A different and sustainable economy
We have known for more than 40 years that fossil fuels are responsible for the increase in the amount of greenhouse gases and the changes in our climate. If the global society fails to reverse the trend towards ever higher levels of environmentally harmful emissions, it will be practically impossible to limit global warming to 2° C. Time is running out if we want to prevent extreme weather events from becoming regular occurrences, the depopulation of entire regions, drinking water resources from drying up and once fertile soils around the globe from turning into barren waste lands. The sea levels will rise, and low-lying coastal areas around the world will be submerged by the oceans. We must expect huge migratory movements of climate refugees, a reduction in biodiversity and the destruction of entire ecological systems. If we do not want this to happen, we shall need to abandon the conventional model of growth because coal, lignite, oil and gas are not only the fossil fuels which are causing climate change but also the fuels that power the capitalist economy, a blind belief in progress and the ideology of growth at all costs.
The catastrophe of Chernobyl 25 years ago and the recent accident at the Fukushima power station in Japan have taught or reminded us – if such a lesson or reminder were indeed necessary – that nuclear energy can wreak terrible havoc on humans and the earth that sustains them. The power of the atom cannot, ultimately, be controlled by man. We are beginning to understand that our conventional economy, which is based on fossil fuels and nuclear energy, is stuck in a dead end. Back in 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission after its Chair Gro Harlem Brundtland (the former Prime Minister of Norway), developed the idea of a “sustainable development“ for its final report. The UN Commission demanded a development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
We must direct our societies towards concepts of quality-oriented growth in the context of a sustainable ecological economy. We need a new economy if we want to preserve the creation around us. Three closely interrelated concepts are of particular relevance here: efficiency, sufficiency and consistency. Efficiency means that we must reduce the rate at which we are consuming natural resources: not consume more than the minimum required for the purpose. The principle of sufficiency urges us to practice moderation and restraint: not to consume more than we need. Consistency finally points to the need of squaring consumption and production patterns – of converting our energy industry to solar power generation and a sustainable recycling of materials.
This is why the primary objective of any industrial and economic policy must be the total conversion of power generation to renewable energies (efficiency). We must abandon nuclear energy as quickly as possible. This conversion to renewable energies will provide an enormous boost to innovative research and development projects, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Biomass power plants, photovoltaic systems, wind turbines and cogeneration facilities must be designed, manufactured and installed. The sun and the wind will be the energy sources of the future. New energy distribution networks must be conceived and managed. Production processes must be energy-optimized, and homes will require effective heat insulation. New rail networks and improved public transport facilities will also be needed. German motorways will be subjected to a new speed limit of 120 km/h, much in the same way as the roads in nearly all other European countries. An ecological modernization will also create new jobs in classic industries such as car manufacturing, the chemical industry and engineering – and it will provide new employment opportunities for craftsmen as well. Given the right political conditions, environmental engineering could become a powerful industrial engine for our 21st century economies. The creation of a pan-European “economic government” which could supervise and control this development (as well as others) has been long overdue. Climate change must be contained with the help of a global climate preservation policy. The emissions trade is an important element of such a policy.
Successful lives must be more strongly based on human values. By changing our lifestyles, through moderation and restraint (sufficiency) we can improve our well-being and quality of life. This requires structures that guarantee and ensure social equality, safe jobs, social cohesion and political participation. The rhythm of social time must provide spaces for recovery, leisure and human contacts so people can enjoy their lives. The campaign to keep Sundays special as society-wide days of rest is a symbol for wider efforts of staving off the madness of the 24/7 business economy. Lifestyles on a more human scale develop predominantly in social networks such as families, neighbourhood communities, clubs, cooperatives and civic organizations.
Regional economic cycles must be intensified and strengthened. Close contacts between producers and consumers reinforce regional identities, create trust and confidence in the products, increase local incomes, provide local employment opportunities and help to avoid unnecessary traffic and energy consumption. Regional policies should primarily seek to support the emergence of such local value chains and carefully cultivate them. Such a development would also help to boost the idea of democratic participation which could become a central element for all stakeholders in the local economy, because the actors in their respective social and economic environments must assume the responsibility for the necessary economic and political decisions. In the future, we must learn to manage our economies in a different, which means: a sustainable way.