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Thinking things through …

München, 02/07/2017

The term ‘sustainability’ has become something of a cliché – and its exact meaning is unclear. LMU academics from a range of disciplines are now engaged in clarifying its significance for a truly sustainable future.

MUM 01/2017

The term ‘sustainable’ (in German, nachhaltig) is currently in fashion and it turns up in all sorts of contexts. It is used in relation to such diverse productions as locally grown vegetables, SUVs, and government policies. In order to get a grip on its real range of meaning and tease out its implications and connotations, one must consider the origin of the word. The concept is first referred to in the work of Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645-1714), who was a policy advisor and Superintendant of Mines at the court of the King of Poland (who was also the Prince-Elector of Saxony at the time). The word nachhaltend (sustaining) appears – once – in his treatise on forestry (Die wilde Baum-Zucht), published in 1713. In this book, Carlowitz argued the case for ‘sustainable’ use of forestry products, and proposed the adoption of conservation and replanting measures to maintain a continuous supply of timber. “He was, however, much more than a dispassionate and calculating administrator. He was strongly influenced by Spinoza‘s concept of nature as a creative force,” notes Markus Vogt, Professor of Christian Social Ethics in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at LMU: “Seen in this light, sustainability is a concept that encompasses the notions of forward planning and innovation, and it therefore belongs in the context of a broad cultural and scientific debate on the future of society.”

A term of transdisciplinary significance
The so-called Brundtland Report, entitled “Our Common Future”, and issued in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development set up by the United Nations, defines sustainability as the product of a balance between economic, social and ecological goals. For Markus Vogt, however, its primary significance lies not so much in lumping these various objectives together, but in modulating the interactions between them. It is impossible to reflect on social justice without taking nature into account, simply because the environment has such a massive impact on life chances. Hence, the notion of sustainability must be reconsidered in a much wider inter- and transdisciplinary context, he contends. A transdisciplinary approach is required because a purely abstract, science-based definition of sustainability cannot do justice to the concerns of those who will ultimately be affected by it -- and the issues involved must be considered in dialog with these people, most of whom do not share our Western ideals. Moreover, the debate must be conducted in an interdisciplinary manner, because the complexity of the subject matter cannot be accommodated or addressed within the confines of any single field. “This broadband methodological approach is in fact what the term ‘sustainability’ itself implies,” says Professor Vogt. Of course, specialized knowledge and expertise will continue to inform the debate, but the ability to evaluate and reconcile insights drawn from a wide range of perspectives is indispensable, he adds. LMU’s Rachel Carson Center (RCC) was designed to stimulate and accommodate such an approach. Christof Mauch (Professor of American History, Culture and Society at LMU) who is the Director of the RCC, agrees with Vogt’s view that sustainability is not a concept that can be left to any single discipline. “No less than 35 disciplines are represented in our Environmental Studies program at the RCC. – The spectrum extends from legal scholars to ethnologists and biologists and from geoscientists to historians,” he says. According to Mauch, the challenge of transdisciplinarity lies in identifying common topics and concerns, and in finding a common language in which to frame and discuss them. Currently, for example, legal experts, archeologists and geographers are working together on the topic “Transformations of Landscapes” at the RCC, while the subject of “Waste” engages the attentions of experts in the natural sciences and archaeology. However, Christof Mauch also has some reservations with regard to the transdisciplinary aspect of debates on sustainability: “In the last analysis, he says, “the translation of scientific findings always tends in the direction of applied research, which is not particularly compatible with the modes of thought that shape the work of scholars in the humanities.” For this reason, Mauch worries that the humanities are at risk of being marginalized in this discourse, and that would in effect amount to the neglect or rejection of the contextualizing insights and historical dimensions that the human sciences provide. “So we end up with a purely technological solution, and forget to consider the effects that the production and application of such innovations may have,” he adds. Markus Vogt makes the same point: “Modern societies isolate and optimize specific elements of the system, which in turn lead to new problems in other areas,” he says. He goes on to cite the example of biodiesel, which has led to massive losses of tropical rainforest, owing to the clearance of huge areas for large-scale cultivation of oil palms. “The great challenge that we face is finding ways to take the very creativity and potential for innovation that is capable of turning things into useful resources into account from the start. – We must learn to think things through, and to ask what kind of interactions, side- and after-effects might this have?” After all, sustainability is not a concept whose application is restricted to the conservation of nature, he adds. “It also presents us with an intellectual challenge, because it implicitly demands the ability to anticipate the kinds of scenarios the future may hold in store for us.

In for the long haul
These considerations underline the fact that a combination of scientific argument, knowledge, education and moral sensitivity is needed to ensure that the notion of sustainability is kept firmly before us, and that its implications for ecological, social and economic issues are clearly defined and articulated. This is a process that begins in schools and continues in our universities. After all, students are tomorrow’s decision-makers, and many will opt for careers in business. Business leaders in turn will no doubt play a crucial role in future debates on sustainability, in a world in which long-term ecological and social goals are often at odds with the exigencies of economic growth, increased competition, short-term production cycles, and the high-speed world of digitalized financial markets.

Decision-makers who are acutely aware of the significance of the concept of sustainability may be able to act as multipliers who could help to progressively establish the idea in corporate culture. With this in mind, Professor Markus Vogt hopes that interdisciplinary study programs will in future play a much larger part in university courses in general. “First-year students who come straight from school are often unsure that the courses they have chosen are the right ones for them. In my view, an introductory and multidisciplinary studium oecologicum that included a wide-ranging treatment of sustainability would provide a good basis of general knowledge for beginners,” he says.

The fact is that we are still a long way from achieving a balance between desirable and competing economic, ecological and social goals. However, intellectual culture is changing, albeit slowly. “But it is changing,” Christof Mauch insists. A lot has already been accomplished in this regard, he says, and speaks of his own “slow hopes.” -- We must all hope that these hopes will be fulfilled before it is too late.