Green Extremes: Germany's Failing Environmental Projects

By Alexander Neubacher

The energy-saving light bulb ends up as hazardous waste, too much insulation promotes mold and household drains are emitting a putrid odor because everyone is saving water. Many of Germany's efforts to protect the environment are a chronic failure, but that's unlikely to change.  

Photo Gallery: Taking Stock of Germany's Environmental Efforts Photos
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Germans support protecting the environment, and they have a special relationship with nature. They like animals and plants, blue skies and the ocean. They want their children to grow up in an intact environment, and try to set an example for others. When it's time to save the world, the Germans are there, doing their utmost. They are determined that conservation efforts won't fail because of them.

Germany used to declare war on its neighbors. Today we explain how they can renounce nuclear power. We've lost the title of the world's top exporter and only manage to come in third place in global soccer rankings, but no one can get the better of us when it comes recycling our waste. Acid rain and forest decline have opened our eyes to the destructive force of civilization from an early age, even though Germany's forests, contrary to expectations, have somehow survived.

Our newest goal is to minimize our ecological footprint. Thursdays are veggie days, and old-fashioned, hand-cranked washing machines are back in vogue. Websites offer environmental tips for all kinds of situations, from cosmetics based on the phases of the moon to vibrators made of plastic without toxic chemical softeners. There are urns made of cornstarch and coffins made of cardboard, so that we can embark on our final journey in an environmentally correct manner -- a final good deed before everything turns to compost.

When something benefits the environment, the need to justify it suddenly disappears. The green label eliminates all controversy. And political parties are essentially in agreement that society cannot do enough for the environment. No progressive politician wants to expose himself to the career-ending suspicion that he lacks environmental consciousness.

Outcome Ignored

Because environmental policy pursues noble goals, politicians who specialize in the environment have a moral advantage over those who deal with issues such as government finances, domestic security or pension contribution rates. The positive aura in the German Environment Ministry is so strong that it even managed to bathe a technocrat like former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin in a soft light. Current Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a cool-headed strategist who, only a few years ago, would have liked to become the managing director of the Federation of German Industries, now plays the environmental saint, riding his bicycle to meetings with the chancellor.

In legislative procedure, politicians address environmental problems with bureaucratic thoroughness. It's no accident that Germany's Environment Ministry emerged from a department at the Interior Ministry. Because protection of the environment usually involves burdens, or at least inconveniences, for the economy and consumers, strict planning, control and enforcement are indispensible, with police and regulatory law providing the necessary instruments.

In the end, it isn't even all that important whether an environmental protection measure achieves the desired outcome. The can deposit has not only eliminated cans from the market, but has unfortunately also spelled the death of the environmentally advantageous deposit bottle. No bother, the system will remain as it is.

So what if fine particle pollution levels are skyrocketing in environmental zones? The requirement for vehicle permit stickers will be expanded. Contrary to expectations, energy consumption rises in summer. And? We'll still change our clocks when the seasons change, first setting them forward by an hour and then back by an hour.

We buy organic food, put E10 in our gas tanks and switch to green electricity. Our roofs are covered in solar panels and our walls plastered with insulation. This makes us feel good about ourselves. The only question is: What exactly does the environment get out of all this? Let's take a look at our systems for dealing with garbage, water, light and insulation.

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