Green economy – big research questions?

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!


One Response to “Green economy – big research questions?”

  1. Chris Shiel

    Apologies some very quick, random thoughts:
    I prefer talking about sustainability and sustainable development which suggest a broader remit than the green economy. Some of the research suggests that unless a broader remit is understood it is too easy to focus on technological solutions and ways of working which support the current economic system and status quo. I am glad in your first point you raise the question of the sustainability of an economic model which is based on growth.

    I would like to see social justice as part of the agenda. Climate change will impact on the poorest. If they cannot grow crops they will need to migrate which then leads to conflict. I think one aspect of research is around the inter-connections between these issues (and the impact of local actions on other parts of he world – local/global connections.
    Climate change/migration/ conflict/poverty/disease are all inter-related…. which offers scope for all disciplines.

    Other topics should include education for sustainable development – what sort of education system do we need to ensure that young people are able to secure the planet for future generations? Wals and Blewitt (2010) talk of ‘Third wave sustainability’ suggesting that we need transformative learning and research within HE.
    Attitudes, values and behaviour has to be on the list – how do these impact on becoming ‘greener’/ more sustainable? What interventions influence attitudes and behaviour the most?

    Then here is ‘leadership for sustainability’ – what sort of leaders do we need? How can we ensure he education system is producing them and what kind of development supports leaders to address sustainability.

    There is also considerable scope to get Business School staff involved (particulaly with iniatives such as UN Global Compact). What is role of trade – fair/unfair trading systems/greener ways of doing business/ compliance through the supply chain etc.

    A final point (off the top of my head) in terms of learning – how do we encourage ways of learning which get learners to think systemically? How do we encourgae ‘futures thinking’ and craetivity in decision making while at the same time equipping learners to be better and calculating long term risks of decisions for wider stakeholder groups, and the planet?