Symposium: Sustainability in a post-fact society, ruled by populists
CML 40 years anniversary celebration - presentations by Bas Eickhout, Joris Luyendijk and Klaas van Egmond
The Institute of Environmental Sciences of Leiden University (CML) held a symposium last Thursday (28th of June) to celebrate its 40 year anniversary. The theme was Sustainability in a post-fact society, ruled by populists . Bas Eickhout, Joris Luyendijk and Klaas van Egmond each each gave a very inspiring presentation on this topic.
CML was founded by scientists who were very active in the public debate. They successfully protested against the planned highway through the dunes between The Hague and Leiden and later against the so called “Leidse Baan”. In 1978 they founded the “Centrum voor Milieukunde Leiden”. As one of the founders, professor Helias de Haes stated “Activism and concern for the planet lies at the heart of CML.”
It immediately posed the question: what is the role of scientists in our society? Should scientist be more active in the public debate (like Bas Eickhout wants), should they practice what they preach and be an example for the society (like Joris Luyendijk advocates) or is science the new religion with a believe in one truth which leads to ignorance of reality, as Klaas van Egmond stated. Here is an overview of the main messages of these three awakening speeches.
What is the role of scientists in our society? Should they be more active in the public debate, be an example for society, or is science the new religion?"
Bas Eickhout: Scientists need to enter the political arena
Bas Eickhout - GroenLinks European Parliament member - gave us some insights in European politics on climate. He gave the example of the Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, who completely changed his mind on sustainability policy. “When Frans Timmermans just started, he stated that the EU should be big on big things and small on small things. Well nobody ever said that Europe should be big on small things. The question is of course what is small and what is big?” It became clear that for Timmermans, many sustainability regulations were the small things he wanted to eliminate.
Take the example of vacuum cleaners. Eickhout told us the story that he had a big fight with Timmerman about his plan to set a minimum on energy efficiency for vacuum cleaners. That would save tons of energy for per year. However, according to Frans Timmermans this was nonsens, it was an example of being too big on little things. But was it? Tons of CO2 per year? Is this little?
Scientists need to enter the political arena in this post-fact society and help them understand the facts. You can count the number of scientists in parliament on one hand. We need you to help us make a change."
Then Timmermans began to read the reports about plastic, energy and waste. And he completely changed his mind: Timmermans became a sustainability champion. And this switch has resulted among others in the proposal of the Commission to ban single use plastics in the EU.
According to Eickhout, the next big sustainability topic is agriculture and pesticide use. Unlike climate change and waste regulation, this is still not an issue in the EU. We don’t have time to wait another 5 years until the Commission is convinced. It is crucial to convince the conservative and liberal parties. They have to be better informed.
Bas Eickhout paused for a bit, and then asked the audience: Where are you? We need scientists. Scientists need to enter the political arena in this post-fact society and help them understand the facts. You are needed, but we don’t see you. We see lobbyists, we don’t see scientists. “I have a background in chemistry, but I am an exception. You can count the number of scientists in the Parliament on one hand. So we need you to help us make a change and do something for our future.”
Joris Luyendijk: It’s always better to go down fighting
Did Bask Eickhout's talk leave us feeling empowered to make a change? Yes.
Did it last long? No.
The blame is upon ourselves that we live in a post-fact society. Why aren't people taking us seriously anymore? Because we forgot to take our own research serious.
Joris Luyendijk - Dutch non-fiction author and news correspondent - painted a bit of a less promising picture for us. He talked about how populism was a consequence of a neo-liberal society, in which everything is for sale. As soon as newspapers and other media are going to see their information as a products that they need to sell, information doesn’t need to be based on facts, they need to sell. “If a cat video generates more views than a serious interview, why post the interview? The public is not there to be informed, but only serves as consumers of products, in this case information. The whole system reduced people to consumers.
And this is exactly what has happened in science. Within science, we see our research as a product. We need to produce as much as possible to get funding, to get attention to get money from the industry. We see economists riding in the biggest cars and taking money from the industry to do "independent" research. The blame is upon ourselves that we live in a post-fact society. Why aren't people taking us seriously anymore? Because we forgot to take our own research seriously.
Luyendijk added to this statement: you also lose credibility as soon as you don’t practice what you preach. Why does Wilders have so much credibility? He sacrificed his freedom for his ideas. That is why his ideas are so appealing for many people. But what do you do? You don't sacrifice. Yes, you warn the people for Climate Change. But why are universities still not fossil free? Why do you still invest in fossils? Why aren’t you the front runners?
“Or maybe you don’t take your own research seriously.” He said half seriously. The audience ( of whom most were scientists) was silent.
There was one question: "Is it still possible to save the world as scientists? Aren’t we too late to do something?"
“Well, said Luyendijk , “I have learned that it’s better to go down fighting.”
Klaas van Egmond: Science and the illusion of truth
According to Klaas van Egmond - Professor of Sustainability and Environment at Utrecht University- the history of the human kind can be summarized in an everlasting search for an equilibrium between matter and spirit, individual and collective. You find this in every religion or in philosophies. Even in fairy tales: the moment that the prince kisses the princess, is the awakening of the higher consciousness. A moment in which the matter meets the higher spirit and finds its balance.
We impose the material truth as a universal truth, thereby neglecting that the matter is part of a larger whole.
According to Van Egmond, history is a perpetual search for an equilibrium. Where in the Middle Ages we had a highly spiritual period, with little notion of “matter” and with a monopoly of one truth by the Church, we are now living in a very materialistic period, dominated by technology and capitalism. The monopoly on truth has shifted from “Church” to “Science”. “Science is the church with other means”, provoked Klaas van Egmond. The idea that we can understand the world and mankind with our knowledge of the “matter”, has reduced our worldview and understanding of the mankind. Without being aware of our reduction, we impose the material truth as a universal truth, thereby neglecting that matter is part of a larger whole.
Postmodernism has led to individualism, where we have no common goal that we as a society believe in. We are left with the believe in one goal: economic growth in Gross National Product. This is something which we can “measure”, hence, which we see as the objective truth. Whereas at the beginning of the modern times there was a strong notion of the collective, we now live in a highly privatised world, dominated by a financial system which only serves the few players in the financial system. Here too, we need to restore the balance. The economic system should be there to enable our social values, like building houses and growing food. The financial system, in turn, should facilitate this economic system. Money creation was intended to distribute value in our society. But, the financial system has now become a mean in itself. Read more here.
Can scientists save us from this doomsday scenario?
Only if we are able to restore the balance in our society. Education is key in a better understanding of the role of science (a part of a larger whole) and a better understanding of nature as a whole.
The spirit of science and the role of Centre for Sustainability
After the talks of Eickhout, Luyendijk and Van Egmond, we might ask ourselves is there still time and what can we do as scientists. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking ourselves if we can fix the problem. Or if we can save the planet. Because, scientists can’t and never have saved humankind. But scientists are needed. We should start taking our own research seriously and changing our own behaviour, starting with fossil free universities. We can help politicians get a better understanding solving the puzzle of what to do. We should stop imposing economic models on society, but start realising that models are not reality. And last but not least, we should never become scientists to serve the financial system (e.g. big corporations).
For our centre, it is important that science is independent and in the same time connected to society. We believe that research should not end up in a drawer. That is why we connect research with practice, via our Knowledge and Innovation Hubs. Read more about what we do here.