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MAXWELL project visit to Princeton University and the DEMAND centre Lancaster

In early 2016, Tadhg O’ Mahony, completed research visits at Princeton University with the Centre for Health and Wellbeing and Princeton Environment Institutes Climate Futures Initiative, and in the UK at the University of Lancaster’s DEMAND centre.

At Princeton, Tadhg gave a seminar on The concept of ‘wellbeing’ as driver of future mitigation. The seminar explored the concept of multidimensional wellbeing and how it could be used to reduce material consumption and greenhouse gas emissions as proposed in the MAXWELL project. The seminar was very well received, and it was noted by former president of Princeton University and chair of the InterAcademy Council on assessment of the activities of the IPCC Harold Shapiro, that the topic is becoming of “great importance” in climate mitigation and transition globally, and that the MAXWELL project is of key relevance as this is an area in urgent need of “…more empirical and normative research.”

Under invitation of Prof. Marc Fleuybaey at Princeton, a global expert in wellbeing and its measurement and coordinating lead author of chapter 4 of the IPCC fifth assessment report (AR5) on Sustainable Development and Equity, the research stay involved numerous discussions on the philosophy of wellbeing, the place of income and consumption and sustainability dimensions. These are issues of core interest to the MAXWELL project in understanding the fundamentals of future transition to a low-carbon world. Prof Fleurbaey outlined his thoughts on the central importance of inequality and eudaimonic wellbeing (in addition to cognitive and emotional), and also big questions arising about the sustainability of current forms of human wellbeing, and if changes or limits are required in how it is approached? In conversations with Prof. Rob Socolow, co-author of a famous paper on ‘stabilisation wedges’ for long-term mitigation, Prof. Socolow observed the potential significance of the concepts in MAXWELL. He noted that there are economic and cultural implications of change, and suggested that the MAXWELL project outcomes need to be brought to a wide public audience globally through a book publication. Prof. Socolow has also advocated for the field of ‘destiny studies’ as a related discipline to future studies.

Interesting office furniture at Princeton Environment Institute, Allosaurus fossil

During the research stay, Tadhg was invited to participate in the International Panel on Social Progess (IPSP) Princeton meeting in February. The IPSP are championing a multidimensional concept of wellbeing and social progress to the challenges of the 21st century. Important contributions at the meeting included that of Stefano Bartolini of the University of Siena, outlining the damage economic growth and inequality have had in countries such as the US, China and India on social capital, environment and mental health. Workineh Kelbasa of Addis Ababa University emphasised the importance of environmental ethics in defining human wellbeing. He concluded that human wellbeing cannot be defined without some reference beyond human to nature and environment and their intrinsic value.

At the University of Lancaster’s DEMAND centre in the UK, Tadhg gave a webcast seminar entitled ‘The key to unlocking the low carbon transition…’sustainable wellbeing’?’ A key strand of the work at the DEMAND centre is the use of ‘social practices’ to critique energy demand and mobility. This is relevant to the MAXWELL project in that practice theory considers how both individual choice and social structures influence outcomes. There are differences in philosophy, language, culture and focus in the approaches used, with scenarios related to systems thinking, and social practices prominently related to the sociological practice theory of Bourdieu. Nevertheless the approaches are not incompatible, with commonalities such as in the understanding of the importance of the relationship between ‘history’ and ‘future’ in social practice research, or what might be termed ‘path dependency’ and ‘initial conditions’ in a scenarios and the related systems thinking approach.

Many thanks are due to Prof. Marc Fleurbaey of Princeton and Prof. Elizabeth Shove of Lancaster for their gracious invitations and facilitation of the research visits.

Tadgh O’ Mahony is a Marie Sklodowska Curie postdoctoral fellow at the FFRC. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 657865.