Feb 202019
Sustainable management must overcome the egoism of the present.

An interview with Prof. Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker.

By Christa Schaffmann | Rubikon dated February 19, 2019

The Enlightenment brought Europe liberation from the authoritarian structures and prohibitions of thought of the Middle Ages. It brought technical progress, industrialization and a boom of great discoveries. However, their shadow side is seen too little: colonialism and the arrogance of the West are just as much a part of their „symptom complex“ as the image of nature as an arbitrarily exploitable „mechanism“. A new Enlightenment would have to overcome the dogmatism of opposing one-sidedness. Above all, it would have to put an end to the overexploitation of the future of all of us, which has its source in the egoism of the „now“.

Christa Schaffmann: More than 45 years ago, the report of the Club of Rome was published under the heading „Limits to Growth“. Since then, little has changed in the pursuit of high growth rates in the economy. Is that why the authors of the new report („It’s our turn“) have opted for a title without a measurable variable such as growth?

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: The title is deliberately ambiguous: on the one hand as a clear statement that we have to do something, on the other hand as a serious warning that our planet would be massively damaged if we did not do the right thing. You’re right about the growth ideology. But precisely this accelerated growth and the doubling of the earth’s population led us to realize that we are in the middle of a philosophical crisis without being aware of it. In his great encyclical Laudato Si Pope Francis writes about it:

„When production increases, it is of little concern to produce at the expense of future resources or the health of the environment. When the deforestation of a forest increases production, no one in this calculation weighs the loss caused by the devastation of a territory, the damage to biodiversity or the increase in pollution. This means that companies make profits by taking into account and bearing an infinitesimally small part of the costs.“

In other words, for him the central problem is a short-term economic logic that ignores the true costs of its long-term damage to nature and society.

That is true, but – if I may say so – not so new.

We wondered why this became a problem at some point after it had worked well for a long time in the history of mankind. We came across Herman Daly and the term „Empty World“ that he coined – a counterpart to today’s „Full World“. In the „Empty World“ hunting, fishing, deforestation, mines were still the most normal thing in the world. Today, sustainable economic optimization mainly consists of tightly controlling and limiting such activities.

We also state that the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries took place in the „Empty World“ and that the statements of Adam Smith and David Ricardo were very reasonable and credible for this world. The reach of the market was identical to the reach of the state, the law and morality. For Ricardo, the capital – at that time mainly production capital – was of course fixed …

… while the market, especially the financial market, is global today and the production factor capital is by far the most mobile factor and always on the lookout for the highest return on capital. And to what conclusion did this realization lead the authors of the report?

To the subversive view that our world needs a new Enlightenment. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries was a philosophical liberation from the suffocating and authoritarian structures of the Middle Ages. She also initiated a scientific boom and in the aftermath the Industrial Revolution. But it also had weaknesses that one likes to repress: it led to an arrogance of Europe and became a basis of legitimacy for colonisation, i.e. the conquest of most of the world by European armies. It contained as its core the praise of individualism, egoism, utilitarianism, progress and free markets. And later, mainly in the late 19th and 20th centuries, it became a legitimizing basis for an economy of merciless competition.

But the „old“ Enlightenment also contains strong components of dogmatism: the search for truth often consists in someone who thinks he is right trying to smash the statement of his opponent, to whom he accuses injustice. This is legitimate in mathematics and analytical science in most cases. However, to do the same for the major political and civilisational issues can be totally misleading. Instead, we need a sense of balance. That is the positive core of our demand for a new Enlightenment.

Please explain this with an example.

Let’s start with the dogmatics of speed. The economic policy worship of „innovation“ requires that in the world of competition a high premium is paid on speed. For the majority of people, this permanent and even accelerating innovation is a source of great uncertainty. For the sake of convenience, the despair about this uncertainty is often unloaded on politicians. If, on the other hand, there were a civilizational understanding of the virtue of balance, this kind of „transmission“ could be greatly mitigated.

Balance also between rich and poor? Do you want to philosophically abolish the contradictions of class society?

In the political arena, there is a constant dispute between the prioritization of justice and the prioritization of performance incentives. But does that mean that one side is right and the other wrong? Hardly.

Good politics must find a balance between justice and incentive.

Then the politicians of the „left“ and the „right“ side are no longer viewed with anger in their stomachs, but with the – individually different – consideration of whether justice („left“) or the increased incentive to perform („right“) is more important in the present situation.

In reality, however, the incentive to perform is rewarded more than justice. You can see it from the fact that in almost all countries of the world the gap between rich and poor has increased in the last 25 years.

That is why it is now important in world politics to create more balance here too, i.e. to impose acts of justice on those who have become „indecently“ rich through innovation and achievement. But as long as – as is customary in the Anglo-Saxon cultural area – one regards merciless competition as natural law, i.e. unavoidable, any supranational intervention in injustice is regarded as unjust, destructive or at least progress-inhibiting and sharply rejected.

Are you talking about a cultural struggle between the old social Darwinian Enlightenment and the new balance-oriented Enlightenment?

The Club of Rome does not act as a political referee, but rather approaches the task of peace-building balance from the philosophical side. We state that there are already phenomena of balance, or more precisely of complementarity, in quantum theory itself – highly surprising for physics at the time.

We suspect that a new Enlightenment would do well to deal with the findings of modern science „on an equal footing“. Only then, in our opinion, do we have a real chance to create a good basis for the great civilisational and political debate on the way through philosophy.

However, our book does not stop at this rather abstract philosophical discussion, but deals in the quantitatively longest part with the pragmatic politics of sustainability. There are concrete proposals for a re-regulation of the financial markets, for climate protection, for ecologically sustainable agriculture, for the decentralisation of energy production as well as for the recycling economy.

The arrogance of the capital must be put back in its place, you said elsewhere. By who? Do states today still have the power at all to curb this growth mania? Can they still rethink and redirect, or is the power of corporations not already much too great for them to change course on the basis of state appeals alone? Do we need other laws or incentives that are stronger than the prospect of profit?

Firstly, there is the phenomenon that growth worshippers today are mainly the states. I don’t know of a single state that would contradict the economy if it wanted growth.

Objection: Positive growth forecasts euphorize stock markets and corporations.

Yes, growth worshippers sit there too. But I do see the possibility of a kind of consensus that what is now called gross domestic product (GDP) is in reality not a measure of well-being at all, because GDP also contains traffic accidents, which do not really improve the quality of life. However, GDP is still a rather reliable indicator of two political sanctuaries – jobs and tax revenues. Both go tightly together with GDP. Woe betide the politician who would even make the suggestion of less employment! He’d be politically dead in a heartbeat. Even politicians who declare publicly that even less tax revenue would be acceptable would face problems.

In other words, it is not a question of explaining that GDP is not a measure of well-being, but of how to get out of the fixed link between GDP and employment and between GDP and tax revenue. As long as we do not unbundle this, we have little political chance against GDP. A traffic accident also creates employment. And this has never really been respected by famous representatives of the ecological economy like Robert Constanza, Herman Daly and others who criticize the misdirection by GDP. They act as if it were just a matter of removing something like traffic accidents from the calculation of the prosperity index. That alone is not effective.

What’s next would be is a decoupling of gross turnover from employment and tax revenue.

Is democracy, as we know and value it, still suitable for the tasks ahead? Does she give us the time to get majorities together for a change of course? I think of China, where decisions are made quickly by a different state order, also Reorientations can take place very quickly as soon as the leadership has identified a need for action. You yourself said that we cannot wait until seven and a half billion people have walked the path of insight.

In the 1970s, the democracies of the industrialized countries were very well able to enforce laws for environmental protection. But these were laws against local pollution of air and water and soil. The Chinese – like us – have for decades only had economic growth in mind and neglected the environment. Now they have woken up and are reacting to the indignation of the population at the terribly bad air in Beijing and the other big cities.

With their totalitarian system, they are now doing what democracies did before them. It just superficially looks like the Chinese are faster than us. After all, they have the instruments in their hands to implement uncomfortable environmental measures without rebellion among the people. But I also see a latent rebellion in China against the all-powerful state.

If one’s own concern is the prerequisite for insight or outrage and ultimately for political action, then how can it be where climate change is least noticeable, but at the same time where the greatest proportion of climate damage is caused – and has been since the beginning of industrialisation! – to come to a radical rethink?

2018 could be a turning point in climate protection, because now the people feel harmed and not only the noble people who think of the fates of the grandchildren, because they are always in the minority.

I’d love to share your optimism, but let’s be honest: Despite very positive reactions to the 2017 Club of Rome report, I still don’t see any rethinking on a relevant scale. Germany misses its climate targets, a climate change denier sits in the White House, in Brazil an equal denier has won the most recent election, the EU is less and less united and therefore less able to act. We are observing an increasing nationalism. Are these not all factors that point to the opposite development rather than towards a new Enlightenment?

Your observation is completely accurate. We live in a decade in which a frustration with idealistic concepts, which at times had a kind of majority, has emerged. This applies in particular to the second half of this decade. And today in practically every country in the world there is a kind of Now-Egoism that disguises itself as realism. Realism tends to be a winning strategy, but in this case it is a lie.

How great in perspective do you estimate the readiness of a critical mass of people necessary for the change you demand?

I think it is feasible for a civilization to adjust to a new way of thinking when it clearly sees that the current actions of civilization have a massively destructive component. But now drunkenness still predominates – an egoism for today and at best tomorrow, certainly not for the day after tomorrow.

What does that do to you? How does self-encouragement work under these circumstances?

I don’t make any effort to do that. I take it morally and from my understanding of duty absolutely for granted that people oppose this current foolishness, expose this stupidity and say: What you are doing populistically at the moment harms us humans, our future, especially our children and grandchildren. And that’s why, of course, I’m on the other side.

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Translation: DeepL