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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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5 New ways of looking at the world

There is a variety of new approaches or terms that are interlinked, and have been prominent throughout this course. All of them have played a part in this course’s journey through the scientific, political, philosophical and social implications of climate change.

Governance of climate change is about: decision making under uncertainty; understanding and representing vulnerability even when vulnerabilities are difficult to assess or unknowable; and making every aspect of human activity sustainable within the context of economic, socio-cultural and political globalisation.

One feature that distinguishes contemporary culture is that themes and questions such as these are being explored using the uniquely rich, but also problematic, medium of the Web (Figure 19). Sustainable development and the Web grew up together. However, it is not just this accident of timing that makes them such close relations. Consider some of the claims that are often made about the Web. It:

  • Plays a role in spreading values globally, and aids development of global civil society – for example, via NGO transboundary organisation.

  • Promotes transparency – data and argument can be published regularly and in full, reducing the possibility of manipulation.

  • Reduces hierarchy, which facilitates working in small teams.

  • Is inclusive in terms of breaking down obstacles of distance.

Figure 19 Camilita Ajiambo Siata works with NairoBits, a non-profit Digital Design School which provides education for the young people of Nairobi's slum areas. She earns enough working as a web designer to support her whole family. The Web is opening up new flows of information and debate – key components of sustainable development. (Photo: Sven Torfin/Panos)

If the relatively obscure groupings of policy experts, NGOs and intellectuals who were talking about sustainability in the late 1980s had listed some of the features of a communications environment that progress towards a sustainable world would require, their list would probably have looked like this. These features of the Web could enable ideas and decisions about making progress towards sustainability to be quickly and widely debated and disseminated. While the first decade of widespread use of the Web recognised its potential as an immense and easily searchable repository of knowledge, one of the most interesting features of the second decade of its development is the capacity of users to actively participate in its construction. Wikis, online communities of interest and other forms of social media are opening up new and unpredictable pathways to the generation, testing and dissemination of ideas.

The unfolding awareness of human societies' hazardous impacts on environmental systems really turns up the heat on questions about the future. Climate science suggests that those systems on which we all rely are subject to dramatic changes. This simple fact may increasingly serve to motivate a whole range of players to bring about change on the kind of scale that the problems appear to demand. Section 4 points to the need for (and some evidence of):

  • a ‘new industrial revolution’

  • a demanding and proactive civil society

  • intelligent, consensual approaches to bringing these forces together.

There seems enough evidence in the brief case studies in Section 4 to suggest that we are capable of innovation in our social and economic systems. Intelligence about these innovations can move fast around our networks – be it business, NGOs or the media. The work of all of these networks is accelerated by the Web.

However, it no longer makes sense to see these systems as separate from the natural world. The unfolding science of climate change is an incredibly potent and pressing illustration of how human systems are inevitably interdependent with environmental systems. This course has taken you from current findings in the science of climate change to the conclusion that societies must urgently find ways of becoming environmentally sustainable. The challenges are enormous, but these powerful new insights about the interdependence of the human and non-human natural world are being generated at a time when new ideas can be circulated and debated on a scale and at a speed that no previous generation could imagine. These new ways of looking at the world, and the new ways of communicating such insights, leave plenty of room for optimism.