How the environment shapes the way we behave

By Luiza Toledo, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2019

2019 YSSP participant Roope Kaaronen investigates how changes in the urban environment affect people’s behavior and whether they will find it easy to engage in sustainable behavior in different environments.

Technological and industrial advances in many sectors have made our lives easier, but they have also contributed to a less sustainable way of life. From the industrial revolution to the present day, CO2 emissions have increased by 40% and about 95% of this increase can be attributed to human actions. We can therefore say that our actions shape the environment we live in. But how does the environment we live in in turn shape our attitudes and behavior?

Apart from the vast amount of information available to us and an increasing awareness of more sustainable consumption, our society still has a growing carbon footprint, which means that attitudes around sustainability are not really translating into behavior. There is a gap between having environmental knowledge and environmental awareness, and displaying pro-environmental behavior. Apparently, the answer to translating attitudes into behavior could have more to do with design than awareness.

Roope Kaaronen, YSSP participant. © Kaaronen

Roope Kaaronen, a member of this year’s IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) cohort, has made it his goal to study behavior change and the adoption of sustainable habits. His project investigates how changes in the urban environment will affect people’s behavior and whether people will find it easy to engage in sustainable behavior in different environments. He is looking at how pro-environmental behavior patterns emerge from processes of social learning (such as teaching and imitation), habituation, and niche construction (a process where agents shape the environment they act in).

“I am particularly interested in how the physical environment shapes our behaviors, because people often assume that they have a pro-environmental attitude or values, and that this automatically translates into sustainable behavior. Research however shows that this is often not the case. So actually, the physical environment is more important in determining how we behave than we think,” he explains.

For instance, suppose that you would like to start recycling more but your city doesn’t have a proper selective waste collection system. Because the infrastructure needed to promote pro-environmental behavior is missing, this can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness, which could in turn cause people to give up on even trying to engage in the behaviors that could lead to more sustainable outcomes.

Kaaronen uses agent-based modeling in his research to model the cultural evolution of sustainable behavior patterns. The idea is to study how opportunities for action can have self-reinforcing effects on behavior. He included agents who move on a “landscape of affordances” in his model, and these agents are connected to each other in a social network. In this context, the term “agents” represents individuals or groups in society.

Social psychology describes pro-environmental behavior as conscious actions made by an individual to minimize the negative impact of human activities on the environment. For Kaaronen, this means that we can only achieve sustainable goals if we change our behaviors or habits very quickly.

“I think that it’s not realistic to expect that technology will solve all our problems. We will have to start behaving differently,” he says.

Unfortunately, people very often assume that individuals’ actions don’t have as much impact as collective actions, leading them to postpone their own pro-environmental behaviors. There have been a lot of discussion in the media around whether one person’s attitude could have an impact on the environment, in other words, should the focus be on each individual making changes in the way they live, or should the focus be on whole systems changing. To Kaaronen, these two approaches are connected.

“Systems emerge from individuals and their collective interactions. As we are social animals, our actions are inevitably copied and imitated by other people. This means that a person who has a lot of influence will have many people copying them. In other words, whenever we talk about private environmental behavior, such as recycling or using public transport rather than driving a car, we tend to think that this is just our personal behavior, but of course, our choices form part of a much bigger system,” says Kaaronen.

Woman helps clean the beach of garbage. © Freemanhan2011 | Dreamstime.com

We should be aware that we need politicians to make our pro-environmental choices as easy as possible. As individuals, we have responsibilities because we are part of the social system, but it is up to the political system to encourage this kind of behavior on a larger scale.

In 2007, the Danish government developed a strategy that prioritized bicycling as method of transport in Copenhagen. Since then, the city has seen a rapid increase in the number of people cycling, showing that affordance is important to promoting behavior change. Kaaronen’s model is able to reproduce patterns of behavior change, such as the case of Copenhagen.

“I think in terms of policy, what I am doing is quite applicable in urban design. What I am trying to show is that if we make sustainable behavior easy and lucrative, this can lead to long lasting and self-reinforcing effects on the emergence of sustainable cultures,” he comments.

The advent of social media has made it easy to influence people’s attitudes and behavior. The model that Kaaronen is using also illustrates how behavior change can spread through tightly knit social networks, and how social learning in networks can have self-reinforcing effects on behavior change. He says that we should use this tool to spread awareness about sustainable habits and initiate cultural evolution towards sustainable societies. In terms of behavior, living by example is very important, since it is necessary to show that living a sustainable life is both possible and enjoyable. Kaaronen himself lives this philosophy as he doesn’t drive and tries not to eat meat. He also stopped flying two years ago.

“I am just travelling on the ground right now. It is part of a campaign in the academic environment called #FlyingLess. Buses and trains can take you to interesting places, but it of course takes up a lot of time and I realize that not everyone can do this because they live in places that aren’t well connected.”

We are so used to unsustainable forms of behavior like constantly driving, flying, and consuming meat, but the world needs to realize that this way of living cannot last forever. It is unsustainable. Even though it may appear challenging to change our behavior, Kaaronen’s research offers hope to keep believing that it is possible to change our unsustainable behavior and achieve a sustainable society and environment.

“I think it is important to show that these things are actually possible. We can reach a tipping point towards sustainable systems if enough people just start practicing what they preach,” he concludes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

 

Eat healthy and sustainably, don’t leave yourself behind

By Barbara Willaarts, researcher with the IIASA Water Program

On World Water Day 2019, IIASA researcher Barbara Willaarts tells us more about how our dietary choices can contribute towards reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water for all by 2030.

© Katarzyna Bialasiewicz | Dreamstime.com

The theme chosen for World Water Day 2019 is “Leaving no one behind”. As the UN emphasizes, this year is very much about reminding ourselves that there are still considerable efforts required to provide clean water, sanitation, and hygiene for all people across the globe.

While there is no question about the fact that we should push our governments and decision makers to pursue the fundamental human right of access to clean water, bringing forward the sustainable development water agenda – specifically Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 : Water for all by 2030 – requires that action is taken on multiple fronts. Securing access and sanitation, is a top priority, but how we manage the water we have access to, is also fundamental.

The first key message here is that a lot of the actions that are required to overcome many of the global water challenges like water scarcity, pollution, and ecosystem degradation, actually do not require expensive government interventions. Many rely on us, on the choices that we make as citizens and consumers in our day-to-day activities. What we wear, how we eat, or what we buy and where we buy it, are daily personal decisions, and these can make a huge difference when it comes to achieving the sustainable development agenda and in particular, SDG6.

In the past years I have conducted various research projects looking into the footprints of our lifestyles, particularly in western societies. The aim behind these investigations was not only to quantify impacts to raise awareness, but also to use this information to define benchmarks for sustainable consumption.

Being Dutch, it is not strange that I have developed my professional career in the water sector, and living in Spain (the most arid country in the EU) for many years has only deepened my interest in looking into drivers of and solutions to global water scarcity. Anyone working in this field will quickly agree that exploring solutions to water scarcity problems very often implies looking at solutions related to the way we produce and consume agricultural products.

There is a bunch of interesting literature out there assessing solutions to increase the efficiency of agricultural production systems and pathways to reduce its environmental footprint. Approaching the food problem from a consumption perspective, however, is an arena that researchers only recently started to explore. This is promising because, firstly, the benefits of improving consumption patterns might outweigh those achieved through efficiency gains. Secondly, this science often conveys messages that are easy to grasp and implement, for example, eat meat only once a week, buy local, and eat five a day of vegetables and fruits. Lastly, it also empowers citizens as the main actors of the social change that is required to meet the sustainability agenda.

With that said, I would like to reflect on a recent study led by colleagues from the Polytechnic University of Madrid and the Food and Agricultural Organization, that I was involved in. The research in question is about the water and nutritional implications of shifting diets, and we used Spain as a case study. The choice of the case study was driven by the fact that Spain, like other Mediterranean countries, is often recognized and valued for its fresh, locally grown, and healthy diets. The reality is however that, while it has been so for many years, things across the Mediterranean, and particularly in Spain, have changed substantially after the 70s as a result of a number of drivers including increasing migration to cities, incorporation of more women into the labor force, work-life imbalance, and food trade openness.

According to the results of our study, the dietary shift in Spain is such that current diets resemble an inverted food pyramid, with households eating 15% more meat, beverages, and sugar products and 37% less fruits and vegetables on a daily basis than what is actually recommended by the Mediterranean dietary guidelines. The effect of this shift is that today, Spain ranks fifth in the EU of countries with the highest prevalence of obesity and overweight.

These dietary shifts have all sorts of nutritional and environmental implications. From a nutritional perspective, current diets contain 17% more kilocalories (Kcal) – meaning units of energy – than the recommended intake, as well as a 36% higher content of macro-nutrients like fats and proteins.  On the other extreme, the intake of essential micro-nutrients like vitamins and minerals has decreased sharply by 40%.

From a water perspective, the observed dietary shifts have increased the water footprint of food consumption by 34%, which is equivalent to seven times the daily per capita consumption of domestic water. An interesting finding here is that current dietary patterns are not just more water intense, but also more international, since over 40% of water “eaten” is from imported food products. This basically means that the Spanish food basket is no longer local but is increasingly being filled with foreign land, biodiversity, and water resources.

Spain is not a unique case and it is very likely that similar trends are occurring across other European and developed countries. This clearly evidences that what we eat matters a lot – to our health and to our environment. Most importantly, you and I have the capacity to make the difference. Eat healthy, eat sustainably, and don’t leave yourself behind!

Reference:

Blas A, Garrido A, Unver O, & Willaarts B (2019). A comparison of the Mediterranean diet and current food consumption patterns in Spain from a nutritional and water perspective. Science of the Total Environment 664: 1020-1029.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Dance and science: A graceful partnership for change

By Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Co-Artistic Director of Boston Dance Theater

I recently had the privilege of artistically collaborating on Dancing with the Future, a project spearheaded by Gloria Benedikt and Piotr Magnuszewski of IIASA with Martin Nowak of Harvard University. The process involved five dancers joining two scientists to create an evening-length performance-debate that toured to Harvard University’s Farkas Hall and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University this fall. The essence of this interdisciplinary project was a product of Nowak’s published research on altruism and evolution. Nowak proposes: “Evolution is not only a fight. Not mere competition. Also cooperation, cooperation is the master architect of evolution. Now that we have reached the limits of our planet, can you cooperate with the future?”

The cast from left to right: Hannah Kickert, Gloria Benedikt, Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Mimmo Miccolis, Henoch Spinola © Daniel Kruganov

What can I do to contribute to a global effort to create sustainable practices that yield cooperation with the future? Why do I dance and what kind of impact does my dancing have on my environment and myself? As a co-artistic director, entrepreneur, choreographer, and performing artist of the young and fast-growing contemporary dance company Boston Dance Theater (BDT), I am turning to projects that are on the innovative cross-section between the arts, technology, and other disciplines because they have the most potential to have meaningful impact on the level of the creative team, the audience, and beyond. I too, am searching for practices and partnerships for BDT that yield pathways for collective problem solving, or ‘super-cooperation’. As Nowak notes, “[evolutionarily speaking] humans are super-cooperators.”

Overall, Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that scientists, dancers, and policymakers can successfully sit at the same table (or in the same theater or conference hall), tackle the same issues, and productively collaborate toward unearthing sustainable solutions.

We all had to be open to compromises — this is not an easy task in a room full of expert-leaders. I set a mantra for myself to remember that we were creating something completely new. Each time my choreographer-dancer brain sent up a red flag, I chose selectively when to share my opinion with the group. I elected to practice the Buddhist teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, captured poetically in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This choice opened others and myself up to creative and peaceful solutions that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

Conversely, I was able to offer constructive solutions at moments when working with the scientific material seemed to overwhelm the studio process, for example, dividing the existing text and music into segments and giving each of those segments a specific choreographic task that related to the content of the scientific text. This was a very simple concept that had to do with pacing and sculpting time. Once we counted out the music, it was easy for us to construct the movement score and see the overall arc of the piece.

Rehearsal with Martin Nowak © Daniel Kruganov

I learned not to be afraid of using my voice and also listening deeply. It was, at first, very intimidating to be seated across from experts in fields outside of my own. I learned that scientists and policymakers can understand, respect, and respond to the decisions I make through a process of peaceful negotiation, even when we speak different languages, were born on different continents, and may have varying political opinions. My fear was ultimately unnecessary because the very nature of this project appeals to the humanity in us all.

This form of cross-disciplinary collaboration allows participants to see our own work in a new light and to discover new languages that are exciting because we have co-authored them. For the work to be successful, the dance, science, and debate components must all have equal weight and value. Otherwise, the movement and its choreographic structure becomes the visual representation of the science rather than an equal partner. When that happens, the magic of innovative collaboration falls flat into familiar territory.

During the process, we often referred to this Chinese proverb: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Dancers understand this concept in a very concrete and visceral way. For scientists, policymakers, or the general audience to understand too, they must be involved as much as possible in the process of what we are doing. If we cannot for reasons of practicality, have them with us in the studio, then we must bring them into the process in another way. It is only by involving them as collaborators that we can generate large scale, super-cooperation.

Sometimes it feels like my dancer colleagues and I exist in a vacuum: we rehearse in the confines of the studio and historically perform on stages that make us appear as ‘other’ from the people we are performing for. Western concert dance has received criticism for being an inaccessible art form and according to the 2016 report from The Boston Foundation, is the most under-funded of Boston’s performing arts. Dancers aren’t typically trained to speak about their work, and often have a hard time receiving criticism. Contemporary dance in particular, can be challenging to general audience members because the language of the art and its conceptual frameworks are sometimes not evident in the work itself — many choreographers feel creatively stifled when asked to explain their work in language and wonder why the art work can’t speak for itself.

I have come to learn that these problems are not unique to dance. After our premiere of Dancing with the Future at Harvard University, scientists thanked me for helping them to understand new meaning within the scientific research presented through my performance. Their experience of live performance elicited a keen sense of empathy that drew them into deeper understanding of the scientific findings. This collaboration yielded a tri-fold, reciprocal impact for the artists, for the scientists, and for the public.

The cast in action © Daniel Kruganov

Our work helped to bridge the traditional gap between creative team and general audience member. It can be that when a member of the public enjoys a performance, they leave the venue with a good feeling and a nice memory as a souvenir. I believe that our art form has the power to do more — to make a greater impact and to be appreciated as an inherent and necessary aspect of our society and culture.

It is our civic responsibility to continue workshopping solutions toward global cooperation and cooperation with future generations. Dancing with the Future has encouraged me, on a micro scale, that this is a reasonable and plausible endeavor. With continued care, attention toward our common goals, compassion, listening, and risk-taking, we can understand one another through the process of creation regardless of what language we speak or where we were born. The next steps may be small, but nonetheless crucial. Next season, Boston Dance Theater will commission new works by three international choreographers with the stipulation that the pieces must speak to pressing global issues, and cross-disciplinary collaboration will be a cornerstone of that production.

Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that partnerships with super-cooperators such the teams at IIASA and Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics can bring meaningful potential to catalyze change in me as an individual and in Boston Dance Theater as an organization, while enabling us to reach our extended communities. I can’t wait for the next project!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The hidden impacts of species extinction

by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Ecosystems worldwide are changed by the influence of humans, often leading to the extinction of species, for example due to climate change or loss of natural habitat. But it doesn’t stop there: as the different species in an ecosystem feed on each other and are thereby interconnected, the loss of one species might lead to the extinction of others, which can even destabilize the whole system. “In nature, everything is connected in a complex way, so at first glance you cannot be sure what will happen if one species disappears from an ecosystem,” says IIASA postdoc Mateusz Iskrzyński.

This is why the IIASA Evolution and Ecology (EEP) and Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) programs are employing food-web modeling to find out which properties make ecosystems particularly vulnerable to species extinction. Food webs are stylized networks that represent the feeding relationships in an ecosystem. Their nodes are given by species or groups of species, and their links indicate how biomass cycles through the system by means of eating and being eaten. “This type of network analysis has a surprising power to uncover general patterns in complex relationships,” explains Iskrzyński.

Every one of these food webs is the result of years of intense research that involves both data collection to assess the abundance of species in an area, and reconstructing the links of the network from existing knowledge about the diets of different species. The largest of the currently available webs contain about 100 nodes and 1,000 weighted links. Here, “weighted” means that each link is characterized by the biomass flow between the nodes it connects.

Usually, food webs are published and considered individually, but recently efforts have been stepped up to collect them and analyze them together. Now, the ASA and EEP programs have collected 220 food webs from all over the world in the largest database assembled so far. This involved unifying the parametrization of the data and reconstructing missing links.

The researchers use this database to find out how different ecosystems react to the ongoing human-made species loss, and which ones are most at risk. This is done by removing a single node from a food web, which corresponds to the extinction of one group of species, and modeling how the populations of the remaining species change as a result. The main question is how these changes in the food web depend on its structural properties, like its size and the degree of connectedness between the nodes.

From the preliminary results obtained so far, it seems that small and highly connected food webs are particularly vulnerable to the indirect effects of species extinction. This means that in these webs the extinction of one species is especially likely to lead to large disruptive change affecting many other organisms. “Understanding the factors that cause such high vulnerability is crucial for the sustainable management and conservation of ecosystems,” says Iskrzyński. He hopes that this research will encourage more, and more precise, empirical ecosystems studies, as reliable data is still missing from many places in the world.

As a next step, the scientists in the two programs are planning to understand which factors determine the impact that the disappearance of a particular group of organisms has. They are going to make the software they use for their simulations publicly available, together with the database they developed.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

India’s Unwanted Daughters

Nandita Saikia

©Nandita Saikia

By Nandita Saikia, Postdoctoral Research Scholar at IIASA

Being an author of a research article on excess female deaths in India in Lancet Global Health, one of the world’s most prestigious and high impact factor public health journals, today I questioned myself: Did I dream of reaching here when I was a little school going girl in the early nineties in a remote village in North East India?

I am the fourth daughter of five. In a country like India, where the status of women is undoubtedly poorer than men even now, and newspapers are often filled with heinous crimes against women, you may be able to imagine what it meant being a fourth daughter. Out of five sisters, three of us were born because my parents wanted a son. My mother, who barely completed her school education, did not want more than two children irrespective of sex, but was pressurized by the extended family to go for a boy after a third daughter and six years of repeated abortions.

I was told in my childhood that I was the most unwanted child in the family. I was a daughter, terribly underweight until age 11, and had much darker skin than my elder sisters and most people from our area, who have fairer skin than average in India. At my birth, my father, a college dropout farmer, was away in a relative’s house and when he heard about the arrival of another girl, he postponed his return trip.

This is a real story, but just one of those still happening in India. The fact that the girls of India are unwanted was observed from the days of early 20th century when it was written in the 1901 census:

“There is no doubt that, as a rule, she [a girl] receives less attention than would be bestowed upon a son. She is less warmly clad, … She is probably not so well fed as a boy would be, and when ill, her parents are not likely to make the same strenuous efforts to ensure her recovery.”

Regrettably, our current study shows that negligence against “India’s daughter” continues to this day.

Discrimination against the girl child can be divided in two categories: before birth and after birth. Modern techniques now allow sex-selective abortion. Despite strong laws, more than 63 million women are estimated to be ‘missing’ in India and the discrimination occurs at all levels of society.

Our present study deals with gender discrimination after birth. We found that over 200,000 girls under the age of five died in 2005 in India as a result of negligence. We found that excess female mortality was present in more than 90% of districts, but the four largest states of North India (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh) accounted for two thirds of India’s total number.

I have to tell you that I was luckier than most girls. Although I was an unwanted child in our extended family, to my mother, this underweight, dark-skinned, little girl was as cute as the previous ones! She gave her best care to her daughter, and she named her “Rani” meaning “Queen” in Assamese. I am still called by this name in my family and in my village.

When I grew up, I asked her several times about her motive for calling me Rani. She always replied: “You were so ugly, the thinnest one with dark skin, I named you as “Rani” because I wanted everyone to have a positive image before seeing you! Also, it is the name of my favorite teacher in high school and she was also a very thin but bright lady!”

The positive conversations with my mother played a crucial role to my desire to have my own identity, and influenced greatly my positive image of myself and my belief that I could do something worthwhile with my life. Much later, when I started my PhD at International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai, I was surprised to learn that in Maharashtra, one of the wealthiest states of India, second or third daughters are not even given a name, but instead are called ‘Nakusha’, meaning unwanted.

My parents were passionate about educating their daughters, even with their limited means.  My father, who was disappointed at my birth, left no stone unturned for my education! By the time I completed secondary school, our village, as well as neighboring villages, congratulated me during the Bihu celebration (the biggest local gathering) for my good performance in school exams. My parents were proud of me by that time; yet, for some strange reason, they always felt themselves weaker than our neighbors who had sons.

Now, people from our village are proud of me not just because I teach in India’s premier university, or that I take several overseas trips in a year, but because they realize that daughters can equally bring renown to their village; daughters can be married off without a dowry; daughters can equally provide old age care to their parents; daughters too can buy property! Due to this attitude and lower fertility levels, many couples now don’t prefer sons over daughters. In a village of 200 households, there are 33 couples that have either one or two daughters, yet did not keep trying for sons. In my own extended family, no one chooses to have more than two children irrespective of their sex. The situation has changed in my village, but not everywhere.

What is the solution of this deep-rooted social menace? We cannot expect a simple solution. However, my own story convinces me that education can be a game changer, but not necessarily academic degrees. I mean a system by which girls realize their own worth and their capability that they can be economically and socially empowered and can drive their own lives. With the help of education, I made myself from an “unwanted” to a wanted daughter!

The purpose of sharing my story is neither self-promotion nor to gain sympathy, rather to inspire millions of girls, who face numerous challenges in everyday life just because of their gender, and doubt their capability, just like I did in my school days. They can make a difference if they want! Nothing can stop them!