“Universities have a unique chance, now they need to take it.”
The topic of the panel discussion “Dimensions of Sustainability” was framed by the overarching questions: How can we further sharpen and define sustainability in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals? And: How can we achieve sustainability in relation to well-being? Hosted by EUniWell Chief Development Officer, Prof. Dr. Beatrix Busse, the panellists explored the relationship between sustainability, social and environmental aspects in different domains; how they belong together, are interdependent, promote each other, and relate to well-being.
Opening the session, Prof. Dr. Beatrix Busse posed the central questions to the four participants, inviting each of them to first elaborate on their understanding of sustainability. Dr. Jana Bauer, Research Associate at the Chair of Labor and Vocational Rehabilitation at the University of Cologne, honed in on the social dimension of sustainability, while acknowledging that the different dimensions are interdependent. From her professional perspective, she said, sustainability is “mostly a matter of ensuring human rights, social justice and equal opportunities.”
This was contrasted by the view of Prof. Dr. Marc Oliver Bettzüge. The professor for Energy Economics at the University of Cologne traced the term “sustainability” back to its origins in forestry and the question of how the use of natural resources can be sustained. These issues should remain the focal meaning so as not to overload the term, Bettzüge said, acknowledging that other aspects are also important in their own rights, but should not divert attention from the implications of applying the term in its original meaning. “The term sustainability has been loaded with many interpretive aspects over the past 50 years while significantly losing its analytical edge”, he added.
Prof. Dr. Susanne Crewell who holds the professorship for Meteorology at the University of Cologne, expressed that, as a natural scientist, this interpretation was very close to her own. Adding that in her studies, she has “always been confronted by issues raised by mankind on a planet which, despite the many complex biological and physical processes, has for the longest time been very stable.”
Cologne law student and member of the Green Office Initiative, Emma Shensher, defined her understanding of sustainability as “thoughtful treatment of our planet and thoughtful treatment in general.” Agreeing with the strong sustainability approach, which contends that resources are finite and we cannot continue to use them forever, she added that environmental issues are also the basis for social issues. From this, Shensher deduced that the contribution of her field, law, is to help distribute resources equitably; commenting further that any solution must be adaptable to the different situations we find in the world.
Universities as key actors in the pursuit of sustainability
Following on from an insight into Shensher’s work with the Green Office Initiative, which aims to establish sustainability offices run by students and researchers as central contact points for sustainability issues, the conversation moved to the role of universities as key players in the pursuit of sustainability. Shensher pointed out that universities produce future decision makers such as researchers, teachers, and doctors, and highlighted the role of higher education in ensuring that these leaders are equipped with knowledge about sustainability to achieve equity and effectively address issues such as climate change.
Expanding on this, Crewell added that universities are unique because of the expertise they contain in a wide range of fields. Bettzüge then broached the subject of EUniWell, agreeing that interdisciplinarity is key to effect change across all layers of society as well as to “grasp the full picture.” “With the concept of well-being, we are rethinking our cultural base by looking at this as our potential nexus – the well-being of all.”
Dimensions of Sustainability
On the note of well-being, Bauer introduced the dimension of inclusion, saying: “Performance is not everything. We can all profit from including people with different abilities in the workforce.” She then posed the question of how research culture could be improved to become more aligned with the well-being of individuals, whilst still allowing for career opportunities. From there, the discussion moved to the subject of economy and its interconnectedness with capital on the one hand and the environment on the other. Bettzüge argued that the idea of putting a price on everything in nature would further extend the reach of capitalism, reflecting the Baconian concept of a hierarchical relationship between mankind and nature. Referring to indigenous societies that embrace the principle of giving back when taking from nature, he illustrated how a reciprocal relationship between humans and nature might be thought of. In response to a follow-up question from Busse, who, juxtaposing the Western concept of sustainability with indigenous approaches, questioned Europe’s role in the conversation surrounding climate change and how we can change values, Bettzüge suggested: “In the 1980s, the term sustainability was rebranded to accommodate a development paradigm of continued economic growth based on globalisation; since then, this paradigm has only partially delivered on economic convergence while greatly increasing human pressures on the biosphere.” Given the planetary boundaries for further economic growth, he arrived at the question: “How can we get everybody’s needs taken care of before anyone’s luxuries are addressed, including the needs of future generations, and of nature?”
The role of higher education
Returning the conversation to the role of higher education, the panellists called attention to the necessity for universities to build and disseminate understanding of sustainability and the relationship between mankind and nature. In this context, Bettzüge pointed out that this is a long road for science and research and advised that the earlier central issues are integrated into all kinds of curricula, the better.. An example for such an approach is the new Bachelor programme in Management, Economics, and Social Sciences (Driving Sustainable Change) at the University of Cologne. This sentiment was echoed by Shensher, who in her closing remarks expressed her wish that universities take further action to ensure sustainable approaches are taught in every field, that students who want to work toward a more sustainable world are supported, and that universities play a key role in promoting sustainable behaviours across the board. To that Bauer added the wish that “we will apply the principle that sustainability requires a more inclusive culture.” Crewell concluded with the message that she feels very privileged to work with so many caring students and researchers, stressing her belief that many important steps have already been taken in the last years, as well as her hope that we will continue taking them.
Busse closed the panel by saying: “Universities have a unique chance, now they need to take it. The heat is on. Go on with courage and without fear, seek opportunities and use your curiosity. There is a lot we have to do, but we can do it together.”
Prof. Dr. Susanne Crewell
Prof. Dr. Susanne Crewell holds the professorship for Meteorology at the Institute for Geophysics and Meteorology and is Founding Director of the Center for Earth System Observations and Computational Analysis (CESOC, cesoc.net) of the Universities Bonn and Cologne and the Forschungszentrum Jülich. Her research is directed towards a better understanding of the atmospheric water cycle by exploiting novel observation techniques from space, aircraft and ground and aims to bridge observations and modeling on different scales.
Prof. Dr. Marc Oliver Bettzüge
Prof. Dr. Marc Oliver Bettzüge is Professor for Energy Economics as well as Managing Director of the Institute of Energy Economics (EWI) at the University of Cologne. His research interests comprise institutional, economic and strategic issues in energy economics and energy policy, such as European Electricity, Gas Markets and Regulation, Global Energy and Resource Markets, Business Strategies in Energy Markets as well as Economics of Greenhouse Gas Mitigation.
Dr. Jana Bauer
Dr. Jana Bauer is a Research Associate at the Chair of Labour and Vocational Rehabilitation, which is lead by Prof. Dr. Mathilde Niehaus and functions as a competence centre on inclusion and diversity in the workplace. She currently co-leads the nationwide "PROMI project" for the promotion of inclusive doctoral studies and the project "To tell or not to tell?" for employees with chronic health conditions, and is part of an awareness campaign at the University of Cologne that focuses on working, collaborating and managing with disabilities or chronic health conditions. In her research and teaching she is also concerned with mental strain and the strengthening of personal health resources in university students.
Emma Shensher is a law student with a focus on International and European Law and a special interest in International Environmental Law at the University of Cologne. She holds positions as a student assistant at the Chair for US American Law as well as for the International Master of Environmental Sciences (IMES). She is also a member of the Green Office Initiative, the Environmental Law Center, the Cologne Environmental Society and the Climate Clinic Association.
Organised by University of Cologne