Germany is swamped in a controversy about a study which says sustainable development can be achieved only when the consumption of resources is reduced and relations between the North and the South are more equitable
IN OCTOBER 1995, a study about the future of the industrialised world created a great deal of interest as well as controversy. The publishers of the book were the church-based relief association, Misereor, and the environment protection group, Bund. These organisations do not normally issue public statements. However, making a change from their normal position, they asked the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Germany, for a study on how to extend hospitality to all the people on the planet without jeop-ardising the natural resource base for subsequent generations.
The fundamental thesis of the study is that we have to regulate our consumption level of natural resources and improve our energy use in order to establish a sustainable relationship with nature.
At the same time, we have to create an equitable relation-ship between the countries of the North and the South. In the long run, only these two aspects can guarantee sustainable development for the whole world.
In German-speaking areas, the proposals gained a lot of attention and even provoked controversial discussions. English and Italian translations have already been completed. The English translation, "Greening the North. A post-industrial Blueprint for Ecology and Equity" is available in many industrialised and developing countries.
Hundreds of reviews, comments and articles on the study were published in leading newspapers and magazines in Germany. The reactions ranged from enthusiastic support to harsh rejection. In the newspapers, the criticism was mainly positive, though many journalists emphasised that the study does not take the economy into consideration in the decision-making process.
Theoretically, everybody agrees that ecology is important, but when it comes to practical steps, many people do not know what to do. The highlight of the study is that it not only argues at the theoretical level, but also shows how the vision of sustainable development can become a reality. Finally, "Greening the North" stresses bringing ecology and justice together for the South.
Humankind, according to them, is of greater importance than nature. The specific task of people on Earth is to harmonise economy, social complexity and ecology. They feel that they have good reasons to be optimistic about the future, while the study shows a lack of confidence in the ability of people to solve problems. They also argue that the study is against the democratic principles and this might lead to an ecological dictatorship.
Instead of trusting the common sense and the free-will of the people to initiate the changes, the critics voice danger over experts deciding on what people should consume. This is indeed a very sensitive issue within German society. When member of Parliament of the Green Party, Halo Suitold, demanded a restriction of flights in order to reduce carbon dioxide emission, she was heavily criticised, even by her own party members.
According to these groups, the study presents a 21st century "soft" capitalism approach which wants to survive on sustainability. Instead of analysing the character of capitalism as the main source of ecological destruction and injustice, the institute only provides some collective visions. Because the study does not go into the roots of the problems, the social and economic dimensions that accompany the necessary changes are completely left out, the critics claim. In the eyes of the Development Policy Action Groups, what the study lacks is not due to a result of the author's naivete, but because they are not ready for a fundamental change.
The feminists have also voiced apprehension. Without analysing the situation of women within a patriarchal society, the consequences of the study mainly affect the everyday life of the women. Most of the concrete proposals are a step back for many women, they argue. In the end, the newspaper forum says, the study gives men progressive arguments to relegate women to the home, because all that women have achieved - more time and mobility because of consumer products, fast food, a second car, etc.- can no longer be accepted according to the demands of sustainable development. This dilemma cannot be solved without questioning the patriarchal society.
Feminists say that under the present situation, autonomy of women is superior to ecology. They even claim to be ecologists. The more autonomy individuals have, the argument goes, the less repressive is the society. Only when the repressive structures have been overcome, is there the chance to halt destruction of the environment. Feminists with a leaning to Communism are quite close to liberal economists.
Representatives from Christian organisations, such as the German Catholic Youth (BDKJ), also criticised the study on the grounds that it does not analyse the economic systems which lead to the destruction of the environment, while social scientists say that the study covers the well educated middle-class, but provides no concept for the growing number of unemployed and poor people in the North. For these people, survival is the problem, not sustainable development.
The Wuppertal Institute is very open to the criticism. The authors emphasise that they do not have final solutions, but want to be part of a development which has been initiated by the study. The way to a sustainable economy is long. In a response to the criticism, the authors make it clear that they do not believe in political pressure in order to change the habits of the people.
Instead, they want to convince people and open the eyes for what is possible. However, they openly admit that they do not pay enough attention to women's questions, the growing number of poor people and the social and economic dimensions of the changes. But they are not willing to give up the basic position that sustainable development can only be achieved when the consumption of resources can be reduced and the relations between the North and the South can be put on a more equal level.
Klemens Ludwig is a freelance journalist based in Germany
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