A Dinner with Professor Socolow about Sustainable Development

“So, why are you all here? What derived your interest in sustainable development?” – the Professor asked us. All of us were asked this question before, during the interview into this program, yet it still came as a surprise. Most presentations and lectures do not start with a personal question. Professor Socolow, Princeton’s Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the expert in global carbon management , wanted his talk to be different.

Posing this question prior to any discussion, Professor Socolow really wanted to make sure we participate in this program by the interests that are as serious as the issue itself. Of course, we responded with quite a diversity of interests. While sustainable development was introduced to many of us through theoretical class works, field trips and foreign experiences, some others were interested in the issue because they had grown up observing the opposite – the consequences of unsustainable development, especially in developing countries such as Colombia, Vietnam, or Mexico. Sustainable development is undeniably multifaceted, hence, the term itself means differently to each of us. Sustainable development can range from environmental concerns, to governance in adaptation to scarce resources, to philosophy.

After we all had our turns, Professor Socolow slowly shared his own part of the story. Professor brought us fifty years back in time, when his career had just started, and when the world faced much different challenges from what we are facing currently. “Back in the day, our fear was for a bad ending of the Cold War; nuclear destruction was the most serious concern.” In fact, the world seems so messy now that we seem to have forgotten how complicated it used to be fifty years ago. Professor Socolow reminded us of how the people of his generation told one another to keep the world in balance, and so they succeeded for fifty years. No massive destruction bomb was detonated since then, and the world seemed to handle its population growth somewhat successfully. The problem now is still an overwhelming population with scarce resources, nuclear threat and climate change. It is important, however, to realize that for decades, we have confronted each problem and done our best to prevent the worst scenario. Professor Socolow wanted us to do the same, to contemplate what we should do, to join our colleagues in making this world a better place. What Professor Socolow told us made me remember one similar quote by Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The discussion moved around several interesting questions, mostly trying to (re)define our understanding of sustainable development. My favorite question was “why do developing countries, those that are currently on their way, keep repeating the mistakes that the developed countries had made?” Other students threw out explanations, ranging from dependence on old technology of developed countries, dependence on aid, lack of financial power, political rivalry/complexity, etc. The world does seem irrational after all; the more relationship and interdependence are built between countries, the more complicated and vulnerable the world becomes, the more impossible it is for the world to move as coherent parts. The discussion revealed one thing: we human beings have made such an easy question so hard to answer. Before ending the session, Professor Socolow cared to ask about our summer plan, our potential future path, and what we think Princeton University could do to better facilitate sustainable development. He, then, introduced us to available opportunities to work on addressing global challenges around the world.

Being a Physics professor, director of the University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, member of the National Academy of Engineering, and author of many well-known publications about climate change and energy, Professor Socolow did not impress me by any of the aforementioned titles. He did not mention  his works much in his talks (which I had hoped he would), but I later on really appreciated what he did. I value the heart of a pioneer in solving world-problems, the ability to tell his own stories and inspire the young people to continue acting to protect this world we live in, and his guidance of the short-term steps we can take to achieve the long-term goal. Thank you Professor.


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