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“I adopted an almost Spartan life”

“I adopted an almost Spartan life”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Marc Davidson inspired by a member of the environmental protection association

Recently professor Marc Davidson gave his inaugural speech at Maastricht University. The title? Duurzaam willen ontwikkelen (willingness to engage in sustainable development). A speech on environmental philosophy. But what has that got to do with physics, the subject he has been dreaming about since he was six and in which he eventually completed a Ph.D.? The moment when the “switch flipped” is stamped on his memory. He must have been about 25 when Davidson met his source of inspiration, a young man, a member of the environmental protection association.

“I don’t remember his name,” says Marc Davidson (1966), extraordinary professor of Philosophy of Sustainable Development from a Humanistic Perspective.  He works at ICIS, the Maastricht University institute in the field of sustainable development. “I only spoke to the guy once, at a party held by a mutual friend in Amsterdam.” Davidson was in the middle of his Ph.D. research on nuclear physics and lasers, a physics subject. “It was an interesting talk. The guy spoke about the global environmental problem and how something needed to be done about it. All kinds of wheels started to turn in my head.”
Let’s take a trip down Davidson’s memory lane, to his childhood dream: “I knew I wanted to be a physicist since I was six; I wanted to become a link in the great science tradition. I loved watching Cosmos by astronomer Carl Sagan. Now that I think about it, that series - about the beauty and history of science - was a huge source of inspiration for my scientific career. Sagan was especially good at popularising science.”

But when Davidson stood face to face with this guy from the environmental protection association, he thought: “I may think that I can become part of a chain, part of a tradition, but if nothing is done about the environment, then there is no future. What good would my scientific insights be then? There is not much point in continuing with that.” Not that he rigorously threw physics out of the window. He completed his Ph.D. research and at the same time chose to study Environmental Philosophy. As far as his daily life was concerned, he adopted an “almost Spartan life. I stopped putting on the heating, except when I had guests. In that first phase, I was a missionary who was going to convince others. But I soon stopped doing that. The willingness to change was minute.” He also refused to get on an aeroplane. “I stopped going to congresses in faraway countries, unless I was an invited speaker. I got into some trouble about that with my supervisor. He felt that it was unacceptable. Eventually he agreed to it, he was broadminded.” As far as the heating is concerned: he is now married to a Turkish woman. “No heating is not an option,” he laughs.  

“Our excessive individualism” is the reason that people no longer want to bother themselves with solving environmental problems. “And this sentiment is enhanced by our economic and political systems. Thatcher already said it: ‘There is no such thing as society’. That says it all. If windmills were placed in your back garden, you would be quick to protest. But if it occurs a couple of kilometres further along, it doesn’t bother you.” He warns: “Technology can solve a great deal, but no matter what, we will have to adapt our lifestyle. ‘Live according to the rules that you wish everyone would abide by,’ said Immanuel Kant.”

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