The 1990s were a time of historical optimism. The Wall had come down and the Cold War was over. Democracy was on a victory march. The digital revolution had opened up seemingly unbound opportunities. This mood, however, has now changed. The world has become more crisis prone. Europe is mired in debt. Public confidence has given way to self-doubt. The majority of Germans no longer believe that life will be better for their children. In view of the 50% unemployment rate amongst young people in Greece and Spain, many are already talking about a ‘lost generation’. The rise of China and the shift of economic driving forces to the Pacific Rim have strengthened the feeling that Europe has passed its zenith.
Environmental questions are also subject to a state of depression. Climate change policy is stuck in a cul de sac, greenhouse gas emissions are rising and species diversity is declining. While billions of people find themselves on the way to a modern industrial life, a fatalistic view is gaining ground: resources are running low; the party would seem to be over. Radical belt tightening is called for or we will face a series of catastrophes that will reduce civilisation to a size nature can support. Even the German renewable energy success story has been transformed into a spectre. Christian Democrat Environment minister Altmaier is hitting the brakes while China, India and the Gulf States position themselves to overtake.
Growth? Yes, but not business as usual
Since Dennis Meadow and his scientific team published Limits to Growth in 1972, our view of economic growth has fundamentally changed. What was long seen as a vehicle for social change, is now associated with greed, environmental degradation and social inequality. Current criticism of growth, however, is schizophrenic: while calling for ‘a departure from growth madness’, the whole of Europe desires growth to help it break out of the vicious circle of debt and unemployment. Even the Greens have castigated the austerity policy of the German Chancellor because it does not open up the prospect of sustainable growth.
Given the increase in global population, with all its attendant needs, desires and ambitions, it would seem that there is no end in sight for growth. The decisive question for the coming decades is not ‘if’ but ‘how’ the global economy will grow. It may seem an attractive option for ‘old’ Europe to retire to a state of frugal tranquillity but in the eyes of the rest of the world this would imply departing to oblivion. Greece and Spain are currently experiencing what it means to have a shrinking economy. One would not like to think that this would become the model for Europe’s future. What is true is that we cannot return to the sort of resource consumption and energy-intensive growth of the last century. Climate change, extensive loss of productive agricultural land and water shortages in highly populated regions are warning signals that our current economic model destroys the basic elements on which it relies. If continuing with business as usual perpetuates the crime of damaging opportunities for future generations and simple calls for less consumption are ignored, what then is the alternative?
The start of a new era
The current crisis is neither the end of capitalism nor the swan song of scientific/technological advance. Rather it marks the passage from the age of industry based on fossil fuels to production that is more environmentally friendly, the outlines of which are already visible. This new system will derive energy from solar, wind, geo-thermal and wave power. To this list of familiar renewables we can add artificial photosynthesis: the transformation of water and carbon dioxide into chemical energy. Bio reactors will transform waste and algae into fuel and chemicals. Electric vehicles and electricity generation will be part of a coordinated network. Buildings will become power stations, producing more energy than they require. Biological and industrial waste will be processed back into the system. Permanent innovation will drive increased efficiency in the use of energy and resources. Advanced filtration plants will transform sewage into drinking water. Food production will return to towns. Old factories, roof gardens and energy independent tower blocks will produce fruit and vegetables all year round. Bringing depleted land back into cultivation, crop rotation and modern plant breeding technology will enable stable growth in agricultural yields. Biotechnology will become the new leading science. The earth is not a narrow, limited place to live but a dynamic system full of undiscovered possibilities. Intelligent growth means advancing in tune with nature.
Reduction of consumption and green industrial revolution
Expressing confidence that the crisis in the developed world can be overcome by creative solutions quickly attracts accusations of technological fervour. The dynamics of global growth are such that any call for reduced consumption will be useless unless supported by the flanking measure of a new industrial revolution. It is right and proper to eat less meat, cycle more and not buy products for which people have been oppressed or rain forests cut down but without a revolution in production efficiency and a swift move to renewable energy, we will not win the climate change battle.
In the coming 20-25 years, global economic production will double as billions of people, now on the threshold of modern industrial development, pursue the aim of improving their living standards. The needs and desires of these people will drive economic growth creatively and with entrepreneurial spirit. While ‘old’ Europe suffers a loss of confidence, these people will continue working to acquire the attributes of modern life that we have long taken for granted. Instead of preaching abstention, we should help them to leapfrog fossil fuel-based development. This will require technology and knowhow transfers. At the same time, the old industrial countries need to steer themselves towards environmentally friendly production methods. We need to curb our consumption of natural resources, not our love of life.
Why we need a European Green New Deal
We are currently in the middle of a green revolution in which millions are already participating: researchers, engineers, architects, town planners; business people and investors; environmental activists and critical consumers; journalists and artists. Since the 1970s, the environment in large areas of Europe has substantially improved: rivers and forests have recovered; urban smog has cleared. To advance, however, we need effective environmental policy at national and international level. This policy needs to define goals and rules for markets that will successfully decouple economic wealth creation from the consumption of natural resources. For those doubting that this is possible consider that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German economy has grown by a third while greenhouse gas emissions have declined by almost 25%. We need to continue along this path.
Our continent could become the trailblazer for a new industrial revolution but we will require policies that define a clear vision for Europe’s economic future and provide environmentally friendly guidelines for those operating in our markets. In other words, we need a European Green New Deal, a transnational programme of innovation and investment that can break Europe out of its downward spiral by providing: an internal power market based on an integrated network of renewable energy providers; proper infrastructure for the use of electric vehicles; urban modernisation based on respect for the environment; and increased investment in education, science and research. With such a policy, we not only play our part in tacking climate change but also lay the foundation for the kind of sustainable growth that can offer younger generations a brighter future.
This article is based on the author’s book Intelligent wachsen. Die gruene Revolution, published February 2013.