“Space is not unique” he began rather drably, killing all the enthusiasm in the room. That was hardly the opening we were expecting that windy Dutch morning at the Faculty. It was the day we had been expecting; to finally see and hear the famous Dutch astronaut light up our imaginations of science and technology at one of Europe’s premier Technology Universities, TU Delft.
My first impression of Mr Sustainability was akin to Clint Eastwood in the 1967 movie, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, with a brimmed cowboy hat and outfit. Professor Wubbo Ockels in not a Hollywood hunk but he has the popularity of a movie star in the Netherlands and the world beyond when it comes to Sustainability. He is a physicist, astronaut and one of the few Dutchmen to have gone into space. But true to his “Dutchness” he is not about to make a fuss about it; as the Dutch saying, “Normaal is crazy enough” tries to describe.
He began his talk rather drably, perhaps to play down the awe factor evident in our gaping eyes and get us to listen and listen carefully. This I did, writing down everything I could from the lecture. From the moment he began I could see why he is called Mr Sustainability; all his rhetoric centred on how to make the world a better place and more responsible through sustainability; what is now a commonplace rhetoric among TU Delft professors.
A practical researcher, Prof Ockels is not one of TU Delft’s most famous professors for nothing; he has pioneered research spanning all the pillars of sustainability; social, environment and economy. Currently Prof Ockels and his team of scientists are working on a novel and innovative system of Mass Transit using a custom designed vehicle called the SuperBus. It is a research programme directed towards the public transport of the future aimed at improving the future of mobility in the Netherlands, Europe and the world at large. The idea behind this kind of research is to send out a bold message on the need to cut down on fossil fuels in transport and protect the environment and mankind as a whole.
Prof Ockels and his colleagues hope that mankind can stop playing games with nature, likening sustainability to sports. Wubbo as he fondly called, is optimistic about Sustainability and posits it is mankind’s responsibility to ensure we eventually live in the green world the proponents of sustainability are calling for. These activists predict that at the pace mankind and world is going all the resources on earth will run out in a few decades to come ushering in a time of chaos and uncertainty. Their quest is thus to bequeath a world that future generations will come to enjoy socially, environmentally and economically- what Prof Ockels calls the law of continuity. Leading by example Prof Ockels says he has ditched the four cars he used to own opting for trains and green buses. This is his way of living his rhetoric rather than ragging his reasoning (practising what he preaches so to speak) which explained why he came late for that mornings’ lecture.
Well the bottom line is, the famous Dutch astronaut drove home his point that day. I can say he did a good job arousing our intellects and minds towards sustainability and the environment and what life would be in the future without fossil fuels, pollution, disease, poverty and what role People, Politics, Technology and Science will play in it. Akin to the Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, Prof Ockels believes Energy will play an important role in the drive to attain Sustainability. But before this Elysian world can be a reality, I believe mankind must first accept that there exists a fundamental problem and then first cut down CO2 emissions, reduce waste and adopt technologies that ensure a cleaner and safer world for future generations.
The Spirit of Sustainability does not live in outer space but in our minds, like Prof Ockels will like us to be believe. It is in our minds, where also the solutions to mankind’s most pressing problems lie in wait. It is there the solutions Prof Ockels, Al Gore, ICPC, Bemgba Nyakuma, Chris Jordan and all the TU Delft professors so desperately seek in order to save the planet we call home. This will ensure the true continuity Prof. Ockels speaks dearly of; the kind mankind requires to make the days and lives of our future generation fruitful and brighter than the vagueness of space, the space Prof Ockels describes unenthusiastically.