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SDSoc: Zurich Report
SDSoc: Zurich Report
Student Summit for Sustainability – Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Student
Community for Sustainable Development (WSC-SD)
UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREW’S SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT SOCIETY
February 19, 2009
Authored by: Dylan Elek McFarlane, Sina Birkholz, Amanda Gudmundsson, Matthias Pfaff, & Conall McGinley
SDSoc: Zurich Report
Student Summit for Sustainability (S3) – Annual Meeting 2009 of the World
Student Community for Sustainable Development (WSC-SD)
Jan. 25th – Feb. 1st 2009 in ETH Zurick/Kreuzlingen, Switzerland
World Student Community for Sustainable Development
The WSC-SD is an international network comprised of over thirty student member communities, and a growing
network of individual members. The fundamental purpose of the WSC-SD is to give motivated students who are
passionate about sustainability, opportunities to learn from each other, collaborate and to take action. The primary
strength of the WSC-SD lies in its multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural approach in solving some of the pressing
issues facing the world today. Last autumn, the Sustainable Development Society (SDSoc) became the UK’s first
student group to join others from Dhaka, Bogota, Kampala, Tokyo, Boston, etc. Find out more: www.wscsd.org
The Realistic Side of the World
The 2009 S3 conference declared “today’s global political and economic institutions do not promote sustainable
development. Indeed, huge efforts have to be made to achieve what are only very minimal levels of sustainable
development. Why is this so?” Approximately ninety students representing thirty countries participated in the
discussion of this topic, structured around three sub-headings: Geopolitics, Global financial markets, and Nonmonetary incentives. Five students represented the University of St. Andrews, engaging in discussions, panels,
workshops and a variety of other activities, seeking answers to these current challenges. We learned how work at St.
Andrews fits into the wider movement towards SD and we were inspired with new visions and cultural interchanges
towards achieving the goal of “making it real”. See more: http://wscsd.org/s3zurich/
Alliance for Global Sustainability
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
Concurrent with the S3 meeting was the annual meeting for the AGS, a partnership between the world’s leading
science and technology universities: the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Zurich), the University
of Tokyo (UT), Chalmers University of Technology, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Created in
1997, the AGS today brings together hundreds of university scientists, engineers, and social scientists to address the
complex issues that lie at the intersection of environmental, economic and social goals. The AGS encourages research
partnerships with business, government, and nongovernmental organizations, and the sharing of research results. The
theme was “Urban Futures – the Challenge of Sustainability” and featured experts from various disciplines and
universities to assess the implications of the rapid growth of the world’s urban populations. Learn more:
www.globalsustainability.org
The Programme
Following are reflections from the five students who attended the conferences in Switzerland. Two keynote speakers
deserve mention first: Colin Campbell, a geologist for 40 years in the oil industry, gave compelling evidence for Peak
Oil, a “turning point for mankind”. Campbell backed up the “oil age” phenomenon sharing his experience working for
BP, Amoco, Fina, and others as a geologist in the field, as a manager and a consultant. Bernard Lietaer, a designer of
the “Euro” currency system, educated us with a theory of money. Employing intentional economics, he showed how
complementary currencies should be part of a systemic solution for the economic crisis.
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Dylan Elek McFarlane (USA-Alaska)
4th Year, Sustainable Development
[email protected]

Sustainable Development needs a theory of peace built-in

Absent SD-knowledge sharing in the Middle East is an enormous challenge

Transdisciplinarity requires research to form new relationships with society

Higher education should inspire change, and make those connections real

Sustainability can be an ideology, that is meaning in the service of power

Nevertheless, SD is real, it is happening, and there are an incredible diversity of voices
Four persons who motivated me: Tulsi (Nepal) working with the new Maoist government together with
local youth to give them SD-training and hope for the future; Qiang (China) developing sustainable
buildings following the May 2008 Sichuan earthquakes; Otieno (Kenya) transforming youth attitudes via SD
information and resource center; Sheedeh & Payam (Iran) focused on sustainable society and the problem
gender inequality poses in Iran. These dialogues were glimpses into the “reality” of sustainable development
which I’ve lacked studying SD from my “ivory tower” at St. Andrews. There was fun too: we explored
Zurich, danced, and played games many nights in between incredible discussions with amazing people from
all over the world. In addition to SDSoc events, I plan to participate in Tulsi’s international
workshop/camp in Nepal for “Youth Participation in Sustainable Social Development” in November 2009.
The people I met within WSCSD instilled a new passion towards “making it real”. The experience gave me
confidence with my personal ambitions to change how the mining industry operates, to create a new
language for engagement with indigenous peoples, and to see metals as “precious” within a broader life cycle
of mineral supply and use.
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
I arrived to Zurich with skepticism about the conferences, but this was due to my own insecurities and not
reflective of the WSCSD’s organization, which was in fact superb. By the end of both the AGS and WSCSD
conferences, I felt completely different. I attended fifteen lectures, five panel discussions, one workshop,
and read about seventy posters. I gained knowledge about different issues in sustainable development,
summarized below, but more importantly, I engaged with other participants, and especially students (from
over thirty countries), on an extremely personal and intimate level. I was critical during the student
programme for how the WSCSD “institutionalized” SD in a sometimes ‘top-down’ fashion, but also because
I wanted to break through the political and economic challenges. The geopolitics theme was my favorite,
but because of the shared sentiments toward the USA and President Bush, I often felt in an awkward
position, which leads me to my first conclusion from Zurich:
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Sina Birkholz (Germany)
4th Year Visiting Student, International Relations
[email protected]
Asked for my overall experience of the S3 and the AGS conference, I can
clearly say that it was 100 % worth going. I learned a lot and my personal
work for SD has definitely gained momentum due to the S3. I might be a
special case as I was elected president of the WSC-SD at the S3. Nonetheless I am sure that the basic
aspects of my evaluation of the positive S3 experience can be transferred without great reservation.
● Academic gain
The academic gain from the AGS conference was - in referral to my discipline - rather little for me.
Probably this is mostly due to the near total absence of the Social Sciences from the conference. Were social
aspects of Sustainable Development addressed the presentation and research did mostly not seem
convincing to me from an academic point of view. Nonetheless it was very instructive to see how other
more science and practice oriented disciplines approach questions of SD. The S3 was principally more
tailored towards my academic interest. And thus there were several presentations, talks and workshops by
students, academics and professionals that I considered valuable input. In any case I learned a lot about the
academic perspective towards SD, which however is not my academic field.
● Broaden the horizon
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
Many fascinating people are members of the WSC-SD. Some of them work individually, most in other
student groups, but all come from a magnitude of academic and societal backgrounds. It was an important
experience for me to see how differently Sustainable Development can be understood and approached.
These encounters enabled me to broaden my personal horizon in regards to SD and to think a bit further. A
narrow conception of SD might not be able to capture the needs of people in developing countries for
example. A mono-dimensional academic approach is unlikely to address the challenges ahead of us. The S3
made me more aware of the necessity for trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural work but also showed which
problems emerge in communication and cooperation across disciplines and cultures.
● Motivation
For me doing voluntary work can at times be rather frustrating. Quite often outcomes do not seem to
match the efforts. Small steps have to be taken while instant changes of a larger scale often prove impossible
to achieve. Motivation among members of voluntary organisations seems to decrease with time thus often
hampering ambitious plans decided on originally. The experience of the S3 encouraged me to keep going
for several reasons. I saw how many other people and groups are working towards the same goal. This
reminded me again that a lot of small steps might together in the end have a huge impact.
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● Exchange of ideas
I also benefited from the S3 on a more practical level. I returned with a lot of new ideas for how to promote
SD. The student group Unipoly for example has developed a French board game on SD for schoolchildren,
which could well be translated and adapted to other local settings. Students from MIT organize “Zero
Waste Events”, CSS from Chalmers had interesting ideas how to make lectures and seminar series on SD
more attractive to the wider student body. I also learned how much further other universities are in
incorporating SD into their curriculum and into various aspects of university life. Above that I was happy to
see that the SDSoc came up with a lot of interesting ideas for projects and campaigning after returning from
Switzerland. Although not all of them were directly related to the S3-experience, they surely resulted from
the momentum gained at the conference.
● Networking and finding “role models”
Both the AGS conference as well as the S3 offered plenty opportunities for networking. We got in contact
not only with other students but also with academics and professionals working in the field of SD. For me
the latter was most important as it showed possibilities to stay involved with SD after university. By having
direct, non-hierarchic access to people with a lot more practical experience, I was able to get a lively and
“unfiltered” impression of their work. I can well imagine that the contacts established during the AGS
conference and the S3 will help me to find the way into working life that is appropriate for me. Even if that
would not be the case, the WSC-SD’s network will definitely enable me to stay involved with SD at later
periods of my life.
Matthias Pfaff (Germany)
3rd Year, Economics and International Relations
At first I would like mention my gratitude towards everyone who has worked hard to make this conference
possible and everyone involved in communities such as the WSC-SD – everyone who takes a great stake in
sustainable development. Without such communities and exchange events, the path towards a sustainable
future would still be much longer than it is today. This brings me to the first and most important realization
that I made during the conference: Even though SD still seems like a niche-movement, it has such an
energetic, creative and capable fellowship, and in this fellowship lays the potential to make change.
The conference’s division into three topics (Global Financial Markets, Geopolitics and Non-Monetary
Incentives) and the breadth of the approach to sustainability made me curious about the eventual coherence
of the inputs. In retrospect I can say that the structure reflected the consent among the participants that an
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
[email protected]
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integrated, interdisciplinary approach is necessary to achieve sustainable development. I have also learnt a
lot in each of these fields and got inspired to do further research.
Global Financial Markets
In the first presentation of the conference Dr. Peter Ulrich of the University of St. Gallen tellingly pointed
out modern societies’ “economistic confusion of ends and means”, thereby setting the starting point for a
fundamental re-examination of the global economy and financial markets. This statement already identified
the fact that the issue is not anymore whether something is “eco-friendly”, socially responsible etc. or not,
but whether our mindset is still reconcilable with sustainable development. In Dr. Ulrich’s opinion, at this
point in time it is not anymore – and this has to change. In the context of the worldwide financial and
economic crisis our objectives have to undergo a fundamental shift – from an “abundance of goods” to an
“abundance of life”, where meaning and justice preside over efficiency and not the other way around. In my
view, this paradigm shift can come about if we create some kind of rule of law for global financial markets.
Global financial laws would have to be implemented and rigorously enforced, as difficult as this may be.
Ideally, such binding rules would eventually transcend the jurisdictional sphere to get internalized by every
member of the global economy as basic moral standards in the Kantian sense. Only with such standards in
place can the global economy be fair and equitable and function sustainably.
Geopolitics
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
The “red string” of this topic was, of course, oil and in particular the discussion revolving around “peak-oil”.
The lessons of the presentations and workshops start with another reminder of the fact that there will
indeed be no oil left in ca. forty years if we continue to extract it even at a declining rate of 2-3% a year.
Having established an absolute and almost irreplaceable reliance on oil and other fossil fuels as our primary
energy source, we are facing “tough times” according to some of the speakers. It is these topics that
governments around the world have put at the top of their agendas, which sadly still seems to be rather
short-term oriented and thus characterized by notions such as “energy security” and danger of “resource
conflicts”. However, this can also be seen as a fitting entry point for interested and motivated groups and
individuals, who want to bring change to the political landscape. My personal conclusion of the Geopolitics
topic was that in the light of the serious situation of resource depletion, the call for cooperation should be
louder than ever and the argument of possible resource wars should be turned around into possible avenues
for global resource solutions.
Non-Monetary Incentives
In the spirit of the notion of sustainability the topic may have been termed “Not-Exclusively Monetary
Incentives”, leaving incentives space to be environmentally, socially but also economically sustainable. As
one of the most interesting speakers of the conference, the social entrepreneur Illac Diaz, jocularly
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suggested: Bill Gates + Mother Theresa = Mohammad Yunus. While non-monetary incentives need to take
on a more dominant role in societies, people also have to realize that commercial enterprise need not be the
opposite of that. “Creative Capitalism” or “Social Capitalism” would be fitting catchphrases for such a
rethinking, where business and philanthropy are not polar opposites anymore. Non-Monetary incentives
were also a driving force in what brought the attendants to Switzerland. This is probably the most beautiful
as well as powerful lesson I learnt from this part of the conference, one that connects back to my initial
statement about the joy that I experienced, seeing so many people from such diverse backgrounds putting
so much energy into projects that they believe will make the world sustainable.
The above topics were supplemented with a high volume and quality of technical inputs and suggestions for
practical solutions on communal and local levels. Especially some of the participants’ expertise on certain
technical topics was impressive and promising. It is now up to the Sustainable Development Society to
investigate possible projects and collaborations in and beyond St Andrews, drawing from the experiences
during the conference and the exchange with experts and other students. Finally, I also brought with me a
revised view on the notion of sustainable development itself. Humankind seems to have forgotten that
without nature, the greatest services-provider of all, there would be neither an economy, nor a society. So
maybe, as Prof. Thomas Andersson, president of the Jönköping University, Sweden, has suggested, the logo
of SD should change in the following way:
Nature
Nature
Society
Society
Economy
Economy
4th Year, Arabic and International Relations
[email protected]
To the uninitiated, the discourse of sustainable development can quickly regress into hollow platitudes, as
we are bombarded with its associated vocabulary, every day, in every cheap marketing campaign from every
corner of the media. For someone like me, who doesn’t explicitly study these issues, or regularly engages
with the sobering facts, the sting of the world’s urgent situation simply isn’t felt. I think this goes to show
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
Amanda Gudmundsson (Sweden)
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the absurdity of the Western Way of Life which has emerged since the Second World War in the era of
globalization. Our generation of urbanized westerners, born in the 1980’s, are living in a world where we
have become almost totally disambiguated from our habitat. This realization coupled with a graph
illustrating the peak oil phenomenon – starting at year zero and ending at year 4000 with a violent spike in
the middle showing the apex of our oil use – shocked many of us who participated in the conference to our
core.
My strongest impression of the entire week was just this moment of realization, on the fifth and penultimate
day of the conference. Seated in a paneled room, filled with sharp young minds from vastly different
backgrounds, the eminent specialists who had been delivering lectures all week on topics as diverse as urban
ecology, democratic software, sustainable financial investments and resource wars, were suddenly
entreating us to participate in providing the solutions to the problem we are currently facing. Looking
around at the architects, physicists, bio-engineers, civil engineers, chemical engineers economists and social
scientists from five continents, my incredulity at their faith in us eventually melted into optimism.
The end of the oil age invariably brings with it a monumental turning point in human history, and a
challenge of an unprecedented magnitude. However, I did not leave the conference despairing at this rather
apocalyptic prospect. Instead, I was filled with inspiration at the innovation and possibilities which bringing
people like us together can generate. During the course of the week, I soon discovered a recurring theme at
the conference. The technology required to effect the change needed in order to align our way of life with
our local habitat, already exists! The obstacles hindering this are more often than not of our own making,
and can thus be dismantled. However, radical thinking is necessary when addressing these issues, as
emphasized by Dr. Lietaer in his critique of conventional solutions to the financial crisis - unless one wants
to perpetuate the unsustainable status quo.
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
I found that the lectures echoing my academic background in International Relations, namely the ones that
fell under the “Geopolitics” category, heavily leant towards the Darwinian imperatives of the Realist school
of thought. Competition over scarce resources, and access to energy supplies, it was repeatedly pointed
out, is too frequently the root cause of several of the conflicts we are witnessing today, as evidenced by the
bloodshed in the Caucasus, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. However, I believe that we are now
faced with an even stronger imperative than ever to re-invigorate policies informed by the Liberal or
“Utopian” School of thought, which gave rise to the UN and which we must now invoke to strengthen
cooperation in the international system in order to meet this new, shared challenge. It is the job of students
of International Relations to find the “sustainability” connection between the array of academic fields as
represented at the Zürich conference, and to identify and critically evaluate how their specific contributions
can be coordinated and implemented most effectively for a sustainable future.
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Conall McGinley (Scotland)
1st Year, Sustainable Development, Spanish
[email protected]
My experiences at the WSCSD conference in Zurich
Academia is often restricted to the pages of a book or figures on a screen. However it is only
possible to gain a comprehensive knowledge of your subject matter if you take the time to physically delve
into the topic. Having been to the World Student Community for Sustainable Development (WSCSD)
Conference in Zurich I can safely say that this statement is true. Every day of the week was a cathartic
experience in which my previous assumptions and judgments were blown away.
Some of the greatest minds of the world of Sustainable Development came together to meet for the
Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS) conference. Meanwhile the WSCSD ran alongside, complimenting
the variety of fascinating lectures and seminars with a range of workshops and talks. The combination of the
two conferences in the same week proved to be a hugely successful arrangement. The established experts of
the field educated the next generation of innovative minds; whilst the student group often challenged the
experts with their knowledge.
Through my interaction with the projects that displayed their work at the conference I came into
contact with people from a many different backgrounds and cultures. Meeting young people from nearly
every corner of the globe restored my faith in humanity. Hearing the stories of people who have fought long
and hard to promote Sustainable Development gave me encouragement and hope for the future. Having
made contacts with people from Switzerland to Uganda to Tokyo, I am currently in communication with
them exploring how the University of St Andrews can help out globally and also how we at St Andrews can
benefit from the contacts we made.
As the only University from the British Isles, I truly felt that we made a valued contribution to the
conference. Personally I was amazed at how many people commented on their respect for the Scottish
Government’s efficiency in introducing Sustainable Development policies. The experience certainly made
SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
The three central topics of the conference were Geopolitics, Global Finance and Global Monetary
Incentives. This diverse selection reflected the hugely diverse nature of Sustainable Development. The title
of the WSCSD conference was “The realistic side of the world” – the conference organizers created a
mixture of lectures and seminars which were rationally based. The conference focused on how pragmatic
tasks can be carried out here and now instead of in the distant future. Personally, I saw this as one of the
great strengths of the conference as it allowed for evaluation of current Sustainable Development projects
instead of simply speculation on the viability of future projects. This approach made the topics in the
conference very easy to relate to.
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SDSoc: Zurich Report | 2/19/2009
me less parochial in my attitude. However, the one main lesson I learned from the week was that
currently, in our global village, the University of St Andrews has the potential to be a major centre of
Sustainable Development education. I only hope that I can harness some of the enthusiasm I encountered at
the conference to further the subject of Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews.
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