Global Civil Society & Sustainable Development Lab (GCSSD)

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Global Civil Society & Sustainable Development Lab (GCSSD) investigates the social and cultural underpinnings of sustainable development problems and solutions and promotes the search for ways humans and the earth can flourish together

The path to a bright future requires finding ways for both humans and the earth to thrive. To that end, sustainable development involves the simultaneous pursuit of goals in three domains – economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. The past few generations have enjoyed an extraordinary surge of human development. Since 1900 life expectancy has more than doubled, and population has increased nearly fivefold. But our flourishing is now taxing the planet’s resources to levels that threaten future generations. At the same time, gains in social, political, and economic development have not been evenly distributed; great inequalities persist, and some worsen. Despite scientific consensus on the man-made causes of unsustainable practices, it is notoriously difficult to find solutions that stick. In part, the challenge is that unsustainability is not just a scientific and technical matter; the root causes reach deep into the cultural fabric underpinning our formal and informal institutions. We study the role of civil society, broadly defined, in promoting sustainable development activities around the world.

Some of the questions we answer include:

  • Education is a key institution for building knowledge and attitudes that promote sustainable development. What leads some countries to emphasize education for sustainable development (ESD) more than others, and what is the role of civil society in promoting ESD?
  • What explains variability in country efforts to promote sustainability, such as by planning to increase resilience in the wake of large-scale disasters caused by climate change?
  • What are the cultural conditions that promote sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments among nonprofits and firms?
  • How do social processes, such as peer influences, shape organizational practices related to sustainability and CSR?

What is Sustainable Development?

Our work follows the expansive definition set out by international institutions such as the United Nations, which defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This view calls for simultaneous improvement in three interconnected domains – economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. Economic growth includes a focus on energy, infrastructure, urbanization, and sustainable consumption and production. Social inclusion includes efforts such as ending poverty and hunger, promoting education and health (including access to clean water), improving equality and empowerment for marginalized groups, environmental justice, and promoting peace. Environmental protection includes efforts to prevent climate change, protect oceans and land habitats, and preserve biodiversity. Sustainability requires progress on all three fronts, including cross-cutting work to strengthen institutions and promote good governance.

Our Approach

Achieving sustainable development is a vast challenge. Within the larger picture, lab projects tackle focused, tractable topics, such as measuring and explaining educational content. Across our studies we share an emphasis on the social and cultural (or civil society) dimensions of sustainable development, rather than on technological and scientific sides. But in seeking to understand the relationships between civil society and sustainable development, we do not hew to a fixed or narrow view of the social sphere. Indeed, part of our effort is to continually revisit our understanding of “civil society” in a rapidly evolving world. For example, increasing sustainability emphases and prosocial activities in firms or the rise of social enterprises push the boundaries of older definitions of the sector. Our research considers topics ranging from peer effects of firms’ environmental ratings on their toxic emissions to the role of INGOs in promoting environmental education.