Davos 2017: Elena Bennett on hope and sustainability

In advance of her World Economic Forum lecture, Elena Bennet spoke to the Reporter about complexity in decision making; the wide range of sustainability-related initiatives at McGill and in her own research; and how she stays hopeful in a world that at times seems rather bleak.
Elena Bennett will deliver the lecture "Optimizing ecosystem services in community-oriented, multifunctional landscapes," at the World Economic Forum on Jan. 20.
Elena Bennett will deliver a lecture as part of the McGill IdeasLab on the theme Shaping a Sustainable World on Jan. 20.

Tomorrow is the last day of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Principal Suzanne Fortier, is leading the McGill delegation in Davos and will introduce tomorrow’s IdeasLab on the theme Shaping a Sustainable World. 

In advance of her WEF lecture, Elena Bennett, of the Dept. of Natural Resource Sciences, spoke to the Reporter about complexity in decision making; the wide range of sustainability-related initiatives at McGill and in her own research; and how she stays hopeful in a world that at times seems rather bleak.

You’re going to the World Economic Forum as a representative of McGill. What do you hope to accomplish?

The World Economic Forum meeting in Davos brings together 2500 world business, political, and intellectual leaders. It is a real privilege for us to get to speak to this group and tell them a little bit about what we’re doing on the topic of sustainability at McGill. The theme of this year’s Davos meeting is “Responsive and Responsible Leadership” and I will talk about how we handle complexity in decision-making. My particular example is about how we handle complexity in thinking about the future of the environment, but the idea is relevant to anyone making decisions about the future of an organization, business, or government agency.

In general, McGill has been invited to Davos to discuss complexity and sustainability. That’s exciting because there is a lot of very interesting work going on at McGill on many aspects of sustainability, spread throughout the institution.

For example, there is research in chemistry, physics, natural resource sciences, geography, policy, law, epidemiology and medicine, biology, the school of management, and so many more departments and schools; there is teaching and learning at the graduate and undergraduate levels, especially through the McGill School of Environment, but also elsewhere across both campuses; and there are really groundbreaking initiatives being undertaken by the facilities team, like programs to bring McGill to zero net greenhouse gas emissions. And of course, there is the McGIll Office of Sustainability (MOOS), helping to create a culture of sustainability in which all of these activities can thrive. Given all of that, another thing that I hope to do, in conversations with other attendees, is promote the work being done at McGill and learn about what other institutions are doing in the area of sustainability that might be of interest to others at McGill.

At Davos, you’re giving a talk on a project that you call Bright Spots: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene. What is that project about, and why are you doing it?

The Bright Spots project aims to solicit, explore, and develop a suite of alternative, plausible visions of “Good Anthropocenes” – positive visions of futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable. In addition to global visions, we will also identify and analyze ‘bright spots’ – real places that demonstrate one or more elements of a positive future that might serve as seeds of a Good Anthropocene.

The idea behind the project is that we are bombarded with negative visions of the future, which may inhibit our ability to move towards a positive future for the Earth and humanity. Creating visions that are positive, but still feature realistic pathways to a better future, is one way to initiate wider global discussions of the kinds of futures people would like to create and to expand discussions beyond efforts focused on avoiding negative futures or taking incremental steps forward.

In this project, my colleagues and I have collected over 500 examples of such ‘seeds’, projects that are, or realistically could, lead to transitions to a better Anthropocene. We use a database of information that we’ve put together about these projects to (1) understand the values and features that constitute a good Anthropocene for people around the world, (2) determine the processes that lead to the emergence and growth of initiatives that fundamentally change human – environmental relationships, and (3) generate creative, bottom-up scenarios that feature well-articulated pathways toward a more positive future.

Read more about the Bright Spots project or watch the five-minute video about the project online.

You also work with local communities in the Montérégie, the area around Montreal. Can you tell us about that project?

People have always depended on the services provided by ecosystems, including products such as food, freshwater, and fibre, non-material benefits such as places for recreation and inspiration, benefits obtained by regulation of ecosystem processes, such as flood control and climate regulation. A growing body of evidence indicates that most ecosystem management, which attempts to maximize one ecosystem service (ES) at a time, actually makes ecosystems vulnerable to substantial declines in other services or to increased likelihood of surprising changes in the provision of services.

For this reason, recent studies have called for increased attention to managing multiple ES together. But we’re not good at managing multiple ES – we simply don’t know enough about the interactions among ES. We are working with local communities in the Montérégie to learn about how ecosystem services interact across the landscape over long time periods, and how we can manage landscapes to provide the multiple ecosystem services that the community wants.

That project has been very interesting in that we’ve not only learned a lot about the science of ecosystem services, but also a lot about how to make science relevant and useful to the public decision-makers and how to work effectively with local communities. We’ve built strong relationships with a number of different partners in the region, which hopefully will mean that more science gets incorporated into decisions where it is relevant.

Many of your projects are about bringing about positive environmental change. How do you retain hope in times that are not hopeful?

I understand that it isn’t always easy to be hopeful about the future, especially when so many big things that seem out of our control are looming on the horizon. So I have a few strategies that help when I’m feeling less inspired.

  • Look around me and find one thing that somebody else is doing to make the world a better place. It seems like every day I have the opportunity to be touched by some great work that an individual is doing for someone else or for another group. It is easy to see the negative, and it is important not to stick our heads in the sand about bad things that we want to be different, but there is really a lot of good out there if you just look for it. And sometimes looking for it gives you the energy to change the bad thing you want to have be different.
  • Do something for someone else. When I’m feeling hopeless, something that never fails to improve my mood is to do something – even just a little thing – to make someone else’s life brighter. It feels good to do good, and it is a reminder to myself that even little things help.
  • Spend time with my kids. Their enthusiasm and energy is unstoppable. They don’t see the negative or fear for the future – they see all the possibility, and I want them to keep seeing possibility and doing what they can to make that possibility a reality.

Watch Elena Bennett speak about her work by clicking on the thumbnail below.