Dr. Chao-Han Liu, academician of Academia Sinica and chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Sustainable Development

On A Virtuous Path to A Sustainable Future—Tang Prize in Sustainable Development

  • Dr. Chao-Han Liu, academician of Academia Sinica and chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Sustainable Development
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The world through the lens of sustainable development

From 1960s to 1980s, the tolls on the environment and society that mounted alongside economic development had finally awakened humanity to the global threat posed by environmental damage and the collapse of economic systems. Subsequently, a more appropriate model of development was being conceived, which in turn gave rise to the idea of “sustainable development.”  There was a time when much of the emphasis was placed solely on environmental protection, and there were even radical movements organized to confront commercial and industry sectors. By comparison, sustainable development stresses having a macroscopic vision on both the temporal and spatial levels, taking into account the different development status each country is in and the need of developing countries to exploit the environment for their economic growth as well as underscoring the importance of a proper approach to development that can satisfy the needs of the present population without undermining the ability of future generations to satisfy their own needs.     


In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published “Our Common Future,” a seminal report on the concept of sustainable development. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, then chair of the commission, was the reason why it was also known as the “Brundtland report.”  The right direction for sustainable development, as accentuated in the report, is to make good use of science and technology to strike a balance between environmental protection, economic development and social justice.


The perspectives on sustainable development illustrated in the Brundtland report became the United Nations’ core value when it was framing a vision for global development. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) established “Agenda 21.” In 2000, the UN General Assembly passed the “Millennium Declaration.” From 2015 through today, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been gradually condensed into a list of 17 goals and 169 targets regarding the elimination of poverty and hunger, the promotion of education, gender equality, the advocacy of peace and environmental protection, and so on. The realization of the Declaration, however, depends on its incorporation into the laws of every signatory and the actual execution of international cooperation activities.   


The evolution of sustainable development in Taiwan

As a concept, sustainable development gained traction globally the moment it was proposed. Very quickly, Taiwan caught up with the trend of formulating policies aimed at sustainable development. In 1994, the Executive Yuan set up the “National Panel on Policies for Global Changes,” which was expanded in 1997 to become the “National Council for Sustainable Development.” As of 1998, the Ministry of Education has been promoting teaching and research projects centering on sustainable development. A research project named “Sustainable Taiwan 2011” was launched in 2003 by a cross-disciplinary group of researchers who developed the “Island Sustainable Development Indicators” as crucial criteria for evaluating national programs. So far, the National Council for Sustainable Development has laid out road maps including “Sustainable Development Policy Guidelines,” “Sustainable Development Indicators System” and “Taiwan’s Sustainable Development Goals.”  Thanks to these actions, Taiwan is now one of the best in South Asia when it comes to the policy and research concerning the process of sustainable development and has successively nurtured high-ranking policymakers for many South Asian countries to advance the cause of sustainable development.


Tang Prize for sustainable development

With the calls for sustainable development in Taiwan and abroad becoming increasingly urgent, it is only reasonable that people who have contributed enormously to sustainable development should be fully supported financially and otherwise. The Tang Prize in Sustainable Development was set up to honor those credited with innovative and remarkable contributions to sustainable development. While it foregrounds foundational achievements in technology, it is not limited to technological breakthroughs favored by traditional academic awards. Therefore, it has been able to recognize contributions that encompass the three pillars of sustainability—environmental protection, economic viability and social equity.   


Granted, sustainable development is of great significance, but a prize for sustainable development has yet to receive much attention from major international awards, which, such as the Nobel Prize, mostly focus on academic breakthroughs, instead of commending people who have made real differences to society.  Dr. Chao-Han Liu, academician of Academia Sinica and chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Sustainable Development, believes that the solution to problems related to the attainment of sustainable development goals usually lies neither on a single technological breakthrough nor on any academic achievements. Rather, it requires the application of knowledge across fields and disciplines. To address real social issues, we cannot stop at science. There has to be an adequate understanding of the society and the humanities, followed by actions.


Up until now, none of the winners in Sustainable Development was awarded simply for their outstanding academic accomplishments. The inaugural laureate Dr. Brundtland was the one who chaired the WCED and a key architect of the definition of sustainable development. Prof. Arthur H. Rosenfeld, the second one to win this prize, originally trained as a particle physicist. After living through the 70’s oil crisis, he began to devote himself to improving energy efficiency, creating energy-saving technologies and setting relevant efficiency standards. Moreover, he worked with California state government to formulate environmental and energy regulations, gifting California the world’s highest efficiency standards. He was an exemplary scientist who based his action on his technological expertise and went on to lead a team that helped facilitate the implementation of policies. The third generation of laureates, Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Dr. James E. Hansen, are the scientists who produced key theories and evidence on climate change. Dr. Hansen even got arrested several times for vigorously campaigning on climate issues. When he was in Taiwan for the 2018 Tang Prize Week, he put forward suggestions that were predicated on the changes in Taiwan’s electricity generation by energy source but that turned out to contradict the Taiwanese government’s energy policy. He didn’t think the renewables could completely replace fossil fuels, noting that a combination of nuclear energy and the renewables should be considered in order to help Taiwan deal with the climate crisis. During that period, he also participated in many related events, employing both his knowledge and his action to disseminate ideas about how to combat climate change. The latest laureate Dr. Jane Goodall found out, through her study of the primates, that chimpanzees can use tools and have social skills, a discovery that re-defined the relationship between humans and animals. Since then, she has been committed herself to ecological conservation and environmental education. In addition, she helped initiate community development programs, making sure that residents in impoverished areas can improve their life while maintaining forest vegetation and biodiversity.


All these laureates have made crucial breakthroughs in basic research in the realm of sustainable development. Furthermore, they have been able to support their actions with their knowledge and utilize their actions to bring about change. Indeed, putting equal emphasis on knowledge and action is what separates the Tang Prize from other awards in terms of how the attributes of a role model should be evaluated.  


Taiwan and the world in need of each other for a sustainable future

One of the missions of the Tang Prize is to anchor itself in the world and to discover for the world people with invaluable contributions. By the same token, sustainable development is an issue of international scale. Thus, the selection of worthy winners entails more than the assessment of nominees’ scientific or technological achievements, and it seems necessary to employ a border perspective.   


For Dr. Liu, all the problems facing contemporary society and caused by overdevelopment are linked to how capitalism deeply influences modern lifestyles and how we rely on mass production and mass consumption to maintain economic growth. It means we may need another economic mode that doesn’t foster excessive consumption but draws more attention to the kind of development that teaches us to cherish what we have and to use natural resources with moderation.


Judging from Taiwan’s cultural heritage, its culture and beliefs have long been rooted in the spirit of sustainable development. Ideas that endorse sustainable development can be found everywhere, from The Works of Mencius where we see the advice describing how a leader should only permit economic activities that have a limited impact on nature: “Let the timing of farmers not be interfered with, and there will be more grain than can be consumed. Let fine nets be kept out of ponds and lakes, and there will be more fish and turtles than can be eaten. Let loggers be regulated at their woodcutting, and there will be more wood than can be used,” to enduring proverbs which hammer home the importance of gratitude, such as “be thankful to the tree that bore the fruit you are savoring and to the paddy that grew the rice you are relishing,” to the motto that the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation has upheld as the principle of their conduct for years: “Respect everything in nature. Treasure everything you have,” and to a theory derived from the Confucian concept of a “kingly way of governance.”  Promulgated in recent years, it stresses the importance of “benevolent governance, counter-hegemony, people-orientedness, sustainability and empathy.”  

To promote sustainable development, we need inspirations provided by different sets of values. Likewise, to evaluate the knowledge and actions of individuals who have contributed greatly to sustainable development, we need our cultural heritage to serve as guidance. Eastern philosophy is the foundation on which The Tang Prize was built. Armed with viewpoints different from those of the western philosophy of governance, perhaps it will be able to offer encouragement to people with notable contributions to sustainable development, point out a new direction for sustainable development, and put humanity on a virtuous path towards a sustainable future.

◾️ The Mandarin original: 

行於至善之路,邁向永續未來的永續發展獎 ──唐獎永續發展獎召集人劉兆漢專訪