Social Ecology Lecture, 15.1.2020

Picture: dry land on one side, green land on the other side

Transforming Tomorrow: Moving From Climate Emergency to Prosperity

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Professor of Resilience and Sustainable Development, UCL Institute for Global Prosperity, London

Prof. Jacqueline McGlade is a marine biologist and environmental informatics professor, whose research focuses on the spatial and nonlinear dynamics of ecosystems, climate change and scenario development. Her work at IGP encompasses developing quantitative metrics of prosperity and artificial intelligence.

She was Executive Director of the European Environment Agency from 2003-2013, and Chief Scientist and Director of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) between 2014-2017.


Global society is experiencing climate change as an urgent and existential threat. Numerous groups and institutions have declared this to be a ‘climate emergency’. Yet the latest analysis -shows that we remain on track to push the Earth’s climate – and nature overall – into a future planetary setting which is unsafe for humankind.

There is a sufficiency of technology and finance to move to a safer setting for all, but we are mostly using human ingenuity to retrench and preserve the status quo, rather than moving towards greater resilience and prosperity. This attitude is hampering political will and the social changes needed to deliver the urgent transition needed.

It is thus no surprise that many people feel frustrated and frightened by the lack of scale and pace of the global response.

Over the last 10,000 years, human agency and collective cognitive processing power have increased, but we have also allowed more environmental damage to occur to the extent that our own existence is threatened. Instead the coming decades need to become a time of ‘Deep Transition’ (a “series of connected and sustained fundamental transformations of a wide range of socio-technical systems in a similar direction”[1]) ; to be a time with increased human agency and collective cognitive power with a vastly reduced environmental impact. This transition will need the right enabling social conditions – new social and economic institutions, new forms of governance, new ways of gathering and sharing real-time information, shifts in beliefs and worldviews, a dynamic civic space and more – so that there can be a rapid response to climate change that leads to a multi-decade transformation. In short what the world needs are institutions and settings to collectivise actions, nurture enabling social conditions and allow people to live and imagine plausible pathways to creating prosperous futures. Fortunately, many of the changes needed to tackle the climate emergency also align with building prosperity and well-being.

The lecture starts by looking how the natural affects well-being and prosperity, both biophysically and through the different cultural perceptions. Looking at how indigenous peoples have shown resilience and survived significant changes in their environment over millennia, points to the need to understand much more about how the human’s  “multiple intelligences” work in favour of changing the status quo. Both the cranial and cardiac intelligences for example drive behaviours such as consumer addiction, a key phenomenon in the overexploitation of natural resources. Understanding how the different intelligences affect decision-making will be increasingly important to effective policy-making.

The next step is to build a greater understanding of prosperity and resilience. Based on new research developed through the Prosperity Collaborative activities in London, Beirut, Dar es Salaam and Kenya, a new series of community led prosperity indices have been developed. These are some of the seeds of the transformation that the world needs. They also underline the importance of perceptions and context when developing response options to tackle the climate change emergency; there is no one way.

How to start living and imagining these plausible paths, when the status quo seems so stuck? We can take advice from one of the 20th century’s most successful system change agents:

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Milton Friedman[2]

The final part of the lecture looks at examples of alternatives to the current global trajectory, and how these can be shared so that the impossible becomes the normal. The places include Iceland, Scotland, New Zealand and Kenya. The alternatives all involves creating new engaged communities, connecting grass-roots practitioners, academics and decision-makers to help improve change efforts, ideas to mature and institutions to align. Such communities are encouraged to co-create new knowledge to affect culture and inform decision-making, based on ideas and actions at the frontiers. The ideas and experiences are then being shared via technologies connecting edges to the centre and vice-versa.

The aim of these different approaches is to accelerate those virtuous circles needed for long-term transformation. Some use deliberations, where individuals from different parts across the spectrum of ideas to action are brought together. Others use inspirations, where communities and groups test successful examples. Whilst others use provocations, where people and communities collectively envision their future. Putting the three together, will allow these communities and knowledge help public institutions, private organisations and citizens to support change efforts. The enhanced social conditions will lead to more progress along plausible pathways to prosperous futures, further influencing public institutions, private organisations and citizens, and repeat.

Presentation: Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Professor of Resilience and Sustainable Development, UCL Institute for Global Prosperity, London.

Time/Place: Wednesday, 15 January, 16h; Institute of Social Ecology, SR 3a, Schottenfeldgasse 29, 1070 Vienna

[1] Schot, J., & Kanger, L. (2018). Deep transitions: Emergence, acceleration, stabilization and directionality. Research Policy, 47(6),  here

[2] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. ix.


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