In late 2007 I kidded myself that I was present at a gathering of Nobel Laureates as I spent some hours watching a website video record of their proceedings. They had assembled with a variety of other distinguished experts for a three-day symposium on global sustainability. I can remember being very impressed, particularly by some of the developments in energy technology which were reported to the gathering, but also more generally by the wide intellectual compass demonstrated by the participants. Climate change and energy generation figured strongly in the symposium. It concluded with a strongly expressed Memorandum which I assumed would by now have been consigned to the archive of such declarations, only to be seen by those with an interest in fossicking through the unheeded warnings of the past. Not yet. The Potsdam Institute, organiser of the symposium, has in the intervening time been gathering essays from the contributors and has now published them in a substantial book Global Sustainability – A Nobel Cause.
It isn’t possible to report on all 33 essays, but I’ll mention a few. Murray Gell-Mann, the discoverer of the building blocks he called quarks, was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1969. Now 80 years old he’s still working at the Santa Fe Institute he helped to found. He describes it as a place where it is the rule rather than the exception to have transdisciplinary problems studied by self-organized teams of people originally trained in many different specialties. In the opening essay to this volume he writes of the importance of what he calls a “crude look at the whole”, and of supplementing specialized studies of policy problems with serious attempts to unite them, albeit with an inevitable degree of simplification. He wants to use the term sustainable in an inclusive way, not restricted to environmental, demographic and economic matters, but referring also to political, military, diplomatic, social and institutional or governance issues. He indicates a wide range of interlinked transitions which will be required if the world is to switch to greater sustainability: demographic, to a stable human population; technological, to supply human needs with lower environmental impact; economic, to quality taking the place of quantity (other than for the alleviation of poverty); social, to a society with less inequality; institutional, to better cope with conflict and the management of the biosphere; informational, to the readier acquisition and dissemination of knowledge and understanding; ideological, to a combination of localised loyalties with a ‘planetary consciousness’.
The section of the volume which carries essays on technological innovation and energy security includes two from Nobel laureates. Walter Kohn won the 1998 prize for chemistry. He straightforwardly outlines the necessity and practicality of solar and wind energy which he sees overtaking oil and natural gas by 2021. Alan Heeger who won the 2000 prize for chemistry describes the exciting work on low-cost plastic solar cells in large quantities using ‘photovoltaic inks’ and printing technology to produce flexible plastic sheets of the cells. The section includes illuminating essays on how new super grids and smart grids can work to enhance the feasibility of renewable energy generation on a large scale. Another essay of interest looks at possible paths to carbon-negative energy systems, focusing on the hydro-thermal carbonisation of biomass which could be done in small dispersed operations on much less than industrial scale.
Throughout the book there is frequent acknowledgement of the necessity of tackling poverty eradication at the same time as climate change. Nitin Desai of India puts it clearly: “The two challenges are now so connected that coping with one requires that we cope also with the other. That is what sustainable development is all about – how poverty eradication and environmental protection can be mutually supportive.”
In a section on a global contract between science and society John Sulston, joint winner of the 2002 Nobel prize for physiology/medicine, argues that the hyper-competitive stance that has been the norm in international relations will be disastrous for the problems now facing us. By sharing and acting upon our knowledge we have the opportunity to mitigate climate change. The great danger is that each of us tends to betray the group by striving for advantages over others, and if we persist on this course we and our planet will suffer dire consequences.
The Memorandum adopted by the symposium gathers up the themes explored by the many contributors. “We are standing at a moment in history when a Great Transformation is needed to respond to the immense threat to our planet. This transformation must begin immediately and is strongly supported by all present at the Potsdam Nobel Laureate Symposium.” Climate protection ambitions appear to be on a collision course with the predominant growth paradigm that disconnects human welfare from the capacity of the planet to sustain growth. Yet the development needs of the poorer countries must be met. The great transformation is a thorough re-invention of our industrial metabolism. An awesome challenge, the memorandum acknowledges, but to meet it we now have an incredibly advanced system of knowledge production that can be harnessed, in principle, to co-generate that transformation.
After listing key elements for climate stabilisation and energy security, the memorandum concludes with a plea for a new global contract between science and society, highlighting the need for a multi-national innovation programme that surpasses the national crash programmes of the past such as the Manhattan or Apollo projects. It calls for better global communication about natural or social sustainability crises and for a global initiative on the advancement of sustainability science, education and training. “The best young minds, especially those of women, need to be motivated to engage in interdisciplinary problem-solving, based on ever enhanced disciplinary excellence.”
The trenchant final chapter of the book written by Klaus Töpfer, a former Federal Minister of the Environment under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, places the memorandum in the context of the dramatic economic crisis that began shortly after the symposium.
“More than ever before, the relationship between economic development and stability, and the integrity of the ecosystems in our world are becoming evident. This global economic crisis is a declaration of bankruptcy of the ‘short-term world’…It is also a declaration of bankruptcy by a society that subsidizes its ‘wealth’ by externalizing the main part of the costs linked to production and consumption, imposing them on coming generations, on human beings living far away, and on nature’s capital.”
Against this background he hails the Potsdam Memorandum as an historical document of continuing significance, focused on the dramatically destabilized economic and ecological world of today. “It not only describes the problems and formulates the challenges; this memorandum also suggests the solutions. The utmost must be done to apply these recommendations to day-to-day decisions in this crisis-stricken world.”
Note: The book is available for free download.