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Sustainable use of our resources is of existential importance

Interview with Dr. Christof Bosch

Dr. Christof Bosch: "Sustainable use of our resources is of existential importance"

Dr. Christof Bosch

Dr. Christof Bosch
Dr. Christof Bosch (Photo: Robert Thiele, Illustration: c3 Visual Lab.)

Dr. Christof Bosch has served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Robert Bosch Stiftung since April 2017. A member of the Board since 1997, he is dedicated to ensuring that the foundation tackles sustainability issues.

Dr. Christof Bosch, 58, forester and grandson of Robert Bosch, runs a farm with around 100 cattle in the Alpine foothills of Bavaria. In this interview he explains why sustainability is a question of our riorities and is of existential importance for health, education, and peace.

In view of major global challenges such as war and terror worldwide, it seems almost a luxury to address the problem of sustainability. Is the subject a luxury in your opinion?

Christof Bosch: It is a fact that we are increasingly reaching the limits of our natural resources for meeting people’s needs. Sustainable use of our resources is therefore of existential importance. However, we often take only an interest in ‘soft factors’ of sustainability, such as the aesthetics of the landscape, once we meet our basic needs. But securing those basic needs in the long term is precisely the main goal of sustainability. Only from our relatively comfortable vantage point can it look as if sustainability is a luxury problem.

What role does technology play in sustainability?

C. Bosch: The question of sustainability first arises due to technological progress. The subject only arose once people started to interfere with nature, for example, by farming or developing weapons that could be used to exterminate animals. And the process continues at an increasingly rapid pace. As interference with the biosphere increases due to technical progress and technology, it becomes more and more important to consider the sustainability of that interference. Technology is only useful when it does not destroy our livelihoods. However, every land usage system is technical, whether traditional or ultramodern, which is why each sustainability problem can only be solved with the help of technology.

Sustainability is often set in opposition to technology ...

C. Bosch: It is a common misunderstanding that sustainability is synonymous with maintaining the status quo. This cannot be the case, because we live in an evolving world in which the only constant is change. As a result, sustainability has to adapt to evolving conditions. If we were to attempt to bring technological progress to a halt, global population growth would nevertheless remain extremely unsustainable for many years to come. The goal is therefore to shape development rather than impede it. It is true that our use of the biosphere is changing faster and faster, but change has been the case ever since human development began. Even hunter-gatherers did not really have a sustainable lifestyle, because they lost their nutritional resources in many areas due to overhunting.

Many people have the feeling that sustainable behavior primarily means giving things up, for example, driving cars less often or eating less meat. How can this impression be overcome?

C. Bosch: This is obviously only the case for a society that lives in abundance. And upon closer examination it becomes clear that this way of thinking concerns individual purchasing decisions. If I want to take a trip around the world and can afford it, then I will actually take the trip. By contrast, there are other goods that can only be owned collectively. If, for example, I buy a new heater that causes less air pollution rather than traveling the world, I do not automatically receive the clean air I helped make possible. I only get it when other people do the same thing. It’s only because we fail to consider how our decisions affect society as a whole that we get the impression that sustainable behavior is a question of giving things up. The real question is what is more important to me.

Or how we can all benefit together?

C. Bosch: Exactly. To return to the previous example, if I do decide not to travel, I haven’t necessarily gained anything, because I’m sitting at home, breathing in air that may be polluted and dirty. In reality the individual can only make a small contribution to sustainability through his or her decisions. We all have to pay as much attention as possible to this contribution. And that goes especially for people whose decisions have a big impact.

Why is it so important to you that the foundation is strongly committed to sustainability?

C. Bosch: Scarcity of resources, for example, drinking water shortages and fertile soil loss, along with climate change, are threatening health and peace even today. For a long time, Germans could act as if these concerns didn’t affect us directly, but migration to Europe from North Africa can partly be attributed to these causes. Education is predicated on stable societies, and it becomes more difficult when environmental changes in distant regions of the world worsen drastically. The same goes for peace. That’s why sustainable development is fundamental to orienting the work of the foundation.

Your grandfather Robert Bosch placed heavy emphasis on making economical use of resources. He also established the farm that you operate today. Are you taking his ideas about sustainability further?

C. Bosch: My grandfather didn’t use the word sustainability; at the time, it was a concept used only in forestry. His dedication to agriculture had a great deal to do with his desire to show that, when faced with the threat of famine, Germany was capable of supplying itself from regional sources. In this sense, his suggestion was obviously sustainable, in part because his goal was to achieve long-term stability. The environmentally friendly farm that my family operates today is modest and cannot be compared to the model farm he built back then. But I definitely think that if my grandfather were running a farm today, he would go in a similar direction.

The interview was published first in the Magazine “Sustainability” of the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Link to PDF version).