing fundamental science…
    I am still thinking about it…

  7. Hello, I signed the document but I have to say I very much dislike the title of this campaign. I see it as quite disempowering. It is also quite unlikely to contribute to making the necessary changes. I do not want to ‘plea to our leaders’. I want to organise and make the required changes ourselves. If anything we have to demand the changes. But thanks for your efforts with this initiative in any case.

  8. Hey Joern — and everyone!

    Great initiative, and thanks for setting this up, Joern. That said, I think a message also needs to be sent to and within academia that working on *solving* problems is also a valuable pursuit. I saw something a couple weeks ago that, to me, perfectly expresses the pressures towards the more and more refined understanding of more and more trivial phenomena that Ehrlich warned us against:

    “[Meta-research] is a very exciting and promising area for GiveWell to explore, and I’m ecstatic that you guys have chosen to pursue it as a cause.

    It’s always seemed to me to be a “solvable problem”; compared to, say, averting genocide or eradicating AIDS, changing the culture and practices of the academic community has always seemed to me to be a lower hanging fruit.

    I heard a talk from a chemist at Harvard named George Whitesides last year about this topic. The take-home point for me was made in a single 2×2 table he drew: one axis was importance of the research, and the other was the likelihood of success of the research (“success” in this context simply referred to the production of a result that would lead to a publication, which of course is the currency for all academics.)

    He said that a graduate student/professor/researcher always has an incentive to gravitate towards work in the top right quadrant of the chart (unimportant work that will probably lead to a result and therefore a publication) rather than the bottom left of the chart (work that is very important, but has a low probability of producing publishable results anytime soon).”

    from the GiveWell Blog: http://blog.givewell.org/2012/06/11/meta-research/comment-page-1/#comment-293772 .

    In my own brief experience, the pressures referred to above have been as great an obstacle as the lack of an appropriate discourse by policy-makers. When our academic institutions think academics should produce articles, and many of them (as you’ve pointed out), with not only a bit of a blind spot for quality but also a complete disregard for *actual impact on the world outside of academia* — well, this is a problem for the next-gen scientists you’re gathering here. Academia is a very appropriate (and precedented) place from which to agitate for change. Yet it’s treated as if this is part of a dark days of scholarship, rather than a rich tradition reaching back through history…


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