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The Culture of Ecological Responsibility – An Interview with Ludger Heidbrink

Ludger Heidbrink; © barboraLudger Heidbrink; © barboraCan climate change stimulate a cultural reconstruction of industrial societies? A presentation at the Goethe Institute in Montreal, Canada, in mid-October considered this question. The podium discussion and workshop was organized by philosopher Ludger Heidbrink of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen. An interview with Heidbrink on the culture of responsibility.

Let’s talk about some of the themes you particularly focus on. For example, the idea of “growing by shrinking”. What’s behind that?

In view of dwindling resources, it’s a question of replacing the conventional growth principle with something like a new “shrinking principle”, but one that’s viewed positively. We should look on changes in our energy and resource-intensive life style not as a sacrifice but as liberation from the superfluous ballast, from the consumption and mobility stress that largely determines our everyday life.

“I’m entirely a realist”

That somehow reminds me of the ideals of the alternative and environmental movement of the 1970s and 80s.

Yes, right! I’m also sceptical about whether these changes in our way of life can actually work, but it’s a necessary target because we can see that we come up against limits with the growth principle. That up to now we haven’t succeeded in getting away from the idea of growth lies to a large extent in the logic of the market economy, which needs a certain growth in order to function.

On this I’m entirely a realist. I’d even say that we can’t reconstruct the industrial and growth society we have now overnight without unjust consequences and social conflicts. What concerns me first of all is a turn away from the growth principle in the cultural sense, from the conviction that our well-being depends on traveling to exotic countries or buying bigger cars. People set their hearts too much on material things; they frequently overestimate the personal use and happiness that they promise.

There are certainly movements that see themselves as consumer rebels – for instance, the Lohas (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability). You once said about them: “Rebellion against consumption is in the end nothing else but the continuation of consumption by other means.”

Lohas are mainly middle-class academics who try to combine a high-level life style with an ecological attitude. They’re relatively well-off people who buy organic products, drive hybrid cars, live in energy-optimized flats in pre-war buildings and have reconciled themselves with the consumer capitalism they rebelled against in their youth. Many of them came from the Green movement, which was originally a leftist-oriented counter-culture opposed to capitalist society.

Interestingly, it’s precisely the proponents of an alternative lifestyle who keep the economic system and consumer society going. A good example of this is the anti-globalization protesters at the world economic summit in Seattle in 1999 who stormed the Niketown building in the business district. On the video footage you can see that a lot of those who smashed the show windows were wearing Nike trainers. Precisely consumer rebels go in for lifestyle products and thereby reinforce the consumer economy they’re protesting against.

“I promise myself a good deal from technological possibilities”

Let’s talk about the companies and businesses. It’s become fashionable for many of them to give themselves a green or blue look. Should a responsible consumer credit unverified the moral promises that businesses advertise their products with?

No, there you have in fact to be careful. In “greenwashing”, or “bluewashing” as it’s now called because it’s about saving the blue planet, businesses sometimes shamelessly exploit the market trend for ecologically, morally and socially correct products. On closer look, the products are often anything but environmentally compatible and socially acceptable, or else they serve only to divert attention from abuses in other sectors. It’s hard for the customer to see through this because transparency is lacking.

How can he check?

I promise myself a good deal from technological possibilities. Thanks to the Internet and the media we can access information much better than before. People are already working on the relevant data bases. In future it’s very likely that when shopping we’ll scan the barcodes with our smartphones and call up the relevant product information.

“Our environmental balance is anything but exemplary”

Ideally, in your view, the market power of the responsible consumer should be able to exercise influence on the range of products and corporate actions. In reality, however, we see a tremendous gap between consciousness and action.

Yes, we know at bottom what we ought to do, but seldom do it. That has many different causes. When we’re shopping, we’re often under time pressure and forget our good resolutions. Perhaps we shouldn’t regard shopping as a bothersome chore but as a kind of ritual act by which we supply ourselves with vital goods that enhance our well-being and at the same time have considerable influence on other people. In addition, retailers have to ensure that social, moral, ecological products are more easily accessible and marked with easily understandable labels and seals. Our good resolutions often founder more on very simple obstacles than on the price, because sustainable products aren’t much dearer than conventional ones.

Keyword: a culture of ecological responsibility. How does that look in Germany?

The Germans think themselves particularly commendable. But, according to a current study by National Geographic, they come in the lower middle of the field. Frontrunners are emerging countries like India, Brazil and China because of the low per capita emissions. They sometimes have a stronger environmental awareness than here. Germans think their environmental duty done when they’ve sorted the waste and screwed in the energy-saving light bulb. Our environmental balance is anything but exemplary: we drink too much mineral water from distant countries, travel too much, drive too much and live in flats and houses that are too big.

Ludger Heidbrink, born in 1961, studied philosophy and art history in Münster and Hamburg. He has been Director of the Center for Responsibility Research at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen and Professor for Corporate Responsibility & Citizenship at the University of Witten-Herdecke since 2007 

Roland Detsch
conducted the interview. He is a freelance editor, journalist and writer living in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2009

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