Sustainability and Unsustainability: Critically Rethinking The Status Quo

The French writer Voltaire once said, “It requires ages to destroy a popular opinion” But Saul Lemkowitz almost in minutes changed my beliefs and thoughts in about Sustainability even after four months as an master student of the discipline. The man Dr Lemkowitz is confident, bold and opinionated like most American and he exuded every inch of these during his lecture “The Myth of Unsustainability” which I was opportune to attend.

The lecture began very dramatically with the opening salvo; “‘Sustainability’ is just a fancy new word for ‘environmental improvement’. The so-called ‘Unsustainability’ of the world is a dangerous lie! Nature is unimportant; only environment is important.”-That in reality the environment improves and human life becomes better through technology, people and consumption. Looking around I could immediately tell I was the only one not dazed by his revelation, believing all the while that finally I had found someone who shared my thoughts that Sustainability was been taken too far by Al Gore and Co. But all this talk by Dr Lemkowitz about mankind’s budding future amidst the foul cry by environmentalists and sustainability proponents would seem like a blasphemy especially among TU Delft; a university that prides itself as a mouth piece for campaigning on its effects on the earth and environment. Dr Lemkowitz labelled the pundits of sustainability Alarmists and Prophets of Doom, even though all seated believed otherwise. He tried to convince all that all the gloomy talk of the world coming to an end, the end of the oil and global warming is a grand plan to deviate our attention from the true picture of things in reality. Taking a leaf from a Kurt Cobain quote “We have no right to express an opinion until we know all of the answers.” So we kept mute at least until the end of the lecture to get the crux of the lecture.

As a teacher, Dr Lemkowitz has always been anxious not just to share his knowledge with his students, but also to encourage them to learn to think critically. I was made aware of this when I visited him in his office to discuss a little further the topic of the lecture. My first question to him was if he believed in sustainability and if the world was becoming unsustainable? He replied in the affirmative and warned of the huge effects it will have on the world and future generations. He defined sustainability as the ability to support humanity on earth into future generations; stressing that as a mother sustains her baby, mother earth sustains mankind through her pure air, water and soil. Now tagging the familiar line of the sustainability pundits, Dr Lemkowitz added that mankind must genuinely fight the driving forces of Unsustainability; increase in population, increased in wealth per person and technology through education- This where the universities comes in. He posited that there are three things the university offers it students. First, it trains the students in specialised courses, teaches them to think critically in other to solve societal problems and finally to challenge the status quo. Now I know too well that the aim of his lecture was to spur our reasoning and prick our minds to think critically of the Sustainability debates and its effects on the future of mankind.

Truth is, issues such as Sustainability are a matter of priority. For a country in Africa, Sustainability does not rank high up there among issues like daily hunger, disease, AIDS, poverty, corruption among other things. But this is not to say Africa cannot be sustainable whilst trying to achieve all this; because Africa is equally affected by climate change, extinction of species, exploitation and depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation; all of which are the negative effects of unsustainable living. In my discussion with Dr Lemkowitz I was able to draw a line between what he said and what he meant. “In my first lecture, for example, I demonstrate that the greenhouse effect does not exist. In doing so, I use scientific literature as the basis for my argument. During the following lecture, I defend the opposing view, again based on the results of research.” His message to students is to be weary of the possible present and future possibilities of the manipulating science by a select few including politicians. As students we should challenge the status quo, make criticisms of what we hear, but discover how difficult it can be to undermine a point of view that is apparently founded on science. The Lemkowitz Approach (TLA) as I now term it, allows students to discover how science can be systematically misused and resist it. After all as Bill Beattie once said, “The aim of education should be to teach us how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with thoughts of other men”

Dr Lemkowitz adds that “Students doing science subjects or engineering often assume that their ‘knowledge’ is always completely reliable. That is incorrect. I seek to give my students the tools with which they can analyse the misuse of science in controversial issues like sustainability.” But human nature being what it is, people – including students – are much happier to hear to positive story than a negative one. Just think of how politicians communicate with the public; they know this all too well.

In an email to me before our meeting, Dr Lemkowitz wrote “I actually presented that which I largely do NOT believe! How can one ‘prove’ – without telling untruths! – that which one does NOT believe? How can one thus ‘misuse’ science? (I believe myself that the world is actually becoming LESS ‘sustainable’, and this process is occurring ever faster.)” This is food for thought… so lets get thinking….

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