In memoriam: Irene Dankelman (1953-2022), sustainability pioneer and true optimist

06 Jan 2023

Irene Dankelman was far ahead of her time. If you wanted to raise awareness on sustainability in developmental countries, you had to start with the women, she knew long ago. On 28 December the first sustainability coordinator of Radboud University passed away.

Between the Berchmanianum and the Thomas van Aquino Street stands the Irene Dankelman bench. She received it when she retired from the university in 2019. On the backrest is a text from one of her books.

On 28 December the meaning of the bench suddenly changed: sustainability advocate Irene Dankelman passed away. The piece of furniture is now a modest monument in her honour.


Emeritus professor Environment and Policy Pieter Leroy lovingly wipes his thumb across the plaque with her text. ‘They do need to clean it up a bit’, he says. ‘And I see that a screw is missing from the corner. I’ll be sure to make a phone call.’

Leroy worked with lecturer and researcher Irene Dankelman for over twenty years. He loves to talk about her. About the pioneer she was in so many areas.

‘She was far ahead of her time when it comes to putting sustainability issues on the agenda’, he says. ‘Already in 1989, she published the book Women and Environment in the Third world, about the relationship between women and the environment (republished in 2013, ed.). She worked for a lot of NGOs in developmental countries and understood that women were responsible for housekeeping there, but also for providing water, health, and nature.’ Thus, if you wanted to raise awareness on sustainability, you had to start with the women.

First sustainability coordinator

At the Catholic University Nijmegen, Dankelman was already committed to working sustainably before anyone had even heard of it. And way before sustainability became a popular marketing term which Radboud University loves to use anno 2023.

‘Twenty years ago, many directors wanted nothing to do with it. But Irene was already busy bringing lots of people together; from the department for campus heating to employees responsible for mobility and of course students.’

The biologist was the first sustainability coordinator at Radboud University. Only a few years ago, in 2018, the Green Office emerged from that, and three years ago the Executive Board launched an initiative to address sustainability in every curriculum. ‘Long ago, Irene already made a series of booklets in which she described how lecturers could get started working on sustainability in different areas of expertise’, Leroy explains.

No cynicism

Irene Dankelman devoted her life to making the world a little better. She was a researcher at Wageningen University, moved to New York in 1990 to work with UNIFEM (now UN Women), and become an environmental advisor at Oxfam Novib. She also had her own consultancy bureau specialising in gender, environmental, and climate issues. In 1999 she started as coordinator of the Sustainable Development Programme at Radboud University. She held that position until her retirement in 2019.

‘Irene really should have received 10 more awards’

‘Irene possessed the beautiful combination of a gentle nature and an enormous perseverance’, is how environmental researcher Mark Wiering described her. ‘She was great at bringing people together, knew no cynicism, and was a truly optimistic human being.’ Among other things, Wiering worked with her at the Sustainability Café Nijmegen, a local initiative to raise awareness on sustainability. He admired the way she always stated positive, while the woman who witnessed the birth of the environmental movement was by no means sufficiently heard.

Emergency procedure

Fortunately, last December, she received the recognition she was long overdue: she became an Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau. She received the award after an emergency procedure because she was already so ill that the initiators knew she would not make it to King’s Day. Last summer, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed away on 28 December.

‘I am so glad she was still able to receive that ribbon’, Pieter Leroy sighs. ‘Irene really should have received 10 more awards.’

Irene Dankelman was buried at the natural cemetery in Mook, near her hometown of Malden. The bench on campus bearing her name has naturally been made of organic materials. Next to it stands an insect hotel. That is the way things should be, Pieter Leroy nods.

Translated by Jan Scholten.

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