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December 8, 2010

Last Dance of the Dinosaurs? Mixed Feelings after the German Sustainability Day in Düsseldorf

By Stefan Thiesen

On November 26 the German Sustainability Award was presented at a Gala in the Düsseldorf Maritim Hotel in Germany after a day of workhops and presentations with world leaders in the environmental field. The Gala Guests represented approximately 2 trillion US Dollars in turnover, and the author of these words still is not sure what all this was about. Sustainability of a new industry brand? Last manager standing? We shall see.


Once you will know my dear
You dont have to fear
A new beginning
Always starts at the end
Once you will know my dear
You dont have to fear ...
Until the end of time
She goes her way
("Mother Earth" / Within Temptation)

So there we were, having grown up, the former renegade student activist solar energy corporation, firmly rooted in the European anti nuclear energy and peace movement of the 70s and now a global enterprise, was nominated for the award as" Germany's Most Sustainable Brand." After a day of thoroughly mainstreamed environmental and economics workshops and symposiums about sustainability, mostly orbiting the oxymoron "Green Growth", we ended up at a society award Gala that would have brought our feet back to the ground, in case they had ever left it.

First of all: despite being nominated and thus among those for whom this event allegedly was held, we were not considered important enough to attend the "VIP reception" at the Düsseldorf Maritim Hotel, while B-Starlets and unknown (to me at least) "Supermodels", European high and low nobility and sports celebrities of long past days were considered worthy, aside from the numerous Millionaires and industry captains and their glamorous wives who flocked to the event, not few of those most likely only to rub against stars and shine a bit in the reflection of high-flying environmental activist celebrities like former Green Peace head Thilo Bode or food activist Jamie Oliver. So I sat there, somewhat lost in my expensive black Pierre Cardin Suit and bow-tie, and tried hard to spot the other forlorn scientists and activists who had not yet given in to the black hole attraction of monetary gravity.

And they were there:  During a workshop about green growth, Professor Angelika Zahrnt, honorary president of Germany's largest and most influential environmental NGO BUND, dared to say that even a global efficiency revolution and maximized utilization of renewable energy only buys us time, and ultimately we have to arrive at a steady state economy if we are to survive. Zahrnt borrowed the phrase that "...either we arrive there by decision, or by disaster". She was the only voice of science present in the podium that otherwise was stacked - if not hijacked - by conservative politicians and representatives of the Automobile industry.

Her arguments were swept aside, while the all male mainstream industry voices spoke of growth as the only way to enlightenment, growth the all savior of mankind. "Everything in nature grows" one of them spoke out. Professor Angelika Zahrnt looked at him in utter disbelief and, fortunately, so did much of the audience! A finely dressed young woman raised her hand. It turned out she was a member of a delegation of Economics graduate students from the nearby Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.

And lo and behold: this young Ph.D. student dared to question the mainstream! I looked around and mainly not all is lost: it seemed that among all those non-VIPs (many of them surely not-yet but soon to be VIPs) the mainstream is not seen as that but more as a drying out soodling thread. I joined in and supported Professor Zahrnt's point of view with some physics. Hey, we need not resort to belief. There are facts, after all. I recently dug myself through Roger Penrose's monumental book on modern Physics, which for a reason is titled "The Road to Reality". But during the soothing Gala night I later realized over expensive Chardonnay and a five course five star dinner cooked by a world famous chef, that it is not easy to hold on to reality when dancing among a closed circle of film stars and top-managers to life music of the Bee Gees. That the Bee Gees are still around already feels unreal in itself.

The Two Trillion Dollar Dinner by Stefan Thiesen

I personally estimate that the individuals present at the Gala represented a total turnover of approx. two trillion US$.

Interestingly even at the Gala, though, there were voices of sanity. Allain Caparross, the new French CEO of the 70 Billion US$ turnover retail giant REWE, complained that the event flew in the face of the whole sustainability idea. He has funny ideas for a top-manager: emphasizing local products and organic agriculture and a total restructuring of the entire concern around the idea of sustainability. Needless to say: he was not much applauded, and even I merely dared to send out a few shy claps, with big shots from one of the world's major car makers throwing frowns at me from across the table. What a killjoy, that he dared to tell the truth and demand action!

Generally telling the truth was an issue anyway. During the symposium Jamie Oliver said that in Germany and the UK if he thinks something, if he has an opinion, he says it on the media, just so, while in the US he is not allowed to do that anymore, and if he does, it is cut out, especially if his opinion is not politically correct or runs contrary to industry and advertiser interests. This says just about everything there is to say about Freedom in America.

He warned that we in Europe are in danger of becoming like America and that we have to fight for our right of free speech. Among an audience of maybe 800 I was the only one who applauded, and Jamie responded " Yes there - thank you - this is really important! "

Jamie Oliver calls for free speech

Why did no one else notice the significance of the point he made? Do we take it for granted? Is an outspoken activist like Mr. Oliver merely an interesting form of entertainment? Like an exotic animal? We better listen to people like him. But questioning the ways of my beloved second home country, the mighty US of A, is nearly as sacrilegious as questioning the number one dogma of our time: eternal economic growth. During the entire event I felt like a character in a novel jointly written by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and the complete team of Monthy Python while celebrating a hazy Franz Kafka commemoration holiday in Ibizza (or, say, Big Sur, to stay in America). I also realized that a hotel where a small pack of peanuts costs 4 US$ and a simple Pizza Margherita 25 is not for me. Later at the train station I got a huge Sandwich for 2.5 Euros and ate, while watching people in run down coats collecting bottles from garbage bins for cash. Scenes from Düsseldorf, one of the wealthiest cities in one of the world's wealthiest countries. My had spun as if I had a hangover from attending a Gala of Dinosaurs celebrating their own inevitable decline.

Klaus Töpfer, Thilo Bodhe, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker

Former UNEP director Klaus Töpfer called for unilateral climate protection action, former Greenpeace head Thilo Bodhe urges that we (globally) return to democracy and Prof. von Weizsäcker (author of "Factor 4") wants to spearhead the efficiency revolution .

In the wake of this sustainability day I purchased Prof. Zahrnt's latest book, which is titled " Postwachstumsgesellschaft " (Post Growth Society), published this past summer. What really let me gasp for air about the book was that the foreword was written by the former Director of the World Monetary Fund and retired German Federal President Horst Köhler, who had suddenly and unexpectedly resigned under mysterious circumstances earlier in 2010.

Now while the German neo-liberal government of our days celebrates the alleged successes of the so called "Growth Acceleration Law", the distinguished economist and elderly statesman Prof. Dr. Köhler begins his introduction to the book by quoting another distinguished economist - Kenneth Boulding:

"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."

By using this quote and in the following text a leading former senior world politician and decision maker with his vast background in finance and economics identifies the main culprit of global problems: ECONOMIC GROWTH. While it surely was brave that Prof. Köhler stated it, the insight itself is neither new nor original, but such simple facts usually are revealed from a different direction. I shall conclude my musings with two more typical quotes from a more typical corner of intellectual inquiry:

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
(Albert A. Bartlett, physicist)

And one of the greatest minds that every walked the Earth spoke:

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. "
(Max Planck, father of Quantum Physics)


(Well - and is there any reason to mention that Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden attended the event? I think not. It was about the only thing the mainstream press reported).

Submitters Website: http://thiesen.webnode.com/

Submitters Bio:

Stefan Thiesen is a Germany, UK and USA educated earth and space scientist and science writer. He is an expert in marine science, climatology and planetary sciences, author of several popular science books in German and English as well as a novel and numerous short pieces. During the last years his professional work focused on solar energy and solar energy based water desalination and treatment solutions with projects in Europe, Africa and Asia. One of his Water Projects was a finalist in the World Bank Development Marketplace Competition of 2006. Since summer 2006 Stefan works for the development dept. of a leading European solar energy company. Other fields of interest include marine protected areas and traditional land and ocean management. He was invited speaker on international conferences, including EU and NATO advanced research workshops. Stefan lives on an ancient farm in Westfalia/Germany together with his wife Yvette, three daughters Sophie Maris (meaning "Wisdom of the Sea"), Liv Moana (meaning "Sea Life") and Stella Marina (Meaning Star of the Sea) as well as their dog Amie.