Materials or Knowledge?

Consumerism is arguably bigger than any other “ism”. A bottomless demand for energy and materials resources has led to well-known and much debated repercussions on nature and human welfare. As researchers striving for more sustainable solutions, we can significantly contribute to a more eco-friendly world. However, we cannot fight the relentless power of consumerism. Current trends for us to be smarter with items, relying on their aesthetic value, for example, and refraining from collecting piles of stuff that you never need are of course welcome tendencies. Concrete measures on all possible levels are necessary at the moment. Nonetheless, these consumer-based initiatives are still deeply rooted in consumerism. They are indicative of people’s obsession with purchasable material. Just like a parsimonious person who tries to spend as little money as possible is still obsessed with money.

What we would need is a balanced appreciation of immaterial values. The problem is that such appreciation has a heavily technocratic connotation in today’s society. The self-help publishing industry that hints at achieving a happier life and spiritual fulfilment is a sad example of a civilization that no longer respects itself. To reduce the complexity and beauty of life to a set of demonstrative instructions is immensely technocratic. No wonder the fascists have made a comeback.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. That guy may have been heteronormative, and his achievements are often regarded as self-evident. Yet without overplayed reverence or deification, it is safe to say that his contributions to the development of music verge on superhuman accomplishments, akin to what Shakespeare, Sartre or Woolf did for literature – or what Einstein, Gibbs or Woodward did for science. Innovation and creativity – often hyped qualities in today’s society – gain a totally different meaning if you thoroughly familiarize yourself with what these people have done. As researchers, we should certainly not just look back to the remembrance of times past. But we should build the future on respect for cultural values of art and science created by our civilization. To put it provocatively, you can do more by attentively, repeatedly listening to the Third Symphony than you can do by shifting your preferences to a deodorant produced with a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, of course, urgent technical actions are important and more than necessary. But only embracing our true immaterial cultural values enables us to make a difference in the long run.