The Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Sustainability (IRIS) is an interuniversity research center founded in Italy in 2003. The affiliated universities are the University of Turin, the University of Brescia and the University of the Valle d’Aosta.
The members of IRIS are researchers in both academic and non-academic contexts with a common interest in exploring issues related to the concept of sustainability from a broad range of perspectives that go beyond disciplinary boundaries and involve people from scientific, humanistic, artistic, educational and other fields.
The principal aim is that of creating a research environment in which specialists from different disciplines and domains can develop their professional learning and enrich their personal competences through dialogue and sharing of experiences and reflections on diverse themes, together with integration of a variety of disciplinary approaches in order to both enhance their disciplines and also explore new horizons by going beyond them.
Our desire is to offer a contribution to the search for sustainable human trajectories through common research projects, workshops, publications and educational initiatives.
Interdisciplinary dialogue and transdisciplinary approaches
The contribution of individual disciplines to the building of a composite picture of current unsustainability is of crucial significance. Climate science studies the disruption of weather systems, economics studies the damage caused by intensifying phenomena such as drought or floods, agronomy studies the loss of topsoil and the decrease in soil fertility, biology studies the loss of ecosystems or biodiversity, and so on. At the same time, a large and ever-increasing body of research shows how unsustainable trajectories cannot be understood solely in terms of single disciplines since it has become clear how each of these phenomena are interdependent and how their interplay can cause multiple intersecting tipping points in every sphere of the natural world and in the human society that is a part of it.
While there is a widespread common recognition of the need to work together towards more sustainable trajectories in all areas of life, the approaches to tackling the problem are numerous and can often be very diverse. Many disciplines must necessarily contribute to research, dissemination and other initiatives related to sustainability and each one inevitably brings its own epistemologies and methodologies, thereby conditioning the choices regarding variables such as dimensions considered and perspectives assumed, spatial and temporal scales adopted, and so on. Moreover, the risk is that each field expresses its own, often implicit, vision of the world, thereby steering the search for solutions in the direction where it already hypothesizes them to be.
dialogue between the
epistemologies, methodologies and languages of different disciplines
is necessary in order to enrich the processes and products of each
and every one of them. In this sense, interdisciplinary approaches
are collaborative, in that the disciplines and their practitioners
offer each other mutual support in addressing particular questions
and the problems that arise. As a consequence of this, a
transdisciplinary approach aims to build new epistemologies,
methodologies and languages that go beyond those of the individual
disciplines in order to address new and common problems.
Transdisciplinary approaches are thus cooperative, in that the
disciplines and their practitioners unite in order to generate the
new constructs that are their very reason for being.
Democracy and nonviolent transformation
Transformations in behaviors and ways of living require motivation and belief in the possibility of change for the better. In order to flourish, these need a democratic and non-violent environment which promotes careful decision-making processes that in turn respect all legitimate perspectives can be brought to bear so as to fully explore the sustainability of individual and group choices. These choices necessarily occur within two boundaries: the ceiling – the limit of the planet’s biophysical renewability, which in turn determines various thresholds that, if exceeded, trigger irreversible and uncontrollable transformations of global eco-social systems – and the floor – the level of socio-economic equity, in terms of the availability and the distribution of natural resources and services, on which all sustainable human trajectories depend.
In this respect, the massive and increasing global inequalities present in the world render ever more urgent the need to find ways of promoting a politics capable of reversing a drift toward environmental breakdown and a consequent catastrophic collapse of human systems caused by intersecting economic, social, demographic and political shocks.
While liberal democracies offer no necessary guarantee in this respect, they nevertheless offer political environments capable of encouraging forms democratic participation based on questioning high potency models of human development and intervention and initiating new directions in dealing with global environmental issues. Working toward ecological democracy means emphasizing the importance of local initiatives in sustainability practices, based on social interactions with the environment and on the rights of scientific citizenship built on access to information and the development of responsibility, participation and belief in change.
At the same time, unsustainable trajectories are clearly a major factor in causing fragility and threats to human security, violence and conflict. Moving toward greater sustainability must necessarily involve the search for non-violent ways of addressing, understanding and resolving conflict through practicing dialogue based on nonviolence in thought, in language and in action.
Education for sustainability
The issue of sustainability is of crucial significance for education policies and processes. Unfortunately, in many schools and universities, the dominant idea is still that of transmitting knowledge, conveying concepts elaborated within disciplines and assembled into subjects or courses. All too often, students are asked to learn without the opportunity to engage in discussion or bring personal experience to bear on the questions involved. In the same way, the general public is most often expected to become aware of issues and learn what is sustainable behavior from media communication.
Educating for sustainability means developing ways in which informal agencies such as media communication and more formal agencies such as schools and universities can promote empowerment and engagement by addressing questions related both to learning about and taking action to tackle current issues. All members of society, not only students during their formal educational experience, must have the opportunity to build knowledge, formulate ideas and express themselves as autonomous, aware and critical individuals about the topics that regard their own lives and, by the same token, those of all other living beings on our planet.
Education must go to the heart of the problems of equity and justice, of global citizenship and sustainability, and empower in particular young people to be a driving force for their own and older generations. Sustainability cannot be achieved without their direct involvement and they are the ones who risk facing increasingly devastating consequences of unsustainable trajectories. A crucial question is thus that of how to facilitate the process whereby young people move from being the object of education to becoming the subject of their own action.