Pauliner Church Leipzig
Picture by Kristofor & Rebekah,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What Is Sustainability?

by Sheila Jasanoff, Good Friday, April 10, 2020

An invisible, infinitesimal virus has taken hold of the world, locking down half of its human population in cells of isolation, freezing vibrant economies, throwing millions out of work, sickening more than a million and a half people, and killing upwards of 100,000 around the globe. We know it is novel, highly transmissible, and relentless in its attack on a humanity that is not yet immune to its ravages. We don’t know how it travels from person to person, why it is especially lethal for older men but leaves children alone, whether a mask can guard against its stealthy assault, or how to stop it once it begins its deadly work on human lungs. Experts are helpless at predicting how many will die, when life will return to anything like its rhythms of only three months ago, whether this is a temporary rupture, or if it marks a tectonic shift from late modernity to something completely different. In the locked-down world, people think only in small increments: the weekly shopping, the organization of the next Zoom call, the one kilometer perimeter around one’s dwelling where one is allowed to walk. But a future awaits us beyond the invasion of the virus. Whose future will it be?

How we imagine that future, and from whose standpoint, bears crucially on the fate of a world that is also facing the longer prospect of climate change and the challenges of a transition to sustainability. Helpless for the moment, we mark time in physical and social confinement, but while modernity is paused, new vistas can open up. In Delhi, people have seen blue skies for the first time in years.1 It is an opening, fleeting maybe, but an omen of sorts. This is an apt moment to reflect on the preconditions for sustainability. What fails in times of crisis? What endures? How can we build resilience in the face of disaster? Above all, with so much of the old normal suddenly overturned, what resources do we have for thinking beyond the upheavals of the now?

Place Matters

It is Good Friday, 2020. I am listening to J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on a link to a free performance at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, sent by my German friend and research partner, Silke Beck, who knows my love of that piece. The church website states that, although Bach’s music is played there every Good Friday, 2020 is not like every year: “The pain is unending. But Bach’s music is stronger. We trust in that. In spite of everything, it will bring us together.”2 I think back a year ago to the launch of our project, Governance of Sociotechnical Transformations (GoST), for the Belmont Forum, and how fitting it felt then that our team’s first meeting was in Leipzig, a city that has known multiple rebirths since the devastations of the twentieth century. Tonight, just two weeks after our second GoST group meeting, which had to be held online because the spread of the virus kept humans from traveling, it seems worth recalling what made that launch so memorable as a master class on the infrastructures of durability.

I arrive on an overnight flight from Boston. Imma meets me and takes me to my hotel, an old merchant house converted into a stylish guest house, its courtyard brimming with flowers and garden plants from the florist next door. We walk from there to the Nikolaikirche, an ancient church refurbished in the late 18th century with a neoclassical interior featuring tall, palm-topped columns. After the 5 pm organ service, I tell Imma of my own long connection to Germany through my father, who studied economics in Bonn during the rise of National Socialism right up to 1937. Standing outside the church, we find ourselves reciting together the words of Psalm 23, the first German words I, a secular Indian, had ever learned, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”3

The next day, we are taken on a city tour by Dieter, who came to Leipzig as a student and soon found himself pulled into the underground movement for reform that blossomed into full-scale revolution by the late 1980s. It is a raw evening, a chilly drizzle blurring the city as if in one of Monet’s London fog paintings. Dieter leads our team through the old mercantile quarter, once home to Leipzig’s thriving fur trade, mostly Jewish-owned, and accounting at one time for an astonishing 30 percent of the world’s fur sales4 and 50 percent of America’s fur imports. Leipzig, he reminds us, was an industrial powerhouse at the turn of the last century, and though the Holocaust put paid to the fur trade, the city reemerged as a center for heavy industry in communist East Germany after the Second World War.

Peacetime proved almost more disastrous to the city’s fortunes. After Germany’s reunification, Leipzig was rapidly deindustrialized – a painful process of job cuts and public service cuts, which has left its marks on the psyche of many.5 The population shrank and, for a while, tattoo parlors seemed the only apparent beneficiaries of a city suddenly bereft of its economic core. One sees many traces of that artistic turn on the bodies of today’s Leipzigers. But the German government’s decision to pour money into rehabilitating former East Germany paid off a decade later. Only an hour by train from Berlin, but with cheaper housing and solid urban infrastructure, Leipzig began attracting large companies such as DHL, Porsche and BMW, its central office building designed by an international superstar, the late Zaha Hadid. Even the centuries-old Leipzig book fair, at one time the largest in Germany but overshadowed during the communist years, has made a comeback to regain a place second only to Frankfurt.

The countryside around Leipzig is also changing, nowhere more dramatically than at the abandoned brown coal strip mines that are slowly being transformed into artificial lakes. Recreation-seeking Germans are snapping up lakefront property to build holiday homes. In Leipzig, they say that in the East German times butter left out for a day would turn black by evening. Now it remains yellow. As with Delhi’s blue skies, the withdrawal of human enterprise reinstates an older natural, but for how long and with what other consequences?

Memory Matters

On our city tour, Dieter tells two haunting stories. We stop first at the lone, palm-topped column outside the Nikolaikirche that marks the place of Leipzig’s “Monday March” of October 9, 1989, a major turning point in the dissolution of East Germany. Today it is Germany’s children who are mobilizing weekly against climate change, striking from school on “Fridays for Future.” Back then it was ordinary householders taking to the streets illegally every Monday to signal their opposition to a deeply unpopular state. On that October 9, rumors flew of possible violence. Parents anguished about whether one should go and the other stay to make sure the children would not be orphaned. That evening, the outpouring was the largest ever: 70,000 people gathered in the square outside the St. Nicholas church. Dieter was there, on the outskirts. There was no violence, a portent that the state was tottering. Were there speeches, we asked. No, came the answer. Only silence, punctuated by the communal cry of freedom, “We are the people [Wir sind das Volk]!” On that cold March night, standing on wet cobblestones in the near-empty square, we almost heard the ghostly voices, and shivered.

Our next stop was the Augustusplatz, a huge square featuring the opera and one of Leipzig’s most imposing fountains. The narrative heart of the square, though, lies on its west, in the blue-grey, glass-fronted buildings of Leipzig University, Germany’s second oldest after Heidelberg. At the north end, the buildings are anchored by a modernist echo of a traditional church façade, the Paulinum, which serves as both university chapel and convocation hall. As with so many of Germany’s public buildings, the Paulinum is a phoenix risen from the flames of controversy. It sits on the site of the old Paulinerkirche, a Gothic church that survived the Second World War almost intact, but then was willfully blown up in 1968 by the East German government to make room for the university’s expansion. The present building is a compromise between those who wanted a full restoration of the ancient structure and those who opposed any return to an archaic past. The work of a Dutch architect,6 it bears on its postmodern face a slightly off-kilter rose window, a nod to the gaze aslant that the present necessarily brings to its readings of the past.

Leipzig has proved remarkably resilient as a city and a political community, as reflected in the lively debate around the design of the Paulinum. But could there be resilience, I wonder, if memory is not allowed to roam free, to retrieve from its own storehouses the ingredients for new imaginings? I end the evening wondering what happens where memory is colonized, rendered unspeakable, or swept away in the enthusiasm for disruptive innovation that marked the Paulinerkirche’s destruction in 1968.

Institutions Matter

What enabled Leipzig’s economic revival? Of course, the internal bailout of the East by the West, one of the largest in any nation’s history, made a big difference. But was this all? To a scholar trained in science and technology studies, as I am, a central question is always how the complex sociotechnical formations of this world of ours get put together, what makes them hold against all the forces arrayed against stability in the contemporary, fast-moving world. This is a question that has occupied not only STS scholars, but also philosophers and sociologists,7 but STS comes at it from a particular angle, asking what role expert knowledge and hard materiality play in the construction of realities that people find worth preserving. And most studies show that, for revivals to work, money alone is not enough.

In Leipzig’s case, the explanations for success are many and diverse, but they build on and reinforce one another. There is the ancient commitment to learning, such that even the East Germans allowed the annual book fair to display works the citizens were forbidden to buy. Leipzig remained a crossroads for the exchange of ideas, continued today in the fair’s early embrace of audiobooks and its programs for encouraging intercultural, especially East-West, understanding.8 Even the Paulinerkirche’s destruction was to make way for more space for the university. There is the grand tradition of German industrial exhibitions (Messen), comprising the now defunct fur trade, which in 1930 staged the influential international fur exhibition (Internationale Pelzfach Ausstellung) to reintegrate Leipzig into the world economy after the economic collapse of the post-First World War.9 Leipzig remains a major center for trade fairs, firmly planted in the history of globalization, and it is no wonder that firms like DHL, Porsche and BMW have sought it out as a home base. There is, too, the history of numerous skilled professions, from garment working to industrial engineering. Though the fur traders have long since disappeared, leaving an irreparable rent in the city’s history, the engineers are still around, their craft skills ready to be deployed in the service of electric cars needing software and batteries for smarter, more fuel-efficient transportation.

Epilogue: Remorse and Repentance

Germany’s terrible history of the twentieth century is not to be glossed over, not to be condoned, not to be forgotten. It is a stark reminder that all the skills and learning and all the economic might that successful societies stockpile offer no guarantee against radically false turns, even descents into barbarism. But what happens after these wrong turns matters at least as much as the causes that led there. One must remember with remorse, even repentance, in order to build new and better worlds. Who will give us the language of repentance when the coronavirus leaves this sick and shattered world?

In Leipzig’s case, one can’t help thinking that the city’s most notable son, J.S Bach, whose music since 1904 is celebrated in a festival of its own each year, offers some of the language of repentance that allowed Germany to learn. On the final day of the GoST meeting, I go with Imma to the Thomaskirche, where she shows me the stained glass window bearing Bach’s likeness and his tomb before the altar. The simple bronze slab, cornered by floral bouquets, bears only his name: Johann Sebastian Bach. He was not always buried there. His remains, if indeed they are his, were originally found near the Johanneskirche and reverently placed in a stone sarcophagus under that church in 1900. The Johanneskirche was totally destroyed by bombs in December 1943 and Bach’s bones were transferred to the Thomaskirche. The new grave was created in 1950, two hundred years after the composer’s death. What happened to the remains of Anna Magdalena Bach, his surviving wife and sometime muse, is not recorded.

I leave the church with the last great chorus of the St. John Passion, itself premiered in the Nikolaikirche on Good Friday in 1724, echoing in my ears:

Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.10

  1. Jeffrey Gettleman, “India Savors a Rare Upside to Coronavirus: Clean Air,” New York Times, April 8, 2020.
  2. Heute, am Karfreitag, würde uns – wie in jedem Jahr – Bachs Musik in der Thomaskirche zusammenführen. Aber 2020 ist fast nichts »wie in jedem Jahr«. Das schmerzt unendlich. Doch Bachs Musik ist stärker. Wir vertrauen darauf. Sie wird uns trotzdem zusammenführen.
  3. Zwar Gutes und Barmherzigkeit werden mir folgen mein Leben lang, und ich werde bleiben im Hause des Herrn immerdar.
  5. Siobhán Dowling, “A leap worth taking: how Leipzig was saved from economic decline,” The Guardian, September 12, 2012.
  6. Erick van Egeraat. For the architect’s own account of the Paulinum, see here.
  7. See, for example, Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000). 
  8. Petra Schönhöfer, “The book fair – a piece of German history,” Goethe Institute, March 2019,
  9. Robrecht Declercq, “A return ticket to the world market? The Leipzig fur industry, internationalism and the case of the International Fur Exhibition (IPA) in 1930,” Business History, March 15, 2020,
  10. Rest well, you blessed limbs, now I will no longer mourn you, rest well and bring me also to peace! The grave that is allotted to you, and encloses no further suffering, opens heaven for me and closes off Hell.