Human-induced global warming is rooted in a strong commitment to economic growth and questions the very conditions under which we live. We are challenged to act with the entire human population in mind. It is important to use thoughtful standards for one’s own decision and it is time, on the one hand, to withdraw the fuel from capitalism where it threatens to burn our lives, but on the other hand, to use its power where it is meaningful. In practical terms, each person has some space to act for himself or herself. I, for example, have deleted my Amazon account and have become a member of the GLS Bank. Beyond this, sensible collective action is needed. We can think around the corner, we have to think around the globe and we have to use our tools wisely.
Seeing our globe from afar as a spaceman impresses very deeply. Astronaut Michael Collins, upon seeing our planet, found these words: “The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this dayI had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” For me, this speaks of a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all life on earth, and it gives rise to a new sense of responsibility for our environment, which is also described by the overview effect.
Our knowledge of global warming
We are currently using the Earth’s resources in ways that are contrary to our long-term living conditions. An overwhelming majority of scientists in the field of climate research conclude that we must drastically reduce emissions of gases that continue to warm the earth in order not to destroy our living conditions. That not all researchers support this proposition is a common part of scientific conduct.
The question of whether man has a significant impact on global warming is not a simple question to answer. There is no direct and simple relationship, such as: When it rains, the earth gets wet. But a relationship between what we do as humans and global warming can be deduced using scientific methodology. Part of this approach is to test an assertion with a counter-assertion. Consistent testing can be done by an individual and even better by an institution. This means that even if a large body of experts agree and the facts are clear to them, there will still be critics who argue the opposite. So, the much smaller group of scientists, who deny the man-made influence on global warming, speaks to the relevance and clarity of the connection. There will never be a consensus among all scientists.
The lack of site-specificity makes the issue complex. This becomes visible in the comprehensively assessed and documented carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Carbon dioxide does not directly endanger our health because we do not suffocate on CO2 itself, but CO2 does cause a change in our climate. Although it is emitted locally into the atmosphere during combustion, it disperses there and is carried by winds. The proportions of this gas in the air atmosphere appear to be extremely small, but the main components, nitrogen and oxygen, cannot convert sunlight into heat. Water vapor and CO2 alone are decisively effective here. A doubling of CO2 in our atmosphere due to human behavior is a severe man-made change.
Having worked for many years as a scientist in engineering and natural sciences – though not directly in climate research – I have concluded that a new direction in how we act is needed to mitigate human-induced global warming. The facts at hand are plausible and supported by sources. With this in mind, I signed the scientists4future call in March 2019.
The German government has also taken action, thus recognizing the man-made influence on global warming as a critical political task. However, according to experts, the steps proposed by the Climate Cabinet in September 2019 are insufficient to achieve the self-imposed goals.
On the other hand, the broad consensus, like among scientists and politicians, is not reflected in all parts of the population. In my milieu, I hear critical questions that show that the factual situation is not so widely accepted as having consequences for one’s actions. The fuzzy measures the federal government takes should also be seen as an opportunity. First, they communicate: We recognize the facts and take action, but we give individuals freedom and do not specify what they must do in concrete terms.
How do I make use of my options?
I want to use the scope for action available to me wisely. For the assessment, I use the CO2 calculator of the German Federal Environment Agency. Many emissions were as expected and had the expected impact on my balance. But when I entered and evaluated my data, I was also surprised by two things: the high CO2 emissions caused by my consumer behavior and the avoidance by other people by investing in a climate-friendly way.
I’m not setting myself up for the future here, but reflecting on what I’ve done to consider what standards I want to apply in decision-making: Which categories should get more weight? Which ones should lose importance? The precision quickly pushes itself to the foreground in decision-making, but it is not the essence. So here, my surprise at the “consumer behavior” and “climate-friendly financial investment” items is reason to take a closer look at these categories, because they point to the root of the problem.
Investing money, like spending money in consumption, is firmly integrated into our modern lives and makes use of a precise singular quantity: money. British economist Charles Goodhart put the meaninglessness of single-number measures in the context of financial regulation this way: “As soon as a government tries to regulate certain financial assets, they become useless as indicators of economic trends.”
I cannot tell from the amount of money itself what it is matched by; accordingly, its use should be well-considered. It is the fuel, so to speak. Is it used to plant trees or to cut down the forest? Using it in the right place is decisive and more effective than throwing a little sand into a big gear.
Is it still worth being an Amazon customer?
Consumption is a significant part of my carbon footprint. This is largely determined by money spent, but also by the longevity, reuse and repair of products. Looking at the global distribution of wealth, the head of Amazon is currently at the top. His wealth is well above the natural upper limit of about one million euros, which is critical for me. Accordingly, I view with skepticism any action that favors such extreme wealth. Why should I support the greed for profit of a millionaire or even billionaire who recklessly consumes the resources of our planet? So why be a customer of Amazon, when life on earth is possible without this company?
In this context, I feel strengthened in my decision to no longer be an Amazon customer. A few years ago, I had closed my customer account in a complicated process – this process was not foreseen by Amazon. At first, I took this step because of the way my customer data was handled, but then I also realized that I was saving cash at the specialized retailer: I’ve since been buying the products I need, rather than those that come with maximum features. My consumption has also been reduced by spending less time in areas that have the goal of generating desires for products. In addition, shopping locally, by bicycle or on foot, has a much more positive carbon footprint, since individual small shipments don’t have to be delivered as quickly as possible directly to the private customer.
Being part of GLS Bank
For humans, exchange with each other is essential. It is a positive achievement of our current economic system that inhabitants of Earth from a wide variety of nations and faiths trade with each other. In this sense, I welcome business models that work with the customer and do not do everything possible to get as much attention, time, and money from them as possible.
Doing business together is not in competition with CO2 emissions, as the example of climate-friendly investment shows. Behind this are only saved emissions at others, but they add up considerably. A year ago, I canceled a fund-based contract that was a building block for my retirement savings. I got paid out of nearly what I had paid in total. The gains were thus roughly equivalent to the administrative costs. The returns stayed with others. Instead, I now purchased cooperative shares at GLS Bank, which is also risky, but the business model is not based on playing off against each other. The cases of bankruptcy are clearly smaller with cooperatives than with forms of enterprise, which have alone the yield in focus. GLS Bank itself is committed to social as well as climate-friendly goals. This is how my money does good for a future worth living.
The self-optimization of capitalism
The surprising thing about the critical category “consumer spending” is another point: for a low carbon footprint, it is good to consume little. This contradicts the action maxim of economic growth as something positive, which is an important part of our current capitalist economy. Rainer Bucher describes the functioning of capitalism in the book Christentum im Kapitalismus (Christianity in Capitalism) as individual self-optimization, which is based on the desire to have something for oneself. Since this model is no longer acceptable in the context of our current knowledge about climate change, it is necessary to think about future ways and to reshape our living together.
In my opinion, an economy without a fixed plan works better than blindly working off a prescribed plan since self-organized structures are more adaptive and dynamic than a constructed plan by a few people for many since more people act proactively towards the same goal in the present. However, the maxim of action of maximizing the profit of the individual within society does not necessarily lead to a community that cooperates well with each other. On the contrary: the view of the “we” is lost and the expectation of profit determines the actions in the present by this goal in the future. Due to the dominance of the economic view, necessities arise and possibilities to act disappear. In a further developed capitalism, it is more successful to use existing knowledge and to use it well-considered – and for this, more thinking and co-deciding people help.
In daily life, we make numerous decisions again and again. From the necessity to decide – as well as the non-decision has consequences – an evaluation system is needed. Often exact numbers, such as the price, but also other quantifiable measures help in decision-making. These comparative measures only represent the actual quality of the thing; from the number, I cannot reconstruct the original object.
For example, the consideration of a piece of music: If only the duration is known to me, nothing can be said about the piece. Knowing the music genre, the performer and the title I might be able to remember the piece, but to experience it again, it needs a lot more. Even highly compressed as an MP3, a piece of music still consists of a long sequence of numbers. This type of reduction occurs if decisions are made based on a single or very few numbers. This makes it possible to select the longest or the shortest piece from a group of music pieces, but the actual mood cannot be described with this substantial reduction.
If we are challenged to decide in everyday life, such as by an advertised special offer, then we are at risk of quickly deciding according to its price. The desire to have something is a significant factor for consumers. As long as no other value standard is explicitly applied, one acts according to one’s own economic standard. Thus, without a value system, one is quickly and thoughtlessly in the role of the capitalist calculator who maximizes his own benefit.
Using capitalism for our life on Earth
By adhering to economic growth, we now have a solid private sector. Now it is up to them, in particular, to use their strength to shape capitalism well for humanity. In this context, it is encouraging to see that by looking at the company’s purpose, the focus is clearly on more than pure profit and that more and more business is being done in a climate-neutral way. In particular, the social and cultural dimensions, which cannot be assigned to an individual and can only be vaguely grasped, are decisive for our togetherness and are gaining importance today. Ignoring such important dimensions because of their vagueness would lead to a thick facade without a center.
In our rapidly changing world, the structures that are capable of learning are the ones that will continue to be needed. In this regard, realizing that we need to fundamentally change how we do business for a shared future is an opportunity to use our knowledge for our daily actions. Meanwhile, not only the trade of goods and services is global and fast, but so is the exchange of knowledge. It is today’s task to coordinate the different positions of people, who do not only have themselves in mind but are aware of being dependent on each other, and to use them to shape our common life on Earth.
In his book Die Kunst, den Kapitalismus zu verändern (The Art of Changing Capitalism), Wolfgang Kessler explains how concretely new beginnings in this new era already work on a small scale and offers ideas on what we can do together. Because one person alone cannot stop global warming through his or her behavior. It will be some time before the open-cast mines used to extract lignite are filled with charcoal. The art is to use the powerful tool of capitalism in a well-balanced and purposeful way and not to leave it to its self-serving purpose without control.