Sustainability:  critically rethinking the status quo

Sustainability is the science and technology buzz word of today, yet it remains a confusing, often only partially understand concept, particularly for developing countries where sustainability is said to promise so much.

In a two-part series, a Nigerian student goes in search of answers: first from Professor Saul Lemkowitz, whose recent lunchtime lecture was entitled ‘the Myth of Unsustainability’, and then from Professor Wubbo Ockels, a devout sustainability proponent.

The French writer Voltaire once said “it requires ages to destroy a popular opinion.” Yet, seemingly in a matter of minutes, TU Delft Professor Dr Saul Lemkowitz changed my ideas about sustainability – and I a MSc student of Sustainable Engineering no less! Dr Lemkowitz is confident, bold and opinionated, like many Americans, and he exuded all these traits during his lunchtime lecture, entitled ‘The Myth of Unsustainability’. The lecture began dramatically with Dr Lemkowitz’s opening salvo: “‘Sustainability’ is just a fancy new word for ‘environmental improvement’. The so-called ‘Unsustainability’ of the world is a dangerous lie! Nature is unimportant: only environment is important.” The environment improves and human life becomes better through technology, people and consumption. Gazing around the lecture room, there were dazed and confused looks on many faces, yet after listening to Dr Lemkowitz’s forceful opening statements, I felt euphorically emboldened: here was a man who shared my own convictions about sustainability! This talk by Dr Lemkowitz about mankind’s budding future amid the foul cries of environmentalists and sustainability proponents seemed like blasphemy being voiced at TU Delft, a university that is investing much in sustainability initiatives generally, and in Africa’s sustainability particularly. Labelling the pundits of sustainability alarmists and prophets of doom, Lemkowitz attempted to convince his lecture audience that the gloomy talk of the world coming to an end, the end of the oil and global warming, is but a grand plan to distract our attention from the true reality of how things really are. To my ears, Dr Lemkowitz’s words echoed those of musician Kurt Cobain, who once said “we have no right to express an opinion until we know all of the answers.”  As a teacher, Dr Lemkowitz is not only anxious to share his knowledge with his students, but also to encourage them to learn by thinking critically, a fact I was further made aware of when I later visited the good doctor in his office to further discuss the myths of unsustainably. I opened by asking if he believed in sustainability and if the world was truly becoming unsustainable? He replied in the affirmative and warned of the huge effects this will have on the world and future generations. He defined sustainability as the ability to support humanity on earth into future generations, stressing that just as a mother sustains her baby, mother earth sustains mankind through her pure air, water and soil. Tagging the familiar line of the sustainability pundits, Dr Lemkowitz added that mankind must genuinely fight the driving forces of Unsustainability, such as rapidly growing populations and increasing wealth per person, while also developing technology through education, which is where the universities come in, offering students training in specialised courses, teaching them to think critically to solve societal problems, and finally encouraging students to challenge the status quo. With both sides of the sustainability coin now spinning around in my head, I asked Dr Lemkowitz to define the essence of his lecture. He replied in manner familiar to professors: he asked me what I thought its essence was? After much deliberation, my conclusion was that his lecture aimed to spur our minds and sharpen our reasoning towards thinking critically about sustainability and its effects on the future of mankind.Developing worldsWhen asked about Africa, Dr Lemkowitz replied that the continent is equally affected by climate change, extinction of species, exploitation and depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation…all of which are the negative effects of unsustainable living. But is sustainability really a priority issue for Africa? I would argue it is not: it does not rank high compared to issues like hunger, disease, AIDS, poverty and corruption, which perennially plague Africa. Yet this is not to say Africa cannot be sustainable while also trying to solve its priority issues.From my discussion with Dr Lemkowitz I was thus able to draw a line between what he said in the lecture and what he meant. Lemkowitz: “In my first lecture, I demonstrate that the greenhouse effect does not exist. In doing so, I use scientific literature as the basis for my argument. During the following lecture, I defend the opposing view, again based on the results of research.”  His message to students is to be weary of the possible present and future manipulations of science and to be critical of what we hear, while keeping in mind the difficulty of undermining a point of view that is apparently founded on science. Dr Lemkowitz’s approach calls on students to discover and resist the systematic misuses of science. “Students studying science subjects or engineering often assume that their ‘knowledge’ is always completely reliable. That is incorrect,” he argues. “I seek to give my students the tools with which they can analyse the misuse of science in controversial issues like sustainability.” While most people would agree with the well-opined, idealistic view that the aim of education should be to teach us how to think, not what to think, to improve our minds, not fill our heads with other people’s thoughts, in the real world it doesn’t always work that way.Or as Dr Lemkowitz expressed in an email sent ahead of our meeting: “Human nature being what it is, people - including students - are much happier to hear a positive story than a negative one. Just think of how politicians communicate with the public: they know this all too well. I actually presented that which I largely do not believe! How can one ‘prove’ - without telling untruths! - that which one does not believe? How can one thus ‘misuse’ science? I believe myself that the world is actually becoming less ‘sustainable’, and this process is occurring ever faster.” Sustainability, then, remains a complex issue with no clear answers; however, there is one thing that is absolutely certain: a lunchtime lecture with the mercurial Professor Dr Saul Lemkowitz offers plenty of food for thought.