Interviews TOP

no.015 [Nov. 2010]
Jusen ASUKA (Director, IGES Climate Change Group)
no.014 [Aug. 2010]
Magnus BENGTSSON (Director, IGES Sustainable Consumption and Production Group)
no.013 [Feb. 2010]
Masanori KOBAYASHI (Coordinator, IGES Programme Management Office)
no.012 [Sep. 2009]
Charmine KODA (Journalist & IGES Board Director)
no.011 [Feb. 2009]
Peter KING (Senior Policy Advisor, IGES Bangkok Office)
no.010 [Nov. 2008]
Rajendra PACHAURI (Director-General, TERI) & Dr. Rabinder MALIK (Coordinator, TERI-Japan)
no.009 [Aug. 2008]
Hideaki KOYANAGI (Director, IGES Beijing Office)
no.008 [Feb.2008]
Taka HIRAISHI (Member of the Board of Directors & Senior Consultant, IGES)
no.007 [Jul.2007]
(Chair of the Board of Directors, IGES)
no.006 [Mar.2007]
(Policy Researcher, IGES)
no.005 [Jul.2006]
ANCHA Srinivasan
(Principal Research Fellow, IGES)
no.004 [Mar.2006]
(Policy Researcher, IGES)
no.003 [Nov.2005]
(Policy Researcher, IGES)
no.002 [Jun.2005]
(Policy Researcher, IGES)
(Former Chair of the Board of Directors, IGES)

E-alert Interviews (August 2010)
Choosing to Manage an Orderly Sustainability Transition

Magnus Bengtsson
IGES Sustainable Consumption and Production Group

Graduating from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden (PhD in Environmental Systems Analysis), Dr. Bengtsson joined IGES in April 2007. Before that he was a JST Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Tokyo where his research focused on water demand scenario analysis and global water futures assessment. At Chalmers University in Sweden, he was working on methodology development for Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), environmental valuation, stakeholder consultation processes and environmental controversies. While living in Sweden, Dr. Bengtsson was also actively engaged in two environmental NGOs where he was working on awareness raising through organising roundtable dialogues and public seminars on sustainability.


Nature was always around the corner
---- You have a diverse academic background, including history, industrial engineering, and environmental systems analysis. Please tell us more about your background and how you became involved with environmental issues? What events and experiences were important for getting you to where you are today?

When I was growing up in Sweden, nature was always around the corner and I spent lots of time outdoors. So ever since I was small I have had a close relationship to the natural environment. In Sweden, environmental problems were also commonly featured on TV and in newspapers in the 1970's and 80's. The problems caused by acid rain were very much in focus and the west coast region where I come from was one of the most seriously affected areas. I also had some more direct personal experiences of manmade environmental destruction, which I believed contributed to my interest in these issues. The ecosystem of the ocean bay where I used to go fishing for salmon and crabs with my grandfather changed completely after a huge wood pulp mill was built nearby and most fish disappeared in just a few years. One summer the old spruce forest where I used to pick chanterelle mushrooms with my grandmother had been clear-cut and the harvesters had turned the beautiful green moss carpet into a muddy battle field. It felt like places that were very valuable to me and others had suddenly been violated and destroyed.

However, when it was time to enter university I didn't select a programme with an environmental profile. It was not until towards the end of the master programme that I felt that I wanted to combine my environmental values with my work career. After having worked for a couple of environmental NGOs for some time I returned to academia for doctoral studies in environmental systems analysis. Gradually I started to see environmental problems from a broader sustainability perspective, regarding them as symptoms of our modern civilisation rather than as minor flaws that can be addressed by quick technical fixes. I guess that that pretty much sums up the intellectual and practical endeavour that I am still engaged in.

Investments in long-lived infrastructure
- a critical factor for SCP in Asia

---- As the Director of the newly established Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) Group can you tell us about your current and planned research activities?

Although the Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) group is new on paper, we basically continue what the Waste Management and Resources Project did in the last three-year phase of IGES. We have a number of continuing contracts, and without any substantial additional resources it is difficult to pick up new topics and expand our activities rapidly. Among the ongoing studies, I would like to mention a research project on policies for resource use minimisation, product reuse, and recycling (the 3Rs). This three-year project is coordinated by the SCP group and involves research partners in six countries in the Asia Pacific region. The project is associated with the Regional 3R Forum, which means that the research has a clear target group and a venue where the results can be presented directly to relevant government officials and other key stakeholders.

A spinoff to our involvement in the 3R Forum is a project that we are now developing with funding from ADB. In this project we will focus on three countries where we will analyse the drivers and obstacles to energy-efficiency in the building sector. The expected outcome is a set of country specific as well as regional recommendations on how to increase the construction of residential buildings with low energy consumption. The massive investments currently being made in long-lived infrastructure is an absolutely critical factor for sustainable consumption and production in Asia, so I have been interested in working on this topic for quite some time. I was therefore very pleased when I found that ADB had a similar interest and was willing to fund this study.


Our economies will need more radical restructuring
---- SCP is a rapidly growing field lately.What role do you see SCP in the Asia-Pacific?

2nd International Forum for Sustainable Asia and the Pacific (ISAP2010)
(July 2010, Yokohama, Japan)
SCP is not well established as a policy field in its own right yet, especially not in Asia, and the concept is poorly understood. We see an emerging interest in concepts such as resource efficiency and green growth, but what those approaches usually boil down to is basically just standard economic growth with some greenlining at the fringes. However, if we look at the current situation on resource availability, the increasing pressure on ecosystems and the capacity of the climate system to withstand increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, and if we combine this picture with the acute need for poverty eradication and the expected population growth, it stands very clear that a more radical restructuring of our economies will be needed.

Such changes will come, whether we like it or not. The choice we are facing currently is whether we want to try to manage an orderly sustainability transition, or prefer to wait until nature forces us to cut down our aggregated global consumption levels. Even though I realise that an orderly transition to sustainability will be very difficult to bring about, I am fully convinced that the latter option would be far more painful, especially for the world's many poor; it would most likely lead to widespread social strife, armed conflicts, mass starvation and unimaginable human suffering. It is our duty to do what we can to avoid such a frightening future and that is what SCP is ultimately about.

---- "Asia and the Pacific" is a region with great diversity in terms of economic development ambitions and endowment of natural resources, as well as sense of values and lifestyles. Can you reflect on the issue of promoting regional cooperation towards SCP in the region?

The 9th Asia Pacific Roundtable for Sustainable Consumption and Production (APRSCP)
(June 2010, Colombo, Sri Lanka)
Unsustainable consumption has two faces: overconsumption of resources among the wealthy, leading to resource depletion and environmental degradation, and underconsumption among the poor. Neither of these patterns of consumption is sustainable and in Asia-Pacific we find both patterns existing side by side - often even in the same country or city. It has been stated repeatedly at international meetings that the advanced industrialised countries need to take the lead in a transition towards SCP. However, what kind of leadership from these nations is needed is still far from clear. How can we who belong to the world's privileged wealthy minority best contribute to making SCP a reality globally? For IGES, being a regional think-tank based in Japan, I think this question could be one of the starting points for its SCP research.

At this stage I would like to offer one general reflection. We in the rich part of the world have created an economic system where consumers are persuaded into buying increasing amounts of stuff just to keep the system going, to secure corporate profits and to avoid mass unemployment. Little consideration is give to whether there is any genuine need for all this stuff and whether it contributes to increased welfare and happiness or not. Scant attention is also given to the environmental consequences of the escalating consumption levels. We have in a sense put the survival of a specific economic system ahead of the protection of environmental health and the creation of conditions for long-term human prosperity. In order to avoid a global ecological collapse, which would also have catastrophic social consequences, the global community must find ways for developing countries to avoid ending up with equally perverse growth-addicted economic systems.

We need to start questioning underlying cultural values
---- IGES has just launched its third White Paper which focuses on SCP. Could you tell us what the most important message (or the most unique point) of this publication is - from your point of view?

IGES White Paper III
"Sustainable Consumption and Production in the Asia-Pacific Region: Effective Responses in a Resource Constrained World"
>> Download
The White Paper illustrates the great diversity and complexity of the SCP agenda. Since all divisions of IGES were requested to contribute to the publication, the writing process made many of our colleagues familiar with SCP. For some of them, this was a new experience, since the SCP perspective had not been integrated into their research frameworks. In that sense, the writing of the publication made it easier for us in the SCP team to see how we could collaborate with the other divisions and it also laid part of the groundwork for such collaboration by increasing the awareness on SCP in IGES as a whole.

One important theme of the White Paper is the role of individual consumers. Current policies, to the extent they try to influence consumption in a sustainable direction, focus too much on individuals and what they can (or should) do in their role as consumers. The idea that consumers are sovereign and make their buying decisions based on rational calculations is appealing since it is an idea that we have learnt to associate with individual freedom. However, asking consumers to behave more responsibly by buying certain products and services rather than others is like asking people to swim against the stream of a mighty river constantly pulling them in the opposite direction. Consumption is not only the outcome of individual behaviour and a reflection of consumers' preferences; it also to a high degree a cultural and social phenomenon. High and growing levels of consumption are celebrated as something intrinsically good in our culture. Until we start questioning these underlying cultural values and revising our images of what it means for people to live good lives, attempts to shift towards SCP are likely to fall short of making any significant impact.

Communication skills should be sharpened
---- What experiences and attitudes do you feel are important for young researchers and graduate students just starting out in their career in environmental policy?

Textbooks used in higher education typically divide the world very neatly into separate disciplines. But the world doesn't look like that. In reality things are connected in complex spider-webs of causes and effects, and feed-back loops. Higher education provides students with basic skills in using a number of analytical tools, but doesn't usually train them in how to combine such tools for addressing complex real world situations. Discussing environmental problems and possible solutions with teachers and professors and with fellow students gives a basic knowledge. But in order to get a more rounded understanding of environmental issues and sustainable development I believe that it is important for students and young researchers to engage in real projects and to discuss in some depth with different stakeholders.

Furthermore, the education system is not very good at training students in communication. This is a concern because protecting the environment is to a large extent about influencing other people. Students who prepare for a career in the field of environmental policy therefore need to sharpen their communication skills - their ability to listen carefully to different points of view and understanding the arguments of others, as well as their ability to craft and deliver convincing arguments themselves. Even for students who concentrate on analytical laboratory work or do mathematical modelling it is essential to be able to write effective reports and to give succinct oral presentations to various audiences. Many researchers, maybe especially natural scientists and engineers, hold the naive view that high quality disciplinary research will lead to well-informed decisions which in turn will ensure sustainable outcomes. But environmental protection and sustainable development have very strong human aspects; students need to be made aware of this and prepared to handle not only technical complexity but also the challenges related with high degrees of social complexity.

---- Thank you.

IGES HOME Interview Top