On the way to New Sustainability

* OPINION * Plea for a new understanding of sustainability *business and politics need our help * Let’s give it to them *

Let’s be honest: we have no idea how to handle this. Climate change has a significant impact on the ecosystem and all animal and plant inhabitants of our planet. Plastic in the oceans is no longer a spleen of environmental fetishists, but a serious problem for fish stocks. Species extinction is probably 1,000 times greater than we consider normal. And the long-term effects on society and life in 20 or 50 years‘ time can only be imagined in rudimentary terms.

We also know the causes quite well. Energy, mobility, transport, pollutants, food production, distribution issues. Unfortunately, these are the central aspects of our way of life. Just a small example: every flight to New York generates approx. 3.6 tons of CO2 per person, with a long-term target budget of 1 ton per person per year. Every year 1/4 flight including business trips, great. We will only be able to solve the problem if there are drastic changes. The problem is not the car, it is the idea that every second person in Germany should own one. The problem is related to our way of life.

We have no lack of knowledge about the causes and effects, we feel a lack of ideas how to get out of the situation.

And let’s be honest again: the bio-cucumber won’t solve our problem and the renewable straw won’t solve it. There are fundamental changes in space that are diametrically opposed to everything that has made human society successful in the last 200 years. Technical progress, improvement of living conditions, prosperity are at stake.

And it is in this situation that we find ourselves, regretting that politicians are not taking sufficiently far-reaching action against the „imminent catastrophe“, when politicians all over the world have to fear being immediately dismissed, when they take measures that threaten to turn life upside down. And companies should produce products that are less practical and more cumbersome than before. The number of buyers will be limited.

One could despair in a situation where the consequences of action are harmful and any action to address the causes is unpopular. And I mean unpopular in the truest sense of the word: what reasonable person would replace a system that has served man well for more than 200 years with a departure into the unknown?

We need a new understanding of sustainability, a way in which citizens, companies and states can work together to change course and create a new order that avoids the problems of the way of life to date.

If we look at the central success factors of development to date, then I am with Yuval Harari: technological progress and institutions have made life – despite all the problems – better, healthier and longer for most people. And only these two factors will enable us to improve, or at least they won’t work.

The starting point for improvement can only be the responsible citizen. In the Kantian sense, he must use his intellect and derive actions from it. And the most important act is to vote and consume consciously. Without grassroots reinsurance, neither political institutions nor companies will fundamentally change their behaviour. When markets for environmental improvements emerge, money is also available for research and thus technical progress. And politics and business are interlinked. The extraction of CO2 from the air is probably the most obvious method of achieving improvements in the short term. Research is in its infancy and it will cost many billions and take many years to find a universally applicable solution. This money will have to be made available by politicians (more precisely: the political institutions), since no company in the world will agree to invest this money in an uncertain prospect of success. In the meantime, however, businesses must work to minimise their CO2 emissions. The idea of using CO2 to get a grip on the climate only works in parallel. Politics (even in dictatorships) gets its legitimation from the citizens and companies from the customers. And at the end of the day both are the same person: ourselves.

And we will have to accept that not all countries will be able to actively participate in the improvement process to the same extent. The western and eastern industrial nations must go first. They will have to try out technologies and then „economically less developed“ regions will be able to directly apply the technologies that have proven to be the best on the basis of this learning curve.

New Sustainability is a process initiated by citizens.

I know a few people who are now consciously giving up certain air travel because their environmental conscience is moving. I find this extremely encouraging, because if the short trip to Bora Bora is no longer a status symbol, change can happen. I now know many people who pay attention to the packaging in the supermarket. I think it’s excellent, because experience shows that companies understand this signal best and fastest. I love the Fridays for Future movement (as readers of this blog already know), but not because I think that all the solutions proposed there are thought through and practicable, but because this movement stimulates the thinking process and sharpens one’s own arguments. The children today worry about their future – I can hardly imagine a better impulse for a „change of mind“.

Responsible companies have to take the lead.

Sometimes you wish you had more courage, but there are success stories. For example Werner + Mertz GmbH (you know them better with brands like Erdal and Frosch). In the 80’s avant-garde in the field of environmentally friendly cleaners, today a globally accepted brand. I do not know the company in detail and cannot judge how „credible“ the sustainability philosophy is in all its ramifications, but the interesting thing seems to me: there is customer interest and thus a market for environmentally friendly cleaners!

I understand that multinationals with locations all over the world find it much more difficult to become active here without real markets beyond „greenwashing“. On the other hand, there are enough responsible medium-sized companies that can lead the way. Then they just have to start.

But individual responsibility alone is not enough: we must also give companies the markets in which they can do something meaningful for our future. And the best way to do that is with the shopping cart.

A completely underestimated good is the ballot paper.

For a long time we thought that somehow our vote didn’t count. But the developments at the last elections in Bavaria and Denmark are encouraging. „Green“ issues have clearly influenced the election, and anyone who knows the current Bavarian prime minister from before has to rub their eyes in amazement at how biodiversity and climate change are suddenly at the centre of the political agenda. We can take advantage of the fact that politicians sometimes have a flexibility that is probably inherent in their profession. The European elections are another example; it is not completely unthinkable today that a future-oriented Danish politician should become President of the European Commission; who would have thought that?

Our task: set data points!

We live in the age of Big Data. Companies, governments and NGOs are trying to derive „customer wills“ from measured data of human behaviour and to find connections that they would not have noticed. Imagine we give them the data they deserve.

  • At the checkout
  • In surveys on the topic of climate protection and sustainability
  • In petitions
  • For elections and polls
  • On social media (hashtags are a powerful tool)

Let’s assume there’s a Facebook campaign that Facebook should make its company logo green out of respect for our social mission. How many likes would Facebook be weak at? I type, 100 million users are enough.

Where does New Sustainability lead us?

New sustainability is a process of political and economic decision-making. We citizens must assume our special responsibility to determine the circumstances of our lives ourselves. Nobody can predict where this will lead. New technologies will emerge, companies will become more environmentally friendly and in a climate of relaxation fundamental changes in our way of life can be tackled. The problem with a CO2 tax is not the excessive burden on commuters (of whom I am occasionally one), but the problem is commuting, with the associated need for individual mobility. Why does everyone work where the other one lives?

We cannot seek profound changes in mobility without creating a climate (sorry for this pun) in which it is natural and in the interest of citizens and businesses to have as little travel as possible between home and work. New technological transport concepts will support this positive impact. The same applies to all areas of change.

But the prerequisite for this is a social consensus that we must change. Initiated by the citizens, taken up by the companies, it will not be long before politics picks up the ball. In my opinion, „think global, act local“ is outdated; the new approach must be „think local, act global“.

Notes:

This article presents the personal opinion of the author. Criticism and counter-arguments are expressly welcomed. Those who think they know the only truth are probably on the wrong track.

About the author:

Dr. Marcel Pietsch is a studied economist and philosopher. He runs a family business that deals with sustainability and knows from his own experience that progress in this area has to be fought for and a lot of persuasion has to be done, not only with government institutions, but also with customers.

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