UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

Who we are

Global Change & Sustainability Research Institute (GCSRI)

Global change and sustainable development are urgent problems that are closely related, and need to be addressed in an integrated fashion. Climate change is one indicator that modern society is on an unsustainable pathway, and so it is one component of a broader challenge to achieving global sustainability.  In fact, climate change causes and impacts are perhaps most appropriately framed not as isolated phenomena, but rather as potent threat multipliers that will exacerbate the many problems we already face – such as poverty, hunger, illness, water and energy scarcities, environmental degradation, and conflict. Conversely, unsustainable development patterns will not only increase greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change, but also increase vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

The problems we face in dealing with global change in the broader context of sustainable development stem, in part, from approaching the challenge from the perspective of “disciplinary tunnel vision”. That is, the problem is often narrowed down to an emphasis on a single, major approach (e.g. an appropriate economic instrument, a ‘magic bullet’ technology, replanting forests), depending on the disciplinary expertise of the proponent. Instead, the climate change problem, among other global change problems, should be understood in terms of physical, biological, psychological, socioeconomic and cultural processes. Meeting such a challenge will require more tightly coordinated activities and measures, but these will need to be backed up by more highly integrated knowledge systems and a much more effective, interactive coupling between knowledge and policy.

While subject or disciplinary-specific scientific matters can be neatly demarcated into compartments, humans never operate in any particular one group or even groups of them at any point in time.  Humans live, work and play in all of them simultaneously.  As a result, the challenges humanity are facing today can and will never be resolved by and with the insights gained and advances made in any particular field of scientific investigation. Paraphrasing Einstein:

“Problems can never be solved within the same mindset that created them”.

Multi-disciplinarity offers the opportunity to discover new integrated solutions. This implies that natural and social scientists alike have to consider common research questions in seeking a mutually agreed upon outcome to the betterment of society, yet in a fundamental scientific manner.  The diversity of experts and opinions at tertiary institutions place them in an ideal position to tackle this challenge head-on, and gain global recognition while staying locally relevant. Universities therefore have a moral obligation and responsibility to discover, design, and deliver effective solutions to global change. The GCSRI is Wits’ vehicle to take on this challenge.