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Last Updated: 07/12/2005
Einstein and sustainability
Julia Marton-Lefèvre

“We have heard much about Albert Einstein’s brilliant, ground-breaking, and at times audacious contributions to physics; and we have heard how these contributions continue to guide, challenge, tease and perplex today’s physicists,” says UPEACE Rector Julia Marton-Lefèvre. But what would Einstein think about the modern-day issues of sustainable development and peace, in relation to science? A speech.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a huge honour for me to be present among you today to celebrate the life, the achievements and the legacy of Albert Einstein.  I am more fortunate than many of you, as I have been here for a few more days, having attended my first meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Some of you may have noticed that the title of my abstract for this presentation was a little different from the title of my talk today.  In fact when Dr. Serageldin invited me to participate in this Symposium, I was director of an organization called LEAD International, devoted to the establishment of a network of leaders committed to sustainable development in all parts of the world.

I have since taken on a new position, only last month, as the Rector of the UN-affiliated University for Peace.  I was originally going to talk to you about how I imagined Albert Einstein would have dealt with the complexities of sustainable development, and now my job is easier, because I will also talk about his important contributions to peace and security.

Einstein the humanist

We have heard much about Albert Einstein’s brilliant, ground-breaking, and at times audacious contributions to physics; and we have heard how these contributions continue to guide, challenge, tease and perplex today’s physicists. Just as he would have wanted them to.

Einstein was an independent-minded thinker as well as being a truly courageous man; as I mentioned just now, his independence of mind and his courage transcended the field of research for which he made his name, into areas that, even today, pose perhaps some of the biggest challenges for all of humankind.  This quote from him illustrates this point perfectly:  “A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts and actions, are directed to promoting the good of his fellows.”[i]

Today, I want to talk, in particular, about two sets of issues that occupied much of Einstein’s time, particularly in the latter decades of his life. These are issues to do with education and with peace and security.

Einstein and sustainable development

But I want to start with a third issue that is in some ways a foundation for the other two. This issue is sustainable development, perhaps among the toughest intellectual and practical challenges of our time. Sustainable development is the quest to find models of development that allow all of the people of the world - all 6 billion of us - to experience a better quality of life without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. To us, living here now, it is, simply put, the challenge to live on this earth as if we intended to stay. 

If we take this seriously, it is, without a doubt, one of the most effective ways we can all help to guarantee peace and security in our countries, if not in the world.

Sustainable development is a puzzle that all nations know they have to try and solve, whether through small individual acts; or through international meetings such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002; or now through upcoming UN summit of world leaders in New York in September.

But what does this have to do with Einstein?

It is true that Einstein is not on record as thinking or writing about sustainable development. Indeed, sustainability became the pressing international issue that it is today some three decades after his death in 1955.

But in the spirit of Einstein, which, after all is why we are all gathered here today, I would like to suggest a thought experiment: Imagine if you can, that Einstein was still among us. How would he have reacted to sustainable development? Would he have engaged with it? Would he have been excited by it? Or would he have been turned off by it?

I strongly believe that, had he been alive today, Einstein would have wanted to engage with this issue.  It is a complex challenge for which there are no simple answers. Sustainable development needs creativity, innovation and the taking of risks.

Sustainable solutions are more likely to come from innovative responses; and less likely to emerge from routine thinking. The domain of sustainable development is the domain of bold thinkers.

These are the kinds of challenges that would undoubtedly have attracted Einstein to a problem. But in addition, sustainable development is about the greater good; it is about concern for humanity. And, as well all know, Einstein was deeply concerned with these too.

On education

I would like to turn to Einstein’s ideas on education and their continued relevance to today.  “The aim of education - he wrote in 1950 - must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service of their community their highest life problem.”[ii]

Einstein, in his school-going years, was famously not a model student. His teachers in school were unable to understand why he would constantly question everything; he was denied entry to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology; and early in his career he had trouble securing an academic post, and joined the Swiss patent office, from where some of his most exciting papers were written.

Einstein is therefore uniquely qualified to comment on education systems, and he didn’t hold back.  His ideas on the organization of education constitute some of the best analysis of what is wrong with education systems today; and why these systems are in need of reform.

Einstein, for example, was opposed to the idea that the eventual aim of an education is to produce a line of smart, young people who are qualified to join the workforce. Another of his pet hates was early specialization. Both of these ideas were beginning to percolate in the 1950s, and, as we know, are firmly embedded in the education systems of the developed and developing world.

Education for Einstein was about serving humanity. Obtaining knowledge was important, but the object of an education was to enable a student to gather enough knowledge to be able to think and work independently. Such a person in Einstein’s view would be better equipped to adapt to changes, compared with someone whose principal training consists of acquiring detailed knowledge. “If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learnt to think and work independently, he will be better able to adapt himself to progress and changes (compared with) the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring of detailed knowledge.” [iii]

Einstein’s approach to education corresponds to ours at UPEACE, where our peace and conflict studies are totally interdisciplinary, aiming to prepare our students to face the complexities of the real world.

Einstein was also greatly concerned with the training of teachers because he knew, as all teachers and students do, that some of life’s enduring lessons come, not only from the pages of books, but also from one-to-one contact with wise and inspiring people.

Education for Einstein was also encouraging our young to engage with rights, responsibilities and values. About this he wrote:   “It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of - and a lively feeling for - values.  These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not - or at least not in the main - through textbooks.”[iv]

On peace and security

One of these values, - and that occupied much of his external and internal space, - was the quest for peace and security - for which he is probably as well known in the popular imagination as for his work as a physicist.

Einstein’s theoretical contribution to the development of the atom bomb is well-known; as is his famous letter to President Roosevelt in which he lent his support for the bomb to be deployed by the Allies in a bid to end the Second World War.

But the development of nuclear weapons remained for Einstein a deeply troubling aspect of his legacy. He would often refuse to be called the father of the atom bomb and would describe his contribution as “indirect” or “theoretical”. 

On the military

Einstein’s experiences in Europe before the war meant that he was also firmly opposed to the idea of a military, which he once described as “the worst outcrop of herd life” and a “plague-spot of civilisation”.   He forecast, 50 years ago, that the increasing sophistication of offensive weapons would one day lead to something that we are now seeing today: the idea of preventive war. “I am opposed to the use of force under any circumstances, except when confronted by an enemy, who pursues the destruction of life as an end in itself.”[v]

Einstein was also very critical of the involvement of the military in areas such as scientific research, which was common to all the countries of the developed world - particularly the United States.

Military involvement in science, for Einstein, went against what he believed science stood for: the freedom to inquire; to be able to think and ask questions; and ultimately, to be free of the guilt that your work as a scientist might one day be used to take the lives of your fellow citizens.

Yet given the man he was, Einstein found it hard to criticise openly the actions of a country that had been generous enough to give him refuge, and gave him a place to work, in his own hour of need. It is here, in the movement towards disarmament where Einstein’s contribution is both original and lasting.

World War II may have ended, but the Cold War was in the first phase of a big freeze. Einstein had been deeply shaken by the world wars and believed strongly (based on his experiences in pre-war Germany as well as in 1950s America) that governments on their own would not always be able to keep the peace.

The dominance of what he called “the military mentality” in public life meant that nations would go to war for reasons, which, for Einstein, were beyond justification. He was also concerned that nuclear weapons may well be used in such wars.

On the UN

By the late 1940s, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions had been set up. Einstein was a fervent supporter of the UN. But it was his belief that a Security Council dominated by five nuclear powers was not the best combination of nations to avert a future nuclear conflict.

And so he proposed an idea that is typical of Einstein: ambitious in both its thinking, as well as in its scope. This is the idea of a World Government. 

Einstein proposed that the UN General Assembly be replaced by a world parliament whose members would be elected. This world government would involve itself mostly in international affairs, and move towards a common foreign policy. Importantly, it would be responsible for the world’s atomic weapons, which could never be used without the world parliament’s authority.

It is a testament to the seriousness of this idea that the then Soviet Union issued a detailed response - wrongly dismissing it as back-door capitalism.

However, a stronger testament to the extraordinary foresight and enduring timelessness of this idea can be seen in the foundation - and expansion - of the European Union and in the current proposals for UN reform that have been put forward by Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The life of Albert Einstein is a reminder to us all that the quest for peace, development and a world free of conflict was as pressing 50 years ago as it is today.

On science

Einstein, the original thinker that he was, gave us a foretaste of some of the challenges that we future generations would face; but he also illuminated for us pathways to organize scientific research; education; government, defense and security; so that no future generation would ever have to experience the horrors of his past.

At a meeting held in UNESCO in 1979, to mark the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s birth, the Pakistani Nobel laureate, Abus Salam gave a beautiful speech paying homage to Einstein and his contribution to science.  In Salam’s speech there is an interesting quote from Einstein who claimed that:  “My scientific work is motivated by an irresistible longing to understand the secrets of nature and by no other feeling.  My love for justice and striving to contribute towards the improvement of the human condition are quite independent from my scientific interest.”

The challenge before us is to find the balance between pure research, about which we have heard so many wonderful things at this symposium, and the need also to address today’s pressing problems facing humanity, so that science, at some point also has social relevance and practical applications.

Einstein was, above all, a humanitarian, and I will leave you with the following quote of his:

“Concern for man himself must always constitute the chief objective of all technological effort.”

[i] Mein Weltbvild, Amsterdam, Querido Verlag, 1934

[ii] Out of my later years, New York Philosophical Libeary, 1950.

[iii] Out of my later years, New York Philosophical Library, 1950.


[iv] New York Times, 5 October 1952

[v] American Institute of Physics.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre is the Rector of the University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica.