Exploring the Dimensions of Sustainability - The 'INES' Congress in Amsterdam

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Exploring the Dimensions of Sustainability - The 'INES' Congress in Amsterdam

von Hartwig Spitzer, Universität Hamburg

Five hundred people from 40 countries assembled in Amsterdam, 22-25 August 1996, for a thorough exploration of "Challenges of Sustainable Development". "I never opened a congress which has such high ambitions", said Jan Karel Gevers, president of the hosting University of Amsterdam. "You might not know how ambitious you are. Your ambition includes nearly all fields of science and of human life". Gevers referred to the key underlying question of the Congress: How can scientific approaches, economic practice, societal structures and personal behaviour be transformed worldwide in order to assure global survival in balance with nature.

Science and engineering have become instrumental to many of the present unhealthy patterns of development. This is why the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES) organized this innovative international congress. INES was supported by the coorganizing University of Amsterdam, the international union organisation FIET, and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, a major German research institute.

The main working platforms of the Congress were 20 Workshops focusing on four major areas: 

The workshops looked at specific areas like 

The workshops also looked at the connections between these areas.

One feature which struck me about the workshops was the intensity, sincerety and dedication of speakers, conveners and participants in the working process. I sensed a quality of deep search and discipline. There was a clear insight that present Science and Engineering Systems which focus on specialisation, selective perception of problems, and partial optimisation have reached their limits. President Gevers compared the present disciplinary organisation of universities around faculties to an assembly of fortifications which are trying to resist change and overall progress. The new paradigm calls for integration of specialized knowledge and capabilities into wider multidisciplinary systemic approaches. It also calls for accountability of the science and engineering establishments, and for constructive contributions to sustainable development projects through participative processes.

Considerable attention was given to a critique of the present global Economic System and to concepts of sustainable economies. It is relatively easy to point out the diss tortions and shortcomings of the present global market economy and its lack of accountability for environmental degradation and social decline. It is more difficult to design blueprints and implementation schemes of sustainable economies, which are fully in balance with life supporting ecosystems and social requirements. However, some crucial directions of a reorientation of present economies were addressed: 

The first three of these goals will require enormous innovative processes in order to replace 'dinosaur technologies' by information-rich, low-resource, environment-friendly technologies. Priority should be given to designing and providing services in the most environmentally and socially friendly ways instead of optimising production. A crucial catalytic role can be played by participative processes towards integrated local development, which involve all major actors as well as citizens groups. Local participative processes are recommended as 'starters' and 'amplifiers', because they can provide initial success and positive reinforcement (empowerment) on relatively short time scales. Pioneering work in this direction was discussed in three workshops.

The Congress illuminated deeply the Social Dimension of sustainability. Manfred Max-Neef (Chile), who won the Alternative Nobel Prize for his work on community participation, outlined nine basic human needs: 

Max-Neef argued that human needs are classifiable and invariant. What changes is not the needs but the satisfiers of those needs. Every human need - if unsatisfied - can create poverty. Every poverty can degenerate into a destructive pathology. Therefore, social policies and societal innovation oriented towards satisfying these basic human needs are crucial for shaping a sustainable future.

One key challenge in this context is the Peaceful Management and Resolution of conflicts. Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat urged the Congress and the Council of INES to initiate conceptual work on the abolition of war. Although this goal might sound futuristic, several elements of the concept were addressed at the Congress. It firstly was pointed out that most of the collective violent conflicts in the world have a strong link with poverty, social destabilization and economic decline. Overcoming poverty and integration of security and development are therefore preconditions for sustainble peace building. Other crucial elements of sustainable peace were elaborated in four workshops: 

When confronted with the social dimension of sustainable development, engineers and natural scientists have to acknowledge the limits of their professional approach. As Erwin Laszlo, member of the Club of Rome, said in the final plenary session: "Rational scientific approaches are vital but not sufficient. We are also intuitive and emotional. We operate on two sides of our brain. We have to pull the two sides together. We have to start to see the world as an interconnected whole".

The Congress was an outstanding learning process, which made the participants aware of the interconnected whole. This is expressed in the Appeal to Engineers and Scientists "Towards Sustainable Societies" which was presented to the Congress by members of the organizing committee. The appeal is open to signature. (The text of the Appeal including the return coupon can be obtained from the address given below.)

The Congress organizers made also a point of Practical Commitment. One workshop evaluated the overall direct consumption of fossile fuels caused by the amounted to 690 MWh (mostly from travel) resulting in 220 tons of CO2 emission. Participants were asked to pay a CO2 compensation fee. The revenue of 3800 Dutch Guilders will be invested in the reforestation of a piece of land of 0.5 hectares in Southern Nepal. The growth of trees is expected to reabsorb the CO2 emission of the Congress within 30 years. Two useful numbers to remember in this context:

a) One liter of gasoline 'produces' about 3 kg of CO2.

b) One grown-up tree absorbs about 60 kg of CO2 per year.

The Proceedings of the Congress will be published as a book (to be ordered through the INES office, for address see below). Conclusions of the workshops and abstracts of many workshop contributions can be obtained through the Internet from the Congress home page:


or by an E-mail request to

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The independence and future work of INES in the spirit of the Congress relies vitally on a broad membership. INES is an international association of individual engineers and scientists as well as over 70 member organizations from five continents. All readers committed to a responsible use of science and technology are invited to become members.
(The author is Chairman of the Executive Committee of INES.)

Application forms can be obtained from

INES office,
P.O.B. 101707
44017 Dortmund
and on the INES home page: