Research Explores How to Empower Sustainability Stakeholders Today and in the Future

SustainabilityEncouraging people to be engaged in sustainability efforts today that will make a difference tomorrow begins with a look back, says a team of University of Maine resource economists. Reflecting on societal decisions that have come to bear and learning from those aspects that we regret, or for which we are grateful or indifferent could lead to the ultimate motivating question: What actions will the future regret and what will it be thankful for?

Retrospective thinking — learning to evaluate reactions to the legacy we leave — is a means of raising awareness of the potential implications of current actions on the future, according to UMaine School of Economics researchers Mark Anderson, Mario Teisl and Caroline Noblet, writing in the journal Ecological Economics.

It is broadly understood that successful sustainability awareness and action require intergenerational equity and stakeholder engagement. It also is generally argued that we cannot presume to know future preferences — both individual and collective — that change over time.

For a community to engage the future as stakeholders in sustainability, the researchers propose four steps, which will be tested in a survey this spring.

  • A broad cross section of community members think about previous societal decisions they are grateful for, indifferent to or regret.
  • Participants discuss their regrets and gratitude in small group settings to identify common elements of past decisions to help uncover the community values expressed in historical regret or gratitude.
  • Common elements are used in a survey of the whole community to gauge consensus.
  • Community groups consider the survey data and how this information helps people think about future reactions to current decisions.

“Reflecting on what about previous decisions contributed to or detracted from sustainability is a concrete exercise in intergenerational thinking,” according to the economists, whose research is supported by Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, a program of UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center.