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Published: 01 Dec, 2021

RiseB portrait: Karl Johan Bonnedahl

PROFILE Associate Professor / Docent in Business Administration

Text: Maxim Vlasov

On strong sustainability, social innovation and the existential dimension of research work.

This article is part of the series of portraits where RiseB members share their research ideas and plans.

November was marked by the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The conference received mixed responses. To some it meant unprecedented political commitments, while others met it with scepticism.

- This was a great show of talk which will lead to very little action. The rhetoric has progressed over these years to match the level of radical environmentalists. Even António Guterres, the UN general secretary, said recently that we are “waging war against nature”. But there is still little real action. We are so far from success, that we relate successes to complete failures, says Karl Johan Bonnedahl

What ties Karl Johan’s research over the past 15 years is sustainability and critical approach to mainstream economics and business. He scrutinizes many problematic assumptions such as the absence of nature and justice in seemingly value-neutral ideas of efficiency and economic growth. 

- Much of today’s politics and mainstream debate is steered by this understanding from neoclassical economics and the role of corporations in the society - increasing turnover, increasing profits, increasing share prices, increasing demand. All this is seen as good - without any questions - while essentially leading to exploitation and destruction of the planet.

What remains of our discipline is to be seen, but it would be challenged to its core.

A large part of his own response has been the work on strong sustainability, including recently co-edited book on the topic. The concept invites to recognize heterogeneous values and ethics, like the intrinsic value of animals and nature, without having to reduce them to consumable products. 

- The implications for business would be profound. On the input side, we can no longer see anything as only a resource. We have to be humble as to what we can transform through business and what we shouldn’t transform at all. The goals and outputs of transformation activities would need to shift too. We cannot expect demand and profits to always grow and might need to aim for the opposite - how to satisfy people, instead of showing them that they are satisfied until they get our product. What remains of our discipline is to be seen, but it would be challenged to its core.

In a more applied way, Karl Johan looks into these issues through several projects on social innovation. Together with Oscar Stålnacke and Coompanion, he develops a model to assess non-market impacts of social and environmental enterprises. He is also involved in the think tank Mötesplats Social innovation and a project on climate neutrality run by the Umeå municipality.

- The most common response from climate policy and business has been to invest in more efficient technology or change the fuel, but this might simply move the problem to another area like too much battery production. Social innovation goes deeper to address the social behaviors, or even the reasons behind these behaviors.

Ownership is a good example. To own things privately is sacred in our economic and social paradigm. From that follow specific behaviors and environmental implications where we need to produce more stuff. If we can change the very idea of ownership, this might lead to new behaviors and radically different environmental effects.

Everyone who works with words also needs to make something out of the words. Theory and practice should match up.

Karl Johan came out late as a sustainability researcher. It all started with personal interest in environmental issues and philosophy. He has been vegetarian and participated in the environmental movement for twice as long as he has studied these issues. The personal interest and acute awareness about the deep systemic causes of environmental crises makes research very existential to him.

- When I bike to work, I pass a heavily trafficked road with trucks. Knowing about climate change, this reminds me about our consumption and that so many do not even care about everyday behavior like not taking a car to work. In the evenings, I hear about the climate talks and how politicians, in practice, don’t care either, keeping their business as before. I feel it in the body - this paradox of living in today’s society.

- I believe that everyone has their place - some go to the streets to protest, but I must confess that I am much more into sitting down and writing. This is what I may be reasonably good at. But everyone who works with words also needs to make something out of the words. It can be activism, cultivating your home garden, buying organic food, cutting on meat, or cycling. It is not enough to have a critical approach only on paper, while not being critical in practical work on social and environmental projects. Theory and practice should match up.