Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior – 5+ years later

Eugene A. Rosa1,2, Donald Kennedy2, Paul Ehrlich2, Tom R. Burns2,3,
Ilan Kelman4, Atle Midttun5, Nina Witoszek6

Submitted 4 July 2011 - Revised 13 July 2011

Name Change: The "Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior" (MAHB) is changing its name to "Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere" (MAHB). This reflects intense discussions among social scientists, humanists, and natural scientists about an appropriate name.

Author Affiliations: 1 Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA; 2 Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA; 3 Lisbon University Institute, Lisbon, Portugal; 4 Center for International Climate and Environmental Research Oslo (CICERO), Norway; 5 Norwegian School of Business, Oslo, Norway; 6 University of Oslo. Norway.

The MAHB is a bold new effort to address the human response to global environmental destruction. It was originally proposed as a mobilization of the social sciences and humanities, in cooperation with the natural sciences, to encourage public discourse and to inform policy making about relevant human behavior and possibilities of significant changes in that behavior (Ehrlich and Kennedy, 2005; see also Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2004). It was followed by an experiment at assembling a pilot group in the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, which led to a blueprint urging the establishment of a worldwide network of researchers, practitioners, and institutions devoted to shaping human behavior toward sustainability.

The term "human" in MAHB means not only the values, attitudes, and actions of individual and collective actors, but also institutional arrangements, social structures, norms, and cultural practices and their long-term consequences and potentials. Thinking and acting wisely about directed social change must entail communication, the use of narratives, and a focus on ethical considerations; thus there is an urgent need for contributions from the humanities as well. Insofar as the goal of the MAHB is to encourage and shape social change toward sustainability, that change must take place across all domains of human life.

The problems that confront us and the need for action are relatively well recognized. What is missing is an understanding of the behavioral drivers that prevent humanity from changing its course from one headed now toward a collapse of global civilization to one moving toward a sustainable human community. The urgent need at present is not for greater emphasis on natural science research to deepen what's known about the anthropogenic drivers of the threats. Instead we need a vigorous program of social science and humanities research, and greatly expanded public discussion to understand the principal human activities and systems that are the deep causes of our predicament. We must re-examine such things as basic socio-cultural and economic assumptions about welfare (what do people most value and struggle for?) in hope of finding ways to re-orient human activities toward making societies sustainable (Clark, 2007).

Recognition of the need for the MAHB grew from a substantial scientific consensus that the major global environmental threats were consequences of human actions: emissions driving climate disruption, overconsumption of precious resources (such as water, forests, fossil fuels), destruction of ecosystem services, unsustainable land practices, and the unabated release of toxic chemicals. Also recognized were the steps most scientists believe essential for addressing these threats: reducing greenhouse gases, establishing biosphere reserves, protecting endangered populations and species and other critical resources, regulating chemical releases, limiting human population growth, and regulating excessive consumption patterns, especially among the rich.

Despite this widely held scientific view, the policy decisions needed to deal with these threats have been disappointing—either minimal or missing entirely. Meanwhile, the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) continues unabated (and humanity still lacks a clear agreement or strategy for enforceable reductions), species extinction rates accelerate to thousands of times "background" extinction rates, and more and more toxic compounds accumulate from pole to pole. There is an obvious need for an international initiative engaging social and natural scientists as well as humanists to promote widespread collaborative research and public discussion of how to proceed with effective solutions to the global predicament.

MAHB's "millennium" points to the recent start of a new millennium, providing a vantage point for a reflection backward and a look forward. A long look backward underscores the domination of the human species, Homo sapiens, in the biosphere. It is manifest in the growth of world population from ~300 million at the time of Christ to 7 billion in 2011, with the expectation that it will grow to 10.1 billion by the end of the century (UN World Population Prospects, 2011). A shorter look backward—to the decades just before the current millennium—reveals the remarkable acceleration in the pace, scale, and spread of human impacts on the global environment (Rosa and Dietz, 2010). Looking forward, greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere will remain there for a millennium (Solomon et al, 2009), will increase by releases to which we are already committed, and will almost certainly contribute to weather extremes, flooding and drought, which will seriously affect agriculture. This, plus the spread of tropical diseases, increased vulnerability to vast epidemics, sea level rise, and more severe storms, will reduce the welfare of many human communities.

MAHB's Development

The MAHB's goals have been pursued through ongoing discussion groups, workshops, and conferences, the launching of research projects, publications, and a variety of other initiatives aimed at influencing policies and practices. They have stressed "bottom-up" and horizontal mechanisms for encouraging global discussions among scholars, professionals, government officials, corporate executives, associations, and lay members of the public. This stress on outreach envisions a key role for a public airing of what is known about the human causes of environmental threats and ways for systematically moving toward an ecologically sustainable and equitable global society.

The idea of the MAHB led to the emergence of a global network of natural and social scientists as well as humanists in North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. A working group of natural and social scientists and humanists during 2007-8 at Stanford University—the "Stanford Node" in the global network – established initially close connections to Washington State University, the University of Oslo, the Norwegian Business School, Lund University in Sweden, the University of Milan in Italy, and the Lisbon University Institute in Portugal, among others. Collaboration has been organized among researchers from the MAHB network of institutions. There have been exchanges of researchers, the launching of joint projects and other partnered initiatives such as the arrangement of meetings.

I. Workshops and conferences. Several MAHB workshops have been organized at Stanford and elsewhere (Gothenburg, Lisbon, and Lund) concerning: collaboration among social and natural scientists as well as humanists in areas of modeling, governance, and risk analysis; small island sustainability; new forms of governance; business pathways to sustainability. In larger contexts, the MAHB was represented in Pittsburgh at the Ecological Society of America meetings, and in Sweden at the XVII World Congress of Sociology in Summer 2010. A plenary session on the MAHB is planned for the meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver in August of 2012. The MAHB is now negotiating with the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) to cooperate in both the assessment aspects of its mission while simultaneously pursuing its "outreach" activities.

Several MAHB members, working closely with Norwegian partners, have participated in four "Sustainability Summits" (2007, 2008, 2009, 2011) in Oslo Norway. The Summits are designed to accomplish three purposes: (i) first, to launch the social sciences and humanities as global players regarding issues of the environment and sustainability; (ii) second, to bring together and provide a platform for global discussions engaging the greatest diversity of people – with the aim of establishing dialogue and mutual challenge among different perspectives that often do not communicate. Scientists in the social and natural sciences as well as scholars in the humanities interact with non-scientists, including leaders of business, NGOs, and government. (iii) finally, to bring university students from around the world (initially, students from Africa, China, Europe, and the USA) to formulate questions and to propose alternative conceptions and strategies to those presented by current researchers and leaders represented at the summits. The "young challengers" spend a period of time together before a summit preparing their questions, arguments, and proposals. This entails participating in an inter-university consortium drawing on resources from multiple universities engaged in the consortium. These young scholars are seen as the new generation of leaders and researchers to work for a sustainable future.

II. Sustainability Observatory. Another key MAHB engagement, still in its incipient stages, is the establishment of a global "sustainability observatory" on human behavior, the mission of which is to gather the findings of existing research and to identify and promote pivotal research to fill important gaps in our knowledge. Its ambition is to establish a "go to portal" consisting of compiled and reviewed material from relevant established databases in the social and related sciences (presently there is no such comprehensive, authoritative source). It will draw from official sources such as UNDP, IMF, OECD, EUROSTAT, SEDAC (Socioeconomic Data and Application Center, Columbia University), Top World Incomes (Paris School of Economics), and others. The behavioral observatory would establish a MAHB-line (similar to the highly successful Medline for health information) providing access to social science and humanities research and data sources on key areas of sustainability.

III. Projects. Several members of the MAHB (Stanford, Oslo, Lisbon, Lund) are embarking on a collaborative research project, a study of selected islands (a comparison of Nordic, Iberian, and British Islands), places on Earth highly vulnerable to disaster from sea level rise and changing weather patterns due to climate change. This is an especially apt natural laboratory because of the wide variability in the assets of resiliency and management capacity of islands and island states. It is a laboratory of upper bounds where the risk of changing weather patterns, of rising seas and resultant social and economic impacts is the greatest and where an understanding of them can inform the one-half of humanity living in coastal areas (Kelman, 2010). The research focuses on innovative responses – in technical/economic, governance, and cultural terms – to climate change challenges. Another related research program is being conducted by MAHB partners in Oslo (associated with the Oslo Sustainability Summits (see above)). It identifies ways in which human agents (individuals and collectives) bring about technical/economic, governance, and cultural innovation in response to climate change in concrete cultural and institutional contexts in Scandinavia, China, and Ghana (CERES21, 2011).

These projects along with related work show that key factors in social change are: (1) socio-cultural mechanisms of re-framing, re-definition, and other cognitive shifts such that problems are seen from new perspectives and new solutions envisioned; (2) development of new narratives and discourse which play a major role in many value shifts and cognitive changes; (3) social movements which raise awareness and play critical roles in cognitive and value shifts and the development of new identities such as "responsible corporations" and "green citizens"); (4) the role of institutional arrangements and social power dimensions which may facilitate (or, alternatively constrain) innovation initiatives and their successes (or failures) (for related research on innovation in energy technologies and policies, see Baumgartner and Burns, 1984, Woodward et al, 1994);(5) the influential role of "cultural educators and protagonists" in developing a new sustainability ethos and practices.

Research shows how governments and NGOs "pressure" not only a national business community to take on sustainability as a mission but may impact on global developments through a "civilizing business mission or movement" (e.g. stressing Global Compact, Global Reporting Initiative, and OECD guidelines) (Middtun and Witoszek, 2011). Thus, Nordic countries (joint efforts of governments and NGOs) have been particularly active in strengthening the international dimension of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the extension of the CSR movement to all countries including developing countries.


Social Science research has identified a variety of mechanisms of "soft means" to advance public policy (see Carson et al, 2009 for the EU case). The EU methods, in particular, put a stress on incentives and pressures, which strictly speaking are non-economic and not coercive: framing of issues (e.g., defining a policy issue as "European"), particular data collections and distribution, standardization of measurements and classification schemes, monitoring of opinion and behavior, supporting consciousness raising and opinion formation as well as mutual learning processes, the diffusion of "best practices", collecting and sharing standardized and comparable data among member states, making international comparisons and applying peer pressures (including "benchmarking") to align policy among member-states and other social agents.

In the area of an emerging business ethos and engagement, the Stanford node is undertaking a "Pathways to Sustainability" project, based upon a strategic vision of the World Business Community for Sustainable Development (WBCSB), identifying 40 targets ("must-haves") that must be accomplished for a sustainable 2050 (WBCSB, 2010). A major feature of the project involves assessments of where we are now, and much of that assessment concerns human behavior (of businesses, government agencies, NGOs, communities, and everyday citizens) presently taking place and the change in behavior necessary to achieve the sustainability targets.

Social science and humanities research draws our attention to behavioral influences other than material or economic (which are important, of course, in many contexts and often operate together with cultural and institutional factors; indeed, the effectiveness of many economic "incentives" and technical innovations require first of all major cognitive and value changes, particularly in the case of changes that eventually operate on a paradigm shift level). In initiating social transformations, "cultural educators and protagonists" (Middtun and Witoszek, 2011) and related movers and shakers are arguably as important if not more so in developing an emerging sustainability ethos and practice than economic agents responding to incentives. This suggests alertness and attention to the emergence of new values and interrelated paradigms as well as social movements in the areas of business, governance, and culture (concerning public policy paradigm shifts, see Carson et al (2009)).

In conclusion, the social sciences and the humanities have had rich and productive histories that provide a substantial scholarly base upon which to draw. We need to learn everything we can from them, with the goal of systematically applying that knowledge to the struggle to repair ecosystems that are losing their capacity to support humanity. The MAHB is a unique initiative, establishing a permanent arena for dialogue and collaboration involving natural scientists, on the one hand, and social scientists and humanists, on the other hand, all in a context of public policy engagement and outreach.

In spite of the MAHB's 5+ years of progress in launching research and collaborative exchange, a key original need remains: first, recognition on the part of many natural scientists and policymakers, and also most in the social sciences and humanities themselves of the need for behaviorally-focused approaches to sustainability issues; and second, more substantial mobilization and funding of the social sciences and humanities as partners working together with natural scientists, policymakers, educators, and the media to address global environmental issues. Any long march begins with first steps. The MAHB has taken these initial steps and is moving systematically ahead step by step toward its goal as a bottom-up, international institution taking action to move all societies and the global environment toward sustainable futures.


T. Baumgartner and T. R. Burns Transitions to Alternative Energy Systems: Entrepreneurs, New Technologies, and Social Change. Boulder: Westview Press, 1984.

M. Carson, T. R. Burns, and D. Calvo 2009 Public Policy Paradgims: Theory and Practice of Paradigm Shifts in the European Union. Peter Lang: Frankfurt/New York/Oxford, 2009. Creative Responses to Sustainability:2008-2012. (Oslo: CERES21, 2011)

W.C. Clark, "Sustainability Science: A room of its own," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 6, 2007: 1737-1738.

P.R. Ehrlich and A. Ehrlich One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004, p. 282.

P.R. Ehrlich and D. Kennedy, "Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior," Science 309, no. 5734, 22 July 2005, pp. 562-563.

I. Kelman, "Hearing Local Voices from small Island Developing States for Climate Change," Local Environment 15, no. 7, 2010, pp. 605-619.

A. Midttun and N. Witoszek The Nordic Model: Is it Sustainable and Exportable? (Oslo: CERES21, 2011)

E. Rosa and T. Dietz, "Global Transformations: PaSSAGE to a New Ecological Era," in E.A. Rosa, A. Diekmann, T. Dietz, and C.C. Jaeger, eds., Human Footprints on the Global Environment: Threats to Sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010, pp. 1-45.

S. Solomon, G-K. Plattner, R. Knutti, and P. Friedlingstein, "Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6, 2009, pp. 1704-1709

United Nations World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision. Retrieved 5 May 2011 from UN Population.

A. Woodward, J. Ellig, and T. R. Burns Municipal Entrepreneurship and Energy Policy: A Five Nation Study of Politics, Innovation, and Social Change. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1994.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Vision 2050 Project. (San Francisco, CA: 2010)

For more information about the authors and the MAHB, click on the links below:
Eugene A. Rosa
Donald Kennedy
Paul Ehrlich
Tom R. Burns
Ilan Kelman
Atle Midttun
Nina Witoszek

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