Living Sustainably Can We Save the Planet Without Having to Do Without?

Marina Rosa Weigl / DER SPIEGEL

By , Anton Rainer, and

Part 2: A Broad Shift in Society


For Renn, the rise of the Greens is merely a symptom of a broader societal shift. People can argue over the best way toward an ecologically sustainable world, but everyone agrees that the moral questions are relevant, the researcher says. "There is agreement on this across a large heterogeneous political spectrum," Renn says, from almost the far right to almost the far left. "This is precisely the broad middle part of the spectrum that the old big tent parties -- the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats -- would like to occupy."

A sign of the shift that is happening in the country could already been seen earlier this year. In February, close to 2 million people in Bavaria trudged through heavy snow and sleet to express their intention to save the butterflies and bees in their state. It was the highest voter turnout for a petition to hold a referendum in the state's history, with 40 percent turnout at town halls in some communities. And it wasn't even the actual vote. It was merely the collection of signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot -- a new Nature Conservation Act "that should immediately stop the extinction of species in Bavaria through effective regulations." Like banning pesticides, for example.

The Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP), a niche party backed by the State Association for Bird Protection (LBV), among others, initiated the petition. Against the resistance of farmers' associations, the agricultural lobby and the CSU -- and little wonder, given that the demands would essentially turn industrial agriculture on its head. By 2025, 20 percent of Bavaria's agricultural land is to be farmed organically, with that figure going up to 30 percent five years later.

Ultimately, the referendum didn't take place because state Governor Markus Söder (CSU) adopted the ÖDP draft in its entirety and declared that his party needs to become greener and more open. The numbers had obviously scared Söder. Polls conducted after the successful petition for a referendum found that if it went to an actual vote -- it wouldn't only be Green Party backers who would support it, but also 87 percent of CSU voters.

'The Mood Has Changed Enormously'

"Ten years ago, we wouldn't have been successful with a referendum like this. But the mood among the populace has changed enormously," says Norbert Schäffer, who has headed LBV since 2014. He has spent most of his life working in the field of species conservation and even wrote his dissertation on the "habitat selection and partnership system of spotted rail and corncrake" birds. Schäffer says Germans have actually long been environmentally conscious. But in recent years, one bit of horrific news after the other has been spreading across the country. Headlines like the one announcing that the number of field birds has halved in recent decades. Or a study published in April finding that the mass of insects has decreased in some areas by 75%, which got reduced to: The bees and the butterflies are dying out. "Many seem to be realizing these days that things really can't go on the way they are," says Schäffer. So, what now?

"I don't expect that people will suddenly start rushing out to their organic supermarkets tomorrow," he says. "The step of fundamentally changing the way we act is a big one."

But conservationists do believe something is happening, that there has been a shift in many places. And more than they thought possible two years ago. Hobby gardeners are leaving their lawnmowers in the garage, and rather than complaining to neighbors about uncontrolled growth, they praise them "because they immediately understand that they just want more butterflies in the garden."

Schäffer is optimistic again for the first time in quite a while. "In the medium term, we will look back on this year and say: That's when we passed the nadir, and it was about time."

It seems as if the German government, albeit after considerable delay, has come to a similar conclusion -- that both citizens and businesses actually want the country to be more environmentally conscious. That momentum has grown to the point that the government is under pressure to act. And that something urgently needs to be done.

Since elections to the European Parliament in May, the parties in Germany's grand coalition government in Berlin have been outbidding each other in the competition to win back voters who have migrated to the Greens. Speaking in front of the 245 members of her CDU party's parliamentary group, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "We need to put an end to the trivial stuff."

Working groups have been set up and researchers commissioned to carry out studies. But as is so often the case when scholars are involved, the politicians are merely given options -- but they have to make their own decisions. This also happened on Friday, when the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the government on economic issues, released a study on putting a price tag on CO2 emissions.

The crucial question is: How do you tax greenhouse gases?

It will first become clear after the summer legislative break whether a precise plan will emerge from the muddle. That's the point when the Climate Cabinet appointed by Merkel is set to make a fundamental decision.

Good Plans Are at Hand

The experts are actually in agreement: Good plans for climate and environmental protection already exist. And the technologies needed to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions are either in development or are already available.

What is also clear, though, is that there will be incursions into the way we lead our lives -- and that's precisely what scares politicians. Because for all the school-age students at the Fridays for Future movement, there are other European protest movements whose members are demanding exactly the opposite, like the yellow vests, who have been keeping France in suspense since November. These groups want to be left alone when it comes to environmental and climate protection.

Or Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, which has been agitating against climate protection for some time now. The party has launched campaigns against the planned decommissioning at the beginning of 2020 of a lignite coal-burning power plant in the Lausitz region and against plans to implement bans on certain diesel vehicles in the city of Stuttgart. State elections are slated to be held in September and October in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia in eastern Germany. Those votes will be the first test of whether the German government can continue with its climate policy.

Sustainability researcher Renn warns politicians against allowing right-wing populists to dictate the agenda. "Climate protection is not an elitist project in Germany," he says. Nor is it a leftist one: "People with conservative values want to provide their grandchildren with the same or better living conditions as they had."

The Highest Hurdles Are Psychological

This means that the highest hurdles today are psychological rather than ideological. "People change their behavior when the effort requires the least psychologically and financially," says Renn. Swapping plastic bags for cloth bags, for example.

If you want people to leave their cars parked, then you also need to make cycling or public transportation more attractive to them. "People are happy when an alternative is available that can help them do something good for their conscience," Renn says.

But alternatives alone are not enough -- for example, green electricity has been around for years now and doesn't cost much more than normal power, and yet it still remains a niche player. That's also the case with many other environmentally sound alternatives available today. That's why, in addition to the alternatives, there also need to be bans in place. Be they sociologists, psychologists or political scientists, the experts seem to be in astonishing agreement about this. That's also the finding of studies by psychologist Stephan Grünewald, who heads Germany's leading institute for deep psychological market research and has spent decades probing the soul of German consumers.

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When it comes to sustainable behavior, Grünewald says the average German shows a very clear tendency. "People are conflicted: They want to protect the environment, but plastic bags are just so convenient." The easiest way to resolve this inner strife would be to force them to change their behavior. "That's why people want bans -- so they don't have to rely on self-discipline."

In other words: Consumers do best when they have no other choice but the alternative. "Germans have the habit of following these kinds of rules particularly conscientiously -- you can already see that with recycling," says Grünewald.

Harald Welzer, the sustainability sociologist, also believes it is absolutely obvious that those kinds of clear regulations are needed. Ones like this: The government should stop offering incentives for company cars and instead compel people to switch to buses and trains. But Welzer likes to avoid the word "bans" because it can quickly start sounding like some kind of eco-dictatorship, instead preferring to speak of regulatory policy. The Greens also shy away from overly clear legal restrictions for the same reason: They fear that if they are perceived as a party that only bans things, that they will lose voters and become a small party again.

And that underscores the whole dilemma. If the politicians don't dare to say over and over again: You can't do that, then it's going to be close to impossible to persuade an entire country to behave in a truly environmentally friendly way, even if, in principle, a majority of people want to do so. On the other hand, many politicians wonder whether the sustainability movement is just a passing fad that will disappear just as soon as the first economic crisis hits.

Does Climate Protection Have to Remain a Luxury Good?

It's actually pretty simple: Things that damage the climate should be expensive. There are plenty of scientific studies available on how to get people to change their behavior. One thing pops up again and again: As soon as it hits their pocketbooks, even people with the most entrenched behaviors are willing to change. If the holiday flight to Thailand no longer costs 800 euros, but 5,000 euros, then people would probably prefer to take a train to the Alps in Bavaria. So, what are we waiting for? Politicians should simply impose proper eco-taxes on everything that harms the environment so that companies make their products more sustainable. If they cost more, then we, as consumers, will just all have to pay more. It would be reasonable to demand that in order to save the planet.

That's how the Henke family feels about it too, at least in theory. "Living sustainably is very important to us," says Maria Henke, a 28-year-old optician. Her husband Markus, 41, is completing an apprenticeship and isn't earning money at the moment. They live in an apartment in a pre-war building in the city of Giessen near Frankfurt and have a 1-year-old son.

In the past, the Henkes almost always bought their fruit and vegetables directly from organic farmers -- and they even had their own flour ground for them. In order to eschew plastic to the extent possible, they also bought groceries at a packaging-free supermarket. It would be safe to say that the Henkes are green.

But with only one income now instead of two, the Henkes are now having to buy almost everything from discount supermarkets. They're aware of what that means: "Lots of garbage, imported products with long transport routes," Maria Henke says, the tone of her voice sounding somewhere between frustrated and angry. She says she sometimes feels "really bad" at the supermarket checkout because she places products on the conveyor belt that she doesn't really want to buy. But there's not enough money "to buy what you really want."

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Plastic has crept back into the Henkes' lives almost everywhere, but in return, their bank account is also in better shape. Instead of 400 euros, the family needs just 200 a month for food. As a family with just one remaining salary, and an average one at that, "This is the only way we can make ends meet," says Maria Henke. It's the same for many families. And that's today, before the introduction of any CO2 tax, higher gasoline prices, penalties for plastic and all the other ideas being discussed.

Sustainability Needs to Be Fair

That's why the first and most important hurdle that needs to be cleared if we are really serious about finding the path to a more sustainable society is to make sure that it is fair -- not only for moral reasons, but also for purely practical ones. "People with lower incomes will only join in if they feel that poor and rich are equally burdened," says Renn. He says this has been a repeat finding in numerous studies he has conducted. In other words: Nothing will come of saving the planet if sustainability is affordable for the upper middle class, but not for those in the lower strata of society. There can be no climate protection without climate solidarity.

As always, when it comes to money and social issues, the debate quickly turns ideological. Some use ideology to block all approaches to a more sustainable economic policy. The others see it as a gateway for the redistribution of wealth.

But whether and how a consensus can be reached can be observed these days in the haggling over the first, central building block of sustainability policy: a carbon tax. It would require that companies and consumers alike pay the tax on oil, gasoline and coal -- because all of these resources produce greenhouse gases.

Virtually all the experts think it's a good idea. "But only if it is set up according to strict fairness criteria," Renn says. Otherwise, it would be too easy for less well-off people to pay the price -- for example, if they live in a poorly insulated house in the countryside with an old, oil-fired heating system and have to commute to the city every day by car.

The government is currently discussing whether some of the revenue from the CO2 tax should be repaid to the people. But how? In Switzerland, for example, all residents receive a refund at the end of the year, and everyone receives the same amount.

Last week, the German Environment Agency (UBA) proposed providing support for low-income households by subsidizing new energy-saving refrigerators and washing machines, for example, or by having the state give additional subsidies for improving buildings' insulation. It's imperative that something actually happen. "It is important that we quickly begin putting a price tag on CO2," said UBA President Maria Krautzberger.

In their current CO2 tax proposals, the SPD and the Greens also want to return additional revenues back to the people. Under those proposals, people would be rewarded for their climate-friendly behavior. The Greens are proposing an energy subsidy of 100 euros per person per year as well as almost totally eliminating the current tax on electricity. The SPD wants high-income people with large cars and homes to pay extra.

No Lack of Instruments

Meanwhile, Merkel's CDU is still struggling to find its position. The party already has reservations about using the word "tax." The CDU doesn't want to give people the impression it is about to reach into their pocketbooks. A trading system in emissions certificates like the one that already exists for companies would have the best prospects.

So, there is no lack of instruments available. But German politicians are also nervous about recent developments in France, where the government tried to introduce a new environmental tax on fuel, inspired by its strong showing in the election and a general mood in the country that seemed to be calling for change. President Emmanuel Macron announced higher gasoline prices for the benefit of climate protection, driving the yellow vests into the streets, where they smashed the ideas with cobblestones. They were incensed because the environmental levy would have hit the poorest disproportionately, especially those in the rural areas, where people depend on their cars.

Few doubt that the sustainability hype in Germany would quickly die out if the environmental issue was pitted against socioeconomic ones. But you could also still argue that we simply need to live more frugally, which costs nothing. Everyone has the ability to consume less. After all, what this is really about is changing our everyday culture, and new ideas and self-restraint should be at the top of the agenda.

The only problem is that the poorer strata in Germany already consume much less than the rich, anyway. In 2016, the UBA prepared a study on "Per Capita Consumption of Natural Resources in Germany." It essentially states that, "The higher the education and income, the greater the consumption of resources." The highest total energy consumption is also found in the upper strata, "since they generally have above-average incomes and a lifestyle geared toward status and ownership." On average, members of the "simple, vulnerable strata" have the lowest total energy consumption.

In short: If there's a certain group destroying the climate, it's the high-earning, college-educated people who are fond of showing the world to their children during summer vacation, own two cars as well as a Vespa for the summer and have to heat a 200-square meter (2,152 square feet) apartment in the winter.

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Ultimately, the question is this: How can the poor and the rich live more sustainably, without a reduction in their current quality of life? And how can we maintain our system of economic growth without being so destructive? It's a bit like the Meusers, the family from Dormagen trying to eliminate plastic from their lives. Their children are still allowed to eat ice cream, even if it comes packed in plastic. Otherwise, their enthusiasm would dissipate rapidly. Or like the Henkes in Giessen: As long they can't afford an electric car, they will likely keep driving one with a combustion engine.

It's a complicated way of life, and there will be fierce debate about many things on the path to sustainability. But the first step is simple, as Welzer, the expert on society with a special feel for Germans' nature, emphasizes. "Just stop whining and start doing something."

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