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Uncoupling Happiness and Consumption

The promised happiness is not possible through more and more consumption. We tinker with a "reality of the second order" to displace the "reality of the first order," the physical and ecological reality. The "good life" can be very well organized.

The Throw-Away Economy Has No Future

By Wolfgang Neef

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Wolfgang Neef, born in 1943, is an aeronautics engineer and sociologist. He teaches at TU Berlin and is chairperson of the Natural Sciences Initiative "Responsibility for Peace and Future Sustainability." For a time he was vice president of TU Berlin.]

"Only mad persons and economists believe in infinite growth in a finite world."
(Kenneth Boulding, economist, 1910-1993)

Consumer needs will grow worldwide - and environmental burdens. Once again technology should solve the problem. Squaring the circle is attempted. "Machines work for growth," the VDI technical journal writes.

That this growth could be the problem is still repressed even though the 1993 European Union white paper called attention to our false development model. For 200 years we have rationalized at the most uncontrollable speed, replaced human workers through energy- and raw material spending and accepted unemployment and environmental crises in exchange. We cultivate an innovation mania. Instead of referring technology to vital needs, we invent new toys. To market them, needs that did not exist are produced through advertising.

The fetish car is one example. On average a car transports 300 lbs with a weight of 1.5 tons. Cars are responsible for a large part of the CO2 emissions harmful to life. Since 1990 the number of cars has also increased rapidly in "threshold countries."

Now we seek for technical panaceas or magic formulas that should make this lifestyle transferable to 6.5 billion people. The list extends from CO2 elimination, nuclear- or fusion reactors, hydrogen-driven cars and planes to nano- and genetic technology. Technical miracles are expected as shown almost daily in the media. But our "miracles of technologies" are results of an unparalleled throwaway economy. These miracles are based on fossil energy resources and acceptance of unlimited waste. However technology has not kept its promise. We have neither the "de-materialization" through IT-technology - more trees are sacrificed than ever for the "paperless office" - nor the 4000 nuclear reactors that were to harmlessly supply abundant electricity in 2000. The promised happiness is not possible through more and more consumption.

We ignore this disaster by submitting politically to a growth economy that is extolled as a kind of natural law under the label "globalization." This growth economy declares the fossil-dinosaur technology a problem-solver and takes hostage the inventiveness of engineers. Under increasing cost-pressure, they should invent technologies enabling continued celebration of the party. Unfortunately most still join in zealously and earn big salaries. We tinker with a reality-construction that Paul Watzlawick describes as a "reality of the second order." Through a propaganda barrage for decades, the capitalist growth economy was presented to us as the only possible economy. Adjusting is stylized as "realism." Competition, profits etc. are presupposed as driving mechanisms without alternative. Thus the world is "formed" in our heads so - as Orwell formulated in "1984" - "all other kinds of thinking are made impossible." The "reality of the first order," the physical-ecological reality, is repressed. Now this catches up to us.

What is the way out? Apart from the necessary intellectual deconstruction of neoliberalism, genuine alternatives must be found in the economy and technology. Kenneth Boulding coined a beautiful metaphor for this: we need an "astronaut economy" that works with limited resources. "Progress" is that social and technical innovations that leaves supplies largely untouched, increases commercialization and thus less production and less consumption - with more fulfillment of human needs. This is fundamentally different from the capitalist "cowboy economy" (Boulding) that conquers, scours, composts and revitalizes new rights.

For technology, we need a radical paradigm shift. Engineers should not work or only work on new products added to existing products. Rather engineers should adjust existing systems through care, renewal and reuse to the respective social and natural context and remove ecologically unsuitable systems. Every new technical solution first becomes acceptable when other solutions are impossible.

How this happens is well known. Systematic re-manufacturing for reusing IT-hardware, electronic instruments etc., decentralized renewable transformation of energy for regional needs, mobility concepts alternating between public networks and individual electric vehicles with over 90 percent efficiency, circulation systems for all technologies and maximizing physical resources are examples. A proper economy should undergird these systems as for example "micro-financing," "solar-home systems" according to the model of Nobel Prize winner Yumus for people without a net connection (Micro-Energy International).

A second industrial revolution and an equalization of resource utilization between "rich" and "poor" countries are required today from a cultural, social and economic perspective. We in the "industrial nations" have to abandon many habits, especially our confusion of happiness with increased consumption.

This revolution is not simple and requires insight and far-sightedness. However we in Europe have lived well for 40 years with a quarter of today's energy demand per person. This amount of 1.5 KW can be generalized globally for 6.5 billion people. The "good life" can be very well organized with a technology adjusted to today's capabilities, solidarity and reproductive economies. As the alternative, everyone battles everyone else in "competition" for the greatest fetish and dwindling resources - like the inhabitants of the Easter islands. After 600 years they perished in the 17th century because their elites were too stupid to reconcile the natural borders of their territory with their way of life. With its continued ignorance, our industrial society is already experiencing its collapse after 300 years.


[These excerpts are translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Wolfgang Neef is a sociologist, aeronautical engineer and former vice-president of TU Berlin.]

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

... As a final critical point, the economizing and regimentation of research and teaching is an apparent panacea or magic formula for managing the university like a business. In most cases, the privatization of public functions has turned out to be a mistake. This is true for education and science, not only for garbage removal and the water supply. Even in big businesses, work suffers under the all-dominating cost-pressure. Engineers have a great hidden rage against the shareholder value mentality and the new inflated cost-reduction and central bureaucracies. All this hinders qualitatively good work as manifest in the bankruptcies and flops of the last years: airbus, toll-collect, car recalls etc. In science, we should resist when a damper is cast on these models. The shareholder value mentality harms the freedom of science and is simply ineffective. The cost-reduction mania replaces primary motivation, the passion for good solutions of social and ecological problems with short-winded bureaucratic instruments of secondary motivation, economic systems of rewards and sanctions, piling up as many points as possible in these systems, first place in the rankings etc. This competition destroys cooperation and solidarity and squanders much time...

Forming the future is the challenge of a technical university. A sober natural science analysis of the situation is necessary. Such a sober analysis is an alarming analysis, as everybody knows. Everyone knows how only half-hearted actions resulted from these findings. The so-called climate pact of the German government avoids any real cuts in our lifestyle that cannot be generalized.

Engineers are trained to act this way. We are already in a state of collective madness since we can describe the situation very exactly with our scientific instruments. Nevertheless knowing that continuing as in the past is deadly, we seek like maniacs for new sources of oil because big salaries are earned with expensive gasoline and burning rubbish has become the goal of further growth. From the data, we know the increased quantity and appliances that we often do not need or are more fetishes than useful articles devour technical efficiency gains. In his book "How Real is Reality?" Watzlawick says we know well the "reality of the first order," the physical or ecological reality. As engineers and natural scientists, we know most about physics, the climate, waste, ecology and the reproduction conditions of nature. This reality of the first order is increasingly displaced or even repressed by the "reality of the second order." A mad economy that spreads its regularities propagandistically as quasi-natural laws believes it overcomes physical laws through more money planted in new technologies. Earning good money is a great temptation for us as engineers and scholars.

A nature falling out of joint is not interesting for the economic constructions of our supposed "reality" in globalized capitalism or for the question whether solutions are viable. Still we believe action is only possible if a profit can be made. As a technical university, we are called to set the "reality of the first order" against the construction of the "reality of the second order" that is made by people and can be changed by people. With the over-fished and destroyed oceans, we must emphasize again and again that wealth of fish is not possible through more money.

Self-criticism is necessary. In technology, we gave many promises of salvation in the last 50 years but only fulfilled a few. From the paperless office and artificial intelligence to endless electricity without meters from nuclear power, there were more flops than successful mega-projects.

In the ZEK in cooperation with businesses, unions and associations, we have tried to promote solutions that go radically different ways: re-use computers, micro-energy and ZeroM-water projects. We did this in close cooperation with our "hard" engineers. All these projects practiced or used another economy than the dominant economy: cooperation instead of competition, micro-credits for the poor according to Yumus' concept, de-acceleration and re-use instead of the throwaway economy. Therefore I have hope that we as researchers and engineers will consistently champion radical technical change that may help answer the critical questions of our children and grandchildren with a good conscience in 20 years...

Repressed disaster does not refer to using technology badly but lacking the necessary realism in the debate over what technical solutions are really viable for the necessary massive paradigm shift...

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