Future conference with renowned speakers on burning environmental issues

The University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Austria's leading sustainability university, made itself a very special birthday present on May 24-25, 2022, with the top-class Future Conference on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Together with renowned keynote speakers and in exchange with guests from politics, science and business as well as students, burning issues of our time such as the climate crisis, increasing resource consumption and the biodiversity crisis were discussed in the Aula der Wissenschaften and via live stream. All according to the anniversary motto: "Looking ahead sustainably." BOKU presented itself to a total of almost 700 conference visitors as the modern "university of the future" that it is. Because, as University Council Chairman Kurt Weinberger is sure: "If BOKU did not exist today, we would have to found it tomorrow in the interest of our planet, in the interest of future generations."

In her opening speech, Rector Eva Schulev-Steindl described with obvious pride how BOKU has established itself "from a small agricultural and forestry university to one of the leading life sciences universities in Europe with around 11,000 students and 3,000 staff*." "If you are interested in the exciting topics of our time, i.e. the green topics, the questions of sustainability, BOKU is the right place for you." Younger conference participants* in particular were affected by the global stocktaking and the future prospects presented. In this context, the role of science in communicating with the public was also considered controversially.

Exciting, highly charged topics and renowned keynote speakers

What are the biggest environmental challenges and what is the role of science in addressing them? How can we pool knowledge to improve livelihoods, manage natural resources, secure food and health, and achieve sustainable societal and technological transformation? Answers to these and other burning questions were sought by high-profile experts such as climate activist Katharina Rogenhofer, climate economist Gernot Wagner (New York University, entrepreneur and author Thomas Rau, urban researcher and mobility researcher Katja Schechtner, physician and science journalist Eckart von Hirschhausen, historian and author Philipp Blom, and agricultural scientist and pioneer of organic farming Urs Niggli. ORF journalists and moderators Barbara Stöckl and Tarek Leitner led through the program of the seven discussion rounds.

Green Deal

The first day got off to a successful start with the keynote address "Shaping tomorrow's world - What we need for a Green New Deal". In her speech, climate activist (Fridays for Future) and leader of the climate referendum Katharina Rogenhofer explained how exploitation, land sealing, pollution and currently even the war in Ukraine are endangering biodiversity. According to the climate activist, "diversity is the best insurance we have." Austria is not a pioneer in climate protection, but brings up the rear. What is needed, she said, is an energy turnaround, a halt to sealing, the promotion of a circular economy, more public transportation, a binding CO2 budget including a reduction path, the renaturation of forests and rivers, a circular economy, and supply chain laws that set social and ecological standards. Rogenhofer: "We have it in our hands to make the future possible!" Martin Greimel, head of the Center for Bioeconomics (BOKU), then suggested an individual resource account and asked the question: "What do we not need and are still happy?"

Habitats of the future

The second thematic block addressed questions such as "Can a habitat for humans exist without a habitat for animals and plants?" And "How can the quality of life in urban and rural areas be sustainably improved?" to the bottom. In his keynote address "From negative to positive climate tipping points," Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University, emphasized how much it is about "attitudes to life AND technologies," about urban planning and living spaces that are on our doorstep, not just our own four walls. And he recalled that the ecological footprint calculator was originally a PR stunt by the oil company BP, so that consumers themselves would take the blame.

University Council Chairman Kurt Weinberger alarmed that "no country is destroying its habitats so irreparably through soil sealing and the densest road network as Austria."

Infrastructure and environmental engineering

Questions around raw materials, material use and environmental design shaped the third thematic focus: "How can we recycle building materials and prevent raw material shortages?", "What impact does recycling have on our economic and social system?" and "What new materials are being researched?" Architect, entrepreneur, author and circular economy pioneer Thomas Rau provocatively asserted, "There is no such thing as a shortage of raw materials." He said the challenge is not climate change, but a profound change in consciousness. After all, life and the needs are temporary, but the consequences are permanent and irreversible. Rau: "We have to reorganize the limited edition earth and turn the value chain into a value preservation chain, for example with an architecture that sees building as a material depot that can be reused.

Energy and mobility turnaround

The first topic of day two was dedicated to the energy and mobility revolution and asked "What is needed for a sustainable transport revolution? Which drive systems will we use in the future? What economic policy course do we need to set for something to really happen?"  In her keynote address, "Rethinking Mobility," urban researcher and mobility expert Katja Schechtner called for a radically new global understanding of mobility: "It's not about getting from A to B as quickly as possible, we have to ask ourselves whether that's even necessary." Astrid Gühnemann from the Institute of Transportation (BOKU) suggested sufficient pricing of CO2 emissions, as well as more use of shared mobility. For her colleague Tobias Pröll from the Institute of Process and Energy Engineering (BOKU), the climate and energy crisis was primarily about implementing existing technical solutions.

Social change

In the introductory talk on the 5th thematic block "Societal Change", University Council Chairman and CEO of the Austrian Hail Insurance, Kurt Weinberger, impressively reminded of the socio-political mission of companies as well as the responsibility of each and every citizen for change in order to secure the food supply, the beauty of this country and its biodiversity in the future as well as to get out of this "world war against the environment".

Historian and writer Philipp Blom described in his keynote address "Social Change - Or: On Risky Thinking" how to overcome time-honored habits, overconsumption and growth orientation and ensure mindful change and social well-being. We would have to develop a completely new understanding of nature and ourselves in it. We ARE nature. The ethics of subjugation is no longer practicable. It is useless to talk about single individuals, one has to think in whole systems, symbioses. This would not work without conflicts, because when a major narrative breaks away, a vacuum is created. Blom: "It's about new, risky thinking. It's a brave act!"

One Health

"One health, the unity of human and animal health, is a bit like world peace: Everyone is for it, but the way to get there is not really clear yet," opined Eckart von Hirschhausen - physician, science journalist and founder of the foundation "Healthy Earth-Healthy People" in his keynote address "Healthy Earth-Healthy People: Climate Crisis - Biggest Health Threat or Biggest Opportunity?" Our planet Earth, he said, is the only place in the entire universe with water, air, tolerable temperatures and edible plants, a unique "living room with coffee, sex and chocolate." So why are we destroying our own home? Many people, Hirschhausen said, are still unaware of the principle of non-reversibility. What is needed are simple messages and images that show how vulnerable we are, a simple narrative that inspires people and hits at their highest value and central concern for health, and for this, communication and media training for scientists*.

What Florian Krammer, with his experience as a BOKU graduate biotechnologist and virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, could also confirm from his own experience in the subsequent discussion: Scientists, would need to step in more to educate and communicate honest, clear, understandable messages.

Food security and supply

The conference concluded with a wide range of questions on food security and supply, and agronomist and organic farming thought leader Urs Niggli's keynote address, "All Sated? Productivity in Harmony with Ecology." In it, he recalled the roughly 50-year history and rocky transformation process of organic agriculture: from ignored, fought, tolerated to integrated. Today, BOKU is one of the directors. Because traditional, old knowledge combined with modern insights are necessary, given the task of having to feed 10 billion people in the future. Resilient, regenerative systems and organic farmers as carriers of system knowledge are needed, as well as sustainable consumption, without which sustainable agriculture is not possible.

150 years of BOKU teaching and research: review and outlook

With its century-long history and expertise and its active research and publication activities, BOKU has long established itself as THE sustainability university in Austria. It combines tradition and innovation in a wide range of life science subject areas, such as agricultural and forestry science, environmental and resource management, environmental science, food and biotechnology, through to landscape planning and landscape architecture.

Internationally well networked and a member of EPICUR, the common European campus, it promotes joint, cross-border learning and research and enjoys numerous patent applications, publications and start-up awards.

Innovative, future-oriented and sustainably forward-looking, it operates with over 11,000 students, 3,000 employees and partners on the pulse of time, hits the nerve of the explosive issues of our society and (under)seeks and finds (super)vital answers to them.

Livestreams for review at www.boku.ac.at/die-boku-feiert-150-jahre/zukunftskonferenz