Is Erasmus University doing enough to equip its students for a sustainable future?

 “We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s taking incredibly long. Because apart from a few minors, the major faculties aren’t really participating. At ESE for example, sustainability still seems to be tacked onto the curriculum as an afterthought: as an external factor. And the fundamental economic principles presented to Economics students are often difficult to reconcile with those of sustainability. They’re still learning about general equilibrium theory and homo economicus: a limited perspective on humanity and the world that is rooted in ‘egocentrism’. But the ego and the ecology are at odds with each other nowadays.”

Still, you’d think faculties should be free to choose whether they treat climate models as a key element of economic theory.

“In this day and age, it’s more or less unavoidable. We’re in the midst of an ecological crisis, with global warming and a massive reduction in biodiversity. And this is increasingly affecting our economy too – like a boomerang. If you want to describe the chaos and instability seen halfway through this major economic and social transition, the old classic models just don’t cut it. Take the Netherlands, for example: agriculture and industry are conflicting with new nitrogen and CO2 standards. Our economy is becoming more and more interwoven with environmental and sustainability aspects, in a growing number of areas. This will be a major item on future balances. And companies too increasingly see sustainability as a central theme that they need to take due account of. As a company, you’re expected to have a positive impact. Don’t damage the environment first and try to compensate for it later on. That’s the old way of thinking.”

How could the university respond to these developments?

“Introduce students to the sustainability theme from the outset. And make sure that our contribution to the ecology and society is positive and stimulating. Take major societal transitions – like the energy transition, the food transition or the transition in traffic and transport – as a point of departure in the curricula. We need to build bridges between different disciplines. Encourage transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary education, because none of these complex social issues can be analysed from a single discipline – let alone solved.”

How do you approach this then?

“Disciplines are becoming increasingly interwoven, and going it alone is no longer an option. You need to take a more holistic approach, by joining different faculties together with ‘knitting needles’, according to the American model – in the form of ‘schools’, for instance. A School of Governance, for example, could bring together elements of economics, public administration, business administration and sustainability. Or a School of Transitions, linked to the major challenges faced by today’s society. Wherever possible, you could also actively involve relevant social actors like companies, NGOs and public agencies.”

Is there any money to be made from sustainable business models?

 “I do it all the time actually. This idea of sustainability being little more than a peripheral concern for investors and shareholders is outmoded. Sustainability investments yield demonstrably high returns, and virtually the entire private sector has recognised this. The moment Shell identifies a new market – green hydrogen, for example, because that’s what they’re staking their cards on as a replacement for oil and gas – they won’t hesitate to invest billions of euros in it, and earn a lot of money in the process. For example, Shell is already converting energy collected in the desert into green hydrogen with the aid of solar thermal collectors and wind turbines. Which is subsequently transported to Groningen and the port of Rotterdam.”

Do you really believe that Shell wants to invest in sustainable projects? Surely that wouldn’t be in their interest?

 “I’m currently working together with Shell – in the lion’s den, as it were – to accelerate the internal transition towards a more sustainable company. I have a first-row seat, in other words. I’m not under the illusion that I can change Shell, but I can do my bit. In some cases, this means confrontation. My first presentation for the company opened with a single statement: ‘We used to be proud of Shell’. That has changed, because nowadays people who work for Shell often have to defend this choice. The company is no longer in the Top 5 of most popular employers among students. That hurts, and they’re gradually realising that their revenue model and social position have become untenable. Shell will need to transform into a more sustainable company, in other words – but what pace are you prepared to move at, and how far-reaching will the changes be? Would you dare to phase out oil and gas within 20 years and build up something entirely new? It’s quite a radical step, and that’s what this transition process is all about.”

Occasionally, something drastic needs to happen before anything changes.

 “Yes: a disaster, calamity or crisis can definitely help a transition on its way. The earthquakes in Groningen, for instance, have accelerated the energy transition in the Netherlands. It’s only then that we realise that the old way of doing things was unsustainable. And we can expect the same thing at the global level: more conflicts, more crises. And then, all of a sudden, we turn out to have a lot more options than we thought. That’s what I keep telling myself too. Because we’ve never successfully completed a transition by being pessimistic or cynical. You could almost say it’s our moral duty to remain optimistic. Otherwise, you might just as well throw in the towel and say: Our hedonistic lifestyle will prove the end of us.”

Do you really believe that ultimately, things will change for the better?

“Yes, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to successfully argue this point. And of course, it’s a hell of a job too. Because – well – will we be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees? No, we won’t. Can we stop it at 2 degrees? Probably not. We’re looking at 3 degrees or more. But we can work to keep the damage under control and prevent catastrophes as far as possible. So it doesn’t end up being 4, 5 or 6 degrees, because that could lead to an unmitigated disaster. But when you look at history, you see that we usually become the most creative and innovative at the eleventh hour – when the chips are down. And we’ve already fallen behind, since we’ve spent decades ignoring the problem. The time has come to convince the Shells of this world to ‘do what needs to be done’. We need to take giant steps forward, and we need to do it now.”