Let’s talk about system change

It’s 2020 and Christoph Kueffer is now into his fifth year of (almost) not flying. Whereas not flying hasn’t been difficult, talking about social change still is, he asserts.
Looking for the new normal by doing things differently: For Christoph Küffer, also social innovations are needed to make our society sustainable. (Image: iStock / Eoneren)

I took the decision not to take any more flights right after the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. It was an experiment to find out if an international career in science is feasible without flying – and I wrote two blog posts on this for the ETH Zukunftsblog. 2020 is now the fifth year of my endeavour. My conclusion remains the same: it is indeed possible to pursue an international career in science without (or almost without) flying.

So I don’t fly nowadays. I also hardly eat any meat, don’t own a car and buy as few things as possible. I live with my family in a rented flat and take holidays either in Switzerland or in nearby countries. For me, sustainable living doesn’t demand much willpower, nor does it give me any cause for concern in everyday life. For this was the way I grew up with. Of course, there are ecological lapses now and again – indeed I used to fly around the world a couple of times for my academic work.

The real challenge

But what’s more difficult than not flying is talking about not flying. So I was reluctant to write another post on my experiences as a non-flying scientist – for fear I’d come across (yet again) as either a naïve idealist or an arrogant moralist.

«"Why is austerity as a lifestyle often ridiculed as backward, rather than seen as a future-oriented alternative?"»      Christoph Küffer

Because I don’t think of myself like that. I consider myself inquisitive, willing to take risks and live life to the full, cosmopolitan, socially networked, urban and innovative. So why, in a society which lives far beyond its means, is austerity as a lifestyle often ridiculed as backward, rather than seen as a future-oriented alternative?

Frequently I find myself referring with a touch of irony to my “old-fashioned” way of life. And I secretly hope no one’s laughing when, for lack of a smartphone, I seek out a timetable at the station. I’ve also made up excuses for cancelling academic invitations that would have involved a flight, without giving my real reason.

Don't get me wrong – I stand up for my convictions in my job and in everyday life. It’s just that no scientist likes to be considered anti-progressive.

Designing a sustainable tomorrow

Our society has somehow forgotten how to debate about alternative ways of life and social utopias. Hopefully, with the climate youth movement, things will soon change. We’re entering a decisive decade, and if we want to radically reverse CO2 emissions, resource consumption and species extinction, then we have to talk about system change and the consequences for our everyday lives.

While many of us hope that scientific progress alone will magically solve the problems, this will be hardly possible – and certainly not for the billions of people in developing and emerging countries who too dream of the promises of the consumer society. Technological innovations and digitalisation might indeed provide solutions, but what we urgently need are social innovations: new forms of living and an ecological economy. In short, we need visions for a sustainable society.

Partly to blame for the paralysing lack of discussion and orientation in our society are (technical) universities. People here would rather talk about technological breakthroughs than about social change. So far, Switzerland has no major research programmes or institutions focusing on pathways towards a sustainable society, a culture of sustainability or alternative economic systems.1

Window of opportunity

In the meantime, we experts go about as if we know the rights and wrongs of the matter. While the first argues that we should abstain from meat rather than worrying about flights, the next considers plastic waste overrated, and the third believes that economic growth is inevitable. But with such putative answers we leave little scope for creative thought. Instead, we should address the fundamental issues and encourage inclusive dialogue in society.2

So my New Year’s wish is this:  let’s talk about the future, without fear of loss. Thirty years from now, we’ll be living in a fundamentally different world – and we still have time to shape it. The next decade will be decisive here.

This post also appears as an opinion piece in the Tagesanzeiger.