Open letter to encourage socially relevant, future-oriented teaching and research at D-USYS

Dear Prof. Dr. Nina Buchmann, Head of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-USYS),
Dear Prof. Dr. Bernhard Wehrli, Director of Studies Environmental Sciences,
Dear Prof. Dr. Susanne E. Ulbrich, Director of Studies Agricultural Sciences,
Dear Teaching Commission AGRW and UMNW,
Dear Strategic Planning Committee,
Dear Professors’ Conference,

1. We demand socially relevant and future-oriented teaching and research

As our economic system is the cause of many crises which are currently intensifying due to the pandemic, university teaching and research must take a critical stance on it. We, students, doctoral candidates, ETH members and others, are therefore calling for a more diverse and future-oriented teaching and research. Such teaching and research is of central importance for finding effective solutions to social, environmental and economic challenges. We believe that this demand matches with ETH’s claim to help shape the relevant scientific and social discourses of our time. 

The multiple problems associated with climate change require systemic thinking. What we often understand as separate environmental, social or economic issues must instead be thought of holistically, taking into account social power structures. Two prominent research areas that can offer this interconnected analysis are post-growth economics and political ecology. The former critically examines the ecological and socioeconomic consequences of unchecked economic growth and possible alternatives. The latter is concerned with the effects of social inequality and power relations on human-environment relations. Subsections such as climate and environmental justice or ecofeminism apply such lenses to specific problem sets. However, anyone who takes a closer look at the courses offered at ETH and the research focus areas realizes that these two research areas are, at most, minimally represented. 

We call for a new professorship for each of the two fields for three reasons: firstly, the mentioned research fields would integrate best with the existing research focus areas of D-USYS; secondly, post-growth and climate justice are cutting-edge research areas and thirdly, only professorships guarantee the necessary long term strengthening and institutionalization of simultaneously research and teaching in these areas. These two professorships are especially necessary in the light of multiple crises, which on the one hand lead to problems but also open up new opportunities for societal solutions. 

2. COVID-19 as a catalyst of already existing crises

The current health crisis makes us increasingly aware of the problems caused by our economic system. Existing inequalities are being exacerbated, non-privileged social groups are hit particularly hard by the consequences of the pandemic1,2. The downfalls of our economic system are manifesting itself in various areas of life. In the following, we outline some of the most fundamental ecological and socio-economic problems.

Ecological problems. To date, there is no absolute decoupling of economic growth and resource consumption, neither at the national nor at the global level; rather, resource consumption continues to increase3-6. Only the current pandemic and the negative growth that accompanied it led to a reduction in resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to an extent that would be approximately necessary to achieve the 1.5°C target1,7. However, this reduction is of temporary nature. As business goes back to normal, emissions and resource consumption will also increase again7. A reduction of these environmental impacts is urgently needed to mitigate climate change, prevent further degradation of ecosystems and to not further restrict the scope of action and the freedom of future generations.

Socio-economic problems. Countless studies show that economic growth (measured with traditional indicators such as the GDP) in the Global North does not lead to more wellbeing within the population8 and is no longer necessary to satisfy human needs9,10. The COVID-19 crisis, however,illustrates what needs to be strengthened within a society to ensure long-term well-being: solidarity, cooperation and interpersonal relationships, a good health-care system, systemically relevant professions, care work, and a fair distribution of income and wealth9,11-13. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis once again highlights the unfortunate dependence of our current economic system on growth14. The current economic system adds to the instability of the healthcare crisis, taking on the role of the patient rather than acting as an asset.15. A functioning economic system would be able to provide a good life for everyone, regardless of unemployment rates or growth perspectives.

3. The responsibility of science

The COVID-19 crisis does not only illustrate the problems of the current economic system. It also makes the existing potential for future-oriented alternatives visible and can serve as an impulse for change. This is where science comes into play: by means of a well-founded examination of the issues, it can find solutions that contribute to a transformation of our economic system. 

This commitment to socially relevant science corresponds to the officially stated self-conception of the ETH: „The ETH consistently orients its activities to the needs of people, nature and society“16, thus recognizing that science must also be measured by its answers to the pressing questions of our time. In both public and academic discourse, political ecology and post-growth economics are becoming increasingly important17. This is exemplified by an open letter to the European Parliament, in which more than 200 scientists advocate a post-growth economy. Various universities have responded to the growing importance of these disciplines: the University of Copenhagen, for example, has established a professorship in political ecology in 2017 or the University of Lausanne has recently created a professorship in ecological economics, which focuses strongly on topics related to post-growth. ETH and D-USYS should contribute to this debate with socially relevant and future-oriented teaching and research in order to keep up with these cutting-edge research areas.

4. The responsibility of D-USYS

D-USYS, which as a department deals with environmental systems and their importance for humans, offers a good base for post-growth and political ecology at ETH. There is an overlap between post-growth economics, political ecology and the existing research foci of the D-USYS. Post-growth economics, for instance, investigates forms of climate-friendly economic activity that can reconcile sustainable resource use and food security. Political ecology deals, inter alia, with the unequal distribution of resources and power within our food system but also regarding climate and environmental justice. Both research areas deal with the question of how a society that enables a good life for all people worldwide within the planetary boundaries could look like. These and other research questions are highly relevant when studying environmental systems, but are currently neglected by the department and ETH as a whole. We see professorships as the primary way to establish these topics in the long term at ETH to make significant contributions in these cutting-edge research fields. Individual research projects or lectures are insufficient for that end.

We hope that our demands and ideas will be taken into account for future strategic decisions. It would enable D-USYS to make a significant, positive contribution to overcome the current and future crises, especially the health, biodiversity and climate crisis. 

We are looking forward to receiving your answer and are happy to be available for dialogue.

Kind regards,

Authors:

Annabelle Ehmann, Levin Koller, Lorenz Keyßer, Lukas Guyer, Veronika Schick

References

1.    Lenzen, M. et al. Global socio-economic losses and environmental gains from the Coronavirus pandemic. PLOS ONE 15, e0235654 (2020).

2.    Blundell, R., Dias, M. C., Joyce, R. & Xu, X. COVID-19 and Inequalities*. Fiscal Studies 41, 291–319 (2020).

3.    Haberl, H. et al. A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights. Environ. Res. Lett. (2020) doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a.

4.    Wiedenhofer, D. et al. A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part I: bibliometric and conceptual mapping. Environ. Res. Lett. (2020) doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ab8429.

5.    Parrique, T. et al. Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. 41 eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked (2019).

6.    Hickel, J. & Kallis, G. Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy 0, 1–18 (2019).

7.    Le Quéré, C. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO 2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. 1–7 (2020) doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x.

8.    Fanning, A. L. & O’Neill, D. W. The Wellbeing–Consumption paradox: Happiness, health, income, and carbon emissions in growing versus non-growing economies. Journal of Cleaner Production 212, 810–821 (2019).

9.    O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., Lamb, W. F. & Steinberger, J. K. A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nature Sustainability 1, 88–95 (2018).

10.   Hickel, J. Is it possible to achieve a good life for all within planetary boundaries? Third World Quarterly 1–17 (2018) doi:10.1080/01436597.2018.1535895.

11.   Kallis, G. et al. Research On Degrowth. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 43, 291–316 (2018).

12.   Wilkinson, R. G. & Pickett, K. E. Income Inequality and Social Dysfunction. Annual Review of Sociology 35, 493–511 (2009).

13.   Steinberger, J. K., Lamb, W. F. & Sakai, M. Your money or your life? The carbon-development paradox. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 044016 (2020).

14.   Blauwhof, F. B. Overcoming accumulation: Is a capitalist steady-state economy possible? Ecological Economics 84, 254–261 (2012).

15.   Wiedmann, T., Lenzen, M., Keyßer, L. T. & Steinberger, J. K. Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nature Communications 11, 3107 (2020).

16.   Schulleitung der ETH Zürich (Version 1997, Stand Februar 2014). Leitbild. Abgerufen 10. September 2020, von https://ethz.ch/de/die-eth-zuerich/portraet/selbstverstaendnis-und-werte/leitbild.html

17.   OECD. Beyond Growth: Towards a New Economic Approach. New Approaches to Economic Challenges. OECD Publishing (2020) doi: 10.1787/a6a5f2eb-en.



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aehmann@student.ethz.ch

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