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Keep a clear vision of your goal

Keep a clear vision of your goal

When art meets science

Who: Astrid Offermans, researcher in the field of sustainability at ICIS

Statue: Jacques Balmat and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, in Chamonix

Target group: students of Sustainability Science and Policy

In the French village of Chamonix, at the foot of the Mont Blanc, there is a statue of two men. They are looking upwards, the one on the right pointing towards the top of the mountain. They are Jacques Balmat and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The scientist Saussure offered a reward in 1787 to the first person who would reach the top of the Mont Blanc and set out a route for him so that he himself could climb the mountain. Balmat accepted the challenge and succeeded. “In those days, the altimeter had just been discovered. People were very curious as to exactly how high certain mountains were,” says Astrid Offermans, researcher at the International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS). According to her, students of sustainability science can learn a lot from the symbolism of the statue.

“At the moment, climate negotiations are first and foremost a lot of talking. Should we tackle it this way or that, do people cause climate change or not? If Saussure and Balmat had discussed the issue for that long, someone else would have reached the top first. Sometimes you just have to get on and do it, even if you don’t know what the future will bring. They didn’t know what they would find on that mountain. You should prepare well, but not endlessly. The key word is anticipation. That also applies to drawing up sustainability policies.”

Offermans also feels that the work of art shows you that you must keep a clear vision of your goal. “Balmat points to the top, which is where we should be heading. People often confuse goal and means. Combining various disciplines, which happens often when it comes to sustainability, is a way to reach a solution, but not a solution in itself.”

This doesn’t mean that Offermans is against co-operation. “On the contrary, it is very important, as scientists we cannot go it alone. This statue shows that too. Saussure, Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard (the village doctor who may not have received a statue, but whose knowledge of hypothermia and altitude sickness was essential for the success of the expedition, ed.) had all tried to climb the Mont Blanc beforehand. What they couldn’t manage alone, they managed to do together.” It doesn’t matter what your background is. “Balmat was a crystal seeker, Saussure a physicist, but they became famous as the ‘fathers’ of mountaineering.”

Finally, Offermans thinks that the statue shows that you should set your aims high. “In those days, this was a considerable undertaking, but they persevered anyway. It is not easy to ask a lot of yourself, but you do gain from it.”

In this column lecturers recommend art that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do

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