Climate change - mobility - consumption: for some years now, the idea of sustainability has been playing an ever greater role in social and political life. The issue is also the object of interdisciplinary study at universities. Kathrin Nolte spoke to Prof. Doris Fuchs, who holds the chair of International Relationships and Sustainable Development at the University of Münster, and to Prof. Matthias Grundmann, holder of the chair of Socialization, Education and Community Research at Münster, about the meaning of the term “sustainability? and the challenges of not living at the expense of future generations.
Sustainability is a term which is often used, and in many different contexts. What do you - a political scientist and a sociologist - understand by it?
Doris Fuchs: Sustainability can be defined in a variety of ways, which is why I always tell my students to listen carefully to what the speaker means by it and what implications this specific definition has. The term is also frequently used strategically. What I understand by sustainability is the possibility of a good life for everyone living today and in the future. I also link ideas about the planet’s limits to those of social justice. I realise that this is a minimal definition of sustainability, and one which relates to people and doesn’t take fauna and flora into account. Other people would say that these aspects should also be considered. But this is where, so far, I haven’t been able to get any further as far as definition and implementation are concerned. One example that illustrates this is that I tend to hunt down midges which keep me from sleeping at night.
Matthias Grundmann: For me, too, the definition is specific or wide-ranging, depending on the discipline. What is important for me, as a sociologist, is the subject of people living together, as well as ‘sustaining’ things - in other words, not consuming them. What I mean by that is not only the preservation of resources, but also ways of shaping lifestyles. I’m interested in the questions: How do we treat one another? How do we treat the world we live in?
What status does the subject have in our society?
Matthias Grundmann: In view of the fact that, for some time now and especially in western societies, we have been consuming at a very high level, sustainability is also a criticism of our consumption - because this consumption means excessive consumption. The result of people acting in this way is that we are now having to deal with issues such as climate change. In other words, dealing with sustainability is a necessity. In ancient cultures, the preservation of living space and resources was a central issue even then. The fact that we have strayed from this path is an historical turning point, and one which is problematic.
Doris Fuchs: That’s exactly how I see it too. Our culture of consumption and the way we have built up our economic system play a central role. In other words, it is a necessity and not just a fad. My impression is that the issue is becoming increasingly clear among people in general. The “Fridays for Future? movement is a good example of this. Things really have changed. At the same time, nature is showing us - increasingly clearly and visibly - what happens when the ice at the polar caps melts, or when the permafrost in Siberia thaws. We are getting to see the consequences for ourselves, in a variety of ways. At the moment, climate change has receded into the background somewhat because of the corona crisis. But we mustn’t make the mistake of carrying on as before after the pandemic has gone.
Matthias Grundmann: And in my view there’s also the fact that the corona pandemic is itself a result of a non-sustainable way of living that people have. The reduction in land and the decline in biodiversity facilitate the zoonotic process of the infection. This is why sustainability affects us in an existential way.
How can a greater awareness of the need for sustainability be achieved?
Doris Fuchs: It seems to me that this awareness has increased enormously over the past few years. Of course, we can continue to promote it by clear communication. This applies not only to politicians, but also to academics and scientists. Sustainability specialists working in the social and natural sciences fields must speak out and be heard. Such specialists include, for example, the climate researchers and landscape ecologists at our University, who can clearly describe what is happening in the ecosystem.
Matthias Grundmann: In my opinion, there is an awareness of the need for sustainability. You see this in the fact that even little children don’t unthinkingly consume everything that’s put in front of them. The awareness of the need to preserve things that have a value for us is something that we all have inside us. So what is there to stop us living in a sustainable way?
Doris Fuchs: At the same time, we’re all good at looking the other way when there’s something we don’t want to see. True, an awareness of the need for sustainability is present in society - but we still turn our heads away too often when we don’t want to think about the question of what we actually need to change.
What influence do individual people have on sustainable development?
Doris Fuchs: Individuals can do a lot. I tell my students that the most important thing is political and social engagement - because we have to change structures. That’s more important than thinking about any small decision we make as consumers. But everyone should decide for themselves, of course, whether to get on an aeroplane, drive a car or eat meat. It’s the individual’s own responsibility when making such decisions.
Matthias Grundmann: Sustainability is not a question of the individual. It is a question of humanity, of the preservation of human life on earth. That’s why sustainability is a question of the social practices of such preservation, and naturally also a question of political processes which can be used to deal with this complex issue.
Doris Fuchs: It’s also a question of economic structures. Consumers are bombarded with hundreds of advertising slogans every day. Actually, we should all be buying fewer products - but that’s not the message that consumers are being given.
What contribution can the academic world - i.e. the University of Münster too - make to achieving a more sustainable way of living?
Matthias Grundmann: We academics and scientists should discuss regularly, for example, how we deal with the issue of sustainability in our various disciplines. We should look at it as interdisciplinary interaction and not as any kind of competition between different spheres of interest. Here at Münster University we pursue this approach of multiple perspectives at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Sustainability Research, for example, where we work together in line with this principle. It enables us to sharpen our knowledge regarding sustainability.
Doris Fuchs: Right. Looking at the contents of sustainability in research work is one thing. Another is that all the scientists, academics and staff at the University need to ask themselves these questions: What does sustainable research mean? What does sustainable teaching mean? What does a sustainable university look like? Sustainable research means more than acquiring research projects on the subject. In teaching, it’s a question of offering more than tuition in which the subject of sustainability crops up. We have to take an overall look at how the systems of research and university teaching function and then reflect on what we can change in the entire organization. To this end, there are already guidelines in existence, both at home and abroad, on ‘the sustainable university’, as well as examples from best practice. In other words, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. As a university, we should look at the bigger picture, take a critical look at what we do every day and ask what isn’t sustainable here.
What are your recommendations for formulating realistic, achievable sustainability goals?
Doris Fuchs: I think that’s the wrong question. If we ask ourselves what constitutes realistic, achievable steps, then we haven’t understood the problem. We have to proceed from the goal. We as a society have to achieve climate neutrality as fast as possible - among other things. If we keep our eyes on such a goal, we then have to ask ourselves what steps are necessary to achieve it, and how we can shape the process in a socially equitable way. In my view, the question about ‘realistic’ sustainability goals in the past 40 years has been used to prevent any real change.
Matthias Grundmann: I agree entirely. The goal is clear: we want to preserve the conditions necessary for our existence. To that extent, it’s more a question of working out what is holding us up. Focusing on individual aims doesn’t help us make any progress. Instead, we should be looking at the big picture.
This interview was first published in the University newspaper wissen