Farewell: Prof Dr Gerd Michelsen

"Sustainability is Normative"

2024-03-04 Prof Dr Gerd Michelsen is regarded as one of the pioneers of German environmental and sustainability science. During his professorship at Leuphana, he established the faculty of sustainability and brought the UNESCO Chair to Lüneburg.

[Translate to Englisch:] Verabschiedung: Prof. Dr. Gerd Michelsen ©Leuphana/Marie Meyer
[Translate to Englisch:] Verabschiedung: Prof. Dr. Gerd Michelsen ©Leuphana/Marie Meyer
[Translate to Englisch:] Verabschiedung: Prof. Dr. Gerd Michelsen ©Leuphana/Marie Meyer

In 1973, the state of Baden-Württemberg considered it sensible to build a new nuclear power plant in a place called Wyhl. Thirty kilometres to the south, in Freiburg, Gerd Michelsen was completing his doctorate in economics and had a different opinion. "I immediately got involved in the region. I was also in contact with the lawyers who represented the citizens' initiatives." He noticed how difficult it was to find academically qualified individuals who could or would express a critical view of nuclear energy from an academic perspective. "That's why I co-founded the Freiburg Institute for Applied Ecology in 1977. The institute's aim was to strengthen the commitment of citizens with sound scientific arguments."

Michelsen headed the Eco-Institute until the end of the 1970s and then moved to Hannover, where he took over the management of the "Central Centre for Scientific Continuing Education" at the local university. "Continuing academic education means opening up the university. In 1980, I realised that if you want to take what happens at university into society, you can't necessarily win people over with specific topics from biology or physics. Instead, you should address issues that are socially relevant on the one hand, and that can be viewed and illuminated from different scientific perspectives on the other."

Today, it is a matter of course to pursue further scientific training, but it is to Michelsen's credit that he recognised this long before others did. In his management position, he supported continuing education and worked with a large group of lecturers from the university, including Hartwig Donner, who later became president of the University of Lüneburg. In his role, Michelsen was already developing continuing education programmes on various environmental issues of the time.


The beginning of environmental sciences

When Donner became president of the University of Lüneburg, he asked Michelsen for advice on developing a continuing education programme in "Environmental Economics and Environmental Law", which was then offered at the University of Lüneburg for several years. Michelsen's energy and initiative obviously left a positive impression, so much so that the then Dean of the Department of Cultural Studies offered him a temporary professorship in "Ecology", together with a request to help develop a new department of "Environmental Sciences" and an interdisciplinary degree programme in "Environmental Sciences". Numerous projects on environmental and sustainability issues at the university followed, with funding provided, among others, by the German Federal Environmental Foundation. In 1996, Michelsen was then appointed to the University of Lüneburg. In 2004, he was elected vice president, giving him the opportunity to help shape the merger process between the University of Lüneburg and the local University of Applied Sciences, especially in the areas of teaching and studies. One year later, he was finally awarded the prestigious UNESCO Chair - at the time the only one in the world for "Higher Education for Sustainable Development".

His commitment to sustainability visibly bore fruit, but also led to considerable controversy, especially at the beginning of the 2000s. "It wasn't just fun at the time; I was fiercely attacked. People said I was ideologising the university. Moving it in a normative direction, so to speak, that no longer had anything to do with science. At the time, I had deliberately brought together a group of colleagues from different departments to show that we wanted to bring something into the university. We want to discuss this with colleagues from different disciplines and with students, but not at the level of 'Should you switch off the lights when you leave a room', but much more broadly: How can we also bring about changes in the study programmes? How can we make the university more vibrant - for students, too? But also: Where can we save resources at the university? We wanted to offer students the opportunity to deal with environmental and sustainability issues as early as possible. For a long time, universities as a whole were, to put it mildly, very reserved about these challenges that were and still are facing us."


Goal: A Good Life on Earth

The accusation of sustainability being ideological unfortunately persists in parts of society and public discourse. Michelsen advocates a broader perspective: "Sustainability is naturally normative, that's quite clear, it includes the goal of a good life on earth. And it describes a different condition, a change, and hence a process that we understand as sustainable development. And the question of whether a university should be concerned with sustainability includes further requirements: science-led discussions of socially relevant issues to shape the present and the future; scientific work in the sense of inter- and transdisciplinarity, since socially relevant issues such as climate change or mobility cannot be addressed solely from the perspective of one discipline and, of course, scientific soundness."

Looking to the future, Michelsen, who designed and introduced the "Science bears responsibility" module at Leuphana, is cautiously optimistic: "I would never say that we have ‘succeeded’. We are on our way and are trying to initiate change, make suggestions and implement things. When I look at the university sector, a lot has already improved. Especially in Lüneburg after the change in the presidential committee, which led to the launch of an innovative study programme, a new structure for the three Schools for Teaching and Learning and the 5 Schools for Research, and a new look for continuing education. Even though there were quite a few disputes at the beginning, which is often the case with change, Lüneburg has shown a clear direction. After the merger with the former University of Applied Sciences, the 'Environment and Technology' department became the Faculty of Sustainability, now School of Sustainability. These are clear messages and Lüneburg has not fared badly with its approach."

If a dynamo could be found to convert Gerd Michelsen's vigour into electricity, all energy problems would be solved in an instant. Even in retirement, he remains active: after handing over the UNESCO Chair to his successors, he shifted his focus of activity to Austria, writing expert opinions and publishing. "The scientific track is still relevant."