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New on Leuphana: Prof. Dr. Dave Abson - "How do I step on the earth?"

2018-12-18 The junior professor of sustainability economics was an engineer until he realized that his employer was mainly interested in money. He resigned, travelled for six years and studied sustainability sciences.

Dave Abson stood at a long, finely polished table made of precious wood when he realized that he had to change his life. At the time, the sustainability economist was still a design engineer. He just presented his new product: a digital tire pressure gauge. However, hardly anyone was interested in the quality of the engineering, which had given him so much pleasure. "They only cared how much money they could make," reports Abson. That's not how he had imagined his work. He wanted to create something useful, not something purely profitable. The Englishman took the consequences, quit and travelled for six years. In India he met a sadhu. The ascetic wandering mendicant only had the clothes he wore on his body and a pot. He said to Abson: "The most important thing in life is to be conscious about how you step on the Earth." 

Inspired by the words of the sadhu and determined to better understand how his wealthy western lifestyle stepped on the Earth. Dave’s path  led him back to university: he studied again and graduated from the University of Leeds with a Master's degree in Sustainable Development. In his interdisciplinary doctoral thesis, he dealt with the positive influence of diverse agricultural systems on farmland birdsand the stability of farm incomes, finding thatheterogeneous farmed landscapes not only offered animals more ecological niches. They were also more resistant to economic and environmental disturbances than  monocultures. His finds inspiration via changing  perspectives (for example, by thinking how a bird and a farmer ‘see’ a landscape). It is also the subject of his current research as part of the large-scale project "Leverage Points" at Leuphana. He deals with models of thought of scientists: "The way you describe your system shapes the kind of opportunities to intervene in that system," explains Abson. For example, there is the concept of ecosystem services. It is not uncommon for concrete monetary values to be calculated, for example for pollination by bees or the degradation of feces by dung beetles. This move towards economic valuation was initially not driven by  economists but ecologists as an additional argument to promote nature conservation and to make clear how important a functioning ecosystem is for our well-being: "However the argument that we should conserve ecosystems because we get some instrumental value from it, rapidly shifted from an additional argument for conservation to a new rationale for defining our relations to nature" explains Abson. During his doctoral thesis, the 44-year-old was part of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. At the end of the project, an official report with 30 chapters was published, only two of which dealt with the economic value of ecosystems, yet it was only this narrow economic perspective on the value of UK’s ecosystems that  were discussed by the press and politicians, says Abson: "That's a problem ".

The Leuphana is therefore the right place for his research: "Here, they not only describe problems they seek solutions. The article "Leverage Points" by American scientist and systems thinker Donella Meadows was particularly influential for him in this context. She discussed which points in a system should be targeted to achieve a real transformation. In fact, we already have a good understanding of the problems. However, the solutions will require transformative change, which in turn is likely to require us to question the underpinning paradigmns and goals of the systems in which we wish to intervene, explains Abson: "It's not an easy thing to change the intentions of a system. But we have to start thinking about it." 

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Author: Marietta Hülsmann