"Sustainable applications will not solve all problems on their own."

News - 28 March 2023 - Communication BK

What words are needed to express what you experience when you read the IPCC reports and the newspapers? To describe a truly sustainable future? Silke Jonk (industrial ecology student TU Delft) and Elise Chalcraft (former sociology and urban studies student, EUR) created a dictionary of ten new terms. One is presented to Arjan van Timmeren professor of Environmental Technology & Design and scientific director of Resilient Delta Initiative.

He reads from the dictionary, "'Après moi le deluge,' after me the deluge syndrome. 'The generational divide between those who grew up without ecological sustainability as a concern for their future, and those who grow up without any idea what their ecological future will be.'" He nods.

"Do you know the Chinese story of the dam?" he asks. "Villagers nearby doubted it would withstand the water pressure. In the villages farthest away, in the wider valley, people were a little worried. Closer by, in the stream valley a few kilometers from the dam, people were much more concerned. But the people who lived just below the dam itself did not care. The threat had become an accepted part of their existence. 'If the dam breaks, there is no way out. AnDeepL APId so there's nothing to worry about,' they reasoned. That is what I am made to think about."

Do you feel that threat yourself?

"I can worry about the future, especially when I look at what is happening on a global scale. Like the battle for farmland, or for scarce resources, which are needed for our future clean energy. China is building roads in Africa in exchange for raw materials and is buying European ports. The United States is protecting its own green industry with new laws, and Europe, too, is pushing for greening, creating a bigger gap for green initiatives between developed and still-developing countries. The United States and other developed countries are seizing land overseas: for their own food production and at the expense of food and income for local people there.

In 30 years there will be great scarcity in the world for what are now called the "critical raw materials," I expect, just as there will be much more geopolitical "play". But I fear that people outside the developed parts of the world in particular will suffer the most. An important question for us, Europe, the Netherlands, is: how are we going to develop in such a way that we live, work, produce and consume sustainably and circularly, without making extreme demands on space elsewhere? And how do we deal with the scarce space we have available here ourselves? This is necessary because sustainable production and consumption takes up more space. A park with solar panels or windmills takes up more space than a coal-fired power plant. 'Food, feed, fiber and fuel', all take up a lot of land, and preferably land with a lot of potential, such as we find in deltas and coastal areas."

Photo by: Anders J from Unsplash

Well, how are we going to tackle that?

"Now we come back to the younger generation. They have a very different frame of mind than the generation before them, which of course includes myself. These young people are resilient, think 'out of the box' and more integrative anyway. They more easily include all perspectives and values that matter, not just the economic. They also look at whether something is fair, whether it contributes to access for all, or more health. They look at the whole system. That is exactly what is missing from the way the older generation is trying to solve the big problems of climate, nitrogen, biodiversity, so far.

They are absolutely right, those young people, our current students. The accumulation of challenges can only be solved by a systemic change, and by involving all values. This is the only way to achieve an arrangement of scarce space that enables a circular and sustainable economy and society. In a technical sense, plenty can be done. Street furniture made of printed waste plastic, nutrient recovery in the city. In thirty years, we will make much better use of all inorganic, non-natural materials.  By seeing everything around us, the city, as an "urban mine," a kind of treasure store of available raw materials that you keep reusing. Although we still have much to develop and optimize, all kinds of things are already possible.

We will also make a transition to regenerative materials. This is another reason why it is important to look at space differently: it takes a lot of land to produce renewable and compostable raw materials close to home. And these materials are set to boom. The Green Deal for wood construction in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, for example, signed last year, aims to make at least 20 percent of housing production from wood and other bio-based materials by 2025. Cities will start to look more natural. For example, we are currently researching all kinds of biophilic systems in and around buildings and infrastructure; as cladding, as interfaces; that makes the city green, purifies water and contributes to biodiversity, well-being and health of people and nature.

You are hopeful?

Yes indeed, but realistic. We can do a lot. But sustainable and circular applications are not going to solve all the problems by themselves. If we do not look at the whole system and do not also think about the impact of our choices on everyone, including across borders, then everything we do will only delay the problems. Without wishing to sound like a prophet of doom: those villages further down the dam will also be flooded.

More information

  • This interview was conducted by and previously published at the LDE Centre for Sustainability.
  • On April 14, Arjan van Timmeren will speak in a panel on the future of the South Holland delta, at the congress 'The delta in a world of scarcity', in The Hague. Organized by the LDE Centre for Sustainability.  More information and registration on the centre’s website.
  • View the professor's page of Arjan van Timmeren here.
Header image by: Peter Beukema from Unsplash