Andres Tennus

Margit Keller: The six pillars of sustainability

Speech by Margit Keller, Head of the Centre for Sustainable Development and Associate Professor in Social Communication, at the ceremony dedicated to the 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia on 23 February 2023 in the assembly hall of the University of Tartu.


Honourable rector, mayor, deans, dear academic family and guests,

Green transition, climate crisis, climate panic, climate anxiety, climate indifference, green frenzy... Undoubtedly, this is a varied and passionate topic that increasingly needs our attention.

Together with my colleague, Professor Raili Marling, we analysed our political parties’ election manifestos. All in all, 251 pages. The synonyms “kestlik”, “jätkusuutlik”, “säästlik” (sustainable), and compound words with “green” and “climate” appeared in these texts 340 times. Half-jokingly, we could say that it makes 1.4 sustainable development terms per page. Impressive! Debate on these topics is important. At the same time, we know from the Foresight Centre’s recent report that the environmental footprint of the Estonian lifestyle is 3.8 times the Earth’s carrying capacity and exceeds the European average by a third. The website of Statistics Estonia uses the Tree of Truth, a graphic presentation of essential development indicators, such as cohesive society, health, agriculture and transport. The tree has 146 leaves or indicators. We can find 47 green leaves, “target met”. There’s an almost equal number of yellow ones, 45, which means “moving towards” (but we don’t know if we will get there). And there are 54 red leaves, which show that we are not on the right course. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

The definition of sustainable development from the 1987 Brundtland report – the attempt to balance the environmental, economic and social well-being so that we do not live at the expense of future generations – is based on the understanding that human beings have a significant and unpredictable impact on planet Earth. Scientists are still debating whether the Anthropocene is a new geological era. But it is clear that human impact on the natural environment has become increasingly more profound, extensive and rapid.

In our research group, we discuss the concept of the Deep Transition. The first Deep Transition – the last approximately 250 years – brought to the fore the principles, features and problems of the modern industrial society. Based on the definitions by Johan Schot and Laur Kanger, I give a few examples:

  • Nature is a resource that people use for themselves.
  • Indicators such as economic growth or labour productivity are suitable for measuring the progress of society. Nature is irrelevant for such assessments.
  • The economy is linear, resulting in increasing amounts of waste and pollution.
  • Science is at the service of progress.
  • The speed and volume of technological progress is promoted without taking a public role in shaping the content and direction of technology.
  • The availability of ever lower-priced consumer goods and services is expected.
  • Consumer sovereignty is a cornerstone of personal freedom.

These principles are realised by the so-called sociotechnical systems that change over time: from sailing ships to oil tankers, from horse-drawn carts to cars. Modern sociotechnical systems – for example, energy, mobility, or education and health – offer people benefits and follow the principle that nature is a resource for the benefit of human scientific and technological progress. The very concept of a sociotechnical system leaves nature in the role of the external environment.

Despite the emergence of several disciplines, such as ecological economics, the social sciences, in a broader sense, have been based on the unbridgeable divide between human society and nature. Simply put, we produce, consume, and do much of social sciences (and probably also much of the humanities) in such a way that nature and human beings essentially stand in separate categories. This way of thinking, conceptualising and acting is part of our societies’ resource-intensive path dependence.

At the end of the 1990s, Swedish and Canadian researchers Fikret Berkes, Johan Colding and Karl Folke started discussing socio-ecological systems and their resilience. They argue that human social systems, centred on governance and knowledge, are inextricably intertwined with ecological systems, the self-regulating communities of organisms. And drawing a strict boundary between them is arbitrary and complicated. The research team’s premise is that in modern times, human impact on nature has taken on a planetary scale and is more unpredictable than in the earlier stages of human history.

Bringing these two concepts of the system closer together, we could talk about socio-ecological-technological systems. However, these are rarely considered together. A Scopus search yields a dozen articles that deal explicitly with these terms and mention them in their theses. Researchers of socio-ecological systems and sociotechnical transitions sit in separate rooms and at different conferences.

Nonetheless, taking advantage of the leeway this presentation gives me, I will try to conceptualise the possible Second Deep Transition as a normative socio-eco-techno-programme aiming at the good health of nature and quality of human life. I couldn’t resist the charm of the central visual image of our main building, and will thus speak of the six pillars of sustainability. Let it be said that the ecological dimension is not a separate pillar but overarching them all. Today, it is still largely a value-based thought rather than a scientific result or a reflection of reality.

  1. Before elections, the first pillar is expected to be democratic governance, centred around social agreements extending beyond the four-year electoral cycle. How can we achieve that each and every decision involves the dimension of interaction between nature and man? What competencies and, more importantly, what information technologies do we need?
  2. The second pillar is human health, well-being and justice. What is the environmental footprint of any social measure (for example, the universal electricity service) and, conversely, what is the social and cultural footprint, or even their victim, of the green changes (for example, the potentially abrupt transition in Ida-Viru county)? Earth4All, an association of scientists convened by the Club of Rome and other prominent organisations, argues in a recent book of the same name that it would be useful to use a social tension index to measure the polarisation of society. Incidentally, the branch of cohesive society on the Tree of Truth also has the largest number of red leaves proportionally.
  3. The third pillar is, naturally, culture. I fear that the Second Deep Transition requires giving up the idea of linear progress – which understands nature as a resource only – and revision of the principle of the unsurmountable divide between culture and nature. And more ambitiously than in the context of mild national romanticism or “Estonians as lovers of intact nature”.
  4. The fourth is economy: circular economy, green economy. But how can we assess economic development in a more complex way than growth? How can we relate financial, human and natural capital into tangible categories that could be used in decision-making processes?
  5. The fifth pillar is technology. Responsible innovation does not presume complete technological neutrality. It seeks technologies as solutions to problems and, already at an early stage, involves scientists and citizens who could help unravel the potential societal and environmental impacts of technology.
  6. And finally, of course, we have science here – interdisciplinary cooperation and transdisciplinary sustainability science.

All this is the ideal world. It would be naïve to hope that all the six pillars are equally tall and solid, achievable at once. Possibly, we have to make sacrifices and seek compromises. Science can search for answers at complex nodes, but what to do when the researchers’ ontological foundations differ? For example, the irreconcilable conflict on forests in Estonia is a socio-eco-technical problem in which we try to counterpose parts of the system. However, accounting for and modelling all ecological, technological and sociocultural features is impossible in both science and governance. Especially because complex systems are indeterminate, they have threshold effects after which new equilibria or collapse can occur. Thus, alongside scientific calculations, also stories and narratives become important in such complex changes. Political rhetoric can build up or pull down a sustainable future society. Although the theories I referred to earlier do not give much space for individual agents, we must not underestimate the influence of people in leading positions. Who holds power, and what story do they tell? Sometimes the narrative becomes so powerful that we are “asked not to bother with the facts”, like in the old political cartoon Professor Hans Orru showed in his inaugural lecture on Tuesday.

There is also the risk that a research-based and professionally led socio-eco-technical transformation can become a technocratic elite project. We talk passionately about how sustainability concerns can be solved with smarter technology, data-driven administration, and intelligent but hard-to-understand scientists. It is not easy to find warm, sincere words, and simple, practical solutions that are based on everyday experience and actually speak to people and inspire good deeds. There is no point in talking about socio-ecological-technical systems or the green transition to a miner from Ida-Viru County or a Tartu teenager smoking cannabis to relieve stress. At least not using these words.

The socio-ecological approach referred to above was published 20 years ago. Today, in February 2023, we have much more knowledge. Also, concern and anxiety have grown. On the website of the University of Tartu’s Centre for Sustainable Development – I’m not tired of repeating it – we have the drawing of planetary boundaries, now with a decent translation into Estonian. In six of the nine boundaries, we have reached the red or the danger zone in at least one subsection. The UN Sustainable Development Goals’ target year is in just seven years. Clearly, the world cannot achieve these aspirations to the expected extent. In 20 years, we will again celebrate the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, a free country, in this very hall. We will live and work to make it a reality. Then, it will be exactly seven years until the climate neutrality commitment year. Will we then have reason to talk about progress and adaptation to change, or will we have to admit that no matter how you look at it, it’s not going to work out...? On the journey to the threshold of the next big pledge, the University of Tartu has an awe-inspiring role. I will conclude by describing it, using again the image of the six pillars that are physically closer to us than anything said before.

Firstly, bold interdisciplinary cooperation; encouraging, rewarding, and also measuring interdisciplinary empathy. Conscious reduction of barriers within the university, no matter whether they arise from the structure, funding sources or thinking patterns.

Secondly, it is up to us to rethink the competencies for sustainable development in teaching and studies: to agree on concepts, to balance in-depth knowledge of the disciplines and transferable green competencies. It is a winding path, and we are standing at the beginning of it. At the same time, we must not over-formalise this complex subject to the extent that there is no longer any room for creativity or autonomy of the teaching staff.

Thirdly, we must work wisely with our partners – ministries, local governments or enterprises. To design processes to be more knowledge-driven, to keep the interaction between the social, the ecological and the technological in mind at all times. Not to let sustainable development become a purely technocratic undertaking. At the same time, we urgently need our partners to let us know when we get too stuck in the academic ivory tower.

The fourth pillar is also well known. We need to contribute to and heal our society through science-based, dignified, yet heartfelt and relatable communication. Explain more boldly and patiently what science has to say about the changing world. Listen to and seek solutions when people get hurt by the proposed measures of the green transition.

Fifth, we are reviewing our campus and everyday life, local infrastructures and habits: mobility, heating and solar panels. All this comes under the heading “environmental management system”.

It all sounds big, even grandiose. However, we are no longer at the beginning in any of the sections – we have taken steps already, including some under the auspices of the Centre for Sustainable Development. With a thirst for excellency characteristic of us.

There is also the sixth pillar. It is a tricky one. I said before what we need to do more and better because of our mission. Yet we also have to keep ourselves, our university family, sustainable. While it may sound like a cliché, it is a serious challenge in practice. Although we may not like it, we need – besides taking on new and new tasks – to ask ourselves how to give up, how to say no. Also, as an organisation, not only as an individual. We are demanding of ourselves and others; we want higher quality and quantitative growth at the same time: more citations and international students, more revenue per academic staff member, higher places in rankings. We are, after all, the only Estonian university to be included in the QS sustainability ranking, yet we are still only ranked 501st. We have also begun talking about the fact that we cannot take academic succession for granted. We are part of socio-eco-technical systems, so let us think about our own resilience as a collective and as human beings. A complex system does not grow in a linear fashion, nor is it finitely optimised; it must have a slack but also diversity to adapt and survive.

Let us build the pillars of sustainability; let us give our wisdom, energy, and our warmth of soul to restore and maintain the balance between nature and humanity. The Universitas has a unique opportunity to do this. In the free and dignified Estonia, as well as globally.

Thank you!


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