Category Archives: Sustainable Development

Indigenous and Religious Views on Animals (1): Interview Aztec Anita Sanchez

Interview with Anita Sanchez. Anita was born into a Midwest family that was economically poor, yet rich in Mexican-American and Aztec Indian heritage. She specializes in indigenous wisdom, diversity and inclusion, leadership, culture and promoting positive change in our world.

Our dominant current socio-economic and political systems have become decoupled from the larger ecology of life. Our relationship with the natural environment and animals has changed dramatically over time. My Fellowship ‘Ethics of the Anthropocene‘ (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) intends to discuss these past patterns and future pathways with representatives of various indigenous cultures and religious beliefs. Learning from them about our relationship with animals may be a way we can begin to address the sustainability challenges we see today.

Above the first interview in this series. More interviews will follow!

See all interviews at the project page.

Scientivists urgently needed!

Almost every scientist recognises this picture. Having devoted much of their lives to perform research on a specific issue, but not being able to get the message outside the academic walls (and it’s not only the government that’s ‘out there’). This holds for the more fundamental sciences, but even more so for research on more complex issues, like climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss, financial-economic crisis, and the current corona pandemic.

Of course, many scientists are to be blamed as well. Being so caught up in their own scientific square centimetre, they are unable to communicate the main message of their research to others. Stimulated by the perverse publication system that only accounts for peer-reviewed publications (and not so much for more understandable messages), leaves people outside academia with only scientific papers. Not very useful in the public arena.

But still. Isn’t it funny, that a society that pays lots of money to universities and research centres, that does value teaching and research done at these places highly, then dismisses results of these institutes if it is not ‘handy’, and perhaps a little too vague?

Academia has responded through the initiation of new fields of research, such as sustainability science, focusing on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and non-academic stakeholders from business, government, and the civil society. Not so much for the fundamental sciences, but for the earlier mentioned ‘complex societal issues’ humanity faces today. The idea behind this is that we all need to work together in order to address sustainability challenges and develop real solution patterns.

Well, that’s a step in the right direction. However, being good scientists, this idea of ‘sustainability science’ is becoming formalised rapidly. And  – although classified by concepts such as post-normal, mode-2, triple helix, and other science paradigms – it still are ‘scientific’ classifications. With other words, it is being ‘bounded’ by similar rules that apply to other sciences as well.

From a scientific point of view, this is fine. But what about the point of view of moving forward to a more sustainable world? Does this not oblige scientists to take more responsibility, especially at times when many signals in nature and society are red? Or do we (scientists) continue to discuss the rules under which ‘sustainability science’ needs to be operated? Rules that probably will be ‘dismissed’ by the other stakeholders if it suits their purpose?

It is about time for many (more) scientists to become scientivists. Scientivists are people that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the ‘science part’), to promote, impede, or direct societal change (the ‘activist part’). Scientivism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, to economic activism, such as boycotts, sit-ins etc. Scientivists are not afraid of interfering with legitimized procedures and official politics when science shows this would be needed.

On the other hand, scientivists must be aware that their actions may increase the risk of scientific results inappropriately being used into social discourses and in the media. This might lead to situations where, for instance, researchers find themselves unwittingly “supporting” an application of the generated knowledge they might strongly disagree with.

It is, therefore, not a ‘job’ (as for most of us ‘being a scientist’ is), but rather an ‘attitude’. An attitude that may be urgently to move forward to a more sustainable society. As in this era of social media, opportunities for scientivists will increase as we speak, there are no reasons not to join…unless you do not have that attitude…

(Published earlier (in 2012) by Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans)

See also (in Dutch): Een taxonomie van de wetenschapsactivist and The meaning of academia in times of environmental crisis.

Pathways of universities’ transformation for sustainability

Leuphana University

Universities worldwide have a clear mandate to participate in the endeavour for sustainable development through institutional transformation. Moreover, it is recognised that universities are well-positioned to identify and navigate pathways of transformation towards sustainability given their propensity for consideration of the extended time horizon for sustainability outcomes . Yet, despite their being organisations of learning, they struggle to set up structures to promote their own organisational learning. This is a problematic paradox as researchers repeatedly place universities at the centre of the ‘fundamental transformation’ that sustainable development demands of social actors, organisations, institutions and societies. Therefore, universities must also work on their own transformations if they are to operationalise their aspirations to implement sustainable development in their surroundings. This is an especially urgent imperative given the wicked problems they are tasked with providing solutions for, such as relieving anthropogenic pressures on the global environment and attaining population wellbeing in the face of growing inequality.

Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Arizona State University, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

We analyzed three case studies of universities that have transformed themselves as organisations towards sustainability with signature pathway approaches: Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Arizona State University, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. These universities first invested significant time, energy, and human resources in learning about and researching themselves, before embarking along differentiated pathways of transformation. They also showed that any blueprint of organisational transformation for sustainability should be rooted in the intrinsic logic of the organisations in question. This may prove meaningful for leaders (youth, academic or otherwise) elsewhere to prioritise specific asset development within their organisations, as they show how to shape competencies conducive to organisational transformation for sustainability. They also provide stepping-stones for knowledge actors in universities to navigate organisational and societal transformation towards sustainability, in light of the radical and regenerative adaptation that must now take place.

Alex Baker-Shelley, Annemarie Van Zeijl-Rozema & Pim Martens (2020) Pathways of organisational transformation for sustainability: a university case-study synthesis presenting competencies for systemic change & rubrics of transformation, International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology.

Our sustainability challenges: climate change, health, and animal well-being

The lecture by Prof. Pim Martens, given Monday June 15th

Our dominant current socio-economic and political systems have become decoupled from the larger ecology of life, and our relationship with our natural environment and the animals within has changed dramatically. This has led to various outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases – with COVID-19 as the hard lesson learned (or not?). In this lecture, Pim Martens, Professor of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University, will discuss the complexities and connections between our own well-being and that of the animals with whom we live, and global environmental changes like climate change and biodiversity loss.

Compared to climate change, the impact of covid-19 will look like peanuts

We’ve been warning about this for decades

COVID-19, the third outbreak of coronavirus in 20 years, wasn’t exactly unpredictable. Professor Pim Martens, who tries to integrate scientific knowledge and animal advocacy, talks about how zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans, foreground the complex interconnectedness of our wellbeing and our treatment of animals.

“It was strange – I had no idea. And even when the first reports emerged, I was quite sure they would contain it within the province….” Professor of Sustainable Development Pim Martens has been to China at the end of last year at the invitation of Bingtao Su, his former PhD student at Maastricht University. As a visiting professor, he spent two weeks lecturing at Shandong University and the Chinese Academy of Science.

Under his guidance, Su had studied the Chinese perspective on animal welfare, as compared to the Netherlands and Japan. They used questionnaires to collect data about how factors such as age, gender, or religion relate to attitudes towards animals. He is now also supervising PhD and MSc students conducting similar research in Indonesia and Spain.

Chinese attitudes towards animals

“Sustainability is underrepresented in Chinese Academics, but they are keen to bring in expertise, especially integrated perspectives on interdisciplinary sustainability science.” Sustainable human-animal relationship is a somewhat delicate topic in China: apart from the vast amounts of money at stake, there is also still a belief in the medicinal powers of rare animals’ organs as well as a cultural reluctance towards open criticism.

“China is a huge and very diverse country, so it’s difficult to generalise – that’s also what we’ve found in the study. It is true that they eat a much bigger variety of animals than we do – although you could also say it’s surprising how few animals we in Western Europe eat…” In any case, many suspect that wet markets, on which many different species of animal are kept in close proximity, is where COVID-19 has originated.

Meat, milk and raw materials

More and more animals are kept closely together in unsanitary or overly hygienic (antibiotics, etc.) conditions to satisfy the rising demand for animal protein of densely populated megacities. The need for space and raw materials perpetuates the encroachment on animal habitats like rainforests, which, in turn, brings more humans in contact with more exotic animal species. Add to that frequent international travel – both human and animal – and it’s excellent conditions for zoonosis.

Diseases moving from animals to humans isn’t entirely preventable of course. “It’s a question of probabilities – if we were all vegan animal rights activists, there could still be a zoonotic pandemic but it would be infinitely less likely.” And this was no perfect storm either. “Academics have been warning for decades that this will happen – it was always a question of when, not if.” We’ve had several zoonotic epidemics – several of them corona in fact – in recent decades.

Zoonosis closer to home

According to Martens, a Western European source of zoonotic disease isn’t unthinkable either. The Netherlands, for example, is a densely populated country with a lot of intensively farmed livestock: more than a 1.5 million animals are slaughtered per day, after having spent their lives at very close quarters indeed. The population is very mobile within the country and Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in Europe.

Martens cites the 2007 outbreak of Q Fever, a rather uncommon but devastating disease that can spread from livestock to humans. Dutch authorities were struggling to contain or monitor the spread and the original tally of 25 victims is now estimated to be closer to a hundred. The spread of the disease was eventually contained through a mass cull (of goats and sheep, that is) and by introducing a vaccine for animals.

Greater respect for nature

“The solution is greater respect for nature: moving away from industrial livestock farming, deforestation, wet markets, etc. This would also help address climate change, the impact of which will make this look like peanuts.” Martens’ own contribution to science – together with many international scientists – is studying the complexity and interactions between humans, animals and nature by, among other things, developing mathematical models to simulate the spread of zoonoses. But he also hopes to do his part in bringing about a change of attitude.

He was certainly heartened by how many students attended his lectures in China and how interested and knowledgeable they were. “You can tell that there is a cultural shift especially among young, educated people in urban areas.” Together with Su, he now wants to repeat the original study to see whether the COVID-19 outbreak has changed attitudes towards animal welfare in China.

Surely, it must have changed? Given the public and political discourse, Martens has his doubts. “Of course, economic recovery is very important, but I really hope we won’t rush back to business as usual without fixing the underlying problem.” He adds with a sigh: “If we haven’t learnt anything from this pandemic, then maybe we will from the next one…”

By: Florian Raith. See original post on UMnieuws.

Pro-environmental consumer behaviour : the need for an interdisciplinary approach

In the last few years a steady increase in studies on consumer behaviour, in relation to sustainable development, demonstrates the need to expand the economic and social analysis of consumer activities towards a more interdisciplinary approach. In some cases like environmental engineering, we observe great progress, but note with regret that the predominant focus is still on the consumer purchase phase.  Similarly, economic studies tend to consider the individual as a rational actor maximising his/her profit or interest. In general, the analysis of human behaviour is influenced and biased by the different sectorial perspective adopted by the scholar. A correct analysis of the impact of all human consumptive activities on the environment requires an interdisciplinary approach involving many fields like engineering, chemistry, ecology, economics, marketing, law, business management, sociology, and psychology.

Read more in: Concari, A., Kok, G., Martens, P. (2020). A Systematic Literature Review of Concepts and Factors Related to Pro-Environmental Consumer Behaviour in Relation to Waste Management through an Interdisciplinary Approach. Sustainability12, 4452.

Learning for sustainable development

January 20th, 2015

Presentation at the 3rd GPSS GLI Symposium Tokyo

2015-01-19 09.12.13

It is clear that in making the concept of sustainable development concrete, one has to take into account a number of practical elements and obstacles. There is little doubt that integrated approaches are needed to support sustainable development. Therefore, a new research paradigm is needed that is better able to reflect the complexity and the multidimensional character of sustainable development. The new paradigm, referred to as sustainability science, must be able to encompass different magnitudes of scales (of time, space and function), multiple balances (dynamics), multiple actors (interests) and multiple failures (systemic faults).

The basic qualities that future sustainability scientists will need are: analytical insight, problem-solving qualities and good skills in both verbal and written presentation. No less important is knowledge of the diversity of instruments provided by the various disciplines involved, ranging from mathematics to history, from health sciences to economics. The range of skills needed is so wide that it can only be acquired through interdisciplinary study.

Today’s students will be the business leaders, scientific researchers, politicians, artists and citizens of tomorrow. The extent to which they will be prepared to take decisions in favour of a sustainable future depends on the awareness, the knowledge, expertise and values they have acquired during their studies and in the subsequent years. For this reason, the concepts and themes of sustainability should be integrated into all levels of educational programming. Curricula must be revised so that sustainable development forms a guiding principle throughout the entire period of their studies – and afterwards too. New teaching methods must accompany this ‘learning for sustainable development’.

Full presentation: Learning for sustainable development: the need for new paradigms

Dierenonderzoek zet duurzaamheid op de kaart

October 27th, 2014

Interview in English

MUM 15 Pim Martens2_89A9602

Dierenonderzoek zet duurzaamheid op de kaart

We gunnen dieren in de dierentuin een grote leefruimte, maar willen ze wel kunnen zien als we betalen voor een kaartje. We eten graag vlees, maar worden liever niet geconfronteerd met beelden van megastallen. We zijn zelf vegetariër, maar hebben een grote hond die vlees eet. “Mensen hebben boter op hun hoofd”, zegt prof. dr. Pim Martens, hoogleraar Duurzame Ontwikkeling. Sinds kort bestudeert hij vanuit ICIS (het UM-duurzaamheidsinstituut) de rol van dieren in onze samenleving. “Via dieren kun je de duurzaamheids- discussie aansprekend op de kaart zetten.”

Gandhi zei het al: ‘De beschaving van een volk is te meten aan het respect waarmee ze met hun dieren omgaan’. Duurzaamheid draait wat Pim Martens betreft om de vraag hoe begaan mensen zijn met de wereld waarin ze leven. “Dieren vallen in deze discussie vaak buiten de boot.” Hoog tijd om dat te veranderen, vond hij. Zijn onderzoek naar ‘dierzaamheid’ speelt zich af op verschillende terreinen. Enerzijds bestudeert hij de emoties van huisdieren en de mate waarin hun baasjes deze herkennen en zich verbonden voelen met hun huisdier. Anderzijds onderzoekt hij de rol van dierentuinen vanuit verschillende perspectieven. Daarnaast bestudeert hij met wiskundige modellen zoonoses (ziektes die van dieren op mensen overgedragen worden) in combinatie met klimaatverandering, en staan er nog wat projecten op stapel, zoals het ontwikkelen van een ‘animal happiness index’ en onderzoek naar de ecologische ‘pootafdruk’ van dieren.

Overweldigende respons
De respons op het onderzoek naar emoties bij huisdieren was overweldigend, vertelt hij enthousiast. “We hoopten op zo’n driehonderd ingevulde enquêtes en bijbehorende foto’s waarop de eigenaren een emotie van hun huisdier vastlegden. We kregen er ruim duizend. Waaronder ook minder bruikbare foto’s en berichten, die vooral illustreren hoe gehecht Nederlanders zijn aan hun huisdier.” Ten tijde van het interview zijn de statistische analyses van de data in volle gang, Martens hoopt op twee publicaties in het najaar. “Bijvoorbeeld over de verschillen tussen mannen en vrouwen in de mate waarin ze emoties van hun huisdieren herkennen. Wat we ook zien is dat mensen denken dat dieren hun emoties delen, zoals blijdschap of verdriet. Hoe sterker ze zich verbonden voelen met hun huisdier, hoe sterker ze dat voelen.” Hij hoopt ook bij de huisdiereigenaren thuis te kunnen gaan onderzoeken hoe happy de dieren echt zijn.

Dierentuin dilemma’s
“Ook in dierentuinen zou ik in samenwerking met verzorgers graag in kaart brengen hoe gelukkig de dieren zijn.” Tot nu toe inventariseerden hij en zijn collega’s welke rol duurzaamheid heeft in de dierentuin in Kerkrade en hoe bezoekers en medewerkers daar tegenaan kijken. In de toekomst hoopt hij samen met het Gaiapark in Kerkrade te sparren over hoe het duurzamer zou kunnen. “Dierentuinen, ook die in Antwerpen waarmee we in gesprek zijn, zoeken naar hun rol voor de toekomst. Ik geloof in hun oprechte goede bedoelingen op het gebied van dierenwelzijn, maar ze kampen met dilemma’s. Jonge leeuwtjes trekken meer publiek dan vijf tandeloze exemplaren. Maar om inteelt te voorkomen worden er vaak dubieuze keuzes gemaakt, zoals in maart in een Deense dierentuin, waar een paar jonge en oudere leeuwen werden afgemaakt om plaats te maken voor een nieuw, volwassen mannetje. Dierentuinen claimen hun rol in educatie, maar op het gebied van educatie over duurzaamheid is er nog veel te winnen, zo bleek uit onze analyse bij het Gaiapark.” Hij beseft dat het een fundamentele ethische discussie is: wil je dieren in gevangenschap houden voor je eigen plezier, of niet? “Ik weet niet of het haalbaar is, maar in mijn ideale wereld zijn dierentuinen plaatsen waar je bedreigde diersoorten kweekt, om ze in de natuur uit te zetten. Maar dat is dan waarschijnlijk geen park waar je mensen toelaat. Hoe verenig je de belangen van mens en dier het beste? Dat is bij uitstek een duurzaamheidsvraagstuk dat prima past in een inter- en transdisciplinair instituut als ICIS.”

Denken stimuleren
Zijn belangrijkste doel is de duurzaamheidsdiscussie levend te houden. “Ik hoop mensen te stimuleren erover na te denken. Wat duurzaam is en wat niet, dat is geen zwart-witverhaal. Ik zeg: Wees je bewust van bepaalde keuzes en wat die betekenen voor de wereld. Daar is nog veel in te winnen, ook al lopen we in Europa en Amerika voorop met bijvoorbeeld dierenwelzijn. Maar ook hier is het vaak verre van ideaal” Alhoewel het dierzaamheidsonderzoek nog in de kinderschoenen staat, en hij ook niet alle antwoorden heeft, mengt hij zich toch in het publieke debat over dit soort zaken. Zo publiceerde Trouw in april zijn opiniestuk , getiteld ‘De dierentuin heeft zijn langste tijd wel gehad’. “Ik snap ook dat dierentuinen zullen blijven bestaan, ook omdat het commerciële ondernemingen zijn. En ik weet niet hoe je in de praktijk zou moeten realiseren dat daar dieren worden gefokt en gehouden die daarna de wildernis in moeten. Maar zolang je aangeeft waar de vragen en onzekerheden zitten, die bij een thema als duurzaamheid altijd aanwezig zijn, kun je als wetenschapper best je mening geven. Ik denk na over deze onderwerpen, daar word ik voor betaald als wetenschapper, dus dat wil ik niet alleen uiten in wetenschappelijke publicaties. Dat sommige topwetenschappers op het gebied van dieren en emoties geen uitspraken willen doen over dieren in de bio-industrie, heb ik nooit begrepen.”

Pim Martens holds the chair ‘Sustainable Development’ at ICIS, Maastricht University. He founded AnimalWise, a “think and do tank” integrating scientific knowledge and animal advocacy to bringabout sustainable change in our relationship with animals.

The sustainable zoo

June 20th, 2014

After killing Marius Giraffe and four lions in the zoo of Copenhagen, the Longleaf Safari and Adventure Park in Britain killed six lions including four cubs. Now the zoo of Bern in Switzerland killed a healthy baby-bear. These actions stress the need to look critical at role of zoos.

The past centuries zoos have had varied roles in society: they evolved from collectors of animals to science centers, from recreational attractions to advocates for the conservation of species. Recent years, modern zoos have taken on a new role: advocating sustainable development.  In the last half century a global zoo community has been formed that tries to support nature and biodiversity protection through in-situ and ex-situ breeding projects. Furthermore, modern zoos try to connect their visitors  with nature and animals, and increase the public’s ecological awareness through  educational messages.

Despite these developments, the question remains what the ‘raison d être’ of the modern zoo should be? With increasing focus on international biodiversity issues, Western zoos try to find a role in the protection of (endangered) species, directly or indirectly through their educational programs .But there is little or no evidence that zoos play an essential role in the conservation of species and their educational potential is mainly restricted to a select group of people. In his novel ” Zoo Story; Life in the Garden of Captives “, the French journalist and author writes that the existence of zoos confirms our perceived dominance over other species. The opposite view is that the zoo is a place to connect people with nature, and is central in promoting sustainable development.

It remains difficult. Zoos are commercial enterprises, seeking to entertain a demanding public. At the same time they have to spend time and money for conservation purposes . Furthermore, visitors like to see the animals close-up , but the animal – visitor interactions are not always optimal for the welfare of the animals.  If at zoos animals instead of people would be put central, they would look very different. It’s all about conflicting goals.

How can zoos better combine the protection of species while ensuring the quality of life of individual animals ? The fact that zoos today strongly defend their role – not to say looking what happened at the Copenhagen and Bern Zoo and the Longleaf Safari and Adventure Park –  already shows that there is something wrong. Current zoos should better act as a shelter for (protected ) animals in distress that can be placed back in the nature – rather than being a theme park where animals also walk around . The dillema zoos face today is serious and we need to think urgently how to transform zoos over he next 20-30 years into ‘sustainable zoos’ – also from the animals’ perspective.

Pim Martens, Floortje Mennen, Carijn Beumer


March 10th, 2014

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated” Mahatma Gandhi said many years ago.

Somewhere between this observation and the sustainability debate in recent years, it has gone wrong. If we look at the many sustainability indicators that have been developed over the years, it is striking to see that animal-wellbeing hardly plays a role. Biodiversity and ecosystems indicators put more emphasis on the number and variety of different species than their well-being. Assuming that the words of Gandhi make sense, can we then conclude that the concept of sustainability has nothing to do with civilization? Or is it that animal-wellbeing is a blind spot in the sustainability debate?

Of course is our interaction with the environment, other people and other animals part of our civilization. The reason that ‘animals’ and ‘sustainability’ are not often mentioned together in one sentence is likely to be found in the fact that the sustainability debate has been hijacked in recent years by industry and governments. Their view regarding sustainable development significantly has been subordinate to the dogma of economic growth with little regard for animal welfare. How shortsighted this is, has been illustrated by the various outbreaks of animal diseases in intensive farming, and the development of antibiotic resistance of many pathogens because our cattle are given too many antibiotics. These are just some examples, but it is increasingly clear that our own well-being is closely connected with the welfare of the animals with whom we live.

Take pets, for example. Research shows that people with a pet are in general healthier than non-pet owners. Pets also increase the capacity for empathy and social contacts among children (which are useful characteristics for a healthy and happy life). Furthermore, people who are heavily involved in animal welfare appear to have more compassion for the problems of people. Of course, this supposes a good care of the (domestic) animal. Keeping animals just because it’s (temporary) fun / useful / convenient for us, of course, is not always the most sustainable course of action. We all know stories of neglected pets.

Animal welfare should therefore be central in the sustainability debate: sustanimalism. With this in mind, it is also practical and easy to make a contribution to a sustainable society. Acting animal-friendly – for example, taking good care of your animals and eating less meat – is not only beneficial to your health, but also to a better and more civilized world.