Ernst Weizsäcker
Co-chair, U.N. International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management

A Lifestyle for Long-Term Sustainability

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We don't need to surrender anything that would drastically alter our way of life, but we need to think of our grandchildren.

Ernst Weizsäcker

Ernst Weizsäcker is co-chair of the U.N.’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. He has served as the policy director at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, and president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy. He is a member of the Club of Rome, a global think tank devoted to improving society, and he served on the World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalization.

He has also served as a member of the Bundestag, the federal parliament of Germany, where he was appointed chairman of the Environmental Committee. Additionally, he has taught as a professor of interdisciplinary biology and was the founding president of the University of Kassel in Germany. Weizsäcker has authored several influential books on the environment, most recently, "Factor Five: Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity."

Question: How can we incentivize people to move toward a sustainable lifestyle?

Ernst Weizsäcker: I think a very important part of answering this question is, think long-term.  Think of your children, think of your grandchildren. And don’t be content with just the quarterly reports, the returns on investment in very short periods of time.  This is not sustainable.  I mean, if I were a forest owner and wanted to maximize my next quarterly report, I would cut all the forest and the trees would be gone, and the next quarter would be a disaster.  And so would be the next 50 years.  So, the philosophy, the doctrine of the quarterly reports can be very damaging. 

And returning to the question of what makes people move.  It’s not only the profit thinking, it also a mentality of thinking we want to have an elegant kind of life, not a wasteful, squandering kind of life.  It’s also into the aesthetics, what do we find beautiful.  So, I believe it is a mixture of responsibility, good rules, and cultural understanding into a sustainable society.

Question: What will people need to give up? 

Ernst Weizsäcker: There is indeed quite a difference between just ownership and use of the goods I own, and services.  For instances, my family is part of a car-sharing arrangement.  Whenever we need a car, we get it at the relatively low price and we don’t have the permanent costs for the car.  But we always have access to car-like mobility.  But if... for instance, my daughter’s family, they own any car and they use cars only when they really need it. And otherwise use bicycles and walking and, I don’t know what.  Telephones.  But then we are living in a privileged small town of 25,000 inhabitants in Germany, so there it’s easier.  But even in New York with public transport, you can do a lot of things without a car, but with the possibility of having access to a car.  That, I believe is one example.   

The same holds in a sense for big copying machines, which typically are leased, not bought.  That’s fine.  And I can imagine this principle going further.  For instance, I could imagine that aluminum will not be sold any longer in the future, but leased and returned after use.  So, for instance, the airplane manufacturers could rent the aluminum they need and when the lifetime of the airplane is over, it will be returned.  And then, of course, they all have a strong interest in doing the optimal mix alloys of the metal so that the reuse is without any problem.  So, access to aluminum is a very good thing, but this does not automatically mean ownership.  Why do I need to own aluminum?

Recorded on April 9, 2010