Claudia Roth
Sabine Nallinger
Frithjof Finkbeiner

Do something! On the power and powerlessness of the individual

Dialogue forum on 06 May 2015

In recent years, climate, poverty and refugee risks have come to a head. Ever more people are no longer willing to sit back and watch these issues simply taking their course; they want to get involved in fighting for more justice. Can one person make a difference? And where do we have to start if we want to solve global problems? This was the question that the Vice President of the German Bundestag, Claudia Roth, Sabine Nallinger from the 2° Foundation and the founder of the Global Marshall Plan Initiative, Frithjof Finkbeiner examined at the recent 2015 Dialogue Forum.

Just how seriously the world has gone off the rails can be seen in the global refugee flows. "As a result of major humanitarian disasters, today we are experiencing the largest number of refugees since the Second World War, with 57 million officially registered, and this does not even include climate refugees," Claudia Roth explained. But it would be entirely the wrong response to abandon oneself to the widespread feeling of helplessness that predominates in the world in view of its many crises. Indeed, we have to ask ourselves what the individual can do to help. She went on to say that it was the political sector's role to make the problem understandable to people, and to explain how they can individually participate. "It was easier to mobilise an anti-atomic power movement in the 1970s because everybody new exactly what it was about. In contrast, it is extremely difficult to emotionalise the climate crisis, because it is so far away for so many people, and so difficult to comprehend," said Roth. 

The withdrawal to organic passivity
This overtaxing leads many people to withdraw into a kind of "organic passiveness", where they attempt to lead an ecologically correct life, but do not show any other greater civil engagement. "Where is the drive to change something, where is the protest, the will to stand up and be counted?", asked the Vice President of the German Bundestag and member of the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen parliamentary group. She added: "This is something we can't allow ourselves in this situation." We cannot let ourselves be overwhelmed by the catastrophes. We have to commit to change and take responsibility, even in our own interest. 

"I think we have a 25% chance to save the world, which isn't bad if you don't have any alternative," is Frithjof Finkbeiner's estimate. Unlike some of his older colleagues in the Club of Rome, who have given up to cynicism on the state of the world, he has retained his optimism. Even if nobody can say just how significantly climate change will change our lives and how we should cope with the 200 million climate refugees that can be expected by the year 2050. "We have a good opportunity to change something if more people take to the streets and we can achieve a critical mass. If then an event also occurs that acts as a catalyst, such as Fukushima in the nuclear power debate, changes can suddenly happen very quickly," hopes the coordinator of the Global Marshall Plan Initiative, a platform that campaigns for a just world order. 

Recognise trivialisations
However, we shouldn't underestimate the opponents to change, he says. They often very subtly manipulate terminology. "In the USA, 13% of people surveyed consider the term "climate change" to be less dangerous than the term "global warming", although both boil down to the same thing," Finkbeiner added. Laziness and ignorance, he says, leads to many people simply being relieved when somebody gives them a way to believe that it is all not as bad as it is made out to be. 

Sabine Nallinger experienced personally just how great the resistance to change can be, when initiating a solar energy initiative as the Green's city council member in Munich. "Despite the support of mayor Christian Ude, the administration placed large obstacles in our way. Today I know that you have to get all interest groups on board if you want to change something, and you have to take their fears seriously," said Nallinger, who now chairs the executive initiative for climate protection known as the 2° Foundation. She says it is not necessarily bans that are needed to initiate change, but rather the right offers. She cited the examples of car sharing and organic supermarkets, which are becoming increasingly popular. 

Even little steps can have a big effect
But why should someone go out of their way to promote sustainable climate protection, when our society lauds mainly people who exploit the world to earn a lot of money? "I am absolutely convinced that our quality of life will improve if we behave prudently and stand up for a sustainable world," Nallinger believes. There are enough opportunities to do so. "We can all vote, get involved politically and use our power as consumers when making purchases or investing." Even small steps or initiatives like "Call a Bike" can be the launching pad for greater changes. 

Roth made it clear that it is not primarily about going without things we love: "We have to redefine growth and wealth and the way we operate economically and manufacture," she demanded. Although it would be wrong to paternalistically force our conclusions on other countries. " We have to start by taking a pioneering role and being responsible by attempting to live sensibly and with awareness," she encouraged. 

Lots of space for trees
More important than forbearance is that we get the political sector to provide the right framework conditions, says Finkbeiner. For instance, by limiting the CO2 emissions of cars. A very real step that everybody can take right now is planting a tree. "They are the only multipliable carbon storage facilities. Nobody has any excuse to not get involved," he said. For example, you can support an organisation that plants trees in sub-tropical regions, financed by donations. Plants in these areas can store particularly large amounts of carbon. "A study conducted by Yale University showed that there is enough space on the planet for 1,000 billion trees, which could bind around a quarter of all CO2 emissions caused by human beings." Also, we could find out about numerous organisations such as Greenpeace and the WWF, and research ways that we can get involved. 

More direct democracy - at federal level too - is an option that both Green Party politicians would wish for. "If you know that it is the people who will ultimately be voting on an issue, politicians have to explain much more precisely what the issue is about," Roth explains. "We have to include the population more in important decisions," Nallinger added, and had a tip for active citizens. "If you want to change something, give yourself a vision and pursue it, step by step. You can go a long way like that, and often make a difference."  

There is no lack of opportunities for helping try to create a fairer world. And even if each one of us can individually only make a small contribution, we have a good chance of starting improvements if we all act together. Future generations will benefit! 


NSCH 12 May 2015