Thinking in the Future Perfect
Climate Change as Social Change
Climatology data and predictions give a relatively precise, regionally differentiated picture of the already irreversible consequences of climate change and those that may still occur – consequences of a thing that many people claim is still not perceptible and will take place, if at all, only in the far distant future. However, anyone who has witnessed, for example, the rapid melting of Arctic glaciers – which has already exceeded all predictions – or observed over a period of time the flow of the great Chinese rivers from the high Tibetan plateau to the sea has experienced the very concrete effects of climate change - and can easily conceive worse.
What is harder to conceive is how the pillars of modern societies might be affected by climate changes such as these – world markets and material wealth, forms and norms of social coexistence, civil liberties and rights of ownership, sovereignty of people and state, and others. Will the world economy survive the ‘greatest market failure’, as climate change has been labelled? Will it press ahead with advanced forms of natural and exchange economies; will it tend towards more planning, or embed itself once again in moral economies? Will the individual lose his scope of action as a result of natural disasters and the associated erosion of social certainties, or will this create more options for personal fulfilment? Will societies become more individualised, or tend towards closer bonds of community? Will liberal democracy survive the dangers of climate change and continue to develop, or will there be a post-democratic society in which social controls are strengthened from the bottom up, and autocratic despotism from the top down? What will be the values, attitudes and mentalities that characterise a world with mean temperatures two plus X degrees higher than those that preceded the Industrial Age? Will economic and financial globalisation be more advanced, or will global interdependence have decreased? Will there be more cross-cultural and interreligious cooperation among states, private organisations and individuals, or will they isolate themselves still further and position themselves in opposition to one another? Will nation states still exist at all in 2050, or will there be some kind of world government, however this might be legitimised? Can the civilising maxim of peaceful conflict resolution still be maintained, or will natural disasters trigger impoverishment, mass exodus, and ‘climate wars’?
The ‘great questions’ can be broken down and applied to concrete everyday situations. How, for example, will nine or ten billion people, the majority of them living in cities, get around? How will they power their vehicles and transport goods, or heat and cool their dwellings? What will they eat, and how will they use the land? To date there are hardly any ‘soft’ scenarios for social, political, economic and normative development in the various regions of the world to accompany the hard data of climatology and energy prognostication. And where these have been calculated, they are mostly just an updating of tendencies observed in the recent past. Deviations from the paths of habitual models of modernisation are found only occasionally in transition studies – sometimes par force des choses, because the authors see major upheavals coming, sometimes as a voluntaristic outline of desirable futures for the sustainable and just development of world society.
New culture of participation
There are many reasons for the lack of wild imagining and substantiated predictions, starting with the ‘TINA’ dogma. With the slogan ‘There Is No Alternative’, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) rubberstamped the contemporary world as the best of all possible worlds, and the neo-liberal worldview as the only possible worldview.
Another reason is the short-term nature and volatility of political thinking and attention spans, which ensure that professional politics is almost entirely devoid of any visionary perspectives and limit it to what is supposedly achievable. The overwhelming realism of the social sciences is also stultifying. Increasingly specialised, they eschew a diagnosis of the times, interpreting the playfulness of many aspects of cultural studies and society as a construct and departing from ‘grand narratives’ of every kind. And there is still a general scepticism where prediction is concerned: as the old adage ascribed to John Maynard Keynes points out, prediction is very difficult – especially about the future.
Yet today it is the natural scientists and ‘energy modellers’ who are calling for intellectual, social and cultural contributions to strengthen quantitative projections with qualitative narratives of possible futures, just as it is climate policy that has to introduce adaptations to climatic changes, and is concerned about the acceptance of possible interventions, bans and costs.
One should not think of societies exposed to the consequences of climate change as the mere sounding boards of technical innovation and political planning. With each intervention they change, and thereby change the starting point; they regularly throw up unintended consequences of political action and changes that were entirely unplanned, thus stubbornly eluding rational calculation of the technical-instrumental future. Furthermore: without widespread voluntary participation of the ‘people across the country’ – without ordinary common sense, active citizens, and a critical mass of agents of change – regulations, investment and mobilisation campaigns are all doomed to fail. There will always be a lack of enforcement, abandoned projects, resistance. Currently, for example, a trans-continental energy network from the North Pole to the Sahara is being planned at the ‘green table’, the realisation of which would call for unheard-of interventions in the infrastructure, while at the same time people observe with astonishment and vexation the time it takes to complete a simple sewage pipe repair in a public square, or development projects in their neighbourhood. Every technology is moulded to its society; every innovation is dependent on context; every policy requires justification.
Containing and adapting to climate change thus entails a new culture of participation, and the kind of political mobilisation that seeks more than just superficial or resigned acceptance by civil society. Instead it should acknowledge civil society’s role in shaping a great transformation and being among those primarily responsible for its success, and should activate this potential. As for the main producers of greenhouse gases, a ‘great transformation’ will come about when we have the following: individual and collective mobility of people and goods, food, and land use or spatial planning. In these fields there has to be a swift and radical change in primary energy consumption, consumption patterns, value systems and lifestyles, because the physical nature of greenhouse gases makes it imperative to make massive reductions in the very short term and limit production to minimal quantities in the long term, worldwide and synchronously, if we are to escape irreversible damage.
Society will therefore be altered not only by climate change but also by climate policy. The society of the United States, for example, cannot cling to its mantra of unlimited individual mobility based on fossil fuel energy sources; and a society supplied with renewable energies on a decentralised basis also generates other types of company and industrial cultures: (perceived and actual) losers of a low carbon society in particularly energy-intensive branches of production must be neutralised, compensated and integrated. Emerging economies such as Brazil or India, whose CO2 emissions per capita have to date been low, will now have to decide whether they want to choose more climate-friendly options, based on renewable energies, over the extraction of immense reserves of fossil fuels. The Chinese leadership will also need to establish some other form of legitimation besides the frenetic growth of the economy. All over the world mentalities and value systems, the logic of cooperation and planning cultures, civil society initiatives and social movements will develop, all of which will contribute to the Herculean task of the ‘great transformation’.
Considerations in this direction cannot stop at ‘great successes’, like the ‘sustainable society’ that has been a focus of consideration since the 1990s, nor can they limit themselves solely to the finer points of technical-economic reduction goals in the context of ‘decarbonisation’. One does not win support either with the extreme rhetoric of catastrophe – which generally provokes a defiant response, loss aversion and climate scepticism – or with heavily moralistic appeals that elicit either agreement, which costs nothing, or fear of failure. Anyone who presents the transformation simply as a reduction in our current standard of living and a loss of available options is unlikely to win any supporters at all beyond those groups prepared to live ascetically - just as people are unlikely to believe assurances to the contrary: that everything can remain exactly as it has always been.
For a contemporary theory and prediction of social change, this means that basic concepts like society and community, market and state, agent and system, personality and habitus, crisis and modernity will have to be reconsidered. Until now we have lacked empirical studies and synopses about the proliferation and counter-proliferation of innovations, about how knowledge acquired is transformed into willingness to act, and about possible catalysts of rapid change in social networks, institutional arrangements and political organisations.
Example: the automobile society
What is needed is a climate- and environment-friendly model for mobility, one that organises mobility, where it cannot be avoided, more intelligently. Until now, there has been a failure to implement this, less on account of technical or economic limitations than as a result of socio-structural and -cultural obstacles and political barriers. The fact that petrol- and diesel-powered cars have become the number one means of transportation worldwide (in Germany more than half of all daily journeys are made by car, meaning that Germans drive an average of 43 kilometres and spend 90 minutes per day in their cars) is the result of a division of labour and spatial planning which, in industrial mass society, have relocated the majority of workplaces away from the office and have, in addition, spatially segregated homes, educational institutions, recreation areas and department stores. Without the invention of the automobile and its mass distribution, starting in the United States, it would not have been possible for the suburbs to become preferred places of residence (over compact, urban spaces). Big supermarkets would not exist, and people would not have switched over to fast food (instead of home cooking and local supply from small shops); nor would big school centres have been built (instead of local facilities). And because this automobile infrastructure now exists, it continues to propagate further motor traffic and reinforce the individualistic pattern of movement. Today, the majority of car traffic travels between the aforementioned stations of daily life, usually over a distance of only a few kilometres. Local traffic is underpinned by the global logistics of goods and services.
The fact that the division of work and automobilisation have mutually reinforced each other, and that as a rule road building results in more traffic, are proof of the ‘system-relevance’ of the automobile. In the United States and in Germany in particular, car manufacturers and their associated industries are responsible for a large part of the country’s gross domestic product and serve as primary barometers of the economy and indicators of prosperity. Car manufacturers are also still an engine of the industrial relationships between work and capital. Thus the exponentially increasing projections of the car and logistics industries with their Olympian maxim, ‘more, further, faster!’ are seen as laws of Nature rather than horror scenarios of over-development spinning out of control – which is what, objectively speaking, they are.
The fact that entire industries live off the advertising material and medium that make up the automobile leads us to its cultural significance, which, again, is most pronounced in the United States and western Europe. The car is regarded as the leisure vehicle par excellence, ensuring individual mobility and helping to overcome limited boundaries. Road movies and car shows have made the ownership of a pair of wheels a comprehensive cultural definition that structures the entirety of professional and daily life, right down to dietary intake and basic requirements. But a car is much more than this. For the personnel who work, for example, ‘with Daimler’, it is a source of identification: cities like Detroit or Wolfsburg are industrial monocultures. Automobiles still exude an enduring technical and aesthetic fascination which until now few have been able to resist.
The four wheels stand for the engineering knowhow of entire nations. The car is the primary indicator of social advancement, for people of all classes an unbeatable status symbol and notorious indicator of reputation. Even in our smaller, flatter world, with excellent means of communication and sophisticated technologies for local and long-distance transport, the car has remained anchored in the cultural identity of Western and westernising societies like almost no other form of technology. The market economy places sensual needs before opportunities for consumption, and cars provide fun, power, distinction, freedom, comfort, fetishism, technology and sound – the ultimate in consumable sensuality. The car constitutes a mental infrastructure – and all infrastructures structure not only the present, but also the sheer conceivability of the future.
How do we actually want to live?
The tough battle to save General Motors and Opel in the years since 2008 underlines the extent to which the automobile industry in the United States and Germany is regarded as ‘system-relevant’. Or was regarded as such? The car industry worldwide is facing a massive challenge and conversion. Despite considerable potential for growth in many emerging market countries, it must tackle the question of global overcapacity, adjust to a further, possibly drastic rise in the price of oil, making individual mobility far more expensive, and recognise the necessity of reducing CO2 emissions in order to avoid the uncontrolled warming of the climate, and this compels it to look for alternative propulsion systems to the traditional internal combustion engine.
There are two schools of thought on the future of mobility. One holds that it is possible to implement the radical conversion of renewable energies at the necessary speed and to the extent needed: we can maintain our current lifestyle and still curb climate change, protect Nature, and also ensure greater fairness around the world. To be precise: people can continue to travel individually in their cars to work, go shopping, and commute to their homes in the countryside. They can even fly to the Maledives, because these won’t be underwater, not even in a hundred years. This strategy can be called (without party-political bias) ‘green growth’; it can be developed into a global ‘green deal’ that will finally reconcile the ecology with the economy.
However, the development of alternative transport infrastructures is extremely laborious and time-consuming. In the United States and in Germany, as in many other parts of the world, the electrification of motorised individual transport and the substitution of conventional fuels with biofuels is being propagated. The Center for American Progress, which sets the tone for energy and climate policy in the United States, is demanding higher efficiency standards for cars, incentives for consumers to buy more efficient cars, and that manufacturers develop more efficient technologies, as well as incentives to increase production and use of second-generation biofuels.
These projections show us that the American way of life is to be maintained at all costs. Asked in July 2010 why there should still be cars and long-distance travel in two hundred years’ time, the American Robert B. Laughlin, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, replied, ‘Because we want it.’ There are also, however, desires of a secondary nature: desires relating to what it is we want to want. The second school of thought aims in this direction. It envisages a transport infrastructure with ‘intermodal traffic’, the expansion of local public transport and rail services over long distances and high-speed connections, combined with intelligent city and spatial planning. Here, mobility is not transferred to other, more efficient technologies, but is redefined and, where possible, avoided, according to normative standards of what constitutes a good life. With this in mind, the German President Horst Köhler wrote in the album of the engineers of the Leipzig World Traffic Forum just a few days before his resignation: ‘Someone for whom ‘innovation’ means only lower-emission cars is not thinking hard enough. Let us therefore also develop ideas as to how unnecessary journeys and transportation can be avoided in the first place, and how better to plan our cities. Let us consider what we like about our mobile lifestyles, and what just causes us stress and takes time: what is worth keeping and what not. Yes – let us think about how we actually want to live, what good mobility concepts contribute to that, and how we can make them attractive to all.’
This school of thought is more demanding that green realism. It believes it is necessary to make major changes in our lifestyle, and not only for reasons of climate and environmental policy: it also sees the cultural change this would introduce as an opportunity for better human development. In terms of industrial policy it represents a ‘no harm and no regret’ strategy, i.e.: we win with structural change, because we won’t really have to give anything up – because as far as energy creation, mobility, food and land use are concerned, overdeveloped circumstances that are in any case in need of change, and where change would combine economic outcome utility with social and moral procedural utility, would be subject to renegotiation. Better still: we are trying to change things now, when it doesn’t cost as much, rather than later, when change will be costly, or no longer possible.
Intelligent mobility not only continues familiar patterns of mobility using other means, as with ‘e-mobility’, which is now also a favoured alternative in Germany. It questions firmly established and apparently unshakeable mindsets and behavioural patterns, regardless of their respective primary energy basis. We do not increase individual mobility ad infinitum; we avoid it where possible in that we once again concentrate domicile, workplace, leisure and shopping facilities in urban agglomerations, or in abolishing senseless economic incentives (like the scrapping premium) and fiscal incentives (like the commuting allowance), instead promoting locomotion technologies, from physical power to super-smart electricity networks. This also includes facilitating and improving the image of pedestrian and cycle traffic, the promotion of car sharing and ride-share opportunities, climate-friendly travel guidelines, an alternative fleet management by companies and administrations, the widespread use of environmentally-friendly buses and taxis, and much more.
Anyone who also gives greater thought to the locality, seasonality and substantiality of human life will not, as a customer, expect to be able to have every product on Earth fresh on his table at any time of year, and will not demand that logistics companies should be able to deliver any object of desire to his house from any corner of the world within twenty-four hours. The sustainability that needs to be worked towards relies heavily on individual initiative and the self-organisation of civil society. But these can only be successful when political parties offer open networks and material and psychological incentives to lawmakers and environmental administrators. Thoughtful consumers can become key active citizens if they acquire a sense of self-efficacy and a collective awareness of their strength.
There is an alternative
One idea currently under discussion is so-called ‘nudges’ – stimuli for desired changes in behaviour – and ‘default options’, which specify the best solutions as standards and only offer the second-best solutions as opt-out alternatives. This mechanism leaves people at liberty to choose: the immediate gratification of desire, or the considered displacement of desire to the future. Protagonists of rational maximisation of utility regard this kind of supported self-limitation as contrary to human nature: for them, suggesting preferences to others, even if indirectly, by way of libertarian paternalism violates a fundamental maxim of a free society. This, of course, fails to acknowledge that the formation of individual preferences (as demonstrated by the example of automobility) is always institutionally mediated, and that secondary desires enable people to reflect on and rationalise the vehemence of their initial, spontaneous desires.
In terms of the history of ideas, this is not revolutionary, because it reflects the general principles of reflexive modernisation. Nor is it a political utopia: Germany has in fact imposed curbs on itself with the smoking ban and the debt limit. Many people would like to smoke, but some do eventually stop so as not to harm themselves or others; then, perhaps, they vote in a referendum for a general smoking ban, not least to prevent themselves from slipping back into bad habits. The Federal Republic, in an attempt to tackle runaway interest on its debt, and interest on that interest, caps its ability to get deeper into debt through incremental deficit reduction.
The mechanism of rational self-regulation means that, at point in time t1 (today), societies can afford moderate and justified self-denial, even if this only takes effect at a later point in time, t2 (tomorrow). And this is precisely the payoff in the awareness of climate change as social change. People acquire a far-sighted attitude towards their possible second-best preferences in the future, and also towards these preferences in the long term, making themselves adaptive to better solutions. The TINA principle not only established a particular (and essentially completely impractical) economic model as a dogma, it also killed off any reflexive preparation for the future, and degraded politics to the administration of practical constraints and permanent crisis management.
The current crisis teaches us that we need to learn to think in the future perfect: what we will have to have done in ten years’ time in order for future generations to live differently, and better, in fifty or one hundred years. It is impossible to make precise predictions as to how society will be altered by climate change, but it is possible approximately to determine the courses it can take. And citizens of democracies are in a position to decide which courses they prefer.
This, then, is where change is urgently needed: because the political elites are continuing with the policy of taking small steps where determined, at times radically transformative steps are necessary (and also possible!). They are clinging to national frameworks where global problems must entail global cooperation. The instruments for a new environmental, climate and energy policy are in place. We do not lack the global knowledge, capital, technologies and policies to make the transition to more climate-friendly economies. The problems lie with the political process – politics – and insufficient translation of the two-degree guard rail into a mandatory global convention, or polity.This text was first published in the bpb magazine Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 32-22/2010, 30th July 2010.
is a professor of Political Science. He is the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen (KWI) and co-director of the Käte Hamburger Collegium ‘Political Cultures of World Society’ at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He is a member of the federal government’s German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) and director of the project Climate and Culture.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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