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Interview with Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker

'The winners will be those who strive for genuine sustainability.'

The title of the 2018 book Come On! addresses us directly, telling us that we are responsible for making the shift to a sustainable future. We talked with Prof. Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, chair of the Club of Rome and editor of Come On!, about a new theory of Enlightenment for the 'full world' age.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker

Symposium in honour of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker's eightieth birthday. Organised by the Federation of German Scientists (VDW) in cooperation with the Club of Rome and the Wuppertal Institute.

On 2 June, HAW Hamburg will hold a day of action for a new Enlightenment, which will include a keynote speech from Prof. Ulrich von Weizsäcker. Through the digital day of action, HAW Hamburg aims to contribute to making universities spaces for future-oriented thought. The event will see students, experts and interested members of the public come together online to discuss the topic of sustainability from different perspectives and across disciplines.

Professor von Weizsäcker, can you explain the concept of the Enlightenment in simple terms for non-philosophers? Why is reason-based thought so incredibly successful?
Prof. Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: We have to start with the concepts of a 'full world' and an 'empty world'. Herman Daly, a former senior economist at the World Bank, coined these terms, and he of course had an economic point of view. He has used them to describe how the growth of wealth in Europe from the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century continuously expanded and increased. This expansion is also used to mean conquest – for example, the conquest of North and South America and of Africa.

This expansion continues to have positive connotations today and is what made the transition from an empty world to a full world possible. We still celebrate the famous explorers and conquerors as heroes. Likewise, the famous thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, are still very popular and viewed positively. Our strategy for progress is based on this rational mode of thinking and should be subjected to critical questioning because it is egotistical and Eurocentric.

If you ask an African what he or she thinks of it, you will often receive an angry reaction. There, the Enlightenment is viewed as equivalent to conquest. The victor's perspective differs from that of the vanquished. The Enlightenment functioned like a weapon there, while for us Europeans it was the great liberation from the Church and the feudal system.

The concept of the Enlightenment as it is used here directly links the enlightened thought of modernity with a particular type of economy and financial system, which led to the first industrial revolution. How are they connected?
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: Look at per capita income. As of the eighteenth century, this increased rapidly. The Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen defined the year 1950 as the point at which the Holocene epoch ended and the Anthropocene epoch began. Up to that point, humans had experienced a development over 200 years which saw increasingly more people survive due to medicine and prosperity. This period, according to Crutzen, was the happiest phase of humanity in the entire history of the earth. We had an empty, large and balanced world that was in harmony with nature.

In your book Come On! you use many striking examples to show how our sustainability strategies follow the same logic as the enlightened thought of the empty world. You claim that this way of thinking cannot generate 'serious sustainability thinking'. Can you explain that for us?
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is without question a big step forward, but it is too weak. The first 11 sustainable development goals, or SDGs, are based exclusively on the logic of growth and therefore a radical growth goal. This is absolutely understandable for emerging economies and developing countries, but not with respect to nature.

For example, Goal 2 is to end hunger. This would mean doubling the amount of land used for agriculture. In concrete terms, we would have to sacrifice half of Serengeti National Park. The issues of climate, oceans and biodiversity aren't covered until SDGs 13, 14 and 15. To me, they seem like pious statements to ease the conscience. These important issues are too far down on the agenda. The mega-trend of purely economic growth is still being pursued without interruption. And then there is SDG 17, which relates to development assistance. The gross domestic product is to be increased via subsidies from countries in the North to countries in the South, only to destroy nature more quickly. It is for this reason that I view the Agenda for Sustainable Development as factually incorrect and as taking the wrong direction.

In my presentation at HAW Hamburg on 2 June I will show a cartoon of a movie theatre. Two films are playing: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and British comedian Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying. Unfortunately, the theatre where Al Gore’s documentary is playing is empty; everyone has gone to watch the comedy. People want to lie to themselves. They don’t like uncomfortable truths and prefer films that are entertaining. But this is not how we get out of this mess.

But how does one shift the paradigm of one’s own thinking? How do we move beyond reason? And how do we achieve a serious agenda for transformation that is really based on sustainability?
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: Pope Frances has called the problem by its name. I can only confirm his statements on the climate crisis in the encyclical letter Laudato si´. He was advised by renowned climate researchers, something which is very unusual for a man of the Church. Frances emphasised a mindfulness of honesty – that constantly lying to oneself is not what God wants. And other monotheistic religions have also made important statements about saving nature, as we show in our book. But the Pope is the most prominent representative.

People want to lie to themselves. They don’t like uncomfortable truths... But this is not how we get out of this mess.

Prof. Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Patron of the event series 'Day of Action for Enlightenment 2.0'

Anyone who wants to be successful in the academic world today has to publish in the relevant peer-reviewed journals. The academic thesis or study presented will adhere to purely reductionist criteria and thus the concept of enlightenment that we are calling into question. One can only become somebody in the academic world if one sticks to this mechanistic approach to the presentation of academic findings. But we strongly criticise this approach. In our book, we show a dead rat that is being dissected. But what can we learn about a living system like nature – or even like the rat – from a rat that has been killed? Nothing!

What type of academic concept do you have in mind? And how can philosophy, ethics, the natural sciences and spirituality be reconciled?
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: One has to apply systems theory in order to think and proceed in a future-oriented way; facts are a thing of the past. Today, a biology student has to deal equally with the ecology and the living environment of a living organism. Only then will he or she better understand that animal or plant. Take fruit trees: their recipe for success is the broadest possible and unspecific distribution of their pollen in the area via pollinators. The most frequently cited sentence from Charles Darwin is the ‘struggle for existence’. But for him this meant cooperation, not the extinction of the other. Today, if an aspiring engineer builds a machine such as a wind turbine, for example, he or she has to talk with biologists and behavioural researchers studying bats and griffins. This cooperation and interdisciplinary approach among experts is what makes the wind turbine successful; otherwise it is a sign of incompetence.

Universities are spaces for this new 'Thought 2.0'. What do we need to do and how can universities, especially universities of applied sciences, pursue the idea of a new Enlightenment and anchor it in the educational system?
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: Our book Come On! is first and foremost a recommendation for the political sphere. Our recommendation to academic institutions such as universities is to open up the curricula and make them interdisciplinary. An electronic engineering student should be allowed to study African studies or chemistry as a minor; a mechanical engineering student should be able to do a minor in behavioural research. The major is of course the focus, but the minors are important branches of knowledge.

One of the greatest physicists in contemporary history, Hermann von Helmholtz, was also a medical doctor. He developed the main theorems of thermodynamics. This is why a wide range of electives should be available to every student alongside the mandatory courses. Groundbreaking scientific findings and inventions have frequently stemmed from these alternative paths. This is why any narrowing of the curriculum is wrong. Young people often end up working in fields that they didn't study. This shows that they are more adaptable if they position themselves more broadly. As president of the University of Kassel, I introduced organic agriculture as an area of study in the 1980s. Today it is a mecca for young people who want to study organic agriculture; then it was a central attack on conventional agricultural sciences.

One has to apply systems theory in order to think and proceed in a future-oriented way; facts are a thing of the past.

Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Biologist

To conclude, lets take a look at the future. What does the narrative of life satisfaction and happiness look like in the future? We're talking here about choosing to go without and moving away from ever increasing prosperity.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: Unfortunately, my prognosis for the next 20 years is rather pessimistic. We will continue with the unchecked pursuit of our profit-oriented, nature-destroying expansion strategy – the definition of Anthropocene – for a while. When companies can no longer conduct business in Europe, they will simply go to Africa. Over the long term though, and we demonstrate this through the many positive examples in part four of Come On!, the winners will be those who strive for genuine sustainability and have adapted their production.

An example here is digitalisation. We are not criticising artificial intelligence (AI) per se as an intellectual achievement of humanity. We are criticising the implementation of an AI strategy by a small American elite in order to digitally subordinate the world. But AI can be applied differently – for example, to make wind turbines intelligent and thus effectively protect birds. Only those companies that are fundamentally committed to sustainability have a real chance of survival in the future.

The winners will be those who strive to adopt an ecological perspective, because they will also obtain social approval. We are talking here about natural capitalism and biomimicry, which companies are going to have to orient themselves around in future. Even though a fair amount has already taken place in politics, there is still a great deal of room for improvement here. And unfortunately this has to occur at the level of global politics. We need an ecological world culture with a global legal framework, otherwise it won't work.

Thank you for the discussion, Professor von Weizsäcker!

(Interview: Dr. phil. Katharina Jeorgakopulos)


Website (in German only)
Livestream (the event will be held in German)

The book Come On!: Capitalism, Short-termism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet (2018), edited by Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Anders Wijkman to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Club of Rome, provides a broad overview of current sustainability-related plans, projects and global discourses at all levels. While the book is easy to read and at times seems like science fiction, the numerous citations allow readers to explore the issue in more depth and from an academic perspective. The philosophical concept of the Enlightenment is clearly outlined as the basis for the argument in parts one and two, whereas parts three and four, in contrast, are more of a seeking and finding, a conglomeration or narrative of the conceptualisation of the new mode of thinking about an alternative balance between humans and nature.


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