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Jolly eschatology

Claus Leggewie and Harald Welzer have written a book about the end of the world as we knew it. They tell Jan Feddersen why.

Taz: Herr Leggewie, Herr Welzer, the economy is showing signs of recovery. Isn't the global financial meltdown going rather well?

CL: It depends how you look at it. At least greenhouse gasses emissions are dropping. I haven't seen any bankers dangling from the street lamps but the stock exchange tickers are up and running again, and trade in those idiotic derivatives is booming.

HW: It's business as usual, it's as if it'd never happened. Except that the bill for crisis management will have to be footed by the generations to come.

Does your book "The End of the World As We Knew It" play on universal anxiety about crisis?

: Quite the opposite. We are calling for cultural change, which would be worthwhile even without a crisis. It still makes sense to reject the hegemonic culture of waste and the civil religion of growth even without climate change and economic crisis – and it's fun too.

CL: We've had a lot of very positive feedback from people who've had it up to here with the world as we knew it and who believe that now is the time to build a better world by pooling our resources. The political class has no idea that all around them, a new type of extra-parliamentary movement is forming?

What form is it taking?

CL: The Pirate Party, for example, or the climate alliances and new protest movements.

You've chosen a rather trendy title for your book, haven't you?

: It's a wonderful title that we stole rather unfashionably from REM. The extra-parliamentary chorus "It's the end of the world as we know it" continues: "and I feel fine". We'll also be happy when the world as we know it is over.

You obviously enjoy making apocalyptic jokes. Or how else should we interpret your romance with crisis?

: Why do people always have to talk about the apocalypse and loving crisis whenever you tell it like it is?

Why indeed?

HW: Look, I'll put it very simply: what they sell us as realpolitik these days is a complete illusion, because it doesn't address any the problems of the future – climate change, dwindling resources, mounting water and food deficits, the escalating global conflict potential, the exploitation of our children's future. If you look at it this way, it's the realpoliticians who seem who have a fondness for crises. Crises also provide an excellent opportunity to score points for tireless crisis management. This is good for distracting from the fact that there is nothing on the political agenda.

Every party has its own way of trying to get its message heard. The Union is trying to instil calm, the SPD just wants votes. The Greens are all about the environment. Why do you have such a problem with this struggle for influence?

CL: By trying to calm the electorate they are simply ignoring the core issues about the future, as we saw in the TV duel between the ruling parties and the three-way battle between the opposition parties [FDP, Greens, Die Linke] over maintaining the social status quo. Even the Greens, who at least feature environmental protection in their campaign, seem to be oblivious to the explosiveness of these issues.

You'll have to explain. You're saying that the Greens have no idea about the real political agenda?

CL: Don't worry, we are probably much more fond of the Greens than they are of us. They are the ones who are closest to our cause, but after the Magdeburg fiasco ...

The party conference in 1998 when the Greens demanded 5 DM for every litre of petrol and were ripped to pieces by the mass media as a result.

: Since then they have been petrified about being written off as a purely eco party. And they'd rather have people demonstrate against nuclear energy than have to think about climate change not only in terms of a shift in technology, but as a vector for a new society and way of doing politics.

HW:You have to ask yourself why, in the midst of the biggest crisis of the post-war period, we are seeing an election campaign that is entirely free of content. Our guess is that the political agendas of all parties are so bound up with ideas of progress, development and growth that when they are confronted with a situation in which nothing is growing or moving forwards, they have no idea what to do. They are left standing, empty-handed and empty-headed, and this goes for the Greens, too, who should have been having a field day, like in 2007 when the IPCC reports came out

...the world climate reports...Okay. In your book you write that the political system, Green Party included, is failing to represent the new climate-awareness of large swathes of society. But why is this?

: Through our various activities and contact with universities, people in the solar industry, social movements and among our wider circle of acquaintances, we are getting to know a lot of hugely competent people who are really making changes and making things happen in their various fields, but who would never consider voting for the Greens. This is might be not be very political but it should stir the grey cells of the green establishment.

As a democrat should you just not accept that the parties, as they really exist in the Bundesrepublik, are unable to secure a majority for making politics greener?

: Only if they stay trapped in the old political mindset and coalition games. Because unlike in the early days of the Greens, sustainability as an idea and concept has gained a foothold right across society, and you will find that a significant number of citizens would prefer to vote for a chancellor who would fight for sustainable industry and for a breakthrough at the climate talks in Copenhagen – what else could we want? And why is the taz so hung up on the parties anyway?

HW:It's a mystery to me, too. The parties have had no new ideas since the fall of the Wall 20 years ago, and this applies right across the board. They simulate politics for a society which no longer exists. As we see it, democracy is under pressure on two fronts – now that the West has slipped from the centre of global society, and with the internal process of erosion which is manifested in the shrinking voter numbers, the waning endorsement of democracy and so on and so forth. This is why we need a re-politicisation of civil society and a new extra-parliamentary opposition.

Taking that hope seriously for a moment: Will this new extra-parliamentary eco-movement recruit its agents, or cadres from the educated middle classes?

HW: We have not really been thinking in terms of cadre organisation. But actually there is a real need in some areas to used to old metaphors and protest forms. How many times can you say that it's five minutes to midnight, or that the planet has a fever or that we're borrowing the earth from our children? Out-of date thoughts and strategies are no use to us in the current situation, we need new ones. And that is why an extra-parliamentary opposition (APO) needs the elites on board the second time round.

Did you just say elites?

HW: From where they are sitting, they have the most room for manoeuvre and the best opportunity to steer debate and make other choices. And since we're on the subject, I'd just like to say that many of the actors from today's educated middle classes do not stem from the traditional bourgeoisie – as a result Willy Brandt's policy on education. This is why in this post-68 generation there is huge potential for politicisation.

: There are agents of change at all levels of society, and the challenge it to convince the people in Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg, Essen-Altenessen or in Emden (where unemployment levels are high), to believe in themselves.

But is this democratic, if the people don't want it?

: Who says they don't want it? I see a worldwide shift towards to state-imposed ecology, the Chinese central committee has just demonstrated how to administer the Green Deal from above. People who haven't read the book or didn't want to understand it have even accused me of endorsing eco-dictatorship, among them some so-called "climate sceptics", who must be among the most ignorant and irresponsible people around. The opposite is the case: I have great faith in the ability of democratic societies to regenerate themselves from the bottom up.

You both emphasise that you are not asking people to make sacrifices. Yet many people associate the Greens and their essayists with sacrifice and abstinence – and they imagine that only people who have everything would suggest that other people should make sacrifices. How would you counter such accusations?

: By pointing out that the status quo demands that we make all kinds of sacrifices but that no one every talks about it.

Feel free!

: Those beautiful asphalt landscapes. That glorious noise pollution from aeroplanes. Those spectacular diseases of civilisation. And then they all cry "Sacrifice! Sacrifice!" if you make any suggestions for changing the way things are or encourage the people to get off their backsides!

The suggestions you make for transforming society are like labours of Hercules. Can you really expect this of our citizens?

:Certainly not without civil society. A lot of people believe in the combination of subsidised heavy industry, draconian EU regulations and national laws, and then they wonder at the ridiculous outbursts of civil disobedience when the EU changes the light bulbs. This is what happens when sustainability is enforced top down, without using the intelligence of the masses.

: It's a myth that cultural change is painfully slow and arduous. You only have to look at how styles of child rearing have changed in this country in the last 20 years. Or look at the sense of irony, which didn't exist for the first 40 years after the war. If changes are perceived as a good thing, they can happen very quickly. Which is why in ten years there will be no more SUVs in our city centres.

Can you sympathise with the many voters whose primary concern is the threat to their savings or their jobs?

HW: Not everyone has the same room for manoeuvre, and in a society with severe social inequality, it is completely rational for those in the lower income bracket to be more concerned about making a living. I fully understand that someone on the bottom of our society doesn't give a damn about climate change.

What do you say to people who say that as a successful person, it's easy for you to talk about making fundamental changes?

: I'd say that they are right to some extent. But we are not pretending to know all the answers, we are being very open about when we hit up against our own limits, when we fall back on old habits, or when we are simply at a loss.

Can you give me an example?

: Like taking "the odd" plane, every now and then, or "the odd" cab ride. But then I think it would be completely misguided to tell myself and everyone else to become climate monks overnight and to do penance for sinning. Firstly, if you live in a modern society, you have to meet the demands of so many different roles. In other words life is contradictory. Then you have to appreciate that the outside world is not only full of material infrastructures like streets and airports, but that these material infrastructures have also influenced our mental infrastructures. Oiloholic societies, by which I mean societies that are shaped by oil, create certain ways of thinking and it's really not very easy to think outside the box. Just try and imagine a world without oil. I recently ran though in my mind how much mopeds and cars have shaped my life, what an emotional role they have played, how these machines have inscribed themselves into my mental infrastructure. After thinking about all this for a while, I realised that I myself am the problem that has to be solved if we want to bring about successful cultural change.

A most useful insight?

HW: It's easier said than done. The problem is that cultural experience is written into the habitus.

What makes you both worry about "the end of the world"?

CL: It's mostly our children, to whom the book is dedicated. Then it's the satisfaction of working towards a potentially new era. Love of the human race. And last but not least, the desire for new topics of research.

: In recent years we have attracted a regular stream of abuse and ridicule from our oh-so-brilliant colleagues whenever we said that we wanted to change the world. But we do, and to this day, I can't see why that is any worse than writing the seven-hundredth essay about Freud's esoteric theory or Luhmann's glass bead game. We think it's good to think for yourself.


Harald Welzer (b.1958) is a professor of social psychology at University Witten-Herdecke and runs the research gourp on "Memory and Remembrance" at Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen. His lastest book "Klimakriege" (climate wars) was published in 2008.

Claus Leggewie (b.1950) is director of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen and a member of the Wissenschaftlichen Beirats der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen (German Advisory Council on Climate Change). His most recent publication is "Ein Ort, an den man gerne geht. Das Holocaust-Mahnmal und die deutsche Geschichtspolitik nach 1989" [A nice place to go. The Holocaust memorial and German politics of history after 1989] (Carl Hanser Verlag 2005). Leggewie is also a member of the the scientific advisory council for Attac

Read an essay by Claus Leggewie and Harald Welzer "Can democracies deal with climate change?" Deutschland - but he also critical of their democratic deficits and internal contradictions.

This article originally appeared in German in the taz on September 19, 2009

Jan Feddersen (b.1957) is a writer for the sonntaz

Translation: lp

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