Germans want to end nuclear power and turn to renewable energy, but they keep buying SUVs. Global carbon emissions and oil consumption have risen sharply over the last two environmentally conscious decades — and the trends will continue, as long as Westerners keep discovering new "needs."
Photo: Wolfgang Maria Weber
The good life in Munich.
Since the announcement of Germany's new nuclear phase-out and its coming energy revolution, a specter has haunted the country. It's called "eco-dictatorship." The people warning us against its dangers, ironically, have not been known as passionate defenders of the democratic process.
Leading the way are industrial dinosaur Jürgen Großmann and his loyal assistant on the renewable energy front, Fritz Vahrenholt, both top executives at the major German energy company RWE. In a recent article in the German paper Die Welt, Vahrenholt criticized what he called environmental "Jacobinism" and made indirect reference to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He argued that the energy revolution would ask Germans for the "highest measure of idealism, altruism and willingness to make sacrifices," which could "not be achieved by democratic means." Why, Vahrenholt asked rhetorically, "should people worldwide voluntarily relinquish their claims to material welfare and security?"
In fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." This raises two questions that Vahrenholt presumably did not have in mind. First, what is an adequate standard of living under universal standards of human rights? And second, what would it look like if it were "standardized" worldwide?
Re-Interpreting Article 25
When the United Nations General Assembly ratified Article 25 on Dec. 10, 1948, what it most certainly did not have in mind was the perceived human right to a standard of living that takes for granted a family's right to four vacations a year, three cars and a waste of food on a daily basis. In fact, the greatest "willingness to make sacrifices" among German elites today probably consists of agreeing to wait 12 months for the delivery of a Porsche Cayenne.
For some reason everyone seems to want to thumb their noses at the global climate by driving SUVs. SUV sales aren't just booming among the Chinese, who tend to be less than enthusiastic about protecting the environment, but also among Germans, who bought 20 percent more SUVs last year than in 2009, so they could plow through downtown areas and strike fear into the hearts of children and cyclists. In buying these gas guzzlers, consumers contributed significantly to a largely unnoticed record set in 2010: The highest energy use in human history. Global energy consumption rose by 5.6 percent in 2010, while emissions that affect the climate increased by 5.8 percent.
This is an energy turnaround? Hardly. Despite Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun, energy consumption and emissions rise each year. With only a brief interruption during the global economic crisis, man continues to accelerate the depletion of resources and destruction of the planet and its atmosphere. Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases have almost doubled in the last two decades alone, and it will take only one decade for emissions to double again, assuming the thirst for energy in the industrialized and emerging economies continues to grow as quickly as it is growing today. According to current prognoses, oil consumption — which accounts for a third of primary energy use — will grow from 84 billion barrels a day in 2005 to 116 million barrels by 2030, despite increasingly difficult access to oil and the resulting heightened risks to the environment.
Flatscreens and Wasted Food
But how is this possible, especially in Germany, where the green revolution has spread throughout society and into all political parties, with the exception of the eternally backward Left Party? More to the point, how is it possible after society has been exposed to almost 40 years of enlightenment on environmental protection, climate protection and sustainability? (The groundbreaking work "The Limits to Growth" was published in 1972.) Why do the graphs on resource and environmental consumption point sharply upward if the Germans are so conscious of the environment and energy use that they proudly support their government's decision to phase out nuclear power? And shake their heads in disgust when they see people in places like Kuala Lumpur or Dakar tossing garbage into rivers and streets?
The answer is simple. Consumption has risen steadily in those same decades, bringing a corresponding rise in waste and emissions. For example, 50 years ago a Mini was not only small, but was also lightweight (617 kilograms, or 1,357 lbs.) and managed to transport four people with only 34 horsepower. Today's Mini is available as a compact car, a convertible, a station wagon and a coupe, and even as a 1,470-kilo (1.6-ton) SUV with up to 211 horsepower.
German households now have multiple flatscreen TVs, air conditioners, an American refrigerator with an icemaker (just in case Dean Martin stops by), and the sort of country-house kitchen that includes enough equipment to supply two fully booked youth hostels. In a decade, residents of the Western world have doubled the amount of clothes they buy. The IKEA-ization of the world, that is, the transformation of durable consumer goods into non-durable consumer goods, progresses at a furious pace. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the serviceable life of electronic devices keeps shrinking. And finally, some 40 percent of food in the United States and 30 percent of food in Europe is now thrown away before it's eaten.
Part 2: Perfectly Natural — for a Growth Economy
This is precisely the way things are supposed to happen in a growth economy, which can only function by inventing new needs once our vital needs — those referred to in Article 25 — have been met.
Wealthy societies perceive it as a human right that their members should submit to this kind of manipulation and be allowed to fill their world with useless items. When I suggested on a talk show a few years ago that people might consider spending the odd vacation at home instead of constantly flying somewhere, I received furious phone calls, even from some of my friends. The idea that we are simply entitled to everything that's peddled in our consumer society is deeply entrenched. But it isn't wise to take this society up on its offers, because they're the result of the predatory exploitation of resources others need to survive, both today and in the future.
Globalization reputedly raises general wealth, allows new middle classes to develop and reduces social inequity and poverty. But the truth that one-seventh of mankind is undernourished, two billion people lack adequate medical care, one billion have no access to clean water, and more than 200 million children are soldiers, prostitutes, migrant workers and rug makers.
Seen in this light, Article 25 is nothing but a utopia for the billion people at the bottom of the heap. The biggest scandal is that the disparities are not decreasing on either a national or global scale. Today about 1,200 people own about three percent of worldwide private assets, while half of humanity owns less than two percent.
Anyone who says the mainstream culture of consumption and waste in the industrialized countries influenced by the West ought to be scaled back to a level compatible with survival is promptly told that people in the emerging economies cannot be denied the standard of living that we take for granted.
This is an ideological argument, because it conveniently ignores the enormity of the differences in circumstances and resource consumption worldwide, and because the constantly repeated claim that everyone wants to be like us is nothing but a transparent effort to legitimize our idiotic lifestyle. The faulty logic of this argument is that if everyone emulates our lifestyle, it has to be correct, even if the future is destroyed as a result.
In fact, this is precisely what is happening. Not only is the growing destructiveness of consumer societies achieved at the cost of winners growing richer and losers getting poorer; it also constitutes a generational injustice of historic proportions. Because we keep overusing resources in every respect, there won't be much left for the children and young people of today. They will certainly not have the freedom to shape their future as easily as the members of my generation.
A Job for Politicians
Recovering the future — and the redemption of Article 25, in both a global and temporal sense — are political challenges. An "energy revolution" isn't enough. What we need is a new intolerance of our chronic violation of the human right to future survival. When the environmental movement rose in the 1970s it was far more political than it is today. And when social critics and thinkers like Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Hans Jonas and Carl Amery conducted the debate, it was not just with a view toward resources alone, but also toward the social context in which they are used. Without a radical change in our economy and way of life, we will not make it through the 21st century.
A few years ago, the writer Robert Menasse wrote that "even Manchester capitalism was not civilized by the fact that political decision-makers submissively asked the capitalists what they would need to remain competitive and to secure Manchester as a production site, but, on the contrary, by the fact that politics imposed limits on capital and gradually produced more reasonable basic conditions. If the capitalists had been asked, they would have honestly and, unfortunately, reasonably (according to their laws of reason) averred that nothing would work without child labor and 12-hour days. Political decisions were needed, decisions that had to be made in the face of massive resistance. But they were made nonetheless. Child labor was banned, and the eight-hour workday was introduced."
Neither the abolition of slavery nor the achievement of human rights in the United States were the outgrowth of free and congenial dialogue between government and big business. It's precisely these examples, in fact, that show how modernization only results from the hard-earned elimination of privileges.
This is why our contemporary society and its politics are so antiquated: They refuse to restrict the privileges of resource use the way it was always done throughout the history of the modern age. Politics is not making progress because protecting privileges has become the main purpose of political activity. One could describe it as a dictatorship of the present at the expense of the future. Or perhaps as the opposite of intelligence. But certainly not as a human right.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Part 1: We Should Be Outraged! At Ourselves
Part 2: Perfectly Natural — for a Growth Economy