Daniela Kolbe:" Regulatory policy has to change. We need minimum standards and maximum limits".
Claudia Langer and Dr. Fritz Reheis discuss different options what individuals can do to contribute to a sustainable future.

New lifestyles – Perspectives for sustainable development?

Dialogue forum on 15 May 2012

At the last Dialogue Forum 2012 in the "Power and influence – Who controls the world's destiny?" series, the question was what each individual can do to contribute to a sustainable future. Can we have an influence through our decisions as consumers? The member of the German Bundestag Daniela Kolbe, entrepreneur Claudia Langer and author and Bamberg University lecturer Dr. Fritz Reheis talked about their thoughts on this matter.

It is undisputed that our society cannot continue on with its excessive consumption of natural resources the way it has in the past. Because: "Each German citizen produces an average of 11 tonnes of CO2 per year. Our ecological footprint is 4.5 hectares in size. If everybody in the world behaved that way, we would already today need two and a half planet Earths," said SPD parliament member Kolbe. She sees both consumers and politicians as having the duty to do something about it. But more critical consumer behaviour alone won't solve the problem, and purely technical solutions for greater resource efficiency aren't enough either. "Regulatory policy has to change. We need minimum standards and maximum limits," explains Kolbe, who also chairs the commission of inquiry in the Bundestag "Growth, Prosperity, Quality of Life".

As this commission sees it, the question is not about growth or contraction, nor is it about doing without certain things. What we have to do is discuss in which direction a society wants to develop. Kolbe knows that the Germans alone can't solve the world's problems with a more sustainable way of life. After all, she says, the developing and emerging nations have a lot of catching up to do, and we can't forbid them to do it. That is why we have to set a good example; to show that it is possible to be prosperous and ecological at the same time.

Consumers are sluggish
Claudia Langer puts her hopes in the collective power of the consumers to kick-start these changes. She has launched an Internet platform called utopia.de for strategic and sustainable consumption. There is no doubt in her mind: "We, as citizens, voters, investors and consumers, are responsible for the fate of the world." She is aware, however, that the consumer as such is a tentative beast that finds it difficult to change its patterns of behaviour. "Consumers are an immensely inert mass. They look at the price and wait for others like Greenpeace to save the world," Langer complains. Even outrage at food scandals dwindles fast, and before long people are reaching for the specials in the supermarket again.

On the other hand, there are a number of companies that are pursuing the sustainability issue very seriously. But time is running out: "We are currently in the process of making a very risky bet with the future of our children. Although we are aware that things can get grim, we aren't doing anything about it. We have to get involved. It doesn't matter where, or how, we just have to decide what kind of role model we want to be for our children," Langer demands. She herself says she doesn't feel that her life has become any worse through less consumption; and her children aren't suffering because of it either.

For Fritz Reheis, the basic evil of our lifestyle lies in a self-imposed system of deception. He says people tend to keep raising the bar, for example when it comes to status symbols. "We go to great lengths to achieve a goal that doesn't actually make us happy," he says of the dilemma. Even hamsters, he says, are smarter than us. They get off the wheel when they don't feel like running on the spot anymore. We, on the other hand, follow the logic of money and stockpile ever more material things, or believe we can find salvation in never ending economic growth. "But that merely pushes the problems further into the future. We are burdening the future generations," Reheis is convinced.

Live well instead of having lots
He sees one way out of the downward spiral in a process of deceleration, in which time and not money is the focal point of our actions. "The ecology of time is about dealing sensibly with the available forces, and not using them up more quickly than they can regenerate." With this approach, every organism and cycle has its own individual "time" that it has developed over the course of evolution, and we should respect that. "People and processes need fixed times that we have to take seriously. A greater awareness of time is a key," he says. And deceleration doesn't mean that everything has to slow down, it is about appropriate speeds on the road to a better quality of life and sustainability. "We should become more discerning, and live well instead of having lots of things" Reheis insists.

That is why, he says, we have to move away from the traditional market economy that rewards the fast and ruthless. "There should be something like a tax on rushing," he says. But he doesn't want the political sector to comply with the market; he wants the market to be democracy-compliant. "I am a vehement advocate of the primacy of politics," he admits.

Debate about social values is needed
Utopia founder Langer sees this with some scepticism: "I can't see a desire in the political sector to plan long term. It has given way to the populism of a government that goes with the trend and has cashed in its authority to set guidelines," she criticises. And anyway, in her opinion the voters don't even want to hear the truth; they want to be cheated. Kolbe too is conscious of the limited influence that the political sector has on society moving to a sustainable lifestyle: "We need solutions to long-term problems, but we live in a world in which we all act increasingly short-sightedly," she says. A politician who imposes high costs on people today that will have positive consequences sometime in the future, runs the risk of being voted out of office. "We don't talk enough about where we should be steering society, and with what values and ideas we want to shape the future," she complains. Not until that debate starts will we be able to push through unpopular steps.

But are we even willing to take the path of sustainability? After all, it's fun to drive a nice car, have the latest Smartphone or fly away on holiday. How can society be restructured so that sustainability also has a high status? "My answer is a double strategy," Reheis explains. Some things should be forbidden or commanded by law, some of it through taxes and levies. But, he says, much more important are good experiences with forms of smart enjoyment. People are likely to learn much more that way than by being told what to do. That is why the political sector and society have to create the foundations that enable people to have such experiences and redefine the concept of personal pleasure for themselves.

The Dialogue Forum 2012 series ends with the "New Lifestyles" evening. The enormous interest in the 2012 topics, with several hundred people booked in for each evening, has shown that we have struck a nerve. We look forward to seeing you at our Dialogue Forums again next year. You will find announcements and information on our web site and in our newsletter.