As you will have gathered from other posts on this blog, we have an opportunity to discuss the development of BU’s research themes at a launch event on 14th December. As a prelude to that, I thought that it might be helpful to start to discuss what the big research questions might be, in the theme of ‘Green economy and sustainability’. I’ve been giving this a bit of thought over the past few weeks, while ploughing through leading journals looking for materials for our new Green Economy MSc. This is definitely one of those occasions when teaching and research can definitely be mutually beneficial! So, for starters, here are some initial ideas on big research questions that we might consider addressing in future. Comments and further suggestions on these would be most welcome.
1. How should the green economy be defined? It is striking how many different definitions have been proposed in the literature, with little consensus emerging as yet – rather, it is the subject of active debate. A key question, for example, is whether or not a green economy should include economic growth or not. Some commentators have argued strongly that a green economy is a zero growth economy, by definition, coming out of the ‘environmental limits to growth’ argument that began in the 1970’s. But there is very little evidence for such environmental limits restricting economic growth – rather, the global economy has adapted and continued to grow, acting like the complex adaptive system that it undoubtedly is. So, how should we define the green economy? Might it be defined simply in terms of one that prevents biodiversity loss and environmental degradation? Or must there be more to it than that, such as an element of social justice?
2. How might the transition to a green economy occur? What are the key elements of the socio-economic, cultural, political, institutional, technological and environmental context for this transition to be brought about? At the root of the sustainability transition, I think, lies human behaviour – ultimately, it is about understanding how people make decisions in response to external factors. This is an active area of research in social science, psychology, environmental science, and in economic geography, but these communities seem to be rather disconnected at present. There may be scope for a more integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to addressing this question, perhaps employing state-of-the-art tools such as agent based modelling of the behaviour of individual people, communities, institutions, companies etc. As the whole issue is surrounded by complexity and uncertainty, there may also be scope for deploying ‘softer’ tools such as scenario building.
3. How might resilient social-ecological systems be developed? One of the key principles of the green economy is that it links economic activity with its environmental impacts. The concept of social-ecological systems can be helpful in achieving this, by considering human communities and their local environments as part of a coupled system. It is important to understand the factors underpinning the resilience of such systems, particularly in the current era of rapid environmental, economic, technological and cultural change. This understanding is in its infancy. A corollary of this question is: how do social-ecological systems avoid collapse?
Please feel free to add to this list!