How can norms and policies be shifted to promote Earth stewardship and create sustainable futures?

To tackle the major challenges our planet and society faces today, it is increasingly clear that transformations in wider society are needed to shift from the current growth paradigm to more sustainable pathways. Recent studies suggest that there are potential social tipping points that could shift us toward an Earth stewardship vision, which emphasizes sustainable built, natural, human, and social capital across society and nations. Chapin et al. (2022) aim to show that movement toward a stewardship vision could be facilitated by either policy incentives or social norms, and that there are other factors that many inform practical stewardship strategies.

The authors define earth stewardship as the proactive shaping of biological, social, and physical conditions to maintain, rather than degrade, critical earth-system processes to support the wellbeing of nature and humans from local to planetary scales. A stewardship-oriented transformation would involve system change with very different human-environment interactions and feedbacks, and would require higher-impact changes. Chapin et al. (2022) therefore explore the integration and interactions among multiple leverage points, identify feedbacks and design features that can be shaped to align with desired changes, and exemplify policies, institutions and actors that might support or trigger desired changes.

Chapin et al. (2022) argued that both norms and incentives must change for system change to occur, and they must do this interactively. Identifying leverage points in policy areas based on values, system design and agency can help this process along and potentially lead to system-wide changes. The authors described five pragmatic strategies to trigger transformations based on recent literature: a change in vision and goals; system design and feedbacks; shift in social norms and behaviors; engaging influential actors; and fostering deliberative democracy.

Changing the vision and goals of the system was seen as a much-needed strategy for ensuring wellbeing of people and nature, to shift away from current exploitative and growth-focused visions and paradigms. The authors maintained that although progress towards changing societal goals can be slow, societal opinion can approach tipping points after which rapid transformations can occur, and such visions can be realized.

The system design and feedbacks also play an important role in producing an Earth stewardship paradigm, such as the current market economy, which promotes resource extraction, consumerism and thus global environmental degradation and social inequality. Systems such as wealth inequality often enable those with that benefit from environmental degradation or inequality to influence legislation and structural rules that shape market-driven prices and therefore consumer behaviors.

Chapin et al. (2022) identified the key challenge in societal transformation as being the ability to shift social norms and behaviors away from materialistic consumption and toward stewardship-oriented goals. The authors highlighted that environmentally positive norms and behaviors were often more successful when they were visible to wider society, while norms that were more privately achievable were potentially more difficult to shift.

The fourth pathway to achieving earth stewardship was through engagement of influential actors in the form of transnational corporations, NGOs, civic leaders, and social movements. The importance of institutional entrepreneurs and new technologies was emphasized by the authors, such as CEOs that champion responsible environmental and social stewardship or use of environmentally positive AI, which could result in norm shifts across whole sectors.

Figure 1. Leverage points for transformation, based on Abson et al. (2017) and O’Brien (2018).(Chapin et al. 2022).

Fostering a deliberative democracy was seen as another promising route toward an Earth stewardship paradigm, such as holding deliberative citizen assemblies. These enabled citizens and governing bodies to find solutions and reach agreements that were mutually acceptable, long-term, and reflective of global good compared to current governing structures. The importance of institutional innovation outside of governments was considered by the authors, while finding new roles for established institutions was an additional solution.

Despite the importance of these five strategies for a paradigm shift, Chapin et al. (2022) observed that no single strategy can transform the current system. Instead, stewardship efforts must be aligned so that they are synergistic, long-term, and able to be scaled up and down. The five types of actions outlined by the authors are therefore clear, and ensuring that visions, preparedness, and capacities for transformations and transitions is vital in the case that crisis occurs, and societal changes happen rapidly. The authors also argued for more reflective approaches that considered current and historical responsibilities and social inequality in climate change mitigation solutions.

Read the full paper by Chapin et al. (2022) here.

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