Tasking Science and Technology with Creating a Sustainable Future

The phrase “sustainable development” has blurred in definition, said OIST’s keynote speaker, Kiyotaka Akasaka, on January 18. In his talk titled, “Can Sustainable Development Save the World?” he brought the term back in focus.

The phrase “sustainable development” has been associated with agriculture, business, or the economy, but has blurred in definition, said OIST’s keynote speaker, Kiyotaka Akasaka, on January 18. In his talk titled, “Can Sustainable Development Save the World?” he brought the term back in focus, and explained what has stalled the momentum of environmental awareness that began building in the late 1980s.

According to Akasaka, president of the Foreign Press Center and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, progress is hindered since scientists and policymakers speak different languages.

Sustainable development essentially means utilizing resources in a manner that ensures they will be available in the future, and is built on economic, social and environmental aspects. But leaders in those fields typically compartmentalize their goals and rarely come together in one room. That fracturing makes it hard to build a consensus, or even agree on what to use as indicators for change. With economic and climate and energy crises now taking priority, sustainable development sits on the backburner, says Akasaka. 

“If the road is clear, the world can focus on the goals,” says Akasaka.

He presented a long list of statistics, and pointed out that with a forecasted population of nine billion people in 2050, there are some bleak outlooks: increasing C02 emissions, rising air and ocean temperatures, and income disparity.

The desire for developing countries to be on equal footing with developed countries could lead to unsustainable consumption and C02 emissions. “Who takes responsibility is a very difficult question to ask,” says Akasaka.

But an optimistic Akasaka has hope as he has seen the world coming together to slow down the AIDS epidemic, and to increase education for children in poverty.

He suggested ways Japan could play an active role in sustainable development by sharing the country’s experiences in combatting air pollution and unemployment. Japan could also participate in high-level panel discussions and conferences such as the upcoming international meeting on issues regarding big cities to be held in Japan.

Critical to progress is the overlap of science and policymaking. He cited the failure of the Kyoto protocol, and attributed it partly to the lack of scientific information used during negotiations. He placed great hope in OIST to be a leader in science contributions.

Finally, he emphasized an individual responsibility to change our lifestyles and values. Cars and bicycles go the same speed in Beijing, he said, but it’s difficult to convince the residents they don’t need a car. For 15 years, Akasaka has not owned a car, and has used the same four pairs of shoes for the last decade. He often asks himself the same question as Jane Goodall, a pioneer in the study of chimpanzees and a UN messenger of peace,“Can I do without it?”

At the end of this talk, Akasaka fielded questions from the audience, such as Professor Shintake who focuses on creating renewable energy from water currents, and expressed concern about the shift to shale gas development. Dean Jeff Wickens gave the seminar’s closing comments, “Science and technology have not contributed as it should. This is an important challenge for us.”

To “galvanize the enthusiasm of youth,” Akasaka also met with OIST students. He toured the facilities, and left impressed with what he saw.

“Okinawa can be proud of OIST,” he says.

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