In this interview, meet Steven Hartman, Executive Director of the BRIDGES Sustainability Science Coalition.

BRIDGES is offering an answer to climate change and other typically science-based issues of our time. Can you tell us more about the Coalition and how do you deliver on your mission?

BRIDGES is a global coalition (a network of networks, institutions, organizations and programs) promoting transdisciplinary approaches to sustainability science, education and action. As the humanities-led sustainability science coalition of UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST), BRIDGES draws vigorously not only on the humanities, but on the social sciences, the arts, and knowledge from local and indigenous communities.

Many of these knowledge communities were not successfully integrated in the global change and sustainability science research domains that took shape and gained momentum over the past few decades. BRIDGES represents a significant coordinated effort, anchored both in and outside UNESCO, to remedy that situation by promoting under-utilized knowledge, expertise, wisdom, and capacities for learning and action that our societies cannot do without. 

The founding partners of BRIDGES are UNESCO, the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH) and the Humanities for the Environment global network.

Where do you operate?

We are a coalition, so we operate wherever our 40+ member organizations engage. We also have a growing cluster of operational hubs in different areas around the world. Our Flagship Hub is based at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and we have a thematic Hub, focused on past cases of environmental change and resilience, jointly organized by Princeton University’s Climate Change and History Research Initiative and the City University of New York’s Human Ecodynamics Research Center.

Our Southern African Hub is based at the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship at University of Pretoria, and our UK Hub is based at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. The BRIDGES hub led by the Club of Rome is anchored in Europe, technically speaking, but in reality its scope and engagement is fully international. This global orientation is reinforced and extended through our foundational anchoring in UNESCO and the intergovernmental MOST programme.

How is education central to your work?

Knowledge co-production and learning are fundamental to the mission of BRIDGES. We characterize our mission as promoting “humanities-driven sustainability science.” Centering the humanities is a reminder that humanistic disciplines have operated at a significant remove from global change research and the policy agendas that have defined the field of sustainability science following its emergence in recent decades. This is equally true of other knowledge and action nodes the coalition is working to help connect and mobilize.

As a field, sustainability science cannot achieve its own ambitions without bringing on board a range of indispensable knowledge communities and the considerable capacities they represent, including many that have gone largely unacknowledged or neglected for far too long. Integrating these extensive human knowledge resources needs to be done in ways that do not simply instrumentalize custodial communities in the service of an agenda they were given no role in co-formulating. BRIDGES’ approach to knowledge co-production and learning is part of a process of decolonizing not only our institutions but the very structures through which different communities of knowledge can be brought together.

The most persistent problems facing our world in the 21st century have greatly entangled social, ecological, economic and cultural dimensions. What’s needed to address these challenges is a more robust coalescence of knowledge, and for that we need to rethink how we can renew the structures and processes by which communities of knowledge can help build communities of action and purpose. Education is central to that mission. In fact, it’s one of those structures that needs renewing, but it’s also one of our greatest tools to help us accomplish that mission.

How can the scientific community learn from indigenous communities?

First of all, with humility. The knowledge systems of thousands of indigenous peoples all over the Earth are among some of the longest-lived and longest-tested sources of wisdom on management of socio-ecological systems available in the world today–a living archive of multispecies co-existence. Whether we classify this wisdom as indigenous knowledge, indigenous science, indigenous humanities or indigenous arts says much more about where we are coming from, and the baggage we might be bringing with us, than about the integrity of the practices, teachings, stories, and values expressing this wisdom.

The knowledge traditions of indigenous peoples are not museum pieces or curiosities of ancient pasts no longer relevant to the age of massive climate disruption and the sixth great extinction of species. They are also not resources to be mined and used transactionally without regard for their indigenous contexts and ownership. They are indeed sources of great value that cannot be taken for granted. And potentially they have much to teach the scientific community.

The workshop on the Kogi people’s efforts to teach their practices of ecological revitalization to the scientific community in the MUNEKAN MASHA project is one of the BRIDGES-sponsored sessions in the 2023 Learning Planet Festival. It’s worth attending for all concerned with equitable and just co-production of knowledge and learning.

  1. Is the youth involved in your initiative and if so how are they involved? 

We are working on developing fuller and more explicit strategies for engagement with youth, which is as much a question of learning and inreach (from youth) as it is a matter of outreach (by academics) in the conventional sense of that term.

In the multi-stakeholder workshops that led to the establishment of the coalition, I can say that the ambition of welcoming different kinds of youth-centered organizations in BRIDGES-led activities was already prominent in discussions throughout that visioning process. Because a majority of participating organizations in that process represented institutions of higher education, the link between youth and formal education was often a starting point for these discussions. While that focus is still strongly evident in meetings and activities of the coalition membership, it is less uniformly the case now.

The impacts that organized youth have made in shaping public perceptions on climate issues in the past few years through initiatives like Fridays for Future have led to a greater appreciation for the enormous potential of youth as change agents in society, as ethical stakeholders in the planet and its future, and as potent political actors in their own right, regardless of what their voting-eligibility status may be as individuals. Youth also have their own rich store of knowledge and insight. This is why it is exciting to see some ongoing BRIDGES collaborations engaging with and learning from two projects that produced regional reports on youth and climate change in 2022.

What are you planning during the LearningPlanet Festival?

We will be sponsoring sessions throughout the festival beyond those already mentioned, all of them online. Our first event on International Education Day (Jan. 24) will be a session led by The Club of Rome presenting the concept and activities of BRIDGES as a means of introducing the coalition to the LearningPlanet community. This session will involve the founding partners of BRIDGES (UNESCO, CIPSH and HfE), selected member organizations and international hubs as well as key guest speakers who can speak to the inclusive mission of BRIDGES to integrate knowledge communities.

Over the following days there will be several BRIDGES-sponsored sessions organized by BRIDGES hubs, member institutions and major partners collaborating with our coalition in new initiatives. These include the following interactive workshops, which will:

●   Engage with members of the public based on findings of two recent regional reports on youth and climate change: European Youth and Climate Change: A Community Baseline (People & Planet, IMVL, 2022) and the Regional Report on Knowledge for Youth-led Climate Action in the Arab Region (UNESCO, 2022), discussing new learning strategies to help meet the needs and realities of youth in these regions in their efforts to address the climate emergency – co-led by the authors/teams that produced the reports from People and Planet and UNESCO, as chaired by the BRIDGES Secretariat (Date/time TBA – length of event: 1 hour & 45 min)

●   Address The Learning and Knowledge Needed as Seen from the Future – co-organized by the Paris Global Hub of Future Earth, the Earth Politics Center at the University of Paris City, a BRIDGES member institution, and the BRIDGES Secretariat (Jan 26  – length of event: 1 hour & 30 min) 

●  Explore landscape-based and nature-immersive approaches to changing cultures of sustainability leadership in organizations and society – co-led by the European network Apheleia and the think-tank Catharsis, both BRIDGES member organizations (Jan 26 –  length of event: 1 hour & 30 mins) 

●     Delve into what ‘hearing’ nature can mean in practice (What Language Do the Things of the World Speak?) – led by BRIDGES’ UK Hub at University of Wales Trinity Saint David (Jan 27 –  length of event: 1 hour)

●     Unpack how the seemingly unexplainable and the incomprehensible can be learned and taught across the epistemological chasm that often seems to exist between modern science and indigenous knowledge systems (with a focus on the BRIDGES-endorsed MUNEKAN MASHA project, a territorial renewal effort applying indigenous approaches to revivifying water-systems)led by the BRIDGES UK Hub and the Tairona Heritage Trust, a BRIDGES member organization (Jan 27 –  length of event: 1 hour)

●    Lead immersion activities to generate framing of personal climate narratives based in the project My Climate Story – led by a team from the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, a BRIDGES member organization (Jan 27 –  length of event: 1 hour & 30 mins)

Do you have any announcements or news to share with us?

We’re actively working to extend the member organizations in BRIDGES now during the coalition’s inception phase (2022-2024), especially in parts of the world where we are not as firmly rooted. This also extends to widening the cohesive network of hubs through which BRIDGES is working to stimulate and seed science and knowledge-based transformations. In 2022 we have had very promising discussions with institutions and networks exploring the prospect of establishing hubs in South America, the Asia-Pacific region, the Circumpolar North, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Our website (https://bridges.earth) will be launching in the weeks ahead.

The site will make available further information on how to get involved in the Coalition. Contact information for the global BRIDGES secretariat, individual hubs and member organizations can be found there. The site should be launching before the festival.

Meet Steven Hartman

Steven Hartman Bridges

Photo credits: Þorvarður Árnason

Steven Hartman is Founding Executive Director of the BRIDGES Sustainability Science Coalition in UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations programme, based at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

He is also Visiting Professor in the Faculty of History and Philosophy, University of Iceland. Steven’s work addresses integration of the humanities in global change research, and collaboration among social and human scientists, artists, education specialists and civil society in efforts to meet sustainability challenges of the present and foreseeable future.

Read more about Steven here.

Watch Steven’s presentation of the BRIDGES Coalition at COP27.

Visit the BRIDGES Coalition website launching in January 2023.

Read about BRIDGES’ collaboration with IMVF at COP27 highlighting the report European Youth and Climate Change: A Community Baseline published by the project People & Planet in 2022.

Read a recent article about the BRIDGES-endorsed project MÚNEKAŇ MASHA led by the Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and supported by Tairona Heritage Trust, as featured in a BRIDGES session at Learning Planet Festival on Jan 27, 2023.

BRIDGES on Twitter: @bridges_science 

BRIDGES on Facebook: @BridgesCoalition

BRIDGES on Youtube: BRIDGES Coalition