Not too long ago, I sat with a small group of sustainability science “backcasters” at an international sustainability conference at the University of Utrecht in Holland. Forecasters look at trends related to sustainability to predict the future. Backcasters envision the idealized sustainable global future and research ways to get us there.
Seeming to think out loud, one backcasting researcher at the conference from Clark University asked our small seminar group, “What about the people of the sustainable future? What would they look like in terms of their behavior and attitudes?”
In that moment, I was given my doctoral and career research question. Three years later I have just completed some of the preliminary work to begin to answer this question as part of my doctoral dissertation at Saybrook and post-doctoral work funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
As a first-time guest contributor to Rethinking Complexity, I may be able to provide a fresh perspective related to generating systems for a humane and sustainable world. As a psychologist, my particular area of research interest is the relationship between human identity and sustainability. This includes individual identities—personal and social—as well as collective identities, such as those related to corporate cultures, indigenous cultures, and global citizenship. Individual and collective identities are connected in sociocultural systems. Sociocultural systems are key agencies for individual and collective identity development, identity expression in terms of behavior and attitudes, and identity change.
Whether individual or collective, identity can have multiple dimensions. For instance, a person can be a lawyer, a father, and an avid basketball fan all at the same time. We can make choices with regard to which groups we belong to and so we can make choices with regard to our identities. Who we are and who we will be is largely up to choices we can (learn to) make. Through our conscious choice, the inclusion of belonging by an individual to a group can incite and develop commitment to a cause in the form of action.
What about those people of the sustainable global future? What might their individual behavior and attitudes that define their identities be? What might their conscious choices be? To which groups might they choose to belong? How can these characteristics be developed in the people of today? The post-doctoral research I am currently conducting seeks to begin to answer these questions.
Individual identity is comprised of two broad interacting dimensions. These are identity as it relates to self and identity as it relates to other. I typically group the individual behavior and attitudes most equitable with generating (and maintaining) a sustainable future from the local to the global to reflect these two broad dimensions. I group those individual dimensions related to self as “I Am Sustainability” and those related to other as “We are Sustainability.”
As a starting point I am researching individuals and communities that appear to already be engaged in at least some of those behaviors and attitudes that appear to be most equitable with generating a sustainable future from the local to the global. Given that the term sustainability itself has no concrete definition and that what to sustain and what to develop will continue to reside in evolving value judgments, the transition toward a sustainable world will likely be a continuous evolutionary work in progress rather than be circumscribed by a fixed endpoint(s).
Those individuals engaged in generating a sustainable future from the local to the global are a starting point for my research because they may be the prototype for the necessary global citizens of the sustainable future. They have been variously defined in the literature as world benefit leaders, cultural creatives, evolutionary leaders, positive deviants, social entrepreneurs, international social workers, sustainability champions, adaptive network leaders, knowledge managers, transition managers, and boundary managers.
I am seeking to develop an overall protocol by which to characterize, develop and connect these community leaders for sustainability and the communities they seek to generate across global cultures. I am currently researching groups in the Arctic, Caribbean, and American communities.
The characteristics of the people of the sustainable future may already reside with the shared attitudes and behavior of the community leaders for sustainability of today.
Enrico J. Wensing Ph.D. is the founder of Ecosphere Net, a social science research initiative for global sustainability based in the U.S Virgin Islands. He is a special guest contributor to Rethinking Complexity. Enrico earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Saybrook University. He can be contacted at [email protected].
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This blog posting is dedicated in memory to my chair and mentor Dr. Jeannie Achterberg.