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 ideas about Sustainability even after four months as an master student of the discipline. The man Dr Lemkowitz is confident, bold and opinionated like most Americans 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.” The environment improves and human life becomes better through technology, people and consumption.

Looking around I could immediately tell all except me were dazed by his revelation; so I listened on keenly basking in the euphoria that I had finally found someone who shared my conviction about Sustainability. This talk by Dr Lemkowitz about mankind’s budding future amidst the foul cry by environmentalists and sustainability proponents would seem like blasphemy in TU Delft; a university that prides itself as a mouth piece for campaigning against mankind’s unsustainability. Labelling the pundits of sustainability Alarmists and Prophets of Doom, he tried to convince us that 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 by thinking 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 truly 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 is where the universities come in, offering students; training in specialised courses, teaching them to think critically to solve societal problems and finally to challenge the status quo. Now, with the two sides of the coin playing before me, I asked Dr Saul, so what was the essence of his lecture. He replied in the familiar manner TU Delft professors do? So I had to figure it out myself and finally realised that the aim of his lecture was to spur our minds and sharpen our reasoning towards critical thinking on the Sustainability and its effects on the future of mankind.

When I asked Dr Lemkowitz about Africa, he replied Sustainability is a matter of priority. For Africa he explained Sustainability does not rank high up there among issues like 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.

From my discussion with Dr Lemkowitz I was thus able to draw a line between what he said in the lecture and what he meant. “In my first lecture, 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, challenge the status quo, make criticisms of what we hear keeping in mind the difficulty in undermining a point of view that is apparently founded on science. The Lemkowitz Approach (TLA) calls for students to discover and resist the systematic misuse of science adding, “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.” After all 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”

I couldn’t agree more. However, as Dr Lemkowitz voiced in an email before our meeting, “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. 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 with the hope that it does take that long in time to correct the Unsustainability of mankind to the status quo.

Written by
Bemgba Nyakuma
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