Foundations in Natural Science, Economics and Epistemology: Problems, Categories, Strategies, and the Issue of Growth

  • Felix Ekardt
Part of the Environmental Humanities: Transformation, Governance, Ethics, Law book series (EHTGEL)


This book is a contribution to transdisciplinary (especially human-sciences-based) sustainability research, i.e. research that follows substantial issues rather than disciplinary boundaries. It deals with resource and sink problems, climate change in particular, but also with the major effect of fossil fuels (and livestock farming) on various other environmental problems such as biodiversity loss, disturbed nitrogen cycles, soil degradation, etc. In particular, it deals with the conditions of social change, effective political and legal instruments and well-founded and balanced normative objectives, i.e. questions of justice.

In methodological terms, research on transformation and change, or on motives of human behaviour in general, faces particular challenges because common methods for acquiring scientific knowledge such as surveys or experiments are less reliable than generally assumed, and the pursuit of quantifiable and reproducible facts as well as formalised models and scenarios also contain many pitfalls. This is solved by a new pluralistic approach in the present book, with a strong focus on informal qualitative perspectives. This has also consequences for the research on instruments for transformation and change.

As a definition, justice means the rightness of the order of human coexistence, just as truth refers to the correctness of factual statements. Social distributive justice as a category of material distribution issues is only one element of justice. Sustainability is defined as the political, ethical, and legal demand for more intertemporal and global justice, i.e. the need for sustainable ways of production and consumption. In contrast, a three-pillar concept of sustainability is misleading and askew for a number of reasons. Likewise, sustainability indicators are not a convincing alternative to an ethical-legal normativity, even if they are not oriented towards a pillar logic, for a number of reasons.

Taking stock, the usual fixation of the political debate on financial crises, economic growth, social security, war against terrorism and jobs as a constant distraction from the sustainability issue is proving to be problematic. On the other hand, the correct handle on various resource and sink problems is decisive for the lasting and global sustainability of lifestyles and economies. In order to comply with a 1.5 °C-temperature limit set out in Article 2 para. 1 of the Paris Agreement (PA), fossil fuels may no longer be used in the areas of electricity, heat, fuel, material use, and agriculture within the next two decades. The phase-out of fossil fuels stands for avoiding the particular devastating consequences of climate change such as millions of deaths, wars and civil wars on resources such as food and water which are getting scarcer, migration flows, massive natural disasters, but also for avoiding exploding oil and gas prices, etc. Addressing fossil fuels – and livestock farming – also stand for tackling various environmental problems such as biodiversity loss, disturbed nitrogen cycles or questions of public health. The countries of the EU are by no means “pioneers” in terms of per capita ecological footprint and supposed reductions (which have so far been exclusively the result of arithmetic tricks). The situation is similar for various environmental areas.

As regards sustainability strategies, the purely technological approaches of consistency and efficiency alone (!) are not sufficient. A debate on this only makes sense, if measured against clear targets such as those set out in Article 2 para. 1 PA. With regard to that, the sustainability challenge is simply too great for a purely technological approach. Sometimes, there is also a lack of possible technological options, especially for environmental problems beyond climate change. Behavioural changes (frugality) must therefore always be taken into account, on a voluntarily basis or not, also because of the manifold ambivalences and possibly also overestimations of renewable resources as well as some ecologically and economically rather unsustainable technical options such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), nuclear energy, geo-engineering or massive afforestation. Frugality does not stand for a normative idea of a good life; as such it would not be tenable ethically and legally. A possible overall concept for consistency, efficiency and frugality in relation to the energy-climate topic will be developed during the course of this book.

The necessity of frugality puts sustainability in a tense relationship to the growth idea that dominates everything today, because new technologies are (possibly) growth-compatible, whereas a reduction in the demand for services and products poses a big challenge. The hope that a mere “decoupling” of economic growth and environmental consumption is sufficient implies – in view of the insufficient scope of conceivable technical measures – accepting far-reaching threats to humanity. “Qualitative growth” of a seemingly non-material nature is unlikely to solve these problems. According to all experience such an allegedly non-material growth is partly itself materially shaped. Furthermore, the idea of constantly (and thus exponentially) improving social care services, knowledge of music, enjoyment of nature, health, enjoyment of art, etc. seems extremely difficult.

The gradual transition to a post-growth society – not deliberately, but induced by effective environmental protection – raises a number of questions for the pension system, the state budget, companies, the banking system and especially for the labour market. Concepts for this are still in their infancy; even more so are concepts for the process of transition to a post-growth society. Whether such an economic form could still be called “capitalist” is questionable, but this issue should not be overemphasised. Notabene: Even if frugality is really necessary, a consistent change in sustainability is probably still more economical than a business-as-usual strategy, which would ultimately lead to catastrophic distortions.

In epistemological terms, theoretical, normative and instrumental rationality can be distinguished. Rationality conceived purely empirically by economists, sociologists and others is misleadingly reduced to facts and preferably countable things. Also, in transdisciplinary sustainability research, another epistemological basis is a distinction of is and ought and – diagonally to this – an objective-subjective distinction. Facts are, in principle, objectively identifiable. Difficulties of proof and uncertainties also play an important role in sustainability issues, but they do not change this basic insight.

Law is ethics in concrete and sanction-reinforced form, while ethics is able to substantiate the basic principles of law on a universal level, if necessary. Otherwise, ethics adds little to the legal argumentation and balancing of different principles. Throughout the entire book, there is thus a parallelisation of statements from an ethical and legal perspective. Contrary to a widespread opinion, there is nothing normative about proposing policy options. Alleged non-objectivity of normativity is not convincing either.


Paris Agreement Natural science Economics Epistemology Growth Economic growth Sustainability strategies Climate Fossil fuels Livestock farming Consistency Efficiency Frugality Profitability Population growth Post-growth Rationality Reason Theory of cognition Transdisciplinarity Methodology Behavioural/behaviour Governance analysis Legal/law Ethical/ethics Governance Empiricism 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felix Ekardt
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Forschungsstelle Nachhaltigkeit und KlimapolitikLeipzig/BerlinGermany
  2. 2.Rostock UniversityRostockGermany

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