Prosperity eats climate conscience
How can we live environmentally conscious when consuming is made easier than ever? Time for politics to finally turn the decisive screw.
Actually, the results of the current environmental awareness study, which is published every two years by the Federal Environment Agency, are crystal clear: 64 percent of Germans see great challenges for society in 2019 in environmental and climate protection. 72 percent want environmental and climate protection to play a major role in energy policy. In agriculture, the figure is at least 68 percent. Only 14 percent of those surveyed come to the conclusion that the government is doing enough to protect the environment and climate.
The interviewees also give themselves a rather moderate report. Only 19 percent think that citizens are doing enough to protect the environment. In 2012, around half of the population was still satisfied with the climate action taken by the government and citizens. The perceived pressure to act has increased significantly.
But why is the mountain of rubbish also growing?
So you could say: "All right. Finally society has realized how dangerous climate change is!"
However, the results are in stark contradiction to another statistic from the Federal Environment Agency: At 18.72 million tons of waste, packaging consumption in 2017 was higher than ever before. The increase over the previous year is an impressive 561,000 tons. Around 320,000 tons of it in private households alone.
How can it be that the garbage mountain is growing parallel to environmental awareness? That society takes climate change and environmental pollution seriously as dangers, but still does not adjust its consumer behavior?
Whether people change their environmental behavior depends on the relationship between two factors: How motivated am I? And what does that cost me? The motivation to switch to the bike more often for the sake of the climate is offset by the behavioral costs: I might get sodden wet. And if I want to do without air travel for family vacations, that's good for my ecological footprint, but not necessarily for family peace. Of course, such considerations are not only found in environmentally conscious behavior. Anyone who always wanted to be dressed according to the latest trend used to have to travel to the next larger city and dig deep into their pockets. Thanks to online shopping, this has now become much faster, easier and cheaper.
Prosperity makes saying no much more difficult
This is no exception: For decades, prosperity has been intervening in favor of consumption in this fundamental conflict, says Florian Kaiser from the Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, who is working on a study on the environmental awareness of people for the Federal Environment Agency Germans has contributed. The we althier the people, the lower the behavioral costs of consumption: "That makes saying no much more difficult," says Kaiser. So we buy mobile phones, cars, air travel, climate-damaging meat and other things, also because we can simply afford them.
And once we get used to a standard of consumption, it's hard to fall back behind it. Anyone who buys a new car and can afford it is very likely to choose a model that is more comfortable than the old one. Perhaps this explains why SUVs and off-road vehicles recorded the greatest growth among new registrations in 2019. Or that the number of low-cost routes from Germany has now risen to record levels. Who would want to do without the annual vacation under the southern sun when it is also dirt cheap? In that sense, a full-blown economic crisis would be pretty good for the climate. On the other hand, it would not only inevitably change consumer behavior, but also further destabilize society as a whole.
In theory, politics has all the tools to steer our behavior in the right direction: "It could set the framework conditions in such a way that the behavioral costs for climate-damaging behavior increase significantly and those for climate-friendly behavior decrease significantly," says Kaiser. For example, it could invest in safe and fast bike lanes and punctual, uncrowded trains. It could also push through more expensive gas and airfares. But they don't do it, or only with slowed down enthusiasm: The climate package is still softened and a speed limit on German autobahns is still unthinkable.
The Green Voters' Cry for Help
The pressure to act just doesn't seem great enough for really drastic changes in climate policy. In the case of politicians, the favor of the voters is the top priority. Only then does the defense against possible threats come. That's less cynical than it sounds. Without a majority, a party in a democracy cannot push through stricter climate protection measures. If you are serious about fighting climate change, you can cycle more or eat less meat in your private life. But things will only change if the majority forces politicians to regulate more strictly.
It's not that far yet, but there is hope: more voters than ever before feel attracted to the Greens, even though the notorious ban party would significantly limit the consumption that their sympathizers indulge in. This ostensibly paradoxical behavior is a call for help to politicians, but please finally take responsibility and intervene to regulate, even if this entails personal disadvantages in the short term.
The fact that the mountains of rubbish are growing and consumption continues to rise is less evidence that the population does not want to change their behavior and more of a system that allows little change. Recognizing and changing this is a classic task of politics.