“The need for scientifically informed politics” – An Interview with Joachim H. Spangenberg

Joachim H. Spangenberg is Vice-President of the Sustainable Europe Research Institute(SERI) in Cologne, Germany. With a PhD in economics, but an academic background in biology and ecology, he is an inter- and trans-disciplinary researcher by education and dedication. He works on sustainable development strategies, environmental conflicts, sustainable consumption, biodiversity conservation by pressure reduction, ecosystem services and their valuation including limits of economic growth.

From 1992 to 1999 he was in charge of the taskforce on “Sustainable Societies” at the Wuppertal Institute and worked as a scientific associate at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin and the Institute for European environmental Policy (Bonn).

Joachim also serves on the executive committees of the International Society for Sustainable Development Research (ISDRS) and the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES), and in the Steering Committee of the Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP).

In the past, you’ve have said that a post-COVID recovery strategy focused primarily on growth would jeopardize the Paris Agreement. What are your thoughts now?

We had a post-COVID recovery strategy which focused primarily on economic growth, and hence we missed a unique opportunity. Given the current trajectories and policy priorities, we will surpass the Paris threshold of 1.5° global warming before 2030. Be aware that this is a global average figure – the continents are heating up twice as much, and the Arctic four times as much. We are about to enter a state of the global environment with so far not well understood thresholds, and irreversible changes to our life sustaining systems. Welcome to the Anthropocene!

You have focused on “Multidimensional Ecosystem Mapping” recently – what is this, and why is it more relevant than ever?

The performance of ecosystems is crucial for our mere survival – due to the climate crisis, and the fact that degraded ecosystems are no longer able to buffer climate impacts. Forests and fields are ecosystems as well, and they are crucial not only for our nutrition and groundwater provisioning, but also for jobs, income, and cultural identities. Only if we recognize which ecosystem service is provided where, and which are competing interests, can we look for compromises which stabilize natural systems while preserving livelihoods and identities.

For the first claim, take the Mediterranean, for example: Spain is plagued by significant declines in precipitation, together with top temperatures now regularly surpassing 45°C. The soil water content has never been so low, and the lack of evaporation contributes to the extreme heat. Most plants cannot survive such conditions, depriving the area of shadow and cooling by plant transpiration. It appears plausible that within the next 20 or 30 years the ongoing desertification process will make the Spanish Sierra uninhabitable.

For the second, again Spain is an excellent example: strawberries are cultivated in the very South, with perfect weather but no water. This is provided by canals built by the fascist Franco government which now threaten the water availability and river ecosystems all over the country. As that is not enough for the strawberries (1 kg requires 200 l water), thousands of illegal wells have been drilled. The groundwater level decreased rapidly, and Europe’s largest nature reserve, home to rare species, stopover for migrating birds and source of income for a whole tourism industry, is collapsing.

What is ecopopulism, and how does it help or hurt? What’s your opinion on the circular economy, degrowth, and the doughnut economy?

Eco-popularity, the awareness that we are hurting ourselves if we continue to abuse the environment as in the past, is an urgent necessity. Populism, however, is something else: it follows conspiracy approaches which hold external forces, persons and interest groups responsible for environmental decline (if they no deny it altogether), claiming there is no need to change lifestyles and reduce consumption levels (levels, not styles determine the environmental impact).

Offering simplistic pseudo-solutions is the last thing which would help the environment.

We have to accept two key facts to be immunised against eco-populism: 1. that the world is indeed complex, and no simple solutions exist, and 2. that while the responsibilities of business and politicians are disproportionately higher than those of the average consumer, each of us has a responsibility for change as well. That is the harsh reality: It is not only “them above” who have to change their was, it is all of us.

Circular economy is an old catchword; the first circular economy law was adopted in Germany 35 years ago, with limited impacts. Read as an effort to minimise wasting of resources, it’s fine, but taken literally, it’s pure nonsense. For instance, alomst 50% of all material flows entering our economies are energy carriers, organic and inorganic. By their very nature, they are used up in the process of providing energy, and cannot be recycled but end up as waste, mostly CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. Capturing the CO2 is possible, but requires more energy than has been released in the process. The laws of thermodynamics cannot be changed by politics, not even with super majorities. Hence to rescue as much ecosystem services as still possible, we have to reduce our resource consumption – ending soil sealing by 2030, fossil fuel use by 2045, halving resource consumption by 2050.

And despite all productivity increases we cannot produce something from nothing (again the laws of thermodynamics strike, like it or not), and that will trigger a degrowth in the monetarily measured economy as well – however not linearly to the physical slimming of the economy.

The doughnut is a nice metaphor (in particular in doughnut-loving countries) but not essentially new. The upper limits are the planetary boundaries, the lower ones define what the UN has called the social protection floor and we, in the 1990s, the floor and the ceiling of the available environmental space. The strength of the doughnut is its sweet imaginary; it’s weakness is in the lack of well-defined targets and policies.

What’s your opinion on “multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity”? What needs to happen now to find concrete solutions?

Multidisciplinary is when scholars from different disciplines all develop their separate analyses and suggestions, and – at best – put them together as chapters of a book with a joint foreword. The results may be interesting ‘science for sustainability’, but are detached from a reality where the different characteristics of any phenomenon permanently interact. Interdisciplinarity tries to overcome that, be a true ‘science of sustainability’, and gets closer to reality. It integrated natural and social sciences with humanities, but falls short of the knowledge of practice, of everyday experience, and hence is an academic effort on still too high a level of abstraction for real world problem solving. This requires adding a different king of knowledge, the one gained by hands-on experience and long-term exposure to situations, i.e. the knowledge of lay persons (which may by excellent academics in unrelated fields – lay in a sense of not being professionally involved). That is the approach of co-creation of knowledge, of discursive science, of transdisciplinarity (all closely related and largely overlapping terms), the kind of post-normal science needed in transition times when stakes are high, action is urgent, but facts are uncertain and values disputed.

Beyond the science is the politics. Any suggestions?

Beyond science is religion – politics should be based on knowledge, even wisdom, but not on beliefs (that’s what makes ideologies so dangerous). While it is easily possible to make horribly bad politics while knowing the best of science, it will hardly be possible to make marvellous politics based on corrupted science. Transdisciplinary science is the best available source for the knowledge for wise politics, but cannot prescribe politics what to do – this is the difference between competence and legitimacy (some lobbyists command neither). So talking about “science based politics” is nonsense, while “scientifically informed” would fit better. The difficult process of weighing arguments and values is entirely political and not scientific – good politicians (i.e. those we should elect) are excellent multi criteria assessment machines on two legs – they hold the legitimacy, but – unlike scientists – also have to shoulder the responsibility for their decision.

Thanks so much for your time.

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar