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University of Basel

Research in the Spirit of Sustainability (01/2015)

Research in the spirit of sustainability

Thomas Pfluger

Our generation is consuming energy and resources as if there were no tomorrow. To take just one example, the Swiss consume between 11 and 12 million tonnes of oil a year. Even though the reserves may have a few decades of life left, what will we do when they are exhausted?

Our ecosystem relies heavily on the resources available to it for its stability. If those resources are used up more quickly than they can be replenished, the system itself will alter. In plain English, that means that not only our ecosystem but our economic and social systems will undergo fundamental and rapid change if we fail to act. Change is part of life, of course, but if it happens too quickly it can be dangerous. And we are heading in that direction fast. The WWF refers to the biggest loss of species globally since the disappearance of the dinosaurs, while climate researchers suggest that the world is warming at its fastest rate for 65 million years. We do not know what disasters will accompany these changes and how our society will react to them. A number of academics fear that the situation will become chaotic.

A better approach would be to deploy our resources carefully. The Leipzig forest manager Hans Carl von Carlowitz was the first, back in 1713, to use the concept of sustainability to capture this simple truth. In his treatise on the use of forests, he asked how wood could be conserved and cultivated in such a way as to permit its continual, lasting and sustainable use. However, it took another 250 years for sustainability research to really take off. Of key importance in this regard were two publications: the 1972 study The Limits to Growth, presented at the third St Gallen symposium; and Global 2000, a report commissioned by US President Jimmy Carter, which appeared in 1980. The modern concept of sustainability reached its definitive form in the 1980s. In 1987, the UN’s Brundtland Commission defined a society as sustainable if it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. But finding out how to achieve that is not easy. A great deal of knowledge is needed to ensure a just allocation of resources, both between people alive today and between the generations. That is where research comes in.

The University of Basel is committed to making sustainability and energy research a key priority. The botanist Ansgar Kahmen, for instance, is investigating how our flora is reacting to climate change, while the economist Frank Krysiak is looking to define exactly what sustainability is from an economic perspective. Those working on sustainability issues also include sociologists and academics from many other fields.

Antonio Loprieno, Rector of Basel University, identifies two reasons for this commitment. “In the first place, since the accident at Schweizerhalle, there has been intensive research and teaching at the interface between man, society and the environment,” he explains. “In this area, the University of Basel has led the way for Swiss higher education.” Second, Basel is the only non-technical university in Switzerland to have been awarded a Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research (SCCER) – the Competence Center for Research in Energy, Society and Transition (CREST). This places the university among the leading institutions for sustainability and energy research in the social sciences and economics. “Having this as a key priority therefore makes sense not just for us, but for Switzerland as a research center,” Loprieno says.

A new discipline

There are a number of ways in which sustainability research differs from other academic fields. Above all, it is not completely free to set its own goals. Society and politics play a vital role in deciding what is sustainable and what direction progress should take. For that reason, much sustainability research is practice-oriented and conscious of its wider responsibility to science.

Sustainability research is also unusual in that it covers the whole range of disciplines. Often it is reduced to environmental issues, but the University of Basel is particularly strong in economics, philosophy and the social sciences. For instance, some of its researchers are working on economic issues to do with the Swiss national grid. Others are looking at how to promote sustainable consumption. The wide scope of sustainability issues also explains why, increasingly, they are being tackled in a collaborative way, across faculty boundaries.

Nonetheless, sustainability research continues to reflect the big differences between the various academic disciplines. Researchers such as philosopher Antonietta Di Giulio would therefore like to see greater acceptance of interdisciplinary work. At a recent conference at the University of Basel, the president of the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Heinz Gutscher, even proposed the creation of a new discipline, with a “spirit of experiment”, in sustainability research.

Under this scenario, interdisciplinary projects would cease to be the exception and become the rule. For this new way of thinking to succeed, new structures will also be needed to support research. The Swiss Competence Centers for Energy Research, which are part-funded and directed by central government, are already making an important contribution to integrated sustainability research. CREST, in particular, is organized on interdisciplinary lines. It is surely no accident that its management has been entrusted to the University of Basel, which has a long tradition of collaboration and diversity.

University of Basel at Expo Milano

With the slogan ‘For a Future with a Future – Research in the Spirit of Sustainability’ («Für eine Zukunft mit Zukunft – Forschen im Dienste der Nachhaltigkeit.») the University of Basel will be represented at Expo Milano 2015. The world exhibition is clearly characterized by sustainability: With its focus on ‘Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life’, it will provide a platform for a broad debate on the future of the planet. In ‘Strategy 2014’, the University of Basel defined the subject of sustainability and energy research as a focal area. Expo Milano 2015 offers an ideal opportunity to present the current state of research to an international audience.

‘For a Future with a Future – Research in the Spirit of Sustainability’, May 22, 2015, Swiss Pavilion, Milan.

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