Exploring SETAC's roles in the global dialogue on sustainability—an opening debate



A combination platform–debate session was held at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) North America annual meeting in Boston (November 2011). The session was organized by members of the Advisory Group on Sustainability, newly formed and approved as a global entity by the SETAC World Council just prior to the meeting. The platform portion of the session provided a historical backdrop for the debate that was designed to explore SETAC's role in the sustainability dialogue. The debate portion presented arguments for and against the proposition that “Science is the primary contribution of SETAC to the global dialogue on sustainability.” Although the debate was not designed to achieve a definitive sustainability policy for SETAC, the audience clearly rejected the proposition, indicating a desire from the SETAC membership for an expanded role in global sustainability forums. This commentary details the key elements of the session, identifies the contribution the Advisory Group will have at the World Congress in Berlin (May 2012), and invites interested persons to become active in the Advisory Group. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2013; 9: 7–11. © 2012 SETAC

In Portland and Boston (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry [SETAC] North America meetings of 2010 and 2011), SETAC's ongoing sustainability dialogue reached a new level of vibrancy with the launch of the global Advisory Group on Sustainability. In the year leading up to formal recognition of the Advisory Group in 2011, there was a vigorous debate within the organizing committee as to what type of science and what aspects of sustainability the Advisory Group should focus on. Many wanted to focus only on environmental sustainability, as they felt this was more in line with the type of science traditionally practiced within SETAC. Others of the group felt that it would be a disservice to the SETAC membership to not include aspects of equity and economic sustainability, and that it would leave those members focused on the sciences of social interaction, economic dynamics, and multicriteria decision making out of the dialogue from the start.

We were not really able to fully settle the debate within the Advisory Group, so we proposed a debate session in Boston to see how the SETAC membership might feel about a single (environmental) or unified (ecology, equity, and economics) approach to sustainability science. The debate topic statement was “Science is the primary contribution of SETAC to the global dialogue on sustainability.” The details of what was meant by “science” were left ambiguous, and both debate teams were instructed to establish and support their definition. This was not done randomly, as the genesis of the entire session stemmed from the ongoing debate within the Advisory Group on Sustainability. Using this topic sentence as a provocative premise, we wanted to see how the SETAC audience defined science as well. We were not disappointed!

To allow more time for interaction between the 2 debate teams and for audience questions, we put together 4 talks for the first half of the session that framed the past, present, and possible future issues surrounding the idea of sustainability. We explored the science of sustainability with an eye toward historical context, and with a view toward future vulnerabilities and opportunities. This commentary summarizes what emerged during the combination platform–debate session on sustainability.

For historical context, Larry Kapustka touched on the international focus on sustainability that preceded and then gained further traction with the Brundtland Commission Report “Our Common Future” published in 1987. He highlighted a long list of activities and reports summarized in Gibson (2005), tracking the evolution of sustainability thinking that existed before and after Brundtland's widely adopted definition of sustainable development to more contemporary multilevel definitions based on values (societal, personal, global) and scale (spatial and temporal). A central theme fueling the sustainability dialogue is the recognition that the well-being of human societies is inextricably linked to the environment. In contemporary terms, articulated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), societal stability is dependent on the regular and predictable flow of goods and services from the ecological system in which that society is embedded (Figure 1). Looking at the many advanced societies that once thrived, but eventually fell (Tainter 1988), we can surmise that the challenges we face today can, put simply, be either addressed or ignored. If we address the challenges, we may reinvigorate human societies whereas if we ignore the challenges, we know that ecological systems will move to some different state that is not likely to support, environmentally, economically, or socially, 7+ billion humans.

Figure 1.

Rethinking the “3 pillars of sustainability” as a nested relationship and the flow of goods and services from ecological systems to society (adapted from presentation by Jody Roberts, SETAC NA, Portland 2010 and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report 2005).

Jim Fava traced the parallel emergence of Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) and the globalization of SETAC during the 1990s (Fava 2011). Members of the LCA Advisory Group played a major role in shaping the focus and content of global approaches to LCA, particularly in promoting a technical framework for product manufacturing and use that in some ways parallels the risk assessment framework. The United Nations Environmental Programme and SETAC entered into a formal partnership in 2002, referred to as the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative. Most recently, this partnership published Global Guidance Principles for LCA Databases: A Basis for Greener Processes and Products (Sonnemann and Vigon 2011), based on results from a Pellston-like workshop held in January 2011.

Building on themes from his earlier SETAC presentations establishing the systems thinking foundations inherent in the works of Daly (1973), Tainter (1988), Meadows (1998), Gunderson and Holling (2002), Allen (2003), and others, Ron McCormick introduced a collection of thoughts that he identified as a “Sustainability Bricolage.” Sustainability is a “wicked” problem (addressed in more depth by Cynthia Stahl) in that there are no right answers (but a number of wrong ones with lasting consequences if pursued), no single approach, no direct historic references to guide decisions, and the problem becomes more clear only as you enact a solution, not before (Rittel and Webber 1973).

Some have asserted that this view is “categorically wrong [as] there are many right answers such as the need to reduce emissions of all types to limit impact and allow ecosystem services to function,…” We again point out that a clear premise of wicked problems is that there are no right answers. Each answer must be tested because there are no criteria that can be developed to generally sort out “right” from “wrong.” The assumed “right answer” of “the need to reduce emissions of all types to limit impact” is actually one of the wrong ones. It is entirely suitable, and fits definitions of sustainability, to increase emissions at one level in a system as long as the upper and lower levels of that system are prepared to accept those emissions and process them in an economically, equitably, and ecologically manner instead of making partial decreases across the board and continuing to affect ecosystem services in a chronic, long-term manner. The debate is how we define our sustainability position in the context of a host of other sustainability positions, and how those multiple views can be integrated into an holistic, sustainable system.

With sustainability as the goal, resilience becomes the objective, and our management policies need to reflect those ideas and ideals. McCormick further posited that to address the wicked problem of sustainability, we need to use insights from ecology, systems science, Buddhist economics, historical perspectives on the collapse of societies, sociology, management strategies, learning paradigms, and futuring scenarios to devise resilient strategies for making societal decisions.

Cynthia Stahl closed out the platform portion of the session and set up the debate framework. She traced the history of SETAC's involvement in sustainability, beginning in 1993 with the first LCA Pellston Workshop, and culminating with the formation of a global SETAC Advisory Group on Sustainability (Figure 2). From a notable division of opinion on just what science means to SETAC members as discussed during the initial discourse within the Advisory Group, we set up this debate session to specifically address the role of SETAC science in the sustainability dialogue. She depicted various topics SETAC members work on and approaches used to address issues as being in the realm of either “tame” or “wicked” problems (Figure 3). The path forward needs to embrace wicked problems, and she suggested that we need to become a “clumsy” organization (Rittel and Webber 1973; Verweij et al. 2006) and facilitate inclusiveness (ala participatory democracy), transparency, learning through cross- and transdisciplinary discussions, adaptiveness, and resilience while remembering to ask the 4 questions that guide discussions about sustainability (i.e., what do we want to sustain? for whom? for how long? and at what cost?). She ended her presentation by noting that sustainability is not about nature, but rather about human values (Kapustka et al. 2010), and every person and every society will have a different set of values, and thus a different definition of sustainability. These 4 questions are aimed at eliciting just what it really is that is valued, and thus what it is that should be sustained. Answers to the 4 sustainability questions do form the basis of a scale-independent, universal definition of sustainability from Allen et al. (2003), namely that of “maintaining, or fostering the development of, the systemic contexts that produce the goods, services, and amenities that people need or value, at an acceptable cost, for as long as they are needed or valued.”

Figure 2.

Timeline of SETAC activities related to sustainability (also see McCormick, Kapustka and Stahl 2010, “A brief history of sustainability within SETAC,” SETAC Globe 11:10).

Figure 3.

SETAC activities and frameworks in relation to tame and wicked problems (Rittel and Webber 1973).

To close out the session, an Oxford-style debate was held, ending with an audience vote on which team, Pro or Con, was the most persuasive. Larry Kapustka served as moderator. The Pro team was composed of Cory Robertson, Hans Sanderson, and Bruce Vigon. The Con team was composed of Thomas Seager, Emma Lavoie, and Heidi Scott. Below are the key points each debate team presented.

The Pro team supported the topic statement that “Science is the primary contribution of SETAC to the global dialogue on sustainability” by taking the position that SETAC is a professional, scientific society; our role is to provide the most useful and currently available science to stakeholders and decision makers who require science-based information. The team argued that SETAC members should be cognizant of sustainability discussions, but their primary role is as science experts. Therefore, we should leave the determination of the use of our science to stakeholders and decision makers. The Pro team position was described and supported by these specific points.

  • SETAC science is retrospective in the sense that we want to understand the effects of releases and alterations to the environment, but always with the purpose of improving decision making by being prospective in our science.

  • “Environmental quality through science” is woven throughout the SETAC community's narrative.

  • SETAC science illuminates our collective pathway toward our destination. A large part of the SETAC community is composed of modelers and forecasters that seek to take a look over the horizon.

  • The process of science is contributory to identifying pathways and consequences of actions that are desperately needed in the sustainability dialogue.

  • From a business perspective society needs scientifically defensible facts that can be used to make business decisions. Business leaders need the environmental toxicology and chemistry expertise SETAC brings to the sustainability dialogue.

  • Companies are seeking consensus on what sustainability means to avoid the green-washing label. A major effort in this area, initiated by Walmart and led by Arizona State University, is The Sustainability Consortium. SETAC can provide scientific expertise to these groups to help them move closer toward sustainability.

  • The Brundtland (1987) definition of sustainable development asserts the goal of meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations. SETAC can contribute to the sustainability dialogue with valuable scientific input to inform decisions comparing the sustainability position of different options, products, or processes.

The Con team refuted the debate topic statement by noting that although SETAC members “do science,” SETAC itself is the forum to discuss, organize, and put forth analyses of that science. If SETAC is only about science, then why did we lead off the conference with an open bar social and not an open chemistry laboratory? SETAC cannot live in a “science bubble” if it is to remain relevant to those that need to use science: decision makers, governments, citizens. To understand what types of science are needed, SETAC members need to actively participate in the overall sustainability discussion as engaged stakeholders. The Con team position was described and supported by these specific points:

  • SETAC is a platform that provides enormous opportunities for mentoring, networking, collaborating, and exchanging ideas about science and its application to the global dialogue on sustainability. Hence, although SETAC is a science-oriented organization, its members are not only science providers, many members are policy makers and business managers.

  • SETAC exists as a professional society not solely because of science; it has far more to do with the exchange of knowledge—a dialogue. The primary thing that SETAC can bring to the global dialogue on sustainability IS the dialogue! Results from a laboratory are meaningless without discussion at conferences like the one in Boston.

  • Sustainability science needs to be integrative, participatory, future-oriented and solution-focused.

  • The science of wicked problems requires:

    • bringing together multiple variables (not reducing the problem to 1 dependent variable);

    • using multiple types of researchers (not a single person in a laboratory seeking truth); and

    • including stakeholders in a participatory manner to define problems and focus on desired solutions for today and the future (scenario building).

  • We discuss policy issues, such as whether or not to regulate a chemical, and whether to dredge PCBs out of sediment or leave them in place. There are value judgments based on our science that go beyond our science, as in risk assessment, which has become a major part of the practice of toxicology. Such judgments are clearly part of what SETAC can offer to the sustainability debate.

  • SETAC's stated mission is to support “the development of principles and practices for protection, enhancement, and management of SUSTAINABLE environmental quality and ecosystem integrity.”

  • Science can stand neither apart nor alone in the context of sustainability.

Based on an audience vote, the Con side was considered to have the more persuasive argument. After the vote, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. More than a dozen questions were directed to the debate teams, some directly to one side or the other. They revolved around 3 themes: science versus values; how to address sustainability at SETAC; and, who (in SETAC and outside) should be engaged in the dialogue. The questions within each theme can be summarized as follows:

  • 1.What is the best separation or integration between scientists and decision makers? How should the issue of science versus values be addressed or embraced by SETAC members?
  • 2.How do commercial organizations consider and address sustainable development—especially in the face of strong opposing values and perceptions by external organizations?
  • 3.What is the SETAC dialogue on sustainability and who is really involved? Is SETAC engaging broadly with nonscientists or only with scholars in environmental science?

Much detail has been left out of this summary due to the inherent nature of a Brief Communication. Please note that copies of the presentations from this debate session are available on the SETAC Communities page for the Advisory Group on Sustainability (AGS). Sign up by adding the AGS to your SETAC member profile (under Communities), or send a message of interest to the AGS Chairs, Tom Seager (tom.seager@gmail.com) and Paolo Masoni (paolo.masoni@enea.it).

We confirmed from this debate that there is still a lot of confusion about what sustainability is and what the relevant sustainability concepts are. We also confirmed that sustainability can be an inflammatory topic with many passionate and conflicting opinions. We need to facilitate and develop constructive and critical thinking about sustainability, followed by the development of rigorous approaches that facilitate improved understanding resulting in actionable decisions. As a result of this session, we have learned that there is sufficient support and interest within SETAC to continue our mutual education through reading, discussions and debates.

Sustainability discussions and debate will continue throughout the year at SETAC functions around the world. Members of the Advisory Group on Sustainability are currently assisting in the development of a statement on sustainability that will be discussed during these special sessions, the Advisory Group's business meetings, and a closing panel discussion at the SETAC World Congress in Berlin. Join the Advisory Group, participate in the dialogue, and network with SETAC members and nonmembers alike (Advisory Group membership does not require SETAC membership!).

Disclaimer—The peer-review process for this article was managed by the Editorial Board without the involvement of L Kapustka, H Sanderson, and T Seager. The views expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors; the views do not reflect policies or positions of the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.