“Today, sustainability is also understood as a market”

Heinzpeter Znoj, professor of social anthropology at the University of Bern and president of the CDE Board, will transition to professor emeritus status. How does he view today’s sustainability debate and the role of transformative science? A conversation about lessons from the past, new horizons, and tasks in teaching and research to address the current crises.

“Today, CDE plays a central role in the University of Bern’s strategic orientation when it comes to sustainability.” Photo: zvg

Interview: Sabin Bieri, Gaby Allheilig *

You have been president of CDE’s strategic body, the Board, since 2017 and a sitting member since 2010. When you retire, you will also leave this position. What do you think have been the most important changes at CDE during this time?

In 2010, CDE had just emerged from the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South, and it was clear that it still needed to earn its place among the centres of the University of Bern. The issue of sustainability was already considered societally relevant and important to the university, but it wasn’t a strategic goal yet. This has since changed – in response to our acute climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, and the social disruptions caused by extractive industries operating in the global South. Today, CDE plays a central role in the University of Bern’s strategic orientation when it comes to sustainability.

And what were the biggest highlights?

From my perspective, there were three moments when CDE went through crucial phases. First in 2013, when the university management tasked CDE with formulating the university’s sustainability strategy. That set the course. Second, it was an exciting moment when CDE contributed significantly to the founding of the Wyss Academy for Nature, providing the University of Bern with a second pillar in sustainability research. The third highlight was that CDE successfully managed to raise its own profile in the process and is now well equipped for the future.


"Science appears to have ceded some of its definitional power to marketing departments when it comes to the concept of sustainability"


Was there also a special moment for you from a research perspective?

The FATE project was a great experience for me as a social anthropologist and a member of the project management team. On the one hand, the collaboration with research partners in Laos, Bolivia, Nepal, and Rwanda enabled deep insights into economic and social transformations in rural areas in these countries. On the other hand, it was special to experience CDE’s way of working, which emphasizes long-term collaboration on an equal footing in the context of research partnerships. I was also very pleased to see how many dissertations emerged from the project, how participating scientists were able to build careers in their countries, and also how research results were taken up in the policies of partner countries. For me, it was a good example of how research partnerships between the North and South can make a difference.

A few years ago, CDE still found itself in a niche with its work on sustainable development and corresponding approaches. In the meantime, we’ve landed in the mainstream. How do you view the development of the sustainability debate?

Originally, the term “sustainability” came from forestry. In the 1970s and 80s, environmental movements conceived of sustainability as an alternative to growth-oriented capitalist development. The 1987 Brundtland Report laid the foundation for today’s scientific understanding of sustainability, with its ecological, economic, and social dimensions. This understanding is also central to CDE. But the concept continues to evolve.

Today, sustainability is also considered a market. There are all kinds of gradations ranging from serious efforts towards green capitalism to cynical greenwashing. To be sure, it’s a success on the part of environmental movements inside and outside academia that the need for sustainability is now undisputed even in the business world. However, science appears to have ceded some of its definitional power to the marketing departments of extractive industries. I think this is where CDE should assume the task of seeking dialogue with business actors.


It’s time to examine how business-related interest groups and large corporations strive to control the sustainability discourse”


What role do you think CDE has played in sustainability research so far?

CDE and its predecessor organizations collectively span much of the recent history of sustainability research, which began with the 1972 Club of Rome report. That report directly inspired CDE’s founders, Hans Hurni and Urs Wiesmann, who began conducting integrated research in the late 1980s, combining economic and social development with conservation of the natural environment. They developed methods, concepts, and theories for research, but were also committed to practical implementation of their findings. This brought Bern-based sustainability research to national and international attention. By working closely with development organizations, they established the concept of sustainability research as a transformative science. For a long time, however, they paid for this innovation by being assigned a certain outsider status compared to “pure” researchers. But, in the end, they helped shape the discourse that by now has gained broad scientific support and has become societally influential.

Going forward, what are the most pressing issues for science in terms of sustainability?

I think it’s time to examine the mechanisms used by business-related interest groups and large corporations to control the sustainability discourse in order to prevent fundamental changes to unsustainable business models. There’s a lot of potential, in particular, for critical research on “sustainable” financial products. This would also be in the interest of a growing number of investors who explicitly desire to invest sustainably, but are then taken in by largely conventional investment opportunities.


“Thanks to its wealth of knowledge on traditional forms of society and economy, social anthropology can make important contributions to the debate”


How has the sustainability discourse resonated in your discipline, social anthropology?

It fell on very fertile ground in our discipline. Since its beginnings, social anthropology has been concerned with pre-capitalist forms of society and economy that were small-scale and focused on subsistence, and thus also handled local resources with care. These indigenous and local societies were not under pressure to grow, and they functioned in a socially inclusive manner. So, they fulfilled all sustainability criteria in an exemplary way. Of course, one should not idealize them on these grounds alone. But the wealth of knowledge and lessons that social anthropology has to offer from such traditional examples can certainly stimulate the debate on more sustainable forms of economy and contribute important ideas.

Our discipline is also interested in the alternative, post-growth economic models being tested by politically and socially committed groups in our society today, as well as transformations towards greater sustainability within the OECD, for example, or in regional or global supply chains. Compared to the natural sciences, our discipline puts a special emphasis on the cultural, socio-structural, and political preconditions for sustainable development.


“The Swiss missionaries viewed our official development cooperation as far too impatient”


A few years ago, you were also involved in a project on missionaries as sustainability actors – a rather unexpected group in the context of sustainable development. What did you discover?

After the end of colonial rule, especially in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Christian missions assumed an increasing number of secular tasks in their communities, including food security, health promotion, and education – especially in remote areas. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a strong movement in the World Council of Churches that saw its mission as that of conserving God’s creation and working in socially inclusive ways. The Swiss missionaries whom we visited in this research project shared this perspective. It was interesting to hear what they thought about our official development cooperation. Based on their experiences, it was much too impatient and demanding of measurable results in a few short years. They couldn’t endorse it, as they felt that development must be approached slowly and carefully, with the support of communities. The days of the missionaries are over, but it was very interesting to reappraise this history.


“Students can help to ensure that the social and ecological transformation of our economy and society proves successful”


CDE plans to launch a “Master in Sustainability Transformations” at the University of Bern. What is especially important for the education of students?

Sustainability research is fundamentally inter- and transdisciplinary. So, it’s important that students learn to consider insights from different disciplines in their questions and analyses. To a certain extent, interdisciplinary student project groups can contribute to this. If students discover that interdisciplinarity is enriching, they will continue to apply and advance it in their later scientific and professional work. This is critical to the success of transformative sustainability science.

And what can you, as a retiring professor, offer to students to take on their way?

The history of CDE shows that it takes persistence to make a difference. If they stick with it, they can anchor the concept of transformative science in their traditional disciplines and diverse professional fields, and thus help to ensure that the social and ecological transformation of our economy and society proves successful.

And what are your personal plans?

I have a great desire to write more again. As a professor, I didn’t have enough time to work on longer publications. Now I’m looking forward to resuming old projects and beginning new ones. I’ve already set up a library. Everything is ready for me to get started.


*The interview was published in CDE's Annual Report 2022