Technische Universität Berlin

"We Need to Critically Examine How We Live"

Stefan Heiland, co-initiator of the call for an eco-friendly and socially just way of life and economy, on the limits of technology, suppressed social contradictions and a childhood dream

The call for an eco-friendly and socially just lifestyle and economic system cautions readers “We cannot continue like this!”. Its initiators, including Dr. Stefan Heiland, professor of landscape planning and development, sharply criticize Western lifestyle and its economic system. These are built on immense energy and resource consumption and have until now only only brought skilled work, prosperity, education and healthcare to a part of humanity, primarily in the Global North. The consequences of this, at times, wasteful lifestyle – loss of biological diversity, infertile soil, pollution or contamination of rivers and groundwater, and not least social exploitation – will not impact us and our children but rather primarily those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Over 1,500 people have signed the call thus far

The 191 initial signers and more than 1,500 supporters thus far are calling for a drastic reduction in energy and raw material consumption with the belief that effective climate protection and preservation of biological diversity will not be possible without changing our Western lifestyle. On 31 August 2020, Stefan Heiland and Danny Püschel from the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) presented the appeal to Bundestag member Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, chair of the Bundestag’s Committee on the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

Ready for change: an interview with initiator Professor Dr. Stefan Heiland

Professor Heiland, are the 191 initial signers calling the Western, and thus Germany’s, economic system into question?

We are questioning the artificial creation of a material desire that is never satiated, short usage cycles of goods, the mentality of always needing the latest products and the belief in continuous material growth as the basis of our economic order and our society. We believe we need an economic system that takes account of the ecological limits of the Earth and the rights of humans. Whether you then call this a socio-ecological transformation or a fundamental challenge to the current economic system may be important for how the idea is communicated, but in my opinion it is of secondary importance.

The call addresses an issue that has long been considered taboo, namely that we will not be able to protect our planet without fundamentally changing our Western lifestyle. The people who signed the call are not afraid to advocate sacrifice. Why is this?

You’ve misunderstood what our appeal is about. We are not calling for people to make sacrifices. Instead, we outline those things we have long since sacrificed due to our lifestyle: social justice at local, national, and global levels; clean air and species diversity; secure food and water supply for many people; cities free of noise and unsafe traffic. And we have accepted the consequences of a climate in which torrential rains, floods, destructive storms and periods of drought and heat are increasingly becoming the rule. Here is just one example from our region: Brandenburg’s farmers have experienced extreme drought for the third year in a row and now have to cope with serious harvest losses. The fact is, we already do without many things, we just aren’t aware of it. I don’t mean to deny that we must, of course, question the conveniences and other things we now take for granted, and that some people will feel not buying the latest iPhone, to name just one example, is indeed a sacrifice. However, we cannot tell people what to do in such a concrete way nor do we wish to do so.

"The only truly environmentally friendly source of energy is one that is not consumed and thus does not have to be produced.”

The call openly states that the belief that we can overcome the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity solely through technological progress while preserving our current material and energy-intensive way of life is a misconception. Why aren’t innovative technologies the only solution?

You have chosen to call it a “misconception”. We wish to avoid such words because they have something devaluing about them and imply ignorance or even a lack of moral integrity. This is not our aim; rather we seek widespread, open and honest discussion. To answer your question: This is has to do with the rebound effect. Let me give an example: On the one hand the energy consumption of individual computers, printers and smartphones is decreasing while on the other, the entire energy usage of computing centers is quickly increasing due to the constant production of new devices and their more frequent use, as well as more search inquiries, cloud services, and streaming. The findings of a study conducted by the University of Grenoble are eye-opening. For example, the construction of wind power or photovoltaic plants requires significantly more cement, aluminum, iron, copper and glass for the same output than a fossil fuel power plant. And the raw materials required for their construction frequently come from developing and threshold countries, where their mining leaves behind significant environmental damage. This example demonstrates that even renewable energies require raw materials, even though they are certainly still preferable to nuclear power and fossil fuels. The only truly environmentally friendly source of energy is one that is not consumed and thus does not have to be produced. This is why we cannot rely on technological progress alone. The emphasis here is on “alone”, as we are in no way questioning its necessity.

The call for action concludes that this transformation of our way of life and economy cannot be achieved solely by relying on technological solutions but instead that this change is a social and cultural challenge. What is meant by this?

The keyword “social and cultural challenge” was intentionally used to contradict the popular opinion that the energy transition is a purely technological affair, as if it were only necessary to switch from fossil fuels and nuclear power to renewable energies such as wind, water and solar and then everything would be fine. According to the federal government, primary energy consumption is to be halved by 2050 compared to 2008, but as the example earlier demonstrates, savings are canceled out by rebound effects. We therefore cannot avoid critically examining our energy and resource-intensive lifestyle, which of course involves social and cultural aspects, as this will change social values, social status symbols, expectations, everyday practices and so on. It is important to us that this change does not give way to new social injustices and exclude or place additional burdens on low-income groups.

"We must discuss what we have to sacrifice, what we can sacrifice, and what we are unable to – and above all what we gain by doing so.”

You and your fellow campaigners demonstrate the tremendous difficulty of such change by pointing out the conflict of objectives arising from differences between the interests of society and the individual. Can you tell us more precisely what such a conflict of objectives is?

One impetus for our appeal was the observation that our society, to put it bluntly, wants everything at once when it comes to the energy transition: abandoning nuclear power and fossil fuels in favor of renewable energies, but without changing familiar landscapes. Windmills and outdoor photovoltaic systems encounter considerable local pushback. It goes without saying that as a society we aren’t interested in changing our lifestyle and thus our consumption of energy and resources.

It is difficult to abandon our habits...

Of course. That is understandable, but we can’t have everything all at once and that is what people don't want to see. If, for example, species diversity is important to us, and the referendum in Bavaria clearly demonstrated this is the case, then we cannot continue to use our land as we have thus far. The immense land consumption for housing, streets, or soy cultivation for livestock feed in South America inevitably leads to a loss of habitat for many species. If we wish to prevent this, then we have to accept that an impact on our consumption and lifestyle is unavoidable. And here we have to be honest – and I’m going to return to the word “sacrifice”: We must discuss what we have to sacrifice, what we can sacrifice, and what we are unable to – and above all what we gain by doing so. There is no way around this if we want to leave behind a still relatively habitable earth for our children and grandchildren and fulfill our global ethical responsibility. And we should do this quickly - because otherwise climate change, soil degradation, and loss of biodiversity will force changes on us that we will not be able to escape easily.

Professor Heiland, what would you be willing to sacrifice for the environment, however difficult or painful?

My childhood dream is to travel to New Zealand. Of course, I will now have to very seriously consider whether I'll ever do that. However, much of the time our focus does not need to be on not doing something but rather on doing something else. Taking your bike instead of the car to go to the bakery or work; eating more consciously, including less meat; or wearing clothing longer and not tossing it in favor of the next fashion; choosing environmentally and socially beneficial products when shopping. This is where policy-makers are called upon to create the necessary framework conditions and not shift all responsibility onto the individual, such as by installing bike paths and reducing accident risks or clearly labeling products, because no one is in a position to grasp the ecological and social impact of all of their everyday products and actions We need a combined approach: Structural change initiated through policy, demands and support for these changes, and our own individual sustainable everyday behavior.

Interview: Sibylle Nitsche