Lab Reports of ComLab#3 Fair for all? Sustainability and Social Justice

Behind the scenes at ComLab#3: Journalist and ComLab alumna, Mele Pesti, is acting as ComLab#3 rapporteur: she will be recording the process by which participants learn from one another and shares insights on the nuances of interdisciplinary communication.

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It’s all about the big picture: How can we live sustainably? What role do socio-economic aspects play in creating fair livelihoods? Can progress and sustainable transformation be considered in unison? And, if so, how? What role do journalists and researchers play in communicating the social interactions of sustainable development? Here, Mele Pesti reports on exciting presentations by international experts, comments on particular regional features of science journalism, and allows us a first peek at the participants’ ideas for their projects.

Weekend I: 4 – 5 June 2021

The world needs science and great storytelling combined

ComLab, a virtual Research Communication Laboratory for journalists and scientists is here to stay – I certainly hope so. ComLab is something real, engaging and intense – despite the event taking place online, and despite all the cumulative Zoom-fatigue most of us gathered over the last year. Even if initially planned as a real-life event in 2020, being pushed online might have given it this real flavour and amazing reach: participants bravely join in from absolutely all time zones, be it day or night, and chip in with firsthand global knowledge.

The innovative format organized by the Humboldt Foundation and the International Journalists' Programmes brings together fellows of both organizations for two weekends of fruitful discussions. The central topic changes each time, but the main purpose remains the same – to better understand the world, and to find more effective ways of communicating science to a wider audience.

In order not to leave it on the theoretical level, tandems consisting of a journalist and a scientist are formed, who then work together on a journalistic piece based on the research of the Humboldt fellows. They are free to choose the format. Creativity has not been lacking at the first two events. We have learned to look at the world from the perspective of oysters, polar bears and bacteria, to name just a few examples.

ComLab 3: “Fair for all? Sustainability and Social Justice” takes place on 4/5 and 11/12 June 2021. On the first day the most heated discussions centred on the shortcomings of modern day science. Some of the key barriers for the wider public mentioned were access – academic publications being too expensive – but also the need for more attractive storytelling. The latter is exactly where ComLab offers a hand: each participating researcher has the luxury of his or her personal communicator, who is open to inspiration and narration.

Among the most thought-provoking debates of the first day was the mismatch between environmental sustainable development and the roadmap to social justice. Those two huge paradigms cannot be looked at separately, for various reasons – but in reality the organizations that look for solutions often focus only on one side. Many participants highlighted that activism in both fields is not viable unless one is part of the privileged elite, especially in the Global South. Activism, at times, is a luxury most of the world’s disadvantaged cannot afford to engage in.

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Further information on ComLab#3

The second day of ComLab 3 started with a sharp and provoking panel on the future of education. Professor Arjen Wals from Wageningen University gave an unforgettable talk with a telling title: “Re-orienting Education in Times of Systemic Global Dysfunction – a Transformative Learning Perspective”. Despite serving as the UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development, Professor Wals questioned the very term “sustainable development”, which clearly embodies a contradiction in terms. Sustaining means keeping what you have, but the constant push for development takes us to a whole different direction, leading to the “good old” progress myth. That makes one think about what is to be sustained when we talk about sustainable development. Is the subject of sustainability still the earth, society, environment, humankind, or is there an underlying assumption with regard to our global goals, informed by capitalism, that we need to sustain growth in itself?

The neoliberal commodification of everything, including water, land, knowledge is the hidden agenda, or hidden curriculum of unsustainability, according to Professor Wals. There is the “tyranny of innovation”, but actually conservation is as important as innovation: one needs to reflect and think deeply every once in a while. “There seems to be a push for personal growth to become more marketable as a person – this is a problem!” In education we first need to decide what needs sustaining, and what needs disrupting. “Without the latter, we would be only re-arranging furniture on the Titanic,” Wals said.

The second speaker, Professor Boike Rehbein from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, started with a provocative take on the role of education regarding social justice. “Education usually reproduces and legitimizes social inequality,” he said, offering the example of Germany, where in 80% of the cases the level of a person’s education directly reflects their social class.

“Why are the great football players, who earn so much money, nearly never rich in older age?” Professor Rehbein challenged his audience. The apparent reason is the lack of other aspects besides money that social class also consists of, such as network and social skills. And improving education and access to education alone will not reduce inequality. Inequality is – and seems to remain – one of the main obstacles for a sustainable world.

ComLabs never stop at identifying global problems: through intense discussions and extremely well-informed questions the group always manages to come up with hints at solutions and calls to action. Besides the disruption of education, a need for the disruption of the “extractivist science” was also called for. The extractivist mindset – which seeks to extract as much high-value resources in as short a time as possible – should be replaced by open access to data, results, and more activist science and journalism.

If that rhetoric starts to sound much like a call to arms and a preparatory meeting for a revolution, then don’t be alarmed: Among the speakers at ComLab we find the leading voices of major science institutions – all of them seem to share the desire for systemic change. Science needs to be heard more – if the global attempts to contain the pandemic have not taught us anything, we should have learned that much by now. Science needs to express itself more clearly, science needs to be heard and understood by the people, science needs good storytellers. ComLab is here to stay, to take us towards this direction, one step at a time.

Mele Pesti

Mele has a strong background in academia, media, and communication. Having spent years on analysing and communicating about Latin American societies and cultures in Europe, she has now widened her focus on mediating knowledge about world affairs. She has also worked as a cultural journalist and two months as an IJP Fellow for RND Berlin office, writing about Estonian politics. She also received the special award of ComLab#1 for her children’s book, "The Life and Adventures of Brandon B. and Bea P."

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