Prof. René Kemp: “Sustainability is a moral obligation”

Kicking off the Sustainability Lecture Series, Prof. René Kemp held a lecture on Innovation for Sustainable Development on September 19th at Maastricht University.

This was the first in a series of five lectures on sustainability from different perspectives offered this fall by the university’s Studium Generale.

“Sustainable Development is not about achieving some kind of balance, it’s a moral obligation,” said Kemp, professor of Innovation and Sustainable Development at Maastricht University.

What is sustainable development?

In defining the topic of sustainable development, it is difficult to reach a consensus on what can and should be done.

Kemp added that sustainable development is something you can never achieve, as it is a never-ending endeavor to minimize the environmental impact of each product and process.

Nevertheless, it can also be defined as an effort to meet present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. The ultimate goal would be to achieve harmony on a global level but the challenges are very high.

High challenges

Two main concerns would be the carrying capacity of natural systems and the social challenges that the world is facing today. Maximizing consumption would lead to a depletion of resources if sustainable practices are not put in place to minimize production and waste impact.

Thus, even though sustainability is a hot topic, a sustainable environment requires many transitions before it actually evolves into a balanced ecosystem.

Kemp pointed out that capitalism is focused on meeting individual needs and consumerism is in itself unsustainable. Nevertheless, businesses do take on more sustainable approaches through efficient Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies, fair trade practices, innovation and the commercialization of green products.

The need for a holistic approach

He also stressed the importance of personal change. Sustainability makes us reflect on environmental issues but also our own needs and priorities since they shape our natural environment. A transition in values is necessary to achieve a more responsible, less materialistic, self-improving and sufficient way of life.

Kemp concluded that sustainable development requires a positive attitude but also a critical approach as there are negative aspects attached to the topic as well.

One already mentioned in the lecture was problem shifting when dealing with an issue to the detriment of another. Sustainable development is in the end an ongoing process that requires multiple transitions in energy, resource use, corporate behavior, governance, knowledge production and last but not least people’s lifestyles and way of thinking. A holistic approach would be required to achieve efficient, long-term results.

Sustainable innovation through intelligent design

Kemp managed to catch the attention of the audience as several questions were asked after the lecture. One in particular came from an enthusiastic participant who wanted to know more about the potential of cradle-to-cradle design (creating efficient, waste-free systems) and the concept of fractal ecology.

The concept is embodied in a balance between ecology, economics and equity.  The goal would be to optimize and maximize value in all three areas through the use intelligent design. The participant’s question included examples of how equity maximization fits into the picture of sustainable innovation.

If ecology and economics can improve, how can equity also gain from a non-consumerist attitude?

A relevant topic, Kemp agreed, adding that it would be further addressed in the next lectures of the series.


By Ana Mihail

Ana Mihail is a student in International Business Economics at Maastricht University.


Further reading:

Capitalism as if the world matters, by Jonathon Porritt

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