CEMUS Diaries w48 – CEMUS 25 YEARS: “To Save the World” by Hans Liljenström

CEMUS Diaries - week 48



Hans Liljenström

Biophysicist, Professor at the Dept. of Energy and Technology, SLU; director of Agora for Biosystems; former chairman of CEMUS Board; teaching courses in systems analysis




I still remember very strongly the day 15 years ago when Bengt Gustafsson asked me if I would be interested in taking over as a chairman of the CEMUS Board, which he had been chairing since CEMUS started. I had recently got my position as a professor at SLU and was rather new in Uppsala, coming from KTH and Stockholm, and had not heard much about CEMUS. However, I had known Bengt for many years, so I took his question seriously and started to learn more about this center.

What primarily caught my interest was the passion of CEMUS staff and students, their wish “to save the world”, combining a deep love and care for Nature, but also a respect for human needs and societal development. I had myself, since I was very young, been concerned about the negative effects of various human activities on our planet. Also in my research and teaching I had tried to address the issue of how humans can live peacefully and in balance with Nature. For example, at SLU I had started a PhD course on philosophy of science with focus on “man and nature”, and had become more and more involved with issues of sustainable development.

Sustainable development (SD) was, and has always been, at the core of CEMUS courses and mission, and I was happy to find there also a strong connection to “global/environmental ethics”, which is not always considered in other SD contexts. However, already in 1998, Angela Merkel, then a minister for environment in Germany, recognized the importance of such an approach to SD, which should permeate all parts of society, as she stated: “Sustainable development can succeed only if all areas of the political sector, of society, and of science accept the concept and work together to implement it. A common basic understanding of environmental ethics is needed to ensure that protection of the natural foundation of life becomes a major consideration in all political and individual action. A dialogue among representatives of all sectors of society is needed if appropriate environmental policies are to be devised and implemented”.

Unfortunately, this view has not been dominating in society at large, but CEMUS is constantly trying to push these ideas, and was early to request that SD should be taught in all education in Sweden, which now has been more or less implemented. There is certainly a need for transformation of perception, world views and values in contemporary society, and education is a good place to start with. The student led courses at CEMUS have also forced teachers and administrators to look at subjects and problems from the perspective and interest of the students to a much higher degree than before, and this perspective has spread also to other educational initiatives and programs at our universities.

As a chairman and teacher at CEMUS, I appreciated its unique and innovative organization, but I was also impressed by the enthusiasm for an interdisciplinary approach, which to a large extent is lacking in the academic world in general. Dealing with complex problems, such as human-nature interactions or climate change, requires a holistic approach with integration of knowledge, insights and methods from many different disciplines. Systems thinking and theory could help solving some of the problems we have created with a too narrow and reductionist view on nature.

In the movie Mindwalk, which we watch and discuss each year in the course Systems Analysis for Sustainable Development, a scientist, a politician, and a poet are involved in an evolving conversation, which meanders between the micro- and macroscales of nature, and between individual and societal problems. The movie is based upon the work of physicist Fritjof Capra, and his book The Turning Point, but dramatized by Fritjof’s brother, Bernt Capra. Some quotes from Mindwalk may illustrate its core message:

“Instead of concentrating on basic building blocks, the systems view concentrates on principles of organization. Instead of cutting things to pieces, it looks at the living system as a whole”.

“Ultimately, whether we like it or not…we’re all part of one inseparable web of relationships.”

“The Systems Theory recognizes this web of relationships as the essence of all living things. … The theory of living systems actually provides you with an outline of an answer to that eternal question: What is Life?”  

“Evolution is an ongoing dance, an ongoing conversation. We are systems, and the planet is a system. We don’t evolve on the planet, we evolve with the planet.”

“Healing the Universe is an inside job.”

In other CEMUS courses I sometimes talk about the concept “biophilia”, which was coined by the prominent biologist, E O Wilson. Biophilia is hypothesized to be an inherent inclination to affiliate with natural systems and processes. It is instrumental in human health, productivity, and physical and mental well-being, with increasing evidence that we suffer if we do not have green plants and other natural shapes and colors in our indoor, as well as outdoor environment. This, too, shows how we are interconnected with all life, not only genetically and evolutionary, but also in other ways. We are part of that web of life, which extends all through the entire biosphere, and includes all levels of existence.


Can we save the world? Well, we are the world. Can we save it from ourselves? Yes, we can! We just have to work with, not against Nature, realizing we belong to her. We have to cultivate our relationship with Nature, as we cultivate the relations with our fellow human beings. When the awareness of these relationships increase and we act accordingly, there is good hope that the world cannot only be saved, but it can flourish together with us.


This is a part of the 25th Anniversary blog series “CEMUS Diaries: Stories from past, present and future”, where we invite present and former staff, students, work group members, associates, and other CEMUS friends to reflect on their time at CEMUS and shed critical light into the future. Read the other CEMUS Diaries entries here.

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