Symbol Politics or Dystopia de Luxe: Apple Trees, Climatology, Psychology

Illustration Corinna Heumann/ Text Frank Fremerey

Do we need psychologists to confront the climate crisis? Is giving up vacation flights, T-bone steaks and plastic bags enough to stop global warming? 

When problems exceed our capacity to comprehend, people tend to take refuge in symbolic actions. Even facts as self-evident as death drive people to the temples of religions. The fear of a world conflagration like climate change makes people believe in every green fairy tale. Yet in Germany, the protection of the natural foundations of life in Article 20a of the Basic Law now has constitutional status. 

A question of credibility

It is often proclaimed that we should do without certain things. Can a frugal life actually save us or does it merely serve to soothe our guilty conscience? We can also produce the goods that we wastefully produce today in a sustainable way. Do we need psychologists to emotionally process scientific findings in such a way that we really understand climate change? Because only then will we begin to act seriously. In any case, the inflationary use of the terms ‘green’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ in marketing does not leave any significant impact on the preservation of our livelihoods on this planet.

A fact check 

There are almost 8 billion of us on this planet today. On average, we have a total energy consumption of about 20 kilowatt hours per capita per day. That is too much overall. Europeans even consume ten times that amount, or about 200 kilowatt hours per day. To get a sense of how kilowatt-hours translate into heating, cooling and transportation, here’s an example: driving a car 100 km consumes about 80 kilowatt-hours (David MacKay). 14 million cars existed 50 years ago. Today, three times that number drive and stand on German roads. At the same time the transport infrastructure developed dysfunctionally. We no longer even manage to meet the costs of maintaining it.

Where can we make savings and what are the benefits?

Let’s break out the biggest chunks from this 200-kilowatt-hour-per-day calculation. If we eliminate air travel, driving, and eating meat, we’re still left with 80 kilowatt-hours per day. I think it is unlikely that all Europeans would suddenly give up air travel, driving and eating meat. But even these radical measures would do us no good.

Climate change and categorical imperative

According to Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, one’s own actions should be such that they could be the standard for general action. Taking climate change and sustainability as an example, this idea means that one’s own actions should not place excessive demands on the earth’s resources. Thus, if everyone acted sustainably, we would manage the world sustainably.

Theory and practice

Already 20 kilowatt hours per day are too much for this planet with 8 billion people. So if I do without air travel, driving and eating meat; if I live in a well-insulated house in the city, from where everything is within walking distance, I am still consuming four times the world average. So with 80 kilowatt-hours of consumption per capita per day, we could destroy the ecosystems of four planets.

One error in thinking is that we take today’s way of using energy and resources, with 90% coal, oil and gas, as a benchmark. We believe it will remain that way. Neither climate calculations take into account an increase in energy demand, nor the desire of the poorer parts of the world’s population for more prosperity. All in all, scientific statements are not taken seriously enough and are not implemented effectively in political terms. 

Rising energy demand

In fact, there will be no future with less energy consumption. Energy demand will increase for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, energy saving and the associated awareness raising make important contributions to a change in policy. Not only the people who today consume less than 20 kilowatt hours per day want to escape poverty, but also the world population keeps growing. We will not remain 8 billion, but will soon be 10 billion. Additional new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, smartphones, crypto currencies and electric cars need more and more electricity.

The salvation is to replace coal, oil and gas

Physically, there are exactly two options for coping with growing electricity consumption: Solar power from the hot deserts or nuclear power. The current expansion of solar and nuclear power is not even enough to meet the rising additional demand. That’s why we continue to build new coal-fired power plants around the world. These are accelerating climate change. Coal combustion has doubled since the year 2000. Lobbyism and emotional sensitivities of large parts of the population prevent the implementation of scientific findings. Conclusion: The expansion of low-carbon power sources must proceed much faster. The carbon footprint of a Frenchman is half that of a German.  

Psychology and climatology: Do we have time to continue waiting for human insight?

I am firmly convinced that only insight and voluntarism will lead to sustainable behavioral change. The facts of climate change have been known since the late 1970s. I first learned about it in the early 1980s. 

However, to this day, many environmental movements cannot bear to look into the abyss. They became intensively involved in symbol politics. In order to initially build awareness for sustainability among the population, these actions were important. But today, the only thing that helps us is the courageous translation of scientific knowledge into practical policy. If science says that the CO2 price must be 180 € per ton, then 60 € will only have one third of the desired effect.

What can we do today?

If we had acted on scientific knowledge and replaced all coal-fired power plants with nuclear power plants from the late 1970s, early 1980s, there would be no climate change today. That’s true, but it doesn’t help. The really relevant question at the beginning of the 21st century is: What can we do today? 

Should we plant apple trees? It certainly won’t hurt. We will feel better afterwards. The most important thing, however, is that we don’t get discouraged. If we hang in the corner depressed, no one is helped. So let’s listen to the science and creatively implement what is needed. Let’s inspire others around the world to take these actions and overcome national boundaries by emphasizing the similarities, not the differences. We cannot afford to exclude Russia and China in today’s sustainable environment management. If understanding at the country level doesn’t work because values are too different and mistrust too great, then let’s build cooperative relationships between cities, between institutions and people. Those who want something find ways, those who don’t want something look for excuses. We humans are more alike than we often think. In times of climate change, we are all in the same boat. It could be the historic chance to unite the entire world population in order to secure a peaceful future for the people on earth. That would be a concrete utopia!

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