Climate change
“We don’t need an eco-dictatorship”

Vibrant social life on green squares instead of all the cars: Could the future of the city look like the Day of the Good Life in Cologne?
Vibrant social life on green squares instead of all the cars: Could the future of the city look like the Day of the Good Life in Cologne? | Photo (detail): © Martin Herrndorf

Protecting the climate seems to be taking a back seat during the current pandemic. In some ways, this might even be convenient for many people who view the prospect of giving up their resource-intensive lifestyles as more of a threat than an opportunity. Nevertheless, Harald Welzer, a sociologist and publisher of “Futurzwei” (Future Two) magazine, believes that people can be convinced of the benefits of a climate-friendly society.

By Wolfgang Mulke

Mr. Welzer, one year of the coronavirus has also meant one year of restrictions imposed on ourselves and others – and people are already fed up with it all. Even more and more lasting self-abnegation is needed to bring about the necessary ecological transformation. Can we even get this message across?

I don’t think that the term “self-abnegation” is at all appropriate here. It is about designing a system to preserve the values of our civilisation such as the ability to live in freedom and safety. But there has never been social change that someone was not up in arms about. That is simply the way things go. It is about preserving vested interests, and any person who feels threatened will object.  

As director of the Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit, sociologist and social psychologist Harald Welzer also publishes the “Futurzwei” political magazine. As director of the Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit, sociologist and social psychologist Harald Welzer also publishes the “Futurzwei” political magazine. | Photo (detail): © Jens Steingässer Do we need something like an ecological dictatorship to set clear guidelines for effecting the necessary changes? 

No, we don’t need an eco-dictatorship. But social progress is never without conflict, as we have seen throughout the entire history of modernity. The fact that we now have a labour protection law, a co-determination law, the eight-hour day, social security – we had to fight for all of that. That is just how things work in a modern democracy based on the rule of law.

But don’t we need to get the majority of the population on board?

General acceptance is an illusion. The idea that everyone can always get what they want is childish, as is calling politics bad when they don’t get it. Look at the developments that have come about through protest. Look at the current debate on feminism and gender justice, which is so different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. This progress was hard won and did not come about because all men suddenly saw the light.

The makers of large SUVs use images that promise freedom and comfort to sell their products. What narrative could put a positive spin on cutting consumption?

The imbalance in perception arises from the fact that our consumer society is constantly telling good stories about itself, while the environmental and climate movement only spreads stories about the demise of the planet and about moderation. This is a huge communication problem. We have to talk about it differently – focus on shaping, not doing without. After all, there are positive effects of modernizing our societies. We could organise public mobility much better. We could improve housing and upgrade rural areas. And we could achieve a different kind of agriculture and nutrition. We don’t need a single negative narrative to get us there.

Why isn’t anyone using positive stories?

That is what we are doing at Futurzwei (Future Two). But just take look at the election campaigns: nothing in the programmes of the parties represented in the Bundestag has anything to do with a new beginning. Everything is taken directly out of the 20th century. How is this supposed to create the impression that setting course for a different society is both attractive and exciting? Poll-based politics is unfortunately the rule, but this is nothing more than a misunderstood delivery service. The established parties need to tell new stories. If they do not have the guts, then civil society has to take over. 40 years ago, feminism looked different than it does today: Demonstration on International Women’s Day 2021 in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. 40 years ago, feminism looked different than it does today: Demonstration on International Women’s Day 2021 in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Jörg Carstensen Who jumps in when the parties fail – someone like Fridays for Future? 

Fridays for Future and other civil society movements are taking some of this on, but some business sectors, such as the financial industry, are too. Sustainability is a big issue there. Certain production sectors are also switching to decarbonisation. In some areas, society is much further ahead than politics.

Can a minority actually bring about change?

Social movements are always minority movements. Look at the influence of Fridays for Future. The German government would never have put the 2019 climate package together if it weren’t for this movement, and yet it’s a small minority.

What might a cultural model for a climate-neutral society look like?

I want us to move past just talking about giving things up and convey other values. What do people talk about when they take stock shortly before death? Not one single person says I didn’t do enough shopping on Amazon. People say I didn’t talk to my son enough. I paid too much attention to meetings and appointments and too little to my family. People talk about relationships, not consumption. That’s my central argument: relationships are the most important thing, because more consumption does not increase happiness. There are many wonderful experiences that have nothing to do with consumption of goods. When people see the benefits of the eco-social transformation, they will like it.

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