Sustainability Issue #3 August 2011

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Conversations on Land

How good is it to protect rain forests in Ecuador by means of money paid to the country by the world community for not exploiting the oil in the ground beneath these? This is studied in a postgraduate project in sustainability science at LUCID which is investigating key sustainability problems by highlighting different social science perspectives with reference to natural scientific knowledge.  Photo: Torsten Krause

Social and natural scientists in

Conversations on Land

By Alf Hornborg and Lennart Olsson

As world population grows and increasing numbers of people become part of a global consumer society, competition also increases over available land surfaces. Land use has suddenly become a geopolitically hot topic. Researchers affiliated to LUCID in Lund have the ambition to illuminate the issue from different scientific perspectives, integrating social and natural science.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, available agricultural land was often a limiting factor in the production of food, fibers, and energy (in the form of fodder for draught animals). For more than a century, the connection between land use and energy has been almost non-existent, due to access to inexpensive fossil fuels. In the near future, however, we are likely to once again experience access to land as a limiting factor for the production of food as well as other forms of energy.

Within LUCID (Lund University Centre of Excellence for Integration of Social and Natural Dimensions of Sustainability), land use is a central theme for several research projects. The research aims at illuminating the issue from the perspectives of different disciplines and with the aid of different theoretical and methodological points of departure. LUCID wishes to integrate social- and natural-science dimensions of sustainability problems. This is, of course, easier said than done. There are many assumptions and conceptions that make communication between the “two cultures” difficult. We shall here briefly mention two specific perspectives on sustainability which raise problems for trans-disciplinary discussions within the LUCID network. Both perspectives bring together aspects from the social and natural sciences and exemplify the kinds of difficulties which such research tends to generate.

Large scale operation. Mechanised harvest of sugar cane in Goiás State, Brazil. According to the sugar cane industry, all harvest will be mechanised in a few years, at least in  São Paolo, the largest state for sugar cane, and 700,000 migrant sugar cane workers may lose their work. Photographer: Kenneth Hermele.

Ecologically Unequal Exchange

The first example is the concept of ecologically unequal exchange. It has been presented as an analytical tool that can help us understand how net transfers of biophysical resources between or within nations (measured, for instance, in energy, materials, or hectare yields) can remain invisible in economic statistics, even though they may have a decisive significance for the accumulation of technology and infrastructure in different parts of the world. By translating statistics on trade to such metrics instead of money prices, what in our conventional world view may look like mutually beneficial exchange is revealed to be asymmetric resource flows, which systematically contribute to ‘development’ in some areas at the expense of people and environments elsewhere.

Many researchers would consider this reasoning ideological and normative, rather than a contribution to science. Within LUCID, however, it is natural to scrutinize and problematize precisely such objections. Why would it be more ‘ideological’ or ‘normative’ to observe that structural growth in societies require a net import of energy and matter, than to make the same observation about biological growth? Are not social systems as objective phenomena as ecosystems and organisms? Would it be less ‘ideological’ to maintain that the asymmetries in world society are not based on asymmetric resource flows? How ‘scientific’, in this context, are the foundational assumptions of conventional economics in the eyes of natural scientists?

What areas are needed to replace fossil fuel use today with Brazilian ethanol (in energy terms)? How much biofuel can we get from the arable land area in the world? Total arable land in the world is ca 1500 million hectares. 40 per cent of arable land can replace one half of petrol – but then we have no food!

Most researchers probably find descriptive statements more credible than normative ones, but for some reason there is a tendency to perceive natural science as purely descriptive and social science as more normative. Perhaps this notion is based on the observation that societies can (in principle) be transformed through human decisions, which makes social science an arena for contesting interpretations and visions of the future. If so, it should have been undermined by contemporary recognition of the extent to which nature, too, is being shaped by human social systems, interpretations, and visions. If our objects of study from now on are so-called ‘socio-ecological systems’, the notion that social and natural sciences are founded on completely separate assumptions ought to be discarded as obsolete. Both social systems and ecosystems are shaped by material as well as cultural conditions and thus require both types of analysis. For example, natural-science perspectives can reveal the biophysical resource flows that are the basis of societal power relations, while social-science perspectives can show how such flows and relations tend to be excluded from view.

Unequal exchange in terms of time and space in British textile production in 1850.

To illustrate how other metrics than monetary exchange value can illuminate ecologically unequal exchange, calculations by Kenneth Hermele, PhD candidate in Human Ecology affiliated to LUCID, show that the energy content of current net imports of fossil fuels to the United States would correspond to 187 million hectares of ‘best practice’ Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. This is more than seven times the area in the United States that is now being cultivated (with massive inputs of fossil fuels) for export production of food.

Payment for Ecosystem Services

The second example is the idea that we must learn to ‘pay for ecosystem services’. In this case, too, the challenge is to integrate natural-science perspectives into social science, and once again the focus on invisible issues of skewed market distribution raises questions about the boundaries between science and politics. Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) is meant as a strategy for protecting the environment by setting a price on the ‘services’ that it contributes to society. The idea is to let market actors take control over how resources are used and distributed. By evaluating ecosystem services in monetary terms, it is assumed, the market will protect what is worthy of protection. It is just a matter of ‘getting the price right’. In contrast to ordinary commodities there is currently no mechanism for deciding on the prices of ecosystem services. In order for something to be sold and bought in a market, there has to be both sellers and buyers. The commodity also has to be in limited supply in order for it to have a price. In the absence of normal price mechanisms somebody, often a government, needs to put a price on nature.

The PES proposal is founded on the assumption that the market, in the long run, will promote increased sustainability. A completely different understanding is offered by conflict theories, which assume that institutions emerge and are used as expressions of contradictions and power relations in society. From such a perspective, PES (for example, tree planting in the South financed through fees on carbon dioxide emissions in the North) can become a way for wealthy markets actors to continue with their polluting activities, under condition that such activities remain their prerogative. This logic is being investigated by Torsten Krause, LUCID PhD candidate in Sustainability Science, who has studied the proposal to protect rainforests in Ecuador by urging the remainder of world society to compensate the country for not extracting the oil that can be found in the ground underneath them, as in the Socio Bosque programme. This is yet another example of how LUCID investigates central problems of sustainability by illuminating different social-science perspectives in the light of those of natural science.

Result of the programme Socio Bosque in January 2010. Source: Socio Bosque Programme, 2010.

Author :

Alf Hornborg is Professor at the Department of Human Ecology, Lund University, and member of the Board of LUCID (http://www.lucid.lu.se)
E-mail: alf.hornborg@hek.lu.se
Lennart Olsson is professor and Chairman of LUCSUS /Lund University Centre for Studies of Sustainable Societal Development)

Literature:

Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World, Alf Hornborg, Routledge, 2011.

Responsible for this page: Birgitta Bruzelius

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