How fast should the wheel turn?
An interview with Ralph Fücks and Reinhard Loske
The ecologist Reinhard Loske wants to get away from the dogma of growth. Ralf Fücks, CEO of the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, favours green growth and a bio-economy. A debate.
Ralf Fücks is Co-President of the German Heinrich Böll Stiftung and formerly served as Co-President of the German Green Party. Reinhard Loske is formerly a regional Senator in Bremen, Germany. He has authored a number of publications on sustainable development and climate change. This interview was conducted by Hannes Koch.
Taz: Mr Loske, at the Earth Summit in Brazil you called for a way of life with as little economic growth as possible. What were your reasons for advocating this?
Reinhard Loske: We have known for a long time that our present economic system is placing an excessive strain on nature. Nevertheless the negative effects on climate are ever- increasing and the oceans are being exploited ruthlessly. This system which depends on permanent growth in order to function is reaching its limits – particularly since ecological progress is continually being eroded by rising production. I am therefore advocating a strategy of ecological modernisation accompanied by a reduced demand for endless growth.
Taz: Are there examples of people who have rejected the model of endless growth?
Loske: When citizens create urban community gardens in towns where they can grow fruit and vegetables instead of importing them from thousands of miles away they transcend the narrow view of today's economy. Hundreds of initiatives for "transition towns" are trying out a system of local, environmentally friendly business. Other key features are: social banking, parts exchanges, community living arrangements, alternative transport concepts, energy cooperatives, welfare economics and free software.
None of this is fully captured in the rhetoric of green growth. My thesis is that the concept of the Green New Deal, while undoubtedly containing much that is true, does not go far enough. Its champions underestimate the potential of social innovations that reach way beyond isolated technological solutions.
Taz: Fücks, you say that Germany could grind to a halt, becoming lacklustre and poor. Will our quality of life sink without permanent expansion?
Ralf Fücks: As far as Germany is concerned the growth question is more or less a token debate. Due to demographic changes, the rate of growth experienced in the post-war decades will not be repeated. We must therefore seriously consider how the economic and social system can be made less dependent on growth. So far we agree. And I am also asking myself if we need to keep spinning the hamster wheel faster and faster.
Taz: What objections do you have to Reinhard Loske's theories?
Fücks: If we look beyond "Old Europe", our anti-growth discourse seems to be a kind of escapism to me. In fact, we are rather at the beginning of a stormy period of growth. By the middle of the century the world's population is estimated to grow to over nine billion. The working-age population of the world will double. The global middle class is growing rapidly. Billions of people want comfortable homes, household appliances, modern medical care, mobile phones and internet access.
They are eager for variety, want to be mobile and travel the world. They will not let anyone deny them these aspirations – and with every right. The crucial question is therefore not whether the world economy will continue to grow but how. We should therefore be the forerunners of the green revolution.
Taz: With their economic programme the Greens want sustainable growth – more prosperity with less consumption of coal, oil, steel and nature. Is this an illusion?
Fücks: It can work. The key words are resource efficiency, recycling and renewable energies. For example Denmark has increased its economic performance by two-thirds in comparison to 1980 but reduced its climate damaging carbon dioxide emissions by 21%. A similar story applies to the German chemical industry. What is possible in the future cannot however be derived from the past. Thousands of research laboratories and engineering firms are working on breakthrough innovations which will result in a radically different production mode.
Behind this there is a vision of a green economy that converts sunlight into energy and biological material just as nature does in the case of photosynthesis – from the destructive exploitation of nature to growth with nature. I am asking for the future to be seen not as cluttered space but as a universe of possibilities. I am fed up with the endless warning about the delusions of feasibility. Let's put ourselves at the forefront of green innovation. Yes, we can do it!
Loske: Obviously it is impossible without a good dose of technical optimism. However, many questions that affect us today are not primarily ecological and technological. Therefore we must not only rely on technology and green growth as a solution.
Fücks: You can't accuse me of that. In my model it is not feasible either without social innovations. For example we will organise future mobility differently and by and large forgo the possession of private cars. Naturally we have to consider our life-style. But I do not believe that we can reduce the necessary ecological impact in this way. The old industrial countries have until the middle of the century to reduce greenhouse gases by 90%. How much will we achieve by mere restraint, less consumption or smaller homes? Ten, twenty percent?
Loske: Reducing the growth pressure is not an individual strategy but primarily a political one. I am confident that political policies will create an acceptable general framework to foster these social innovations. Then their ecological mitigation potential would be just as great as that of the technological variant. One can harbour serious doubts as to the prospects of the large-scale solution. So far there are only a few examples of the absolute decoupling of economic growth and negative environmental impacts – increased production and at the same time a reduction in CO2 emissions.
Global emissions of greenhouse gases are still rising – by 40 percent since 1990. And what would these breakthrough innovations that Ralf Fücks imagines mean? If we were to replace the entire fossile energy system with wind, solar, hydro and biomass we would be laying a gigantic claim on natural areas. It is therefore impossible without making savings. Anyone relying solely on technology is ignoring the unpleasant implications for society.
Fücks: We don't have to pave over every open space with solar plants and wind turbines. By just using three percent of the area of the Sahara we could meet the whole of the today's world's energy requirements by means of solar thermal power plants and wind power. That is just one example of many.
Taz: That means that a decoupling of growth and the destruction of the environment is realistic. In that case don't your arguments and reasons for the necessity to reduce growth fall down?
Loske: Not at all. If we are to meet not only today's global electricity requirements but also future greater ones from renewable sources we will have a power generating capacity problem. Surely we don't want a landscape the sole purpose of which is energy production and resource extraction. There are values and aspects such as landscape aesthetics, homeland, cultural spaces that people defend. We have to be extremely careful to make sure that the very last corner of the world is not soullessly and brutally exploited.
Taz: Ralf Fücks' line of argument does sound realistic. Even if we assumed that the global energy production would mean using 20 percent of desert surfaces.
Loske: Anyone preaching something of the kind fails to understand the logic of renewable energies. People want to decentralise the production of electricity. Energy transition and democratisation go hand in hand. Large projects such as Desertec do not sufficiently consider the willingness on the part of modern citizens to participate. It can't just be ignored without causing a shipwreck.
Fücks: Centralised and decentralised electricity production can be easily combined. But for this we need new smart grids. The crucial question is how the hunger for energy of a growing world population will be met without continuously building new coal-fired energy plants. Can we succeed in finding sustainable solutions within a historically very short period. This is a race against time.
My thesis: We have the potential for a world with 9 billion people that is not characterised by resource wars and ecological disasters. How did Ernst Bloch express it? Up to now the position of industry in nature has been like an army in enemy territory. The essential thing now is the shift to a "technical alliance", to co-evolution with nature.
This interview appeared in the Green European Journal volume 3