A sustainable look at the future - Lindau

27. June 2010, 08:28 by Beatrice Lugger

If you ever have the time to take a deeper look at the history of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting, you will recognize that concerns for humans and the environment shape it. The openness of the scientific debates and solution seeking fosters the specific spirit of Lindau ever since the first meeting in 1951.

One idea behind the founding of the meetings was the desire for a restoration of the scientific bridges between people from different nations after the Second World War. These new bridges the Laureates used immediately, in order to put their concern for humanity and the environment on the agenda.

In 1954 Werner Heisenberg saw the attendance of Albert Schweitzer, winner of the Nobel peace prize, at the meeting as cause to „rethink the humanitarian side of science“.It was his initiative to invite to the chemists’ Meeting in the following year all the Nobel laureates whose work lay in nuclear research. This led to the so-called Mainau declaration, which was signed by 18 Nobel Prize winners in 1955 and in which they issued a warning against the use of atomic weapons.

Mainauer Deklaration

The first lines of the Mainauer Kundgebung from 1955

A full martial use of today's potential weapons can contaminate the earth so badly that entire nations would be annihilated. [...] We don't deny, that today peace may be kept especially out of fear of these fatal weapons. Nevertheless we take it as a self-deception if governments should believe, they could avoid wars on a long term only by using this fear. [...] All nations need to come to the conclusion to abdicate voluntarily on violence as a last measure in politics...

The bridges grew and overcame longer distances with every year and environmental issues increasingly became set on the schedule by the conference participants. Not at least the co-founder and spiritus rector of the meeting, Count Lennart Bernadotte (†2004), opened the conference in 1970 with his appeal: “To all scientists in the world, help to re-establish a healthy environment, to care for it and maintain it as a place fit for human life!” Sustainability will again be a core theme of this year’s meeting. It will appear from a range of perspectives in numerous lectures, to be finally discussed by a concluding top-class panel on ‘Energy and Sustainability’ on July 2nd, 2010, on the Isle of Mainau.

The role scientists may play for a sustainable world also emerged in the talk on “The predicament of mankind” that Dennis Gabor (Nobel Prize in Physics 1971) gave in Lindau in 1973. Gabor was a member of the Club of Rome and co-author of its study “The limits of growth.” The report was based on a computer model that calculated the development of five independent variables, industrialization, population growth, malnourishment, resource use and environmental destruction, until 2100. Gabor outlined the dilemma between mankind’s growth and self-preservation and asked for urgent changes in energy mix and consumption. Analyzing different energy sources, he expressed the hope: “We scientists and technologists must create a new technology, one which uses only inexhaustible or self-renewing resources.“ It is very worthwhile to listen to his lecture (1).

Dennis Gabor

Dennis Gabor, 1973 - 23th Meeting of Nobel Laureates
The Predicament of Mankind (2)

Ever since that time numerous Laureates have been talking about these topics and discussed different energy sources at Lindau. In her “Magna Charta of Duties”, a lecture delivered in Lindau in 1993, Rita Levi-Montalcini (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1986) asked her audience to do their best to help protect the biosphere and develop a world of justice – read more about my favourite Lindau lecture. She underscored the need for immediate aid for the poor from developed countries and plead for a world based on total equality. As scientific criteria lead to better decisions, Levi-Montalcini concluded that it should be specifically a duty of young scientists "to move this beautiful declaration to action."

In recent years, the possibilities and limitations of renewable energies have been on a special focus. In 2007, for example, Hartmut Michel (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1988) discussed “Biofuels – sense or nonsense.” In 2009, Walter Kohn (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1998) outlined “An earth powered predominantly by solar and wind energy.”

Untiringly the three Nobel laureates in Chemistry 1995, Paul Crutzen, José Mario Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland continuously make the protection of the atmosphere, greenhouse gases and climate change a subject of discussion at Lindau. They had uncovered the reactions, which led to the depletion of ozon in the upper atmosphere. This year Crutzen and Rowland will be back at Lindau and use the afternoon discussions with young scientists to talk about their core themes.

And may Laureates follow the example given by Rita Levi-Montalcini and talk about their concerns for environment and humanity - topics far from their own research. This year, for example, Richard Ernst (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991) invites young researchers to “Develop concepts for a beneficial global future;” Robert B. Laughlin (Nobel Prize in Physics 1998) discusses what happens “When coal is gone;” and Leland H. Hartwell (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2001) will talk about “Developing a sustainable world.”

The 60-year-old tradition of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in this sense is a tradition of sustainability.


(1) Quotes from the lecture "The Predicament of Mankind" held by Dennis Gabor (Nobel Prize in Physics 1971) at Lindau in 1973

9:08 So what we scientists and technologists must create is a new technology. One which uses only unexhaustible or selve renewing resources.

38:37 We must realize we are living on an earth which is now becoming too small for us. Applied scientists and technologists must radically reverse their priorities. The first priority is to get our civilization going and not to continue with this irresponsible waisting of energy and material resources.


(2) The Lindau Mediatheque, a project sponsored by the Gerda-Henkel-Stiftung actually contains 130 Video- and Audiolectures from Lindau.