NSSI Colloquium: Perspectives of Research on Human-Environment Systems


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Timo Smieszek

On April 23th 2010 the IED Chair of Environmental Sciences: Natural and Social Science Interface (NSSI) held a research colloquium on the perspectives of research on human-environment systems. The invited speakers were eight international professors, who worked during an important step of their career for NSSI. The colloquium formed a bridge between the past and the future of human-environment systems research.


The program of the NSSI Colloquium was split into four parts that reflected different research phases and content strains of the chair NSSI. In the first part on sustainable finance, Prof Thomas Köllner (University of Bayreuth) and Prof Olaf Weber (University of Waterloo) reported on their past and ongoing research. Thomas Köllner discussed the classical and “green” functions of financial market. In particular, he highlighted that although the market share of environmental commodities is small, such trade can have significant impact on ecosystem quality and human well-being. As a consequence, he sees both a clear need for regulation of financial markets as well as a need for deepened research on the interrelation between financial markets and the environment. Olaf Weber showed that sustainable products are currently niche products for the financial sector. For overcoming these gaps, he presented ways to integrate sustainability thinking in financial products in order to achieve a positive sustainability impact.

Understanding System Dynamics by Modelling was the title of the second block of talks. Here, Prof Björn Reineking (University of Bayreuth) gave answers to the question “Do plants have risk strategies?” He showed that differing risk strategies of various plant species help to maintain ecological diversity in variable environments. Mirrored back to risk strategies for a scientist, Björn Reineking concluded “when it comes to science, don’t play it save”. The second speaker of the modeling part was Prof Olaf Tietje (Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil). His topic was analyzing feedbacks in system analysis.

After the break, Prof Harald A. Mieg (Humboldt University Berlin) and Prof Arnim Wiek (Arizona State University) lectured on transdisciplinarity. Harald Mieg showed the interrelations between transdisciplinarity, which aims at collaboration with stakeholders in the research process, and scenario analysis. For Harald Mieg, scenario analysis cannot be done without a transdisciplinary process for democratic as well as epistemic reasons. His conclusion was that “to adequately describe the functioning of scenarios in a transdisciplinary setting would be equal to a new planning theory.” Arnim Wiek gave a personal view on “Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research and Teaching”. He exemplified with recent research articles in high ranked journals that a new science, sustainability science, is emerging. Arnim Wiek showed by means of a short movie, how his work in the field of sustainability science is locally rooted in the Phoenix (Arizona) area by means of transdisciplinary processes. To the audience it became clear that the flavor of transdisciplinary processes in Arizona can be quite different compared to such processes in Switzerland.

The final part of the NSSI colloquium focused on the theory of human-environment systems. Unfortunately, the first speaker Prof Claudia Binder (University of Graz) was ill and could not give her presentation entitled “Understanding transitions in human-environment systems: The role of integrative research.” The other professor who was invited to talk in this block was Daniel Lang from the Leuphana University Lüneburg. He focused on sustainability learning in the field of scarce raw materials as a specific problem in human-environment systems. Daniel Lang showed with the example of phosphorous cycles and the BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or colloquial mad-cow disease) crisis how different environmental problems can be interconnected and that there can be neglected or unapparent trade-offs for environment and health management that urge for deepened research: When the authorities decided to ban bone meal as animal feed to prevent BSE spread, at the same time an existing phosphorous cycle (bones are enriched with phosphorous) was broken. At the end, the BSE crisis was managed at the cost of a less sustainable use of the scarce element phosphorous.

Prof Roland W. Scholz, head of NSSI, completed the colloquium by summarizing the past of his chair and giving an outlook for the field. He made clear that environmental sciences cannot be defined by specific problems as the problems are shifting continuously. Instead, a theory of human-environment systems that grasps the essence of the interplay of humankind with its environment was needed – no matter what the concrete problem at hand might be. Roland Scholz also stated that there is not only a need for theory, but also for the corresponding methods to investigate human-environment systems. Here, he pointed at the methodological contributions NSSI made up to now. A matter of particular importance for Roland Scholz is transdisciplinarity: For him research projects in the field of human-environment systems should be run in a transdisciplinary setting for two reasons: Transdisciplinarity is a means of making practical knowledge available to research in a methodologically sound way and it can help practice to build capacity, find consensus, mediate conflicts and provide legitimacy for decisions. Finally, he motivated young researchers to become thrilled by the research at the interface of humans and their environment.

The whole afternoon offered an impressive insight into the breadth of fields NSSI professors have managed to find posts in. It remains to be seen who from the present NSSI team will follow in these footprints.


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© 2014 ETH Zurich | Imprint | Disclaimer | 21 July 2010