Critical vs. practical

I’ve just been at the inaugural LUCID Young Researchers Conference along with a host of other young guns all interested in sustainability challenges from both the natural and social sciences and just about everything in-between. Beyond being impressed by the variety of ways in which the presenters are tackling different aspects of sustainability, I was really taken by how much everyone cares about their topics. The genuine eagerness to do good.

Despite such disparate topics, I felt there were two main approaches to doing good. The more highly represented was practical problem solving; taking a real physical problem and working through solutions. On the other end of the spectrum was a more critical approach; using abstract knowledge to imagine new paradigms. While there is no dichotomy, my impression was that every project is oriented towards one of these two poles.

This was given stark contrast at the final panel session when Andrea Nightingale poignantly appealed for more criticism of the status quo to break us out of spiralling environmental degradation, while Kimberly Nicholas made an equally impelling case for research to be accessible and accountable to the people and problems in front of us. I was glad that the two approaches were represented, as without practical problem solving we become overwhelmed and paralysed, but without critical reflection we focus only on the symptoms and end up perpetuating problems (for example the rebound effect). Sustainability needs both problematising and problem solving.

In my research it’s made me reflect more about addressing inconspicuous consumption linked with cleanliness expectations. Do I want to find more sustainable ways of reproducing cleaning routines, or do I want to spend the next three years reflecting on resources consumed in following social conventions? Can I keep sight of the bigger picture, while still taking smaller steps, making smaller gains?

Thanks to the organisers for bringing this onto my radar, and congratulations for a organising a great conference: David Harnesk, Emma Li Johansson, Chad Boda, Torsten Krause and Sandra Valencia.

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One Response to Critical vs. practical

  1. Line Valdorff Madsen says:

    Hi Tullia. This is really spot on, at least also to my impression of the whole field of energy and sustainability research – or the divide between engineers and social scientists. It’s very interesting how to position oneself in this divide, although I know I’m much more of a critical (and understanding-oriented) researcher than a problem-solving one, but still I sometimes struggle to position and justify my own research in this field.
    Best, Line

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