The Western Culture of Waste
We Should Be Outraged! At Ourselves
An essay by Harald Welzer 07/14/2011
Germans want to end nuclear power and turn to renewable energy, but they keep buying SUVs. Global carbon emissions and oil consumption have risen sharply over the last two environmentally conscious decades -- and the trends will continue, as long as Westerners keep discovering new "needs."
Since the announcement of Germany's new nuclear phase-out and its coming energy revolution, a specter has haunted the country. It's called "eco-dictatorship." The people warning us against its dangers, ironically, have not been known as passionate defenders of the democratic process.
Leading the way are industrial dinosaur Jürgen Großmann and his loyal assistant on the renewable energy front, Fritz Vahrenholt, both top executives at the major German energy company RWE. In a recent article in the German paper Die Welt,Vahrenholt criticized what he called environmental "Jacobinism" and made indirect reference to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He argued that the energy revolution would ask Germans for the "highest measure of idealism, altruism and willingness to make sacrifices," which could "not be achieved by democratic means." Why, Vahrenholt asked rhetorically, "should people worldwide voluntarily relinquish their claims to material welfare and security?"
In fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." This raises two questions that Vahrenholt presumably did not have in mind. First, what is an adequate standard of living under universal standards of human rights? And second, what would it look like if it were "standardized" worldwide?
Re-Interpreting Article 25
When the United Nations General Assembly ratified Article 25 on Dec. 10, 1948, what it most certainly did not have in mind was the perceived human right to a standard of living that takes for granted a family's right to four vacations a year, three cars and a waste of food on a daily basis. In fact, the greatest "willingness to make sacrifices" among German elites today probably consists of agreeing to wait 12 months for the delivery of a Porsche Cayenne.
For some reason everyone seems to want to thumb their noses at the global climate by driving SUVs. SUV sales aren't just booming among the Chinese, who tend to be less than enthusiastic about protecting the environment, but also among Germans, who bought 20 percent more SUVs last year than in 2009, so they could plow through downtown areas and strike fear into the hearts of children and cyclists. In buying these gas guzzlers, consumers contributed significantly to a largely unnoticed record set in 2010: The highest energy use in human history. Global energy consumption rose by 5.6 percent in 2010, while emissions that affect the climate increased by 5.8 percent.
This is an energy turnaround? Hardly. Despite Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun, energy consumption and emissions rise each year. With only a brief interruption during the global economic crisis, man continues to accelerate the depletion of resources and destruction of the planet and its atmosphere. Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases have almost doubled in the last two decades alone, and it will take only one decade for emissions to double again, assuming the thirst for energy in the industrialized and emerging economies continues to grow as quickly as it is growing today. According to current prognoses, oil consumption -- which accounts for a third of primary energy use -- will grow from 84 billion barrels a day in 2005 to 116 million barrels by 2030, despite increasingly difficult access to oil and the resulting heightened risks to the environment.
Flatscreens and Wasted Food
But how is this possible, especially in Germany, where the green revolution has spread throughout society and into all political parties, with the exception of the eternally backward Left Party? More to the point, how is it possible after society has been exposed to almost 40 years of enlightenment on environmental protection, climate protection and sustainability? (The groundbreaking work "The Limits to Growth" was published in 1972.) Why do the graphs on resource and environmental consumption point sharply upward if the Germans are so conscious of the environment and energy use that they proudly support their government's decision to phase out nuclear power? And shake their heads in disgust when they see people in places like Kuala Lumpur or Dakar tossing garbage into rivers and streets?
The answer is simple. Consumption has risen steadily in those same decades, bringing a corresponding rise in waste and emissions. For example, 50 years ago a Mini was not only small, but was also lightweight (617 kilograms, or 1,357 lbs.) and managed to transport four people with only 34 horsepower. Today's Mini is available as a compact car, a convertible, a station wagon and a coupe, and even as a 1,470-kilo (1.6-ton) SUV with up to 211 horsepower. more