'A brief encounter with ‘Mr Sustainability'

Sustainability is the buzziest of today’s science and technology buzz words. In the second article in the series, a Nigerian MSc student continues his discovery of the differences of opinion that exist regarding sustainability: while the first article (Delta 03) in the series contemplated some doubts raised by Professor Saul Lemkowitz’s ‘Myth of Unsustainability’ lecture, this week a much anticipated lecture by Professor Wubbo ‘Mr Sustainability’ Ockels approaches sustainability from the perspective of space and time.

"Outer space is not unique" he began dryly, dousing all the enthusiasm in the lecture room. It was hardly the opening we were expecting that windy Dutch morning at the faculty, a day we had been eagerly anticipating, the day we’d finally see and hear the famous Dutch astronaut, Professor Wubbo Ockels. Born in 1946 in Almelo, Ockels is a physicist and professor of Aerospace for Sustainable Engineering and Technology (Asset) at TU Delft’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.Entering the lecture hall wearing a brimmed hat, the first impression of the man famously called ‘Mr Sustainability’ was like that of a Hollywood cowboy, and although he’s no Clint Eastwood, Ockels is a world famous crusader for sustainability, having pioneered research spanning all the pillars of sustainability - social, environmental and economic - in the Netherlands and beyond. But to our great disappointment, the famous p and astronaut began his lecture rather ironically, perhaps to play down the awe factor he may have sensed from our gaping, expectant eyes. But right from the start of his lecture, one immediately understood why Ockels is called Mr Sustainability: all his rhetoric sharply centred on the dangers of unsustainability, and how we can make the world more responsible through sustainability. In his ‘The Myth of Unsustainability’ lecture, Dr Saul Lemkowitz described sustainability from the context of environmental improvement, stating that “the environment improves and human life becomes better through technology...and consumption.” Ockels however asserts that creating a sustainable and greener world will be achieved through cleaner and more efficient transport technologies, among other things. “It’s a very simple [concept],” Ockels said of the Superbus, during a speech he gave at the Hong Kong Science and Technology park. The Superbus project, a research program focused on the public transport of the future, aims to improve the future of mobility through sustainability. The idea behind this kind of research is to send out a bold message on the need to cut down on fossil fuels in transport and protect the environment and mankind as a whole. Ockels: “I believe sincerely that our views, our culture, our science and our understanding must depend on the Earth’s environment, the main elements of this environment being nature, gravity and time.”  One does wonder, though, where the resources will now come from to achieve this sustainability, in the light of the present worldwide financial crisis? Ockels and his team say that in fact the infrastructure needed for the Superbus will be much cheaper than other high-speed alternatives, such as the Maglev (magnetically-levitating trains) and other high-speed trains. The Superbus moreover is electrically powered, uses rechargeable batteries, features light-weight, highly streamlined constructions and makes use of sustainable, light-weight infrastructure. Such innovations mean the Superbus excels in the field of sustainability; for example, it uses only as much energy at 250 kmph as a normal bus does at 100 kmph.

LocalisationIn the same vein as Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, the Princeton university professor who was one the earliest advocates of sustainability, Ockels believes energy will play a crucial role in the drive to create a more sustainable world in future. But before this Elysian world can become a reality, Ockels says that “...mankind must first accept that there exists a fundamental problem,” and then follow up this acceptance by seriously reducing the present levels of CO2 emissions worldwide, reducing waste and adopting technologies that ensure a cleaner and safer world for future generations. All this will however require commitment and compromise from the industrialized nations that contribute most to adverse climate change - the direct consequence of unsustainable living. At face value, this situation may seem insurmountable, especially with the driving forces of unsustainability, such as rapidly growing populations and increasing wealth per person, becoming more pronounced now than ever. After all, as Dr Lemkowitz pointed out in his lecture, “people are much happier to hear a positive story than a negative one,” yet the solutions are still to be found in technological development through education, science and research.While Dr Lemkowitz’s approach calls on his students to discover and resist the systematic misuses of science in the context of (un)sustainability, Ockels is urging students to make practical use of the information available from science and research to solve the problems of unsustainability. More importantly, as Ockels, the first Dutch astronaut, says, the “spirit of sustainability” does not come from outer space but rather exists right here in our minds. By this, one is made to understand that the solutions to mankind’s problems are not isolated. “We humans obtain our information from our location in space and time,” Ockels explains. “Our knowledge and science is built upon that information.” Our personal views and understanding of the things around us then are adjusted to fit the information we receive. “We are obviously rather localised, both in space as well as in time. How does our understanding depend on this localisation? Or equally, does the character of our understanding basically express the manner we are localised?” Ockels asks. Finding answers to such complex questions lies at the heart of the sustainability debate and will be answered more thoroughly over time, yet this fact remains and always will: mankind must now take full responsibility for its actions, so as to ensure future generations can sustain themselves, which, when boiled down to its simplest form, is what sustainability is all about.