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Critical determinants of sustainability

Critical determinants of social-ecological system sustainability

This PhD programme encourages research aimed at gaining an integrated understanding of both the material (e.g. institutional arrangements, economic concerns) and the non-material (e.g. the values, norms and beliefs of individuals and societal groups) determinants underlying the sustainability challenges in southern Africa in its global context. Some examples of questions relating to such determinants are as follows:

Societal values, norms, beliefs and behaviours

How do we define and embrace the ethical and spiritual dimensions of sustainability challenges? How can nature be valued for its intrinsic worth and given representation in decision-making processes? How can empathic values be embodied in decision-making within complex social-ecological systems?

Consciousness as agency for sustainability

What are the interior (intangible, subjective, normative) dimensions of sustainability, and how can such dimensions be included in decision-making? In what way does the mental model that we have of various environmental challenges affect our ability to address them? What knowledge systems and forms of consciousness have been marginalised in the mainstream approach to sustainability challenges, and what role can the former play in addressing such challenges in the future?

Governance, leadership and transformation

What is the role of leadership in determining sustainability outcomes, and what are the related civic responsibilities? How can the relationship between science, public policy and policy implementation be improved to address sustainability challenges more effectively? What is needed to facilitate transitions towards sustainable practices?

Sustainable economy

What are the defining characteristics of economics for a sustainable society? How can development be decoupled from material consumption and resource use? How can equity be achieved and sustained in the distribution of – and access to – ecosystem goods and services?

Human settlement dynamics

How can the material and resource flows that support human settlements be managed sustainably? In what way can transport systems promote sustainable urban development? What is the specific role of women in establishing sustainable human settlements, and how can their views be more effectively incorporated into decision-making?

Natural and social system vulnerability to global change

How do we promote resilience within coupled social-ecological systems, particularly under conditions of change that has been triggered, for example, by extreme events? What interventions are required to build up and maintain the resilience of vulnerable, especially poor, communities? How do we recognise and adapt to tipping points and thresholds in the capacity of social-ecological systems to deliver goods and services?

Appropriate technology

How can technology facilitate achieving the goals of sustainability and support a reduction in resource consumption? How can technology contribute to water, food and energy security? In what ways do traditional (unsustainable) technologies erect barriers to sustainable practices, economies, societies, governance and technologies?

Complexity and complex systems

How can we understand society, the economy and the natural environment as part of a complex social-ecological system? What process should be followed, and tools used, in conceptualising complex social-ecological systems in varying contexts? What are the implications of complexity theory for the ways in which we learn about and address sustainability challenges within social-ecological systems?

Transdisciplinary dialogue and boundary-crossing work

How can we effectively integrate different knowledge-systems across disciplinary, institutional, sectoral and cultural boundaries? How can we undertake stakeholder engagement processes in a way that more effectively incorporates the views of a range of different stakeholders – their diversity of values and worldviews? Is a shared language possible between different disciplines and stakeholders? If so, how do we develop such a language?

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