Agenda 2030 Graduate School blog

Lund University Agenda 2030 Graduate School is a global, cutting-edge research school and collaboration platform for issues related to societal challenges, sustainability and the 2030 Agenda. The 17 PhD students from all faculties at Lund University enrolled with the Agenda 2030 Graduate School relate their specific research topics to the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog the PhD students of the Graduate School discuss topical research and societal issues related to the 2030 Agenda.

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Degrowing for peace? Tackling structural violence and climate resilience

Olive tree with city in longshot background. Photo.
Olive branch framing the city of Athens. Photo by Feri & Tasos on Unsplash.

Posted on 17 February 2021 by Christie Nicoson (Department of Political Science).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

This blog post was originally posted as a
Story on the webpage of Resilience –

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda[1] sets out global priorities, calling on countries to take “transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path”. The Agenda seeks to strengthen universal peace as part of a holistic agenda, bringing together social, environmental, and economic goals for sustainable development. Globally and in our local communities, we face complex challenges of how to address these different facets of sustainability.

This historic decision is far reaching, including not least goals to build sustainable peace and take urgent climate action. Climate change is both an ecological and political problem, bringing broad impacts[2] for human societies, including negative consequences for health, infrastructure, and security. These impacts have consequences for peace, affecting dynamics of violent conflict and (re)producing situations of vulnerability (consider for example humanitarian consequences[3] of climate change). Climate change makes it clear that achieving peace entails not only ending violent wars, but also addressing structural violence – systemic harms perpetrated by situations of vulnerability or privilege shaped by societal power structures.

In a recent article[4] published in Sustainability Science, I explore how climate action and peace can be advanced simultaneously. Finding an answer, I suggest, lies in making space to imagine alternatives to our current sustainability approach: transitioning to a different economic system that focuses on people rather than profit, foregrounding broad understandings of peace, and pursuing societal change. Seeds of such change, lie with degrowth, activities and policies that recenter the economy on ecological and human well-being. Examples of degrowth provide a starting point for considering concrete steps toward tackling structural violence, fostering climate resilience, and advancing peace.

Peace, climate, and the economy

While the 2030 Agenda calls for climate action and development of peace alongside continued economic growth, research has not always supported linkages between these phenomena. To start, economic growth has long been seen as key to raising living standards, as well as essential for building peace. For example some studies[5] have linked low-income levels and slow economic growth to conflict between and within states, or have posited that sustained economic growth helps reduce the risk of recurring civil conflict[6]. However, others[7] have shown that the opposite may instead be true, and that rather than resulting from growth, peace may stem from other factors such as people’s ability to have decent work opportunities or access to services.

Looking at peace in a positive sense, encompassing not only the absence of war but also of structural violence, the results become even more wary. Economic growth is shown to inflict harm against both people and the environment, perpetrating “market violence”[8]. Furthermore, despite increased economic growth, we find that almost all countries are facing rising average inequality[9]. While economic growth may be essential to help people achieve a certain standard of living, the benefits seem to stall or diminish after a certain threshold[10]. That is, economic growth may have its place, but only up to a point.

The environmental impact of continued economic growth presents other challenges. Proposals in line with the logic of Agenda 2030 suggest that we can continue economic growth without further contributing to climate change by shifting to a “green growth” framework. Essentially, by using cleaner energy, we could still continue to grow the economy but without such detrimental climate impacts. However, researchers have shown that this may be not only challenging, but potentially impossible to achieve within the timeframe and at the scale needed to prevent catastrophic climate change[11]. Decoupling – or separating economic growth from resource use and carbon emissions –does not seem feasible on a global scale nor to maintain in the long term[12].

An alternative approach: climate resilient peace through degrowth

In my recent article, I bring together findings to highlight aspects of degrowth processes that hold promise for peace in our communities in light of climate change. I suggest three key aspects of degrowth that hold potential to benefit the environment while fostering peace: redistribution, reprioritized care, and addressing global equity.

First and foremost, what is degrowth? Degrowth is a different kind of economic model. It includes both philosophical ideals as well as social and political actions for a transition to a society where growth is no longer the central economic goal. It is not an economic recession, but rather an intentional shift. A degrowth economy centers on sharing, simplicity, conviviality, care, and the commons[13]. Degrowth entails ecological aspects – downscaling of production and consumption, as well as social – enhancing human ecological well-being[14].

Redistribution is one important aspect of degrowth. This can help foster peace by moving us beyond structural violence. In many communities, resources and power are disproportionately allocated and held, leaving some groups in positions of privilege and others at a disadvantage. A transition towards degrowth will require us to share political power, wealth, leisure time, and other resources more equitably and equally. What does this look like? Take the example of localizing food systems through urban gardens. Grassroot urban gardens have relatively low environmental impacts and provide benefits such as filtering air and water, preventing soil erosion, and reducing dependence on petroleum-based food production systems[15]. Urban gardens not only make healthy food options available, but can also facilitate social benefits. For example, they can strengthen neighborhood relations and foster sharing of space and responsibilities, political agency, employment opportunities, or reclaiming “unutilized” spaces in cities[16]. Urban gardening can not only contribute to peace materially – providing food resources to improve well-being – but also by redistributing resources and power at a community level.

Reprioritized care, meanwhile, is a process that holds promise for disrupting harmful underlying power structures. Take, for example, gendered hierarchies. Not only do women still make less than men in paid employment, they also continually bear the brunt on reproductive and care work. Care work includes actions that underlie the “formal” economy by providing for the welfare of communities. This work might take the form of caring for young and elderly, education, or environmental work, and it is often unpaid. The peaceful potential here is in disrupting this hierarchy and revaluing care. Policies such as basic income hold potential to help create this shift, balancing household power linked not only to gender but also income, education, ethnicity, or race; and on a higher level, challenging the divide in society between receivers and givers[17]. This also holds potential environmental benefits, by for example limiting harmful emissions through reducing the consumption of status goods and bringing more people to a modest expenditure level[18].

Finally, global equity. Not only is wealth held disproportionately, but responsibility for climate damages is also unbalanced. The world’s richest 1% produce half the world’s emissions[19]. Although there are wealthy individuals all over the world, the majority of those in the top 10% bracket live in rich OECD countries[20]. Moreover, high-income countries also hold the greatest responsibility for driving climate change[21]. Addressing these inequalities in wealth and environmental damages holds potential to foster peace. For example, wealth caps or maximum income policies put a ceiling on how much an individual can amass. This not only helps redistribute wealth, but also limits environmental harm by curbing unsustainable lifestyles and holding the biggest and richest emitters responsible, addressing inequalities both between and within countries. Such policies already exist in some localities or in specific sectors, and have been proposed or are being used in for example the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland, Spain, and the Netherlands[22].

Envisioning a peaceful future

It is important to realize that these steps are not inherently peaceful. For example, there are also examples where urban gardens, rather than holding benefits for peace as discussed above, could entrench systems of structural violence by marginalizing funding or keeping food resources restricted to only certain parts of a community. The pursuit of peace must keep questions of intersectionality at the forefront – how do factors such as race, gender, or class intersect to create particular privileges or vulnerabilities in society? What is important here is the process towards peace. The above examples highlight processes of systemic change – addressing structural violence and disrupting harmful power structures peace.

The examples and pathways outlined here present a first step towards thinking about not only how to take climate action and foster peace, but how to achieve these two sustainability goals simultaneously. To do so, we must not only take care to address structural violence, but to do so in a way that does not further contribute to climate change. The processes of redistribution, reprioritized care economies, and global equity help us see how we can address differentiated climate vulnerability as well as take steps to help mitigate further climate change and environmental damage.

The full article on which this post is based and further references can be found in the special issue of Sustainability Science,
“The Sustainability–Peace Nexus in the Context of Global Change”, at


[2] Mora, C., Spirandelli, D., Franklin, E.C., Lynham, J., Kantar, M.B., Miles, W., Smith, C.Z., Freel, K., Moy, J., Louis, L.V., Barba, E.W., Bettinger, K., Frazier, A.G., Colburn IX, J.F., Hanasaki, N., Hawkins, E., Hirabayashi, Y., Knorr, W., Little, C.M., Emanuel, K., Sheffield, J., Patz, J.A., Hunter, C.L., 2018. Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions. Nature Climate Change 1062–1071.


[4] Nicoson, C., 2021. Towards climate resilient peace: an intersectional and degrowth approach. Sustain Sci.

[5] Chassang, S., Padró i Miquel, G., 2009. Economic Shocks and Civil War. QJPS 4, 211–228.

Gartzke, E., 2007. The Capitalist Peace. Am J Political Science 51, 166–191.

[6] Collier, P., Hoeffler, A., Söderbom, M., 2008. Post-Conflict Risks. Journal of Peace Research 45, 461–478.

[7] Vernon, P., 2015. Peace through prosperity: Integrating peacebuilding into economic development. International Alert.

[8] Chertkovskaya, E., Paulsson, A., 2020. Countering corporate violence: Degrowth, ecosocialism and organising beyond the destructive forces of capitalism. Organization 135050842097534.

Fırat, A.F., 2018. Violence in/by the market. Journal of Marketing Management 34, 1015–1022.

[9] World Inequality Lab, 2018. World Inequality Report. World Inequality Lab, Berlin.

[10] Easterlin, R.A., McVey, L.A., Switek, M., Sawangfa, O., Zweig, J.S., n.d. The happiness–income paradox revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, 22463–22468.

[11] Ward, J.D., Sutton, P.C., Werner, A.D., Costanza, R., Mohr, S.H., Simmons, C.T., 2016. Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? PLoS ONE 11, e0164733.

[12] Hickel, J., Kallis, G., 2020. Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy 25, 469–486.

[13] Kallis, G., Kostakis, V., Lange, S., Muraca, B., Paulson, S., Schmelzer, M., 2018. Research On Degrowth. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 43, 291–316.

[14] D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., Kallis, G. (Eds.), 2015. Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. Routledge, Oxon and New York.

[15] Clarke, M., Davidson, M., Egerer, M., Anderson, E., Fouch, N., 2019. The underutilized role of community gardens in improving cities’ adaptation to climate change: a review. PPP 12, 241–251.

[16] Colasanti, K.J.A., Hamm, M.W., Litjens, C.M., 2012. The City as an “Agricultural Powerhouse”? Perspectives on Expanding Urban Agriculture from Detroit, Michigan. Urban Geography 33, 348–369.

Taylor, D.E., Ard, K.J., 2015. Research Article: Food Availability and the Food Desert Frame in Detroit: An Overview of the City’s Food System. Environmental Practice 17, 102–133.

White, M.M., 2011. Sisters of the Soil: Urban Gardening as Resistance in Detroit. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5, 13–28.

[17] Cantillon, S., McLean, C., 2016. Basic Income Guarantee: The Gender Impact within Households. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 43, 25.

[18] Bollain, J., Groot, L., Miller, A., Schmidt, E., Tahiraj, E., Verlaat, T., Yi, G., 2019. A Variety of Experiments, in: Torry, M. (Ed.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Basic Income. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp. 407–435.

[19] Oxfam, 2015. Extreme Carbon Inequality.

[20] Chancel, L., Piketty, T., 2015. Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris.  Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions (1998-2013) & prospects for an equitable adaptation fund. Paris School of Economics, Paris.

[21] Hickel, J., 2020. Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. The Lancet Planetary Health 4, e399–e404.

[22] Buch-Hansen, H., Koch, M., 2019. Degrowth through income and wealth caps? Ecological Economics 160, 264–271.

February 17, 2021

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Responsibility shifting in investment and sustainability

Green cactus money box. Photo.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Posted on 12 February 2021 by Soo-hyun Lee (Faculty of Law).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

This article is the winner in an essay competition held by the 
UNCTAD YSI Summer School on Globalization and Development Strategies. Participants of the school worked with senior scholars to fine-tune their drafts, and the top-5 articles were published here.

UNCTAD is a permanent intergovernmental body established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1964. Its headquarters are located in Geneva, Switzerland, with offices in New York and Addis Ababa. UNCTAD is part of the UN Secretariat, reports to the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, and are also part of the United Nations Development Group.

When it comes to understanding the relationship between investment and sustainability, national and international governance institutions take a facilitative rather than regulatory approach. 

This is largely premised on two assumptions: (1) overreach would result in regulatory chilling that could limit investment and (2) regulating investment inflows would limit their potential economic impact. Though taking place in different forms between portfolio investments and foreign direct investment, a facilitative approach, in principle, shifts the responsibility of defining and understanding the interplay between investment and sustainability to market interactions: between the investor and the recipient. 

Assessing the facilitative approach to investment and sustainability within the microeconomics of sustainable development policy renders some noteworthy observations. Namely, creating a regulatory and governance environment that facilitates the consumer and producer, or in this case the recipient and the investor, shifts responsibility away from the government or prevailing institution from taking a more prescriptive approach: defining, implementing and enforcing a more substantial linkage between investment and sustainability.

A prescriptive role, while more vulnerable to the potential consequences of regulatory chill, may be necessary to administering the nexus between investment and sustainability because sustainability as a motivating factor does not naturally arise from the economic rationality that fuels market interactions. The relationship between investors and the recipients of investment, just as that between producers and consumers, does not function on the logic of advancing sustainability, but rather economic profit maximization. For this reason, should their interaction deviate from this core market-based logic by, for example, running deficits in consumer and/or producer surplus, or being involved in investments where risk supersedes returns, their interaction is jeopardized and likely to be discontinued. For that reason, shifting the responsibility to the consumer to fuse a more molecular bond between investment and sustainability seems destined to meet an inconclusive outcome as it saps away the essential motivation to shoulder that burden both materially in terms of resource allocation and substantively as a determination to form a meaningful investment and sustainability nexus.

Turning to views in sustainable consumption, Mont, et al (2013) identifies a similar paradox in their work for the Nordic Council of Ministers based on interviews with policymakers as a myth of sustainable consumption. They write that shifting the responsibility of sustainable consumption to the consumer limits state involvement to raising awareness rather than taking more proactive interventions against unsustainable consumption. The inherent problem behind shifting responsibility, they write, is that consumer behaviour is based on contextual factors that are “beyond the control of individual actors”, namely prevailing social norms that shape a consumer’s understanding of consumption in connection to sustainability. Presently, this norm is that sustainable consumption is an extraordinary decision that requires justification (Mont, et al, 35-37) as it deviates from market-based reasoning. The consumer requires additional justification for these decisions to justify that divergence: why to choose a product that provides comparatively less consumer surplus by paying a higher price or paying a price to receive less utility arising from consumption?

Lorek and Spangenberg (2013) explains responsibility shifting in sustainable consumption as the lock-in situation, where transitions to sustainability is contingent on more growth and technological innovation. This is reflected through the I = P*A*T equation, which offsets the added cumulative climate impact (I) as the function of the factor of population growth (P) and greater per capita affluence (A) by technological progress (T). With advances in (T), higher unsustainability derived from increasing (P) and (A) values are offset by technologies that enhance the sustainability of consumption. Herein lies one of the causes behind responsibility shifting, which is a “technological optimism” that firms will advance the state of technology if given the means to do so (Lorek and Spangenberg, 35). The central economic tenet behind this technological optimism is economic liberalism, which attributes the agency and primacy of economic optimality to market-based actors, in turn manifesting external intervention by the state or another prevailing authority as obstacles to that optimality. As such, the role of the state or prevailing authority is limited to providing information, shifting responsibility to market-based interactions (Lorek and Spangenberg, 40).

Responding to the situation of lock-in, which strives in the ecosystem of economic neoliberalism, Dalhammer (2019) advances that policy instruments are necessary to form a sustainable choice architecture that features sustainability as the default option. Lock-in prevents microeconomic transitions to strong sustainability, such as adopting ideas of consumptive sufficiency, thus rendering top-down involvement of the government or prevailing authority necessary (Dalhammer, 140). Simultaneously, policy instruments should be mobilized within a “reflexive governance mode”, which Mont (2019) identifies as a standpoint of continuous learning and acknowledgment of intertwining contextual factors that influence consumptive behaviour (Mont, 3). The policy instruments arising from this mode should aim to facilitate the transition from system optimization, which perpetuates the business-as-usual scenario, to system transformation, which seeks to integrate alternative solutions to the policy and governance process that move beyond the primacy of consumer sovereignty (Mont, 9).

Extrapolating these observations from sustainable consumption to the investment and sustainability nexus takes no stretch of the imagination. The engine that drives forward such extrapolation is simple yet powerful: more consumption and investment are better. The economic neoliberalism to which the origins of unsustainable consumption are traced also lays claim to the origin of crucial disconnects between investment and sustainability. This applies to both forms of investment, portfolio and foreign direct, as do many of the ruminations in sustainable consumption thought. This close albeit conceptual cross-disciplinary application warrants closer examination.

Sustainable portfolio investment has been building traction over the last three years with latter half of 2019 alone witnessing billions of USD identified under the environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment label. There remain considerable limitations to the concept, the most pronounced amongst them being a lack of shared understanding and standards of ESG metrics and stewardship. The World Bank Group (WBG) and the UN Principles on Responsible Investment have been on the forefront of institutional efforts to address these concerns. Despite the wide involvement of national pension schemescentral banks and government regulation, policy instruments remain within the system optimization mindset that shifts responsibility to the actual sustainability element of ESG to the producer-consumer.

The result of a soft sustainability approach to regulating ESG has exposed it to systematic greenwashing. The mentality in ESG continues to be growth-oriented, investors financing asset managers based on perceptual cues and little understanding of metrics and their shortcomings. With the entry of large names in finance like BlackRock and MSCI or international organizations like the WBG and United Nations through the PRI, portfolio investors are eased into the lethargy of technological optimism. Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing identified promising trends in the sustainable investment epithet, employing a definition of sustainable investing that was not only substantively vacuous but very much aligned to the central economic ideological tenets of growth-oriented market fundamentalism.

Moving outward to foreign direct investment and its governance does little to mitigate these concerns. Despite international investment law being based on a regime of treaties and treaty arbitration, which directly involves governments, investment, less considerations of sustainability in investment, find no prescriptive definition. Investors, which notably include shareholders of companies, are given rights and protections in the state recipient to that investment, such as access to investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS), but the means to determine the substantive qualities of investment remain ad hoc and left the judicial discretion arising from investment arbitration (See, for instance, Mihaly International Corporation v. Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, ICSID Case No. ARB/00/2Ceskoslovenska Obchodni Banka, A.S. v. The Slovak Republic, ICSID Case No. ARB/97/4Malaysian Historical Salvors, SDN, BHD v. The Government of Malaysia, ICSID Case No. ARB/05/10).

While there is no single government to adopt and then apply a reflexive governance model to the multilateral regime of international investment law, the United Nations can and should play a larger role in taking more prescriptive, system transformative action to ensure that sustainability is not simply a spillover of investment, rather sustainability leads decisions of whether investment should be admitted.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution. 

February 12, 2021

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Modeling complexity at the Agenda 2030 Graduate School

Child looking at high building with binoculars. Photo.
Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash.

Posted on 10 February 2021 by Jesica Murcia López (Centre for Environmental and Climate Science) and Juan Ocampo (Department of Business Administration).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

In this post Jesica and Juan provide us with some ideas of how modeling techniques are being used in sustainable development, specifically forest cover dynamics and money engineering. But be aware as they write: “models are not just one-to-one reflections of reality (…) so we have to be aware of this when we use them or read about their results”

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

– Wade Davis

Sharing a common background, from Colombia, where social, environmental and economical challenges contrast with the beauty of its mountains, rivers, biodiversity, and culture. Complexity is embedded in the way we, Jesica and Juan, approach our research. Therefore, it is not surprising for us to recognise the differences and nuances that emerge from the systems we study. To navigate and resolve the interplay of sustainable-related problems in real cases, being political displays of power, economic transfers of ownership, or environmental transformations, complex thinking becomes an appropriate state of mind. Our collaboration was triggered by a
popular-science documentary called Tribuga –
inspired by books of Wade Davies (see Magdalena or The River) and resulted in conversations and discussions about ways to study complex problems.

There are different ways of studying complex systems. An example is sustainometrics. This technique aims to describe  and represent the interconnectedness of five domains of human activity, namely environmental, socio-cultural, technological, economics, and public policy, and their interaction with regard to achieving the goals of sustainability[1]. As sustianometrics, there are plenty of different methods that help us to engage with problems as the ones presented in sustainable development, many of these involved modelling. Modelling – the production and revision of models – has been seen as the essence of the dynamic and non-linear processes involved in the development of scientific knowledge[2].  And this post is about models!

Models are not one-to-one reflections of reality, however, if constructed with rigour they have the potential to be ‘illuminating’ abstractions[3], and can be used to explain social, ecological and economic systems. Today we require methods that offer us new perspectives and understandings to tackle the complex problems that hinders sustainable development. Our common interest was to start a first glimpse of the technicalities behind the use of such models, and how other researchers and ourselves are attempting to highlight the benefits and challenges of these approaches in the contribution to scientific debates.  In this line of thought, this post introduces Agent-Based modeling (ABM) and System Dynamics (SD), both of them increasingly being used in environmental, social and economic sciences.

Using Agent-based Models for money engineering

In his research Juan studies the engineering of Money. Specifically, he studies Complementary Currencies (CC) which are the voluntary agreement within a community to: (i) use a standardised unit of account to value their contributions, these being cleaning the streets, taking care of the elderly, or their produced good and services; (ii) accept these units as a mode of payment form other members; and (iii) use this units as a medium of exchange inside the community. In his research he has found it is not unusual to find situations in which stakeholders are not aware of basic socio-technical components of money until problems emerge. Money is a complex topic, it embedded social, ideological and technical components that if they are not openly discussed they might jeopardize the relations and hinder the success of the CC. Therefore, it is important for interested stakeholders to assure there is a proper description on the socio-cultural and spatial context of target communities and a thoughtful analysis on the economic theories, their mathematical formulations, and their influence in the communities’ socio-economic relations.

Agent-Based Models (ABM) are a type of computer-based technique that can represent the behaviours and interactions of human and non-human actors (e.g. animals, institutions) and allow rich and dynamic representations of individuals in a particular ecosystem, and during a specific range of time. In other words, ABM “support a metaphorical representation of complexity by programming actions, decisions and mechanisms in explicit form”[4]. Increasingly, ABM have been developed to assist the management, governance, and research of different complex scenarios.  For example, the OECD has used this computational tool to analyse systemic financial risks[5], or economic and environmental systems[6].

Juan’s project aims to use ABM through a practice called participatory modeling. This way of modeling is a learning process for action that invite the stakeholders to share their implicit and explicit knowledge and create shared models that represent the complex problems[7] they deal with. In other words, ABM serves as a way for designers of Complementary Currencies to be open about their interests, be aware of each other’sassumptions, and integrate their needs. It would be impossible to model it all, however through a compromise it is possible to program key variables and decision-making behaviours into explicit computational models. By programming different monetary configurations and modelling different human-behaviours it will be possible to simulate different scenarios and reflect on possible challenges and opportunities that Complementary Currencies might offer in search for an equal and inclusive monetary system.

Systems thinking and system dynamic modelling for sustainometrics

Systems thinking is a way to understand the complexity of core dimensions of sustainability, economic, social and ecological systems[8]. In our current times, sustainable development problems can be evaluated with network analysis. Any complex system is a set of interacting variables that behave according to governing mechanisms[9] and as the complexity of sustainability-related problems increases, it is more and more difficult to understand the related models.  However, according to Costanza et al[10]  “(m)odels are analogous to maps… they have many possible purposes and uses, and no one map, or model is right for the entire range of uses”. Additionally, these models are only possible with the current advances in information technology and information theory.

In her research Jesica uses such models of land use change as primary “diagrams” for analysing the causes and consequences of land use changes. The use of system dynamics modeling methodology will serve to compare causal loop diagrams of forest cover dynamics in the Northwest Amazon region of Colombia generated by key actors working to tackle deforestation as a result of extensive cattle ranching activities in the area. Complementary, using supportive geographical information system (GIS) methods and software to assess the impacts of land use change on ecosystems to support land use planning and policy makers, represent a way to translate the complexity involved in these kinds of accurate system dynamic (SD) models. System Dynamics covers a set of qualitative tools for the analysis of dynamic processes, e.g. Causal Loop Diagrams (CLD) and Stock and Flow Diagrams (SFD) simulation and optimisation software. Since the introduction of systems thinking in terms of sustainability attained by Forrester in 1971 on his book World Dynamics[11], and then Meadows and collaborators (1972) work[12], a well-known effort concerning the topic, “The Limits to Growth”, focused on the simulation of the issues of sustainability worldwide with a more deep conceptual understanding of the modelled socio-economic and environmental systems as well.

Her study looks at the interactions between pristine forests ecosystems, livestock, and the deforestation rates in protected areas, located in
the northern part of the Chiribiquete National Park –
The study focuses on modelling forest land degradation in the Savannas of Yarí from 2016-2020 and simulates future scenarios up to 2030 using system dynamics modelling. In similar studies, in the Brazilian Amazon[13] the use of these models provided a first approximation of the loss of ecosystem services that is attributable to deforestation, considering that the patterns and processes of land use—and the economic incentives that drive them—continue unabated. In the Philippines[14] researchers used group model-building exercises, involving both researchers and community members, and they found that systemic understanding of deforestation can generate more robust reforestation initiatives.


The urgent need to understand human activity, namely environmental, socio-cultural, technological, economics, and public policy and their related sustainability-related problems as mentioned before, requires simultaneous integration of economic, social and ecological knowledge. In this way we can manage to understand sustainable development not in an incompatible way but as human evolution within a constantly changing natural world. Hence, the modelling of sustainability-related complex systems can support us to interpret holistic approaches without leaving key variables or agents of change outside the box. Consequently, aiming to better decisions making towards concrete actions on planetary goals for 2030, there is an urgent need to comprehend the interplay of the pillars for sustainability, through modelling of real-world problems.

However, models are tools constructed by people and we have to be aware of this when we use them or read about their results. In both cases using ABM or SD is not only about the quantitative results and analysis that can be simulated in regards to inequality or sustainable development. If developed in a participatory way ABM and SD become an object to trigger dialogue amongst stakeholders and serve as a tool for learning more about each other’s way of thinking. This way the importance of insights into points of leverage for any system can help us get solutions into action.

[1] Steward, W. C., & Kuska, S. 2011. Sustainometrics: Measuring sustainability—design, planning, and public administration for sustainable living (p. 144). Norcross, GA: Greenway Communications.

[2] Justi, R. S. & John K. Gilbert, J. K. 2002. Modelling, teachers’ views on the nature of modelling, and implications for the education of modellers, International. Journal of Science Education, 24:4, 369-387. DOI: 10.1080/09500690110110142

[3] Fukuyama, F., Epstein, J. M., & Axtell, R. (1997). Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up. Foreign Affairs.

[4] Zellner, M. L. (2008). Embracing complexity and uncertainty: The potential of agent-based modeling for environmental planning and policy. Planning Theory and Practice. pg.443

[5] OECD (2012), “Social unrest and agent based models”, in Systemic Financial Risk, OECD Publishing, Paris,


[7] Voinov, A., Jenni, K., Gray, S., Kolagani, N., Glynn, P. D., Bommel, P., Prell, C., Zellner, M., Paolisso, M., Jordan, R., Sterling, E., Schmitt Olabisi, L., Giabbanelli, P. J., Sun, Z., Le Page, C., Elsawah, S., BenDor, T. K., Hubacek, K., Laursen, B. K., … Smajgl, A. (2018). Tools and methods in participatory modeling: Selecting the right tool for the job. Environmental Modelling and Software.

[8] Holling, C., S. 2001. Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4 (5), pp. 390-405.

[9] Walker, B & Salt, D. 2006. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. (first ed.), Island Press, Washington. Consulted online [Accessed on 29 January 2021:]

[10] Costanza, R., Wainger, L., Folke, C., and Mäler, K.-G. 1993. Modelling complex ecological economic systems, BioScience, 43(8), 545–555.

[11] Forrester, J.W. 1971. World Dynamics, vol. 59, Wright-Allen Press, Cambridge.

[12] Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L. and J. Randers, W.W. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report of the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books.

[13] Portela, R and Rademacher, I. 2001. A dynamic model of patterns of deforestation and their effect on the ability of the Brazilian Amazonia to provide ecosystem services. Ecological Modelling (143): 115–146. DOI: 10.1016/S0304-3800(01)00359-3

[14] Olabisi, L. S. 2010. System Dynamics of Forest Cover in the Developing World: Researcher Versus Community Perspectives. Sustainability (2): 1523-1535. doi:10.3390/su2061523

February 10, 2021

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Island – immersive performance in a vulnerable settlement

People lying in the grass by the sea. Photo.
Guests and guides during the performance "Island" in August 2020. Photo by Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir.

Posted on 14 December 2020 by Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir (Malmö Theatre Academy).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

Good example of forking through a special target funding in culture, innovation and art.

In August 2020 the project Island[1] took place in Hrísey a small island on the coast of North East Iceland[2]. The project is a part of the artistic research How Little is Enough? within the Agenda 2030 graduate school of Lund University.

The aim of the project is to develop sustainable methods of creating transformative encounters with an audience through participatory and site-specific artworks, with a particular focus on how minimal and sustainable the framework for the encounter can be. The practice is anchored in a sustainable production ethos and a genuine interest in engaging an audience in a profound dialogue around quality of life. The aim of the work is to explore ideas about what it means to belong; to a community, a family, a place, a land. The work was created with the participation of the inhabitants of Hrísey that together with the artists will prepare the island for visitors. The performance is a Journey from Akureyri, a large town in North East of Island, to the island and back. The visitors are invited to reflect their own values and ideas in an immersive performative experience that involves sailing to the island, walking in nature, visiting houses and meeting people of the island. The island of Hrisey is on a list of settlements in Iceland defined as vulnerable and has an action plan in place to enhance the quality of life in the island, to bring in new habitants, to strenghen enducation and culture and to bring new work and innovation to the island.

The immersive performance project Island was financially supported by Eyþing that is one of eight regional associations in Iceland. The regional associations has a significant role in providing services to the regions through cooperatives in fields such as social services, culture and business innovation. Eyþing has a special action plan for 2020 – 2024 called Sóknaráætlun 2020-2024  linked to the Agenda 2030[3]. The guiding light for the action plan is: How can we use Agenda 2030 to strengthen our home settlement? Beyond institutional measures within the municipality linked to certain SDG goals the action plan involves supporting target projects within arts, culture and innovation.

The aim for arts and culture in this context is to raise the education, to create a positive attitude towards culture with the public, to raise the financial support to culture, to create more jobs in the arts and to enhance the happiness level in the region.

The cultural project within the action plan works with goal 4 (Quality Education), goal 5 (Gender Equality), goal 8 (Decent work and Economical Growth), goal 9 (Innovation and Infrastructure ), goal 10 (Reduce Inequality), and goal 17 (Partnerships to achieve the Goals).

The action plan of Eyþing is a good example of measures that can work to activate and encourage individuals, small venues, collectives as well as institutions within arts and culture to act on shared goals. The action plan only started in 2020 so it has still to demonstrate its affect. Island, the immersive performance work was one of the first art works to be realized through this project.

[1] The project is a co-production with Akureyri Theatre Company and Afestival!


[3] ( directly

December 14, 2020

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Accountability with a Focus on Migrants and Sexual Violence

Two wooden toys shaped like humans fighting. Photo.
Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash.

Posted on 2 December 2020 by Tanya Andersson Nystedt (Department of Clinical Sciences).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

Accountability is not straightforward in the 2030 Agenda in general and this is true particularly for issues of health, migration, and gender equality. There are nationally determined priorities, goals and targets as well as voluntary country-level reporting on the same achievements. There is no organization responsible for ensuring that the goals and targets that states set up meet some form of minimum criteria or contribute sufficiently to the achievement of the global goals and targets in line with national capacity and responsibility, nor any mechanism by which accountability can be demanded or enforced.

In the context of my research, accountability is particularly problematic. In terms of sexual violence, perpetrators can only be held accountable or brought to justice if perpetrated in the country of destination, though the number of cases of sexual violence that are reported and prosecuted are very low and the ones that are successfully so are even lower. This is true even amongst the general population but even more so among migrant groups that may suffer additional barriers such as cultural taboos around sexual violence, gender norms, language issues, lack of trust in authorities, and discrimination.

Experiences of sexual violence that take place in countries of origin or along migratory routes cannot be brought to justice; perpetrators cannot be held accountable. In addition, despite that safe and orderly migration is included in the SDGs, there is no nation, state or organisation that is responsible for ensuring the same (i.e. accountable for it). In fact, the reality and the goals are growing further and further apart – the EU still purports to stand up for the right to asylum, for example, which can only be claimed once a migrant has arrived in country, while actively trying to block all migrants from reaching EU borders. This includes agreements with countries just outside of Europe including Turkey, Libya and Morocco amongst others – which are now funded by the EU to keep migrants out. This increases the vulnerability of migrants to smugglers, and other human rights abuses, including sexual violence. This recent ‘closed border’ phenomenon is by no means a European issue and is increasingly taking place all over the world.

In terms of gender equality, the focus on women and girls is important and there is a target for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. However, there is increasing evidence that migrant men and boys are also at particular risk of sexual violence as compared to general populations, and this remains invisible in the 2030 Agenda and which makes accountability for change even less likely. 

In all, it is my perspective that the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda remain mostly aspirational with limited accountability mechanisms.

December 2, 2020

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Global Perspectives in the Field of Environmental Peacebuilding

White dove flying in front of high-rise building. Photo.
Photo by Sunyu on Unsplash.

Posted on 30 November 2020 by Christie Nicoson (Department of Political Science).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

How does the 2030 Agenda shape accountability in the field of peace and conflict research and practice, more specifically referencing the field of environmental peacebuilding? This raises many possibilities. Consider for instance whether or how government institutions, military interventions, or global peacebuilding organizations are held accountable. Much has been said – and should be said – about how to hold such processes accountable. But what about another side of this – accountable to whom and for what?

The 2030 Agenda and sustainability conversation could present an opportunity for greater incorporation of diverse experiences. Accountability ‘for whom’ is an important question to consider for environmental peacebuilding. And the integrated and more holistic rhetoric of the Agenda and around sustainability present opportunities for this to be considered more deeply both in terms of people and groups, but also issue areas.

The field of environmental peacebuilding aims to incorporate environmental issues in post-conflict peacebuilding contexts (for example in rehabilitation or negotiations) so as to address root causes of violence, enhance cooperation, and foster sustainable peace. Regarding accountability ‘for whom, we might ask not only where initiatives are working but also where they are not. This question holds relevance not only for interventions or programming, but also for research. Perhaps certain peacebuilding efforts worked for segments of a population (or for segmented issue areas) but not for others. Perhaps research has had a spotlight on some experiences of peace, while neglecting others.

Elements of the Agenda, if taken seriously and engaged with meaningfully, such as ‘leave no one behind’ or the goals on e.g. gender equality or reduced inequality have the potential to hold environmental peacebuilding to account. We might consider how peace efforts impact a wider population and account for diverse experiences – not only between social categories but intersecting them, as well.

Now, ‘for what’? Looking through a lens of sustainability or with the Agenda as a framework, environmental peacebuilding should incorporate social issues such as addressing and seeking to lessen social inequality or perhaps to include health considerations and climate sensitivity. This widens environmental peacebuilding so as to become a more holistic concept and approach. Through a sustainability approach, environmental peacebuilding initiatives and research might be accountable to more issue areas. Environmental peacebuilding is often framed with reference to ‘sustainable peace’. In this sense, a more holistic approach not only makes sense but seems to advance the inherent goals of such a program: by incorporating more aspects of society or issue areas into a peacebuilding program, the program may be able to address not only symptoms of violence that might manifest as overt or physical violence, but also structural factors that underlie or act as root causes of many conflicts.

November 30, 2020

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Case Studies Using a Focus on Systems Thinking in the Area of Environmental Science

Treetops photographed from below against the sky. Photo.
Photo by Angela Benito on Unsplash.

Posted on 25 November 2020 by Jesica Murcia López (Centre for Environmental and Climate Research)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

The heart of the dilemma to answer this question from the environmental science perspective lies in the urgent need to understand the trade-offs between food and nature conservation. For centuries, agriculture evolved by improving crop production and livestock breeding techniques, adapting them to the current land conditions and climatic changes. Today, our current industrialized agricultural system is colliding against its own limits[1], a fact that fuels our conviction that agriculture and livestock farming are the major causes of environmental degradation. For more than 50 years, agricultural productivity has increased to an extraordinary degree, however, this acceleration has led to excessive exploitation of the land. The way we are currently producing food is negatively impacting climate, water, top soil, biodiversity and marine environments[2] and if we do not change course, then we will seriously undermine our ability to provide adequate food for future populations.

The gravity of land exploitation, therefore leads to the degradation of ecosystems, which has enormous negative impacts on biodiversity, a term coined in 1985 by Walter Rosen to indicate the set of natural environments and living species that populate the biosphere.  Furthermore, the redefinition[3] of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend” in this context is a clear call to tackle the importance between delivering higher yields and improving biodiversity out of the same piece of land. We do not want to lead ourselves towards the violation of the principles of inclusion, justice and equity on which the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development are founded, and this for the simple reason that biodiversity is the way in which life is expressed.

On the other hand, through interdisciplinary collaboration and creation of targeted metrics and tools with scientific reliable data, it will be easier to influence key decision-makers, to succeed in the integration of different SDGs towards a number of key policies at regional, national and global scales. An analysis of the environment-related goals and targets[4] shows that eight of the SDGs have a major focus on the environment and natural resources: (2) food and agriculture, (6) water and sanitation, (7) energy, (11) human settlements, (12) sustainable consumption and production, (13) climate change, (14) oceans, and (15) terrestrial ecosystems. Therefore, achieving sustainability requires societies to address the spectrum of interacting biophysical, social, economic, and governance issues. Systems integration is therefore essential to create sustainability solutions in linked human–environment systems[5] and the advantages of integrated systems-oriented approaches are necessary to address the complexity of social-ecological systems[6]. Interesting case studies show, for example, how systems thinking in the Ghanaian agricultural sector revealed essential relationships across policy, social, and environmental dimensions of the sector[7], and that agricultural intensification can increase the rate of expansion of agricultural land[8]. In addition, a case study in the Amazon biome[9] based on the resilience thinking approach concluded that Amazonia is under threat. It suggests that biodiversity loss and functional redundancy (the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning) severely limits the long-term sustainability of fundamental ecosystem services’ provision in the local, regional, and global scales. Finally, systems thinking approach therefore provides an essential lens for approaching sustainability.

[1] Zamagni S. (2019) Conclusions: The Way Forward in Achieving the SDGS—The Urgency of Transforming Our Agri-Food Systems. In: Valentini R., Sievenpiper J., Antonelli M., Dembska K. (eds) Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Through Sustainable Food Systems. Springer, Cham.

[2] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) (2018). TEEB for Agriculture & Food: Scientific and Economic Foundations. Geneva: UN Environment.

[3] Griggs, D., M. Stafford-Smith, O. Gaffney, J. Rockström, M. C. Öhman, P. Shyamsundar, W. Steffen, G. Glaser, N. Kanie, and I. Noble. 2013. Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature 495(7441): 305–307.

[4] UNEP ROE (2015). UNEP Regional Office for Europe (UNEP/ROE) and the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Analytical report on regional implications and perspectives of the proposed SDGs as they relate to the UNEP ROE PoW identifying areas of alignment. Geneva: UNEP Regional Office

[5] Liu, J., H. Mooney, V. Hull, S. J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T. Hertel, J. Lubchenco, K. C. Seto, P. Gleick, C. Kremen, and S. Li. 2015. Systems integration for global sustainability. Science 347(6225): 1258832.

[6] Fischer, J., T. A. Gardner, E. M. Bennett, P. Balvanera, R. Biggs, S. Carpenter, T. Daw, C. Folke, R. Hill, and T. P. Hughes. 2015. Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social-ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14: 144–149.

[7] Banson, K. E., N. C. Nguyen, O. J. Bosch, and T. V. Nguyen. 2015. A systems thinking approach to address the complexity of agribusiness for sustainable development in Africa: a case study in Ghana. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 32: 672–688.

[8] Phelps, J., L. R. Carrasco, E. L. Webb, L. P. Koh, and U. Pascual. 2013. Agricultural intensification escalates future conservation costs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:7601– 7606.

[9] Ruiz Agudelo, C. A., N. Mazzeo, I. Díaz, M. P. Barral, G. Piñeiro, I. Gadino, I. Roche, and R. Acuña. 2020. Land use planning in the Amazon basin: challenges from resilience thinking. Ecology and Society 25(1):8.

November 25, 2020

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How can Accountability Measures Contribute to Achieving Sustainable Solutions in the ‘Green’ Transport Sector?

Old painting of women taking the train. Image.
The Travelling Companions, 1862. Artist: Augustus Leopold Egg. Image by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash.

Posted on 18 November 2020 by Phil Justice Flores (Department of Business Administration)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

One of the goals of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to achieve more sustainable cities and communities for the future. In order to do this, big improvements and changes in the transport sector have to be done. Governments have generated campaigns in connection with the SDGs to encourage and promote sustainable transport. However, no clear focus has been set as to who should do what and who is responsible for what. It is a strong and commonly held assumption that the government should be responsible for providing more access to public transport and building infrastructure for other modes of green transport. Nevertheless, transport companies and individuals also need to play their role in achieving the SDGs.

By having clear accountability measures, members of the transport sector, i.e. providers, regulators and users, cannot simply choose which targets are convenient for them to adopt and meet and which goals they can just ignore. For instance, big car manufacturers that claim that their organizations are helping in meeting the goals of the 2030 Agenda, but continue to produce fossil fuel-dependent cars, can be held accountable for their actions through control measures, not only by the law, but also by society. As for consumers, if they feel and know that their actions, particularly their transport behavior, have an impact on how people in the future can live their lives, perhaps they will think twice about taking unnecessary car trips and choose cycling instead. However, it is difficult to put the burden to individuals because many people have to act more sustainably, and collective effort is required to see changes. Finally, for policy-makers accountability measures create well-defined expectations for them, making it hard to green-wash every single project they are intending to fund or have already completed.

Although it is clear that Goal 11 is the objective for much of transport, we must remember that providing access to safe and affordable public transport and bike lanes, satisfies the overarching idea of the SDGs of “leaving no one behind”.

November 18, 2020


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Accountability and Cognitive Science

Woman sitting facing sand dunes and horizon. Photo.
Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash.

Posted on 16 November 2020 by Alexander Tagesson (Division of Cognitive Science)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

In the 1950s, researchers in several fields found an interest in studying the mind. In the mid-70s, these curiosities were aligned as a unified field under the heading of “cognitive science”, an attempt to create a truly interdisciplinary scientific endeavor. From the beginning, cognitive science was made up by six sub-fields: philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, neuroscience, computer science and psychology[1]. It has since evolved to include topics within these sub-fields that can be considered academic disciplines in their own right. For example, the cognitive science division at Lund University[2] has research programs in Audio Description and Accessibility, Choice Blindness, Cognitive Zoology, Educational Technology, Decision Making and Robotics.

Still, the establishment of cognitive science as an interdisciplinary academic field in its own right is questioned[3]. Research within the field is dominated by psychology and educationally there is no curricular consensus[4]. Today, both prestigious universities and journals focus on the cognitive sciences, rather than cognitive science[5]. Trained cognitive scientists contribute interesting scientific work, but often not within cognitive science itself[6].

The SDGs belong to another interdisciplinary endeavor, namely the Agenda 2030. Within the agenda, diverse issues, usually studied in separate fields, are theoretically interlinked due to their practical connections in regard to promote prosperity while protecting the environment. The SDGs need to be achieved in tandem, as they are highly interconnected and a sustainable fulfillment of one SDG often depend on the fulfillments of other SDGs ( This gives the agenda direction: if we lack improvement on one SDG, we might want to re-focus our efforts to keep progress aligned and interdisciplinary, to be able to achieve the agenda as such. This is a sustainable practice for an interdisciplinary endeavor and provides accountability, understood as responsibility for keeping all SDGs progressing and integrating new insights within the different fields, for continued interdisciplinary work.

Cognitive science lacks such inherent direction, as interesting work is produced within the different sub-fields and there is no certainty that we need to progress within all these fields to learn more about the mind. As a result, cognitive science often looks more like cognitive sciences. Moving forward, if we still want to tackle the mysteries of the mind through interdisciplinary work, cognitive science would want to look for a regulating mechanism comparable to the “direction”-mechanism within the agenda. Such mechanism will reasonably create more accountability, keeping one sub-field from dominating and scientific progress better integrated within the field itself.

[1] Thagard, Paul, “Cognitive Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


[3] For an opposite view of the evolution of cognitive science see McShane, M., Bringsjord, S., Hendler, J., Nirenburg, S. and Sun, R. (2019), A Response to Núñez et al.’s (2019) “What Happened to Cognitive Science?”. Top Cogn Sci, 11: 914-917. doi: 10.1111/tops.12458

[4] Núñez, R., Allen, M., Gao, R. et al. What happened to cognitive science?. Nat Hum Behav 3, 782–791 (2019).

[5] For some example see,;

[6] Núñez, R., Allen, M., Gao, R. et al. What happened to cognitive science?. Nat Hum Behav 3, 782–791 (2019).

November 16, 2020

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Postnatal_equality – The campaign to not just get on with it

Baby holding adult's hand. Photo.
Photo by bingngu93 at Pixabay.

Posted on 11 November 2020 by Billy Jones (Division of Ethnology)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

Sorry I didn’t tell you it was a tumour, we’ve been referring to it as a tumour medically, we just hadn’t told you.

In 2019 Polly gave birth. And had a stroke. And epilepsy. Then she didn’t have epilepsy, she was just stressed. Then she had PTSD. Then she had epileptic auras. Then a bit more stress. And finally, back to epilepsy again.

After giving birth, Polly started having epileptic episodes that nearly killed her. For several days, Polly was having episodes on a daily basis and was unable to leave the hospital. We now know that the cause of these attacks is a tumour on her brain. Despite the tumour and epileptic seizures, the consultants that Polly saw postnatally put this down to anxiety. Sadly, this was a sign of things to come. For the next 18 months, Polly suffered from ongoing attacks but was constantly having her diagnosis changed. Despairingly, the medical staff would consistently return to the idea that she was just a first-time mum struggling to cope.

“My dear I have 3 children of my own, I know how challenging it can be as a parent”… right so, my husband is also a first time parent, I don’t see him having seizures!”

@postnatal_equality, 2020

Throughout this period, she has had to fight to be taken seriously and for clinicians to consider the tumour growing on her brain a likely cause of her life-shattering condition. After 18 months of fighting, she has finally been diagnosed with epilepsy and been given a treatment plan that matches her experience.

This article aims to tell Polly’s story and draw attention to the gender biases and structural insufficiencies in UK’s National Healthcare Service (NHS). Drawing on an ethnographic account of Polly’s experience substantiated by contemporary medical research, the article validates that Polly is not alone in her experience; and that there are deeply engrained financial, political and cultural drivers behind her maltreatment.

From Disempowered to Empowering Others

“Women need to hear my story; even if I just help one woman to feel that she is worthy and she is empowered by my story to say to a male professional “no, I don’t think this, I think that”.                                     

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

Polly has now started a campaign to raise awareness for postnatal equality, recreating her story episodically on social media. With the raw, unfiltered reliving of her experience, she aims to bring attention to the structural gender inequalities within the NHS and give a voice to other women who are undoubtedly going through similar experiences and suffering in silence.

“I’ve been trying to find other women to connect with. Any other woman that has a similar story to me postnatally but I just can’t find it. Maybe there aren’t any and my journey is unique – but I don’t think that’s true. I think women are expected to have a baby and just get on with it.”

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

Polly argues that, after giving birth, society expects women to “just get on with it” and not complain. Besides the severe lack of healthcare support for postnatal traumas, the everyday reality that women face behind closed doors is drastically under-represented, in part because women are expected to “selflessly and happily attend to infant tasks” (Reshef & Israelashvili, 2020). This absence disempowers, encouraging women to think, “maybe I am crazy, maybe I should just be quiet”.  Polly’s campaign sets out to fill this void and empower women to not “just get on with it”.

NHS: An inclusive healthcare system?

Polly’s experience exposes three important failings of the UK’s healthcare system that corroborate leading scientific research in the field: a disconnect between patient and doctor; dismissive attitudes towards women and; a lack of resources. Studies consistently show that women across the UK experience poor levels of postnatal care (Beake et al, 2010) and that postnatal services are under-prioritised and under-funded (Thomson & Garrett, 2019). At the intersection of gender inequalities, unexposed biases and funding restraints, postnatal care risks failing female patients at one of the most important moments in their lives. For the NHS to become an inclusive, equitable healthcare system, it needs to take seriously the concerns and experiences of its patients that go under the radar and suffer in silence.

Disconnect: A lack of compassion

“I’m reliving this trauma all the time and I think ‘just read my notes! Treat me as a human, read something about me.’ “

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

The NHS tends to adopt a “biomedical model” which sees illness, in purely biochemical terms, as a deviation from the norm (Strickland & Patrick, 2014). This reductionist model is wont to disregard the psychosocial dynamics of health and see the body as a detached object akin to a car that a mechanic/doctor can fix. Favouring technical evidence and measurable progress, this approach enables clinicians to distance themselves emotionally from patients (Jeffrey, 2016). In 2014, The Francis Report found abundant evidence of a system-wide lack of compassion for patients and called for a culture change across the NHS to see patients as human beings. High profile reports like this and their attendant calls to re-humanise healthcare are far too common. This systematic failure is a result of myriad factors: overemphasis on a biomedical model, a blame culture, insipid power dynamics, commercialisation of healthcare, etc. (Zulueta, 2013). In short, patients are viewed more like broken cars than people with psychological and social needs. In case like Polly’s, this neglect merely exacerbates trauma and intensifies an already unbearable situation.

Attitudes: First-time mum

“As a first time mum, that was the first question I was asked a lot of the time: ‘is this your first baby?’ “

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

Women-predominant conditions are more likely to be underdiagnosed than men-predominant ones (Horsfall, 2001); due, in part, to clinician sexism. Older, predominantly male clinicians diagnosing young women comes with obvious power inequalities that can easily lead to inaccurate diagnoses (Eriksen & Kress, 2011). Being a first-time mother is a notoriously difficult and unsettling time, so it’s not surprising that consultants assume that first-time mothers like Polly are suffering from the burden of motherhood and struggling to cope. However, when this attitude clouds a clinician’s judgement, leading him to overlook scar tissue on an MRI scan and diagnosis his patient with stress, this is an alarming indicator that something is wrong.

“My dear we can only measure what is happening in the hardware of your brain, we can’t measure the software… I know how challenging it can be as a parent.”

@postnatal_equality, 2020

It is crucial for clinicians to be more reflexive of their own pre-conscious prejudices and how they could be potentially altering the livelihoods of patients. In a case like Polly’s, condescension and blatant sexism can be life-threatening.

Structure: Lack of resources for women’s issues

“You go through so much trauma. I think that if it was men it would be completely different. Men wouldn’t be expected to just get on with that trauma.”

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

It’s widely acknowledged that women’s care is underfunded. Less than 3% of the NHS budget goes to maternity care, of which only 8.5% – or £237 per woman – goes to postnatal care. In the most complex cases, this will rise to a woeful £805 (RCM, 2014).

Postnatal care providers in the NHS are unable to adapt their services to the needs of women or take a more holistic approach to care because funding is limited or precarious (Thomson & Garrett, 2019). Budget restraints and high case-loads are stretching clinicians to the point they cannot dedicate sufficient time to patients, sometimes reducing consultations to as little as 10 minutes. For patients like Polly, this is clearly not enough time to establish a care plan:

“You’re so conscious that you’ve only got 10 minutes with this person who is deciding the fate of your life so you’re focusing on that and then when you walk out of the room you think ‘ah, I didn’t mention that, I didn’t ask that…’ “

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

More often than not, healthcare staff and postnatal care units find creative solutions to provide the best quality care they can. But they can only do so much: their efforts are being suffocated by staffing restraints and funding cuts – to the point that 57% of midwives report neglecting tasks and 63% don’t even have time to go to the toilet on a shift (Bourke, 2013). The result of this systemic lack of resources is that women are left alone with their trauma with no choice other than to “just get on with it”.

Time to not just get on with it

“The nurses were unbelievable… [they] treated me as a human, as that person there and then that was suffering… [The problem] is the system. They don’t have enough time. No one has ever had time for me.”

P. Jones, personal communication, September 28, 2020

Despite the almost heroic efforts of staff on the hospital floor, women experiencing postnatal trauma are overwhelmingly neglected and under-prioritised. The noxious combination of gendered bias, lack of resources and societal expectations is severely handicapping postnatal care and putting women’s lives at risk. For Polly, this is not acceptable. She hopes her awareness campaign will inspire women to stop “just getting on with it” and demand care that meets their needs.

Follow Polly’s campaign @postnatal_equality and engage with her on-going conversation on Instagram.


Primary Sources

Works Cited

  • Beake, S., Rose, V., Bick, D., Weavers, A., & Wray, J. (2010). A qualitative study of the experiences and expectations of women receiving in-patient postnatal care in one English maternity unit. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 10(1), 1-9.
  • Eriksen, K., & Kress, V. E. (2008). Gender and diagnosis: Struggles and suggestions for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development86(2), 152-162.
  • Francis, R. (2013). Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry: executive summary (Vol. 947). The Stationery Office.
  • Horsfall, J. (2001). Gender and mental illness: An Australian overview. Issues in mental health nursing22(4), 421-438.
  • Jeffrey, D. (2016). Empathy, sympathy and compassion in healthcare: Is there a problem? Is there a difference? Does it matter?. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine109(12), 446-452.
  • Reshef, P., & Israelashvili, M. (2020). Between Selflessness and Differentiation in Postnatal Adjustment: Exploration of a Combined Model. Journal of Adult Development, 1-12.
  • Royal College of Midwives. 2014. Postnatal care funding: The case for better resourced maternity care. Retrieved from:
  • Strickland, C. M., & Patrick, C. J. (2014). Biomedical model. The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology, 1-3.
  • Thomson, G., & Garrett, C. (2019). Afterbirth support provision for women following a traumatic/distressing birth: Survey of NHS hospital trusts in England. Midwifery71, 63-70.
  • Zulueta, P. D. (2013). Compassion in 21st century medicine: Is it sustainable?. Clinical Ethics8(4), 119-128.
November 11, 2020

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