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Governance to deal with complexity

Centre researcher and deputy science director Victor Galaz focuses on politics for sustainability in complex global societies

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The world is increasingly globalized and increasingly interconnected, with implications for sustainability and for how we handle sustainability challenges politically. Understanding how we should be managing this connectivity and the political challenges of living in an era where humans are the main force of change on the planet is key if you ask Victor Galaz.

While his PhD is in political science, Victor’s undergrad is a mix of social and natural sciences and he has always been drawn to the transdisciplinary research space where many disciplines meet and collaborate.

”Working within just one discipline provides you with a rather narrow picture of the world, and I was always interested in the bigger picture,” Victor Galaz says as we sit down over coffee in the kitchen at Stockholm Resilience Centre. Victor is associate professor here, and was recently also appointed deputy science director, a role he shares with Line Gordon and Henrik Österblom.

The role as deputy science director has meant big changes to Victor’s day-to-day work. He now spends a lot of time thinking strategically about how research is conducted at the centre and “how to best tap into the energy and immense talents that we have here”.

Focusing only on the scientific understanding of the global challenges we face isn’t enough – without political institutions in place, how do we act on that knowledge?

- Victor Galaz

In an academic and funding structure rigged to benefit individual work and single-disciplinary thinking he finds that having the time to delve into these matters is very important. And taking a transdisciplinary approach to environmental and sustainability challenges is something that Victor has found interesting from the start:

“For some reason I always felt a need to understand sustainability issues through a political lens. And, wanting the wider perspective, I was drawn to multidisciplinary projects. It’s challenging to bring together many different research fields to work together on research questions, but I think it is absolutely necessary if we want to be able to face today’s challenges,” he says.

New political challenges

Facing these challenges is about solving very complex problems that cut across many different sectors and scales in society, tackling environmental problems that at inherently connected to complex political institutions.

“A lot of my work has centred around how we can understand the new political challenges that are created by our influence on the planet, as well as on how we can use the political structures we already have in place in a more clever way,” Victor explains.

“This is a big research topic and it involves understanding the roles of international law, environmental institutions and global networks. It’s complex but extremely important. Focusing only on the scientific understanding of the global challenges we face isn’t enough – without political institutions in place, how do we act on that knowledge?”

The implications of global connectivity

As the world becomes increasingly globalised new kinds of connections across the planet arise. The multiple scales of interaction and influence are apparent, from international political agreements to ever growing interaction on social media. This connectivity brings with it new kinds of challenges as well as exciting opportunities. And though Twitter may seem worlds apart from pandemics, the way connectivity enables something to spread shares common elements across different topics and issues Victor explains:

”I've studied the implications of global connectivity through connected "planetary boundaries", infectious disease outbreaks, information technology, and financial systems. These topics might seem very different, but they have lot in common in the way complex global risks emerge in non-linear ways and cascade through levels,” he says.

Disease scenarios Africa maps the intricate linkages and interplay between social, ecological and technological drivers that affect zoonotic disease risks. The linkages are visualised in interactive graphics on the project's website.

Together with colleagues Victor has looked at how infectious diseases emerge due to environmental changes, how flows of financial capital shape the planet’s biosphere, and how social media can be used to detect and track the spread of invasive species.

”Another key thing that these issues all have in common and that needs to be tackled urgently is the need for adaptive and clever governance responses. There is a sort of gap between the emerging, complex challenges we face and the sometimes rigid and slow governance institutions we have in place.”

Victor calls this gap "The Anthropocene Gap", a term that is also the subtitle of the book he published in 2014 where he explores those challenges.

Financial markets influence the biosphere

More recently his primary focus has been on financial institutions and markets in connection to governing global risks, as part of the Global Dynamics and Biosphere Program (GEDB) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. One result of this research was a paper on “banking for ecologists”.

“The paper came about as me and my colleagues wanted to understand in what ways financial systems, including financial actors, different kinds of financial instruments and flows of capital, change and shape the biosphere,” he says.

“Even though there was, and still is, a lot of hype around the potential for “green” finance we saw that there was a big lack of understanding of the different ways in which finance matters. Our ambition is to change the way we think about finance and sustainability. We want to really integrate the latest knowledge about resilience thinking and the Earth system into current debates in and about the financial sector.”

While he will continue to look at banking for ecologists, Victor thinks there is definitely also a need for “ecology for economists”.

“There is a very common misunderstanding amongst actors in finance that ecology and environmental issues are peripheral at most to their work. This is a very dangerous misconception and it is currently blocking many much needed changes in the sector.”

Contact

Victor Galaz is an Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in political science. His current research interests are in global environmental governance, planetary boundaries, emerging technologies and emerging political conflicts associated with the notion of the Anthropocene.

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Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
SE-10691
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70
info@stockholmresilience.su.se

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