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The Social Sciences We Need for Sustainability
Human behavior is central to the problems associated with climate change and sustainability more broadly. First, the weight of evidence strongly suggests that climate change is anthropogenic, resulting from individual and societal decisions largely surrounding energy production and consumption. Second, climate change represents an urgent threat to the integrity of human systems and societies. Finally, the solutions to the problems associated with climate change must be enacted via collective and individual decisions and social and political institutions. Avoiding the worst of the downsides of future climate scenarios requires that we find---and convince people to use---new energy sources, mobilize populations to adapt to the environmental and economic consequences, and mitigate further negative effects of climate change.
The scientific study of human behavior as a fundamental element of sustainability nonetheless faces some substantial headwinds. Central among these is the problem of Radical Epistemic Skepticism (RES), the phenomenon where leaders in sustainability science (often physical scientists and engineers) refuse to acknowledge the scientific value of social sciences based on a notion that they are inherently "soft." RES is associated with two other attitudes that are detrimental to the behavioral science of sustainability: (1) the inability to distinguish the social sciences from the humanities, and (2) the expectation that social sciences provide immediate returns in terms of policy and implementation.
I suggest that to be successful, the behavioral science needs to double down on theory---generalization and formalization of the regularities our empirical science reveal. Sustainability is about the future of humanity and planet Earth and theory is essential for making predictions about states of the world that have not (yet) been observed, which the future is, by definition. Perhaps surprisingly for the skeptics, the social sciences are actually full of law-like regularities that suggest that theory is a viable outcome of the scientific research endeavor in the domain of sustainability. I provide some examples of theoretical frameworks, grounded in biosocial science that combine ecology, cognitive science, and cultural evolution, and their promise for addressing the grand challenges for a rigorous and useful behavioral science of sustainability.
Jamie Jones is a biological anthropologist with research interests in human ecology, demography and life history theory, and the ecology and evolutionary biology of infectious disease.
The Environmental Social Sciences Seminar Series serves to build and enhance the research community in Environmental Behavioral Science (EBS) and Global Environmental Policy (GEP) at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.
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