Alexander Langer: We will only get ecological change when it appears to be socially desirable
AlexanderLanger, Dobbiaco speech 1994We have created false wealth to fight false poverty – King Midas, the patron saint of our times.
For several centuries false wealth has been produced ever faster and in ever increasing quantities to escape from false poverty. You can also die from such excessive wealth, as can happen with excessive weight, overeating, taking too much medication and so on. A false sense of prosperity as a means of escape from a false need is the illness in the industrialised, “developed” world. We have largely been freed from manual work, natural disasters, diseases, overwork, weakness and, who knows, maybe even death, receiving nuclear radiation and refuse mountains in return, as well as impoverishment of our imagination and our desires. Everything has now become possible and everything has now become a commodity, while any sense of balance, although it had never been permanently guaranteed, has evidently now been lost. The sorcerer’s apprentice is not the only symbolic figure of our times; King Midas, whose wish to have everything he touched turned into gold was fulfilled, seems to have become the patron saint of progress and development freaks, as well as the most recent forerunner of the blessings our society has to offer. What we, the highly industrialised, well-equipped and high-technology world touch, turns into money, into tradeable, profit making goods and services, i.e. into apparent prosperity.
It is no longer possible to bury our heads in the sand: the process of understanding we have undergone in the last quarter of century has generated judgement; alarm bells are ringing and individual measures have been taken.
In recent decades the innumerable aspects of the impoverishment generated by apparent prosperity have come to be known in ever more detail. We hardly listen any longer to the more or less constant litany of environmental disasters.
We have spent a quarter of century recognising, diagnosing and prognosticating environmental disasters. Not only have we been warning and appealing, making agreements and passing laws, but we have also founded institutions for disaster prevention. The technical side of environmental protection has certainly improved greatly in the industrialised world and various successes can be recorded: industry causes much less pollution nowadays, some waters that were dead have been brought back to life, some endangered species have been saved from extinction, and environmentally “friendlier” (i.e. less polluting) washing powders, fuels and packaging materials have been introduced.
Why has the warning led to no concrete action? Is the lucid interval (Stockholm 1972-Rio 1992) already over?
Warnings of catastrophes, complaints, demonstrations, boycotts, petitions ...: thanks to all of these actions it has become clear to us that there is an emergency and we are now aware of it. Illnesses have been diagnosed and identified, cures (where possible) studied and explained. However, complex therapies have not yet been introduced, and what is more, it seems that there is still no such thing as a desire to heal, for that would give clear signals that it is time to change our course. And seeing that the ecological emergency is not solely attributable to the dictatorial decisions of a restricted group of profit-orientated and destructive conspirators, given that decisions are daily confirmed by a plebiscite of concrete behavioural patterns with massive consensus, it is difficult to create such a fresh start. The producers of environmentally dangerous goods, along with those who draw profit from them, are heavily hindering change together with their production methods and consumer patterns. And what is more a large majority of the population vote with their feet (or rather, with their accelerators) against this form of civilisation and refuse to tighten their belts. Therefore, it is difficult to tell the victims from the culprits, as they often come together. Even the victims in the Third World or in the East are often only dreaming about participating in this process as soon as, and as much as, they can.
Is it any wonder if today we question both the diagnosis and what we have learnt? In his maiden speech to Parliament as the new Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, mocked those he sees as ecological doomsters and their greenhouse-effect bogeyman: “In a future that lies as far ahead as the murder of Julius Caesar lies in the past, there might be a slight increase in global warming ....”. Reading between the lines it seems that we can go on covering everything in concrete and wasting as much energy as we want to.
Does this mean that the lucid interval of knowledge, which symbolically dates back to the two decades bridging the World Environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972 and Rio de Janeiro in 1992, is already over? Are we tired of complaining, or do we think that we should celebrate the reunification of the two parts of the world after the fall of the borders that separated East and West with a new global push for growth? It seems like it. Once again the agenda for world affairs seems to be ever more concentrated on wars and stock markets, two particularly bad forms of environmental destruction.
Sustainable development: a philosopher’s stone or a new form of disguise?
For several years (Brundtland Report 1987) the magical formula of “sustainable development” has apparently been successful in squaring the circle: a formula for understanding the necessity of having a certain growth limit, an intelligent form of self-restraint on behalf of the highly industrialised and well-equipped part of the world and for the awareness of the fact that a better balance is a more efficient long term investment than tough competition, for maintaining the original meaning of the term development, i.e. growth. The very modest outcome of the UNCED Conference in Rio (and a general lack of concrete results) has shown how far we still are from correcting our course, i.e. a real turning point.
If sustainable development only means that the southern part of the world should, under the north’s supervision, deal more carefully with its resources so that the world-wide exploitation of these can be carried out in the most rational manner, then it does not include the mobilising objective which could give birth to, and nourish the need for, a rethink both in the north and south of our planet.
Malis extremis extrema remedia? (Do extreme ills require extreme remedies? Eco- dictatorship?)
With our way forward blocked off in the impasse in which we evidently find ourselves, it can happen that extreme ways of escaping from this are sought. Even amongst environmentalists who we would really expect to be moderate, there are still a few, isolated though they might be, who favour one extreme or the other. One extreme could be seen as the conviction that there is no such thing as an effective remedy for environmental catastrophe, and that sooner or later the evolution of the earth will bring another disaster with it. Maybe this time it will be the turn of the human race for extinction, maybe our planet will no longer be able to support human life. On a smaller scale this means that, plague, pollution, desertification, climate change and so on will generate radical changes in the biology, geography and civilisation of the earth, with a completely different emphasis to that which politics, science or market forces could ever generate. The opposite extreme can be seen in the demand for an ecologically ethical State, maybe even for a well-planned, possibly world-wide, environmental dictatorship. Seeing that the human race has played fast and loose with its freedom and risked not only its own survival, but also that of the environment as a whole, what is needed is an ecological authority which can act as a competent, ethically based guardian and finally put an end to the anarchical human behaviour that leads to environmental destruction.
Politics is not possible with these two extremes, or at least not democratic politics. Whenever the “ethical state” has been chosen as an alternative to the unacceptable “unethical” situation or state, the ethical outcome of the deprivation of freedom has been disastrous. And you do not need politics while waiting for the cathartic catastrophe, as politics implies exactly the opposite of the simple acceptance of a form of selection based on catastrophes and trials of strength.
However much we may understand the desperation sometimes shown by the supporters of such extremes, we will have to look somewhere else for the key to ecologically-fair politics. We inevitably have to make the effort to strive for a very careful, complex network of social, cultural, economic, legislative, administrative, scientific and ecological actions. There is no major revolutionary act of liberation which opens the way to ecological change; instead compromises and provisional steps are indispensable as is the patient labour of persuasion.
The key questions is: how can an ecologically sustainable civilisation appear desirable? “Lentius, profundius, suavius” instead of “citius, altius, fortius”.
The key question therefore seems to be less what we can, or must do, it is rather where the motivation and impulse for ecological change should stem from. Fear of a catastrophe has not, at least so far, produced this effect; laws and supervision have been largely insufficient and/or ineffective, while scientific knowledge has not been persuasive enough. So far the pursuit of a global, social, ecological and cultural alternative has evidently not been sufficiently credibly transformed into a vision or a creative project, nor has it been persuasively represented by a political leadership. Otherwise a majority would have stood up for a different, better concept of prosperity and for the necessary changes this would imply.
It is not individual measures, nor a “better Environmental Ministry”, an accurate environmental impact assessment, more severe packaging regulations or sensible speed limits, necessary though they may be, which make the change of course possible, but the wide, cultural and social embodiment of new aims and objectives. So far we have been able to take the Olympic motto, “citius, altius, fortius” (i.e. faster, higher, stronger) as the best maxim for our civilisation: competitiveness is no longer the sporting exception and the high point of our everyday lives, rather it has become our raison d’être. If the social desire for the opposite - “lentius, profundius, suavius” or, “slower, more profoundly, friendlier”, is not convincing or established as a new concept of prosperity, then no individual measures will be safe from being neglected, avoided or outmanoeuvred.
This is why ecological politics can only become effective on the basis of new (or maybe old?) cultural and civilising convictions, which obviously have to be worked out largely outside politics in the strict sense of the word. Important impulses for this can come from religious and ethical, social and aesthetic, traditional and ethnic (i.e. based on the history and identity of a people) motives. From politics, we expect steps to be taken which should contain indicators for a change of course as well as making such a change attractive: a simply punitive form of eco-politics which requires the public to have ideals of poverty will have no chance against democratic competition.
Possible priorities in the search for long-term prosperity
The following steps might be among those which, linked to and interdependent on each other as they are, could contribute today to the onset of the change of course, as well as producing the conditions (and probably also the desire) for further changes. In this context, too, you have to start off by taking small steps and the history of social reforms shows us that it is when these actions are noticeably successful that the consensus necessary to deal with further actions is created. However, these small steps must lead in the right direction, in other words, they must flow against today’s stream.
a) Ecological balance
Current government budgets are all money-based. As long as there is no accurate ecological analysis to give realistic information about the real profit and loss situation in all areas (municipality, county, region, country, EU and so on), then the current economic model and the social requirements based on it, will not be overturned or replaced.
b) Budget reduction rather than budget increase
Any discussion about a turning point is pointless as long as growth remains the main economic aim and public as well as private households aim to increase the amount of money available. The industrialised world has finally to take zero-growth and an eventual reduction seriously, something which, of course, should happen carefully and gradually in order to avoid social or ecological collapse.
c) Promotion of local economies rather than world markets
As long as being competitive in international markets is the yardstick against which the economy is measured, then any ecological change will, of course, be nipped in the bud. The regeneration of regional economies makes it possible for clearer budget management for all those involved and a more balanced eco-result.
d) Ecological tariffs and taxation systems: real costs
Given a market which encourages environmentally-unfriendly behaviour because, amongst other reasons, it is not responsible for the related costs, an ecologically based tariff and taxation system is indispensable for creating a structure which shows real costs even if only partially and in the short term. Both entrepreneurs and consumers should take note of the real costs of large-scale transport of goods, plastic packaging, energy wastage, the use of raw materials, water pollution and so on.
e) Enlargement and generalisation of environmental impact assessments
Nearly everything built today, as well as new technologies which are tried out and introduced, are of a dimension and have an impact such as we have never seen before. The environmental impact assessment when seen in its wider sense as a real examination and evaluation not only of the short and long-term ecological effects of each project, but also the social and cultural ones, has to become the core of social wisdom and so be firmly embodied in a legal sense. As other societies both past and present have had their fundamental norms and taboos (generally related to wars, hospitality, incest and so on), so today we need a fundamental norm to embody environmental impact, regardless of whether it is for a motorway, a rocket, biotechnology, forms of energy production or the introduction of a new chemical substance. There cannot, and must not, be an environmental impact without the social intervention of those directly affected. An ecological tribunal could create the necessary legal basis.
f) Redistribution of labour, social guarantees
Only a vast social redistribution of labour (and therefore also of socially recognised, paid workplaces) can lead to the necessary change of course. The social cushioning of painful ecological changes (regardless of whether you close down energy-devouring or environmentally polluting factories or arms industries) is just as necessary and worthwhile as other long-term social investments: the fact that landowners receive compensation when their land is compulsorily purchased for a road, unlike workers, who have to adapt to ecological change, cannot be justified.
g) Reduction of the financial economy, development of natural resources
As long as economies are governed exclusively via money channels, it is very difficult to respect ecological criteria and this leads to social injustice: those who can pay, can also pollute. A process of “renaturalisation” which leads us away from general commercialisation and towards higher personal contributions and direct access to nature, might help to increase the sense and enjoyment of working and social exchange. The “Res communes omnium” (from the public well to the beach, from the woods to the mountains) are not to be shared through expensive entrance tickets, but rather in return for personal contributions, voluntary work and so on.
h) Development of a partnership concept
Ecologically meaningful self-limitation is more convincing when you see yourself involved in a partnership which mirrors world-wide interdependence. This does indeed exist and in the end is essential for the whole eco-system. In the situation we find ourselves in today, triangular partnerships between north, south and east are especially ideal. These can show us, for example, to what extent pollution, rubbish and tropical rain forests here, in the Third World and in Eastern Europe are linked together, and how much these can be overcome when they are united (climate alliances, for example).
An ecological constitution
Former societies sanctioned, solemnised and handed down far reaching and long-term decisions and obligations: let’s just think, for example, of the “Magna Carta Libertatum”, or the legendary Rütli oath-taking, or of the French declaration of human rights, whatever your view might be of these. What is missing today, is a comparable, fundamental ecological norm which should be democratically instituted if it wants to be binding. Although an article on the environment has been introduced in some constitutions, we are still far from understanding even the maintenance and restoration of the ecological balance as a socially agreed and binding fundamental value, let alone from behaving accordingly.
If we want to create and embody a social desire for environmentally sustainable life and production, then we could probably start by first imagining such a cultural, social process and only then turning it into a legal, “ecologically constitutional” one. Constitutions are used to establish borders not only for individuals but also for states and other public bodies. These boundaries are not to be crossed even when faced with a temptingly convenient one-off case. Constitutions reflect the history of a society’s fundamental values. As long as people fail to adhere to such a binding social obligation for ecological moderation, then no individual action will be strong enough to stop the rising tide of consumerism and growth.