Prof. Gesine Schwan
Prof. Dirk Messner
Prof. Angelika Zahrnt

Transformation – Ways forward

Dialogue forum on 29 January 2013

Environmental degradation and climate change, not to mention social and economic challenges, are confronting mankind with enormous problems. If we do not quickly change our way of thinking and act now, future generations will have to pay a high cost and live in a bleak world. "The (im)mobile society – Ready for the future?”, the 2013 dialogue forums, examine how ready people are to accept responsibility for bringing about the requisite transformation. The direction that we must take was the subject of this year's opening forum, "Transformation – Ways ahead". The panel of distinguished speakers featured Prof. Gesine Schwan, Prof. Angelika Zahrnt and Prof. Dirk Messner.

The starting point of their deliberations was the report "A Social Contract for Sustainability" published by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). The report argues that our present economic model based on fossil fuels is not tenable, as it threatens the stability of the climate system and therefore the natural life-support system of future generations. "We need to make the transition to a prosperity model that respects the limitations of the earth system," urges Prof. Messner who, as Director of the German Development Institute and Vice Chair of the WBGU, was actively involved in the report. Society's development towards greater sustainability is an immense task. "This transformation can be compared to some extent with the Neolithic Revolution, in other words the emergence of agriculture and herding, some 10,000 years ago, or the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century," said Messner, making the dimensions clear.

Social contract for a new target system
The difference compared with these historic transformations is that the transition to a sustainable economy is not evolutionary but must be actively engineered. This is further complicated by fact that the requisite changes, for example in CO2 emissions, will have to take place within a very narrow time frame, namely in the next two decades. Otherwise there is a risk that the atmosphere will heat up by more than 2°C, so that the climate system will reach a tipping point. The result would be irreversible damage. Without a commensurate target system in the form of a social contract, this transformation cannot be achieved.

However, despite the enormous time pressures, we must not act blindly. "We will not make better use of the short time available by launching ourselves into frenetic action", insists Prof. Schwan, President of the Humboldt Viadrina School of Governance. What we need to do, in her opinion, is concentrate on the essentials, and society's ability to communicate and cooperate. "With technological means alone, we will never achieve this transformation." On the contrary, it is more important to expose the conflicting interests and resolve them. "If we really want to pursue the energy turnaround in Germany, we must communicate with our neighbours about their interests, something we haven't done in the past," urged Schwan. For her, communication is the key to solution-oriented action.

Growth argument
Outrage and anger are potentially major drivers of political change. They triggered important developments in the emergence of the nature conservation and environmental movement around 100 years ago. "Citizen participation is key, particularly in the comprehensive transformation processes called for by the WBGU, and to ensure a just balancing of interests," says Prof. Zahrnt, Honorary Chairman of BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) and member of the Council for Sustainable Development in Berlin. The fact that withdrawal from nuclear power is now part of the government's programme is not least due to persistent protests and having the courage to try out new ideas. Zahrnt considers the growth argument to be a significant obstacle in the political decision-making process. "In my opinion, economic growth should not be the priority in highly developed industrialised countries but observance of the ecological limitations. The pressure is apparently not yet sufficient to ensure consistent political action." The technical developments in the renewables field give her cause for optimism. However, not only is the changeover to sustainable energy forms important, but also reducing energy consumption in general. "We must also think about restraint," asserts the environmental and sustainability expert.

What is currently lacking is a dynamic global movement towards a sustainable economic structure. "We need to speed up the transition process and move on from the many pilot projects to system solutions," says Messner with conviction. "It is important not to wait for the stragglers in the convoy but to allow the people who take the threats seriously forge ahead," agrees Zahrnt. Schwan on the other hand sees greater prospects of success in getting as many partners as possible on board. "I fully understand the avant-garde position but we must give ourselves time to seek consensus." Ways of reaching agreement must be sought, she says, going well beyond those taken so far. Russia, for example, will not be persuaded overnight to stop using gas, and Poland will also continue to depend on coal as an energy provider. In her opinion, unilateralist actions by individual groups would only push any consensus on future developments far into the future.

Call for a proactive state
In recent years public debate on alternatives has been neglected. Because the subject matter is so complex, people try to avoid the issue or feel it does not apply to them. Improvements can only be made in the long term by institutionalising procedures and public debate. The WBGU report therefore calls for a "proactive state" that sets the requisite boundary conditions. "Global fossil energy resources are subsidised annually to the tune of US$ 650bn. Unless this is reduced success cannot be achieved," Messner emphasises.

The past has shown that mankind is quite capable of changing its standards, values and principles. "We have learned to respect limitations such as human rights or the social rights of working people. We now must define similar limitations from the perspective of the earth system", urges Messner. Once these limitations have been acknowledged, mankind's creativity and fantasy will ensure the right solutions are found. Science can set a target system, as in the WBGU report. However, in the final analysis, society has to decide on the direction that it wants to take. Prosperity based not on the exploitation of resources but more on non-material values, such as education, would be a good way of bringing about sustainability.

The next dialogue forum "Higher, faster, further – Mobile amidst traffic chaos?" will take place on 21 February.

CB, 7 February 2013