The Mechanics of Social Change: Rarely before Has Society Had to Consider the Prospect of Changing Its Ways So Wholly and Quickly as It Does with the Currently Emerging Environmental Priorities. on a Global Scale, It Has Never Happened. the Big Question Is How Do We Get Society to Quickly Take a Radically Different Path, and What Are the Mechanisms Behind Such a Shift? Matt Brace Provides a Perspective

Article excerpt

A crescendo of opinion is calling for society to adopt a drastically more sustainable approach as soon as possible. The urgency of this call seems immediately led by the predicted effects of climate change, but is also fuelled by other environmental and social imperatives resulting from our global practices.

Where the atmosphere is concerned, based on increasingly accepted evidence that significant global warming is occurring because of humans' effects, many scientists, environmentalists, politicians and business people believe we have a mere 10-year window in which to implement significant changes to our practices and thinking. Failure to do so, they say, leaves us open to the full effects of climate change and related environmental problems.

Much cooperative work is being done worldwide to examine the mechanisms of social change and how they can affect sustainability, which reveals the size of the challenge. Some academics have formed international research groups, like the Resilience Alliance, (1) which includes scientists from CSIRO as well as major universities and other scientific organisations in Australia, North America, Europe and South Africa.

The Regional Development Futures (RDF) framework developed by a multidisciplinary group of scientists in Australia is being used to develop location-specific sustainability options.

According to Senior Research Scientist Dr Gail Kelly, from CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, 'regions are evolutionary and dynamic, and examining the notion of sustainability requires a new way of thinking about systems and communities. Improving the sustainability of a region must take into account the interconnections and interdependence of the economic, social, environmental and governance systems.'

'Sustainability is not about holding the status quo, nor about pushing specific agendas. It is about a process of managing change and knowing when and how to initiate strategic change. Being more sustainable is about being better prepared for the future and applying systems thinking and participatory research approaches are essential for this to happen,' Dr Kelly said.

Historical clues

Some researchers have examined the large changes in social thinking that have occurred in the past, predominantly during times of immediate peril such as wars, famines or plagues. In these cases, the threat has largely been immediately observable, like an approaching enemy, or the death of masses of citizens.

Richard Eckersley, a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University (ANU), and one of many academics working on the issues of social change, said big changes in attitudes such as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment were 'periods that saw profound shifts in our view of ourselves, in what it was to be human'.

'And flowing from these shifts, the great social and political movements of the 19th century shattered many assumptions of what was "normal" at that time: recurrent epidemics of typhoid and cholera, child labour, the buying and selling of human life, the oppressed status of women, the appalling working conditions in "dark, satanic mills'", said Mr Eckersley.

The difficulty with climate change, and other environmental threats requiring social rethinking, is that they are not easily visible. We find it hard to visualise rising sea levels or the hole in the ozone layer. Even striking research such as that released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in October showing that the ozone hole over Antarctica currently measures 'the most serious [size] on record'--at least 28 million square kilometres--and is promising to reach a record size (2) this year, is not enough to make people immediately alter their behaviours, for example to drive their cars less. It could take the engulfing of waterfront suburbs in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth, or drastic temperature rises in Hobart causing the loss of lives, before we truly 'get' the problem. …