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Sustainability or Consumerism

by Reinhard Loske Monday, Apr. 02, 2007 at 1:55 AM

The industrial nations must lower their CO2 emissions at least 80% by 2060.. Consumerism, accumulating goods as a substitute for meaning, is the great enemy of climate protection today.


Despite all “ecological industrial policy,” the battle against climate catastrophe will fail without lifestyle change. This need not mean abandoning pleasure

By Reinhard Loske

[This article published in: die tageszeitung, 2/27/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

In climate protection and ecology, we have all become reasonable, perhaps too reasonable. Alarmism only frightens and accomplishes nothing. Appeals to renunciation are even worse. These appeals only deter. Long ago we put behind us doubts about limits of growth. Who wants to be suspected of little confidence? We would rather speak glowingly of climate protection. Thus the creed of “ecological industrial policy” is: creating new jobs, promoting innovations, opening up export markets and replacing energy imports. We like to hear this – in the stock exchanges and editorial offices – not only of the joys of nature.

Is all this as reasonable as it sounds? Don’t we need a precise idea of the enormous loss threatening us and the readiness to retreat to pave the way for true reason? Here are some sobering statistics. In the pre-industrial age, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 280 ppm (parts per million). Today the concentration is 383 ppm and increases 2.5 annually. In the community of climate researchers, there is a firm consensus that the CO2-concentration in the atmosphere must be stabilized at a maximum 420 ppm to avoid uncontrollable consequences for humanity and nature.

According to the United Nations Climate report published in May 2006, this means a 50 percent reduction of global atmospheric emissions by 2050. The maximum worldwide emission must be reached by 2020. The message is clear for the industrial nations in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. They must lower CO2 emissions at least 80 percent by 2050 or develop an economy free of CO2. So much for imperatives.

Unfortunately actual statistics and trend predictions show something very different. For a long time, the US and Australia completely rejected the Kyoto process. China and India do not submit to any reduction obligations. The International Energy Agency forecasts a 60 percent increase in global energy consumption by 2030 mainly on the basis of fossil fuels. Even Europe that declared itself the global climate champion in an “historical decision” (Sigmar Gabriel) a few days ago only aims at a 20 percent reduction of atmospheric gases compared to 1990 by the year 2020. This is 0.66 percent a year.

Whether the frightening numbers of the climate researchers will move humanity to conversion is certainly an open question. Doubts are appropriate. Fyodor Dostoevsky pilloried the weakness of purely quantitative goals in his “Notes from the Underground” in 1864. “What pleasure is possible when everything is calculated in tables?” one of his protagonists asks. Dostoevsky doubted the regiment of science. He saw advancing a dreadfully boring but rational society that would not stimulate perspectives.

Empirical science can help us understand climate change. It can identify guardrails within which we have to move to avoid the system crash. However it cannot give us any ideas on forming the social process dissuading us from the path of self-destruction and leading to safe land. For that, we need social imagination, political will and readiness for genuine change.

Official policy has not yet found its role. Incredible rubbish resulted from the excited climate discussion of the last weeks. New motor vehicle taxes, light bulb prohibitions, CO2 indulgence certificates for service flights, benchmarks for coal power plants or purchase recommendations for Japanese cars may be sensible. They are completely inadequate even when they are added together.

Politics must pay attention so it doesn’t crush the climate debate and give the population the impression that the misery cannot be changed and they must at best concentrate on bringing their little mite in dry dock or celebrating the last party. What are needed now are great designs that are gradually converted, a carbon-free energy economy, climate-friendly transportation, buildings and infrastructures making possible genuine life for everybody.

All the wind turbines, micro-heaters and hybrid cars will not save us if we try to avoid the lifestyle question. A natural and understandable timidity exists among politicians who fear renunciation as the devil fears holy water. Consumerism, accumulating goods as a substitute for meaning, is the great enemy of climate protection today. Therefore returning to the human standard is a cultural project of the first order.

Without an idea about sustainable lifestyles and a good society, protection of the atmosphere runs the risk of becoming technocratic. One cannot easily start in the “old” consumption critique of Erich Fromm or Rudolf Bahro. Modern capitalism is ingenious and sophisticated; its imagination is boundless. As it transforms longing for nature into outdoor clothing and sports vehicles, it stylizes consumption criticism as worn-out socks, cool T-shirts and bestseller books. Outwitting consumerism means connecting moderation with joy in life, renunciation with pleasure, less with more and asceticism with self-discovery to give courage and stimulate imitation. With the plurality of our society, this will not lead to a uniform lifestyle but to a diversity of lifestyles that altogether will be more compatible with the climate.

Certainly an important limitation should be emphasized: If renunciation only means the rich must keep their SUVs in the garage on Sunday while Hartz IV (welfare) benefits for the poor are cut from 345 Euro per month to 300 Euro, such an approach will not gain broad social approval. The chance of moderate lifestyles breaking through increases nationally and internationally with social justice. Basic income for each and every one could be the bridge to take away the excessive growth pressure from society. The time has come to think together the ecological and the social question at last.

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