Kategorie-Archiv: ENGLISH ARTICLES

„Trees wouldn’t vote for Trump…“ (A review of the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair)

By Monika Griefahn

„Trees wouldn’t vote for Trump…“ – that’s how the forester and author Peter Wohlleben summarised his view on the current political landscape. Trees, he says, know that they can only survive as part of a group. And he has further memorable statements:

„When men go into the forest, they usually take a chainsaw with them. Women are more sensitive.“

„Environmental protection is mainly human protection. The planet would easily regenerate if mankind caused its own extinction.“

In his very entertaining manner Peter Wohlleben, author of books such as „The Secret Life of Trees“, „The Mental Life of Animals“ or „Nature’s Secret Network“, spoke about his work as a forester. He has established a Forest Academy in order to teach as many people as possible about the ecology of forests. Because you only protect what you know about.

Wohlleben was just one of many authors who made this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair a worthwhile event. The French pavilion, which featured great design, demonstrated that literature can achieve anything. The audio-visual areas of the fair let visitors not only read but also listen to poetry.

The Kosmos publishing house presented beautifully designed children’s books that are made to Cradle to Cradle specifications, including such wonderful titles as „Does the Lion have to go to the Hairdresser?“ or „Animals in the Night“. Renate Michel at the Kosmos booth told me excitedly that the Cradle to Cradle info flyers had already gone out of stock on Saturday morning and that the response had been very positive.

The authors Christiane Grefe and Susanne Mayer discussed with Nils Minkmar, an editor at Der Spiegel magazine, about the book „Democracy on the Line – What do we do?“ In particular, I was pleased to hear Grefe’s plea to get involved in politics. Because democracy is something that must be continuously re-achieved over and over again through hard work. The proceeds from the book will be donated to Reporters without Borders, a truly important organization at a time when journalists are being arrested or even murdered in many countries! Only recently the journalist Caruana Galizia was murdered in Malta, which after all is a member state of the European Union.

The politician and scientist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and the member of the German parliament Matthias Miersch held an engaging and exciting debate about the new report from the Club of Rome „It’s Our Turn“. In 1972 the Club of Rome published its report „The Limits to Growth“ which forecast the collapse of the systems. Although its predictions were not far off the mark  the Club of Rome today is slightly more optimistic. There must be change, but commitment is easier when one still believes that something can be changed.

I also found a lot of reading suggestions and tips at the fair. The overall highlight of course was the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Margaret Atwood. Eva Manasse excellently analyzed the „precision of the knife-thrower“ as she called it in her laudatory speech.

Cradle to Cradle Congress calls for a world without waste

Press release / Photo: Max Arens

Stop whining – let’s change the world!

We often remember negative news more clearly than we do positive, as the philosopher and writer Dr. Michael Schmidt-Salomon emphasised during the fourth Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Congress, which took place on October 20 & 21, 2017 at the Leuphana University in Lueneburg (Germany). However, 800 participants in attendance served as a poignant illustration of the fact that the positive message contained within the C2C design concept is being met with great enthusiasm: we can change the world with a positive footprint and break the mold of classic models of sustainable thinking. „100 years from now, people will be more intelligent. They won’t even realize that production methods without C2C ever existed“, Schmidt-Salomon said. The prospect of a true circular economy that is based on the principles of C2C and that is able to combine environmental protection and the economy took centre stage in numerous real-world examples presented at the international C2C Congress, organized by Cradle to Cradle e.V.

At a time when resources are becoming increasingly scarce, C2C offers an innovation-oriented approach: from the outset products are developed and designed so that their raw materials can be easily recycled back into circuits. Renowned actors from the fields of fashion, plastics, organic farming, printing as well as this year’s spotlight subject, construction and architecture, discussed C2C as a driver of innovation in a variety of formats. It became clear that it takes visionaries and C2C enthusiasts who develop alternative proposals to existing products, production processes and management methods. Erwin Thoma, CEO of wood specialist Thoma Holz, stressed that in order to retain sufficient wood a house must be made into another house once it reaches the end of its useful life. If it was simply demolished and disposed of important raw materials would be lost. The Congress also formulated concrete political demands: for example, the public tender system in the construction sector should be replaced with a model in which the successful bid does not necessarily have to be the cheapest one.

The example of the company Dopper was a reminder that innovation can also be successfully applied in the field of plastics and that holistic solutions are needed. However, in order to achieve comprehensive change politics, the economy and consumers must act in unison.

Tim Janßen, CEO of C2C e.V., drew a very positive conclusion: „The Congress was a great success. The large number of participants as well as international actors such as Dr. Leyla Acaroglu, Lewis Perkins and Ken Webster show that the C2C Congress is being received with great interest and that it is the world’s largest C2C platform.“

Nora Sophie Griefahn, CEO of C2C e.V., also looked back positively on the event and is already looking forward to next year’s Congress: „Thanks to the 800 participants and actors such as Prince Carlos de Bourbon de Parme, Andreas Engelhardt and Dr. Michael Schmidt-Salomon the Congress was filled with life and demonstrated how C2C affects many different sectors of society.“

Info box
Cradle to Cradle
The Cradle to Cradle design concept models itself on the natural world, which knows no waste. Every product can be recycled if it is designed in such a way from the outset. A compostable t-shirt or a desk chair completely built from recyclable raw materials can circulate perpetually in biological and technological cycles. The aim of Cradle to Cradle e.V. is to establish the concept in the public sphere through education, networking and public relations.

Circular Economy – will the EU achieve a major coup?

By Monika Griefahn / Photos: Land Oberösterreich
Turning waste into nutrients: the European Union’s new Circular Economy Package could become a resounding success – or at least the biggest we’ve had yet when it comes to the question of what to do with our garbage.

The reason: an acknowledgement that the recyclability of a product can be improved from the outset with the help of good design appears to be a part of the package, which is currently being considered by various European institutions. Another aspect that appears in the package is the idea that manufacturers should take more responsibility for their products – for example in the form of being involved in the disposal costs. Moreover, the waste hierarchy „prevention before reuse before recycling before energy recovery before disposal“ is not being challenged by the package. Should this indeed be implemented it would be almost historic. It would mean that important aspects of the Cradle to Cradle concept were finally put into law.

However, the countries in Europe are still worlds apart in terms of waste management. This became clear at the recent Upper Austrian Environmental Conference in Linz, which I attended as a speaker. As an example, let’s take a look at the landfilling of municipal waste, for which a reduction target of ten per cent has been set. In 2011, only six EU member states deposited less than 3 per cent. 18 states deposited over 50 per cent and some even more than 90 per cent. Upper Austria on the other hand was at one per cent, county commissioner Rudi Anschober reported at the event. So the EU package will surely have to resemble some form of compromise in which some countries exceed the provisions from the beginning. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it means that in some countries the necessary structures are already in place and will therefore be used. For other countries, it remains a goal yet to be achieved.

At the congress in Linz I was pleased to learn about the many new ideas and structures that are being tried out in order to reduce waste and conserve resources: Repair cafés, sewing workshops, second-hand sales, recycling of building materials. But we must think even harder about the question of how raw materials of high quality can be retained within cycles. Ideally we must arrive at a point where materials can be used over long periods of time without deprecation in quality, even after being recycled countless times. In this regard the Cradle to Cradle approach with its strict separation of technical and biological cycles still offers the best approach: starting out with the product development and design phases.

Moreover, the Cradle to Cradle service concept holds manufacturers responsible in a more consistent manner: no longer should they market washing machines, but wash loads. Not televisions but hours of viewing. A manufacturer of a device will only have a real incentive to think about what steps he can take after its useful life ends if he retains ownership at all times.

A number of great practical examples were provided by Reinhard Backhausen (who has already implemented the C2C principle with his interior fabrics, and who today advises many companies on how to approach a conversion). Equally impressive was the founder of „Goddess of Happiness,“ Lisa Muhr, who, in her fashion company addresses both social and ecological issues. It was gratifying to see that a total of 260 people, including two school classes, showed interest in the conference. Upper Austria is far ahead of many others, it seems.

What is the EU Circular Economy Package?

  • It intends to summarise existing EU directives: the EU Waste Framework Directive, the EU Landfill Directive, the EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste, the EU End of Life Vehicles Directive, the EU Battery Directive and the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive
  • It’s a plan of action for the circular economy which lists further actions to be implemented by the EU on the path towards a resource-saving circular economy
  • It formulates a waste hierarchy: prevention before reuse before recycling before energy recovery before disposal
  • It aims to implement higher recycling rates, strict quotas for untreated waste (but not a complete ban on landfill), strict guidelines for the separate collection of waste as well as an improved eco-design of products and incentives for manufacturers to use more secondary raw materials (i.e. recycled materials) in their products
  • The aim is a conclusion of negotiations by the end of 2017

Right Livelihood Awards Honour Inspiring Changemakers and Champions of Justice

Press release

The Laureates of this year’s Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, have been announced lately in Stockholm, Sweden:

This year’s honorary award goes to Robert Bilott (USA, photo: Taft-Stettinius-Hollister) “for exposing a decades-long history of chemical pollution, winning long-sought justice for the victims, and setting a precedent for effective regulation on hazardous substances.”

Bilott commented: “I hope that this honour helps spread awareness and recognition of the urgent need to take further steps to protect our drinking water, and the ability and power of local residents and communities to ensure that such steps are taken.”

The cash award of SEK 3 million is shared equally by three Laureates:

Colin Gonsalves (India) is honoured by the Jury “for his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India’s most marginalised and vulnerable citizens.”

Gonsalves commented: “I am both humbled and privileged by the Award. It comes at a time when India is going through a dark period and human rights activists are under siege.  The platform the Foundation provides will help us strengthen democratic resistance at this critical stage.”

Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan) receives the Award “for her courage and tenacity in exposing corruption at the highest levels of government through outstanding investigative journalism in the name of transparency and accountability”. It is the first time that a Right Livelihood Award goes to a Laureate from Azerbaijan.

Ismayilova commented: “It is an honour for me to be chosen for such a prestigious award. I happily accept the award on behalf of all journalists and human rights defenders of my country, who continue to work despite difficult conditions.”

Yetnebersh Nigussie (Ethiopia, photo: Light for the World) is recognised by the Jury “for her inspiring work promoting the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities, allowing them to realise their full potential and changing mindsets in our societies”.

Nigussie commented: “It is an absolute honour to receive the prestigious Right Livelihood Award. The recognition provides welcome fuel to the disability and development community’s ongoing call for inclusion and full participation of people with disabilities in all spheres of life.”

The announcement was made at the International Press Centre at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs by Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, and Maina Kiai, Jury member and former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, following the decision by an international Jury that considered 102 nominations from 51 countries.

Ole von Uexkull commented: “This year’s Laureates protect the rights and lives of citizens across three continents.  With their courageous work for human rights, public health and good governance, they tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges at their very core. At a time of alarming setbacks for democracy, their successes show us the way forward towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world for all.”

Established in 1980, the Right Livelihood Award honours and supports courageous people and organisations offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems. Today, there are 170 Laureates from 69 countries.

New consensus after a long debate: „Computer games are a cultural asset“

By Monika Griefahn

Monika Griefahn in 2015 at the award ceremony of the German „Computerspielpreis“. Photo (archives): Franziska Krug/Getty Images for Quinke Networks)

Just ahead of the recent general elections the German Cultural Council issued a gratifying news release: „The Chancellor and the Secretaries-General of the CDU, SPD, Greens, the Left and the FDP consider computer games to be a cultural asset“, it announced. For a long time that was far from self-evident. As little as ten to 15 years ago efforts to broaden the cultural concept to include computer games were met with unconcealed resistance.

As a member of the Bundestag back then I and other members of parliament worked hard to establish the view that beyond the so-called shooters there are plenty of other, more valuable games. At the time public acceptance of this opinion was anything but universal. Nowadays the market for educational games, strategy and skills games is enormous. Basically, any activity on a mobile phone resembles a small computer game today – nobody would assume that this could be harmful somehow. Finally this year at Gamescom, the German trade fair for digital games, Chancellor Angela Merkel said something that many of us had already recognised ten years before: digital games can foster skills such as speed and logical thinking. Moreover, Angela Merkel said computer games were „a cultural asset“ and „of paramount importance as a driver of innovation as well as an economic factor.“ She added that around 500 companies with approximately 29,000 employees were active in the industry in Germany and that they had generated sales of over one billion Euros in the first half of 2017.

Only ten years ago we had to struggle to establish such a favourable perspective on the industry. The discussion among the German public back then was almost exclusively focused on the influence violent games may have on real-life perpetrators of violence. A conversation about potential positive aspects of digital games simply didn’t take place. The head of the German Cultural Council, Olaf Zimmermann, provoked public outrage when he wrote: „The debate about violence in computer games should not be exaggerated. Provided they remain within the law, adults should have the right to look at tastelessness and trash, or to play the equivalent games. Freedom of expression and artistic freedom are among the basic legal principles that have been enshrined in the constitution. Artistic freedom is not dependent on the quality of the work. Artistic freedom also applies to computer games.“ Not only did Zimmermann offer his protection to games developers with these words, he also put them on the same level as artists. If someone is able to create a virtual world and if he has sufficient imagination to convert it into a playable computer game, then what are they if not an artist?

As parliamentarians we tried to change the debate around computer games and to open the eyes of the public to all the positive aspects of the games industry. An important step was the creation of the German Computer Games Awards, which we launched in co-operation with the digital industry. However, until the present day the German Taxpayers Federation considers any federal funding in the sector to be a waste of money. It should ask itself where the industry in Germany – and its billions of Euros in sales – would be today if we still had to engage in the debates we had a decade ago. Moreover, the award has helped to establish the Foundation for Digital Games Culture that I helped set up and on whose advisory board I served for a number of years.

So, I am glad that the view of computer games as a cultural asset is increasingly being met with affirmation across all fractions today. Once again it shows that persistent commitment pays off and that meaningful change requires staying power.

A greener future for Kazakhstan?

By Monika Griefahn

Kazakhstan hasn’t been a major focus of attention for many people across Europe. Can the EXPO that took place in Astana recently change that?

Yes, Europeans may have heard about Kazakhstan’s long-time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as well as the country’s political centralism. But have people across the continent also been paying attention to the EXPO 2017 that took place recently in Astana, the newly built capital in the middle of nowhere? (A city, incidentally, that doesn’t seem very environmentally friendly with its many motorways and its concrete high-rises equipped with air conditioners instead of windows.)

And in any case: what do we know about the people of Kazakhstan, apart from the fact that they have a lot of precious resources that all the world is interested in? Yet the country has a lot of interesting facets: its president, for instance, is attempting to position himself in a somewhat „neutral“ position between Russia and the other Asian powers. Young people grow up learning three different languages: Kazakh, Russian and English. The president attaches a lot of importance to the education of the country’s youth and staunchly supports the co-operation with the European Erasmus program. It provides young Kazakhs with the opportunity of attending a European university for a semester. Moreover, many people in Kazakhstan, even the younger ones, are a little worried about what might come after Nazarbayev, a man who, after all, has been in power for 26 years and is well into his 70s.

Now the country is staking new claims by hosting the EXPO 2017 Future Energy Forum, which is all about „green“ themes: the Kazakh pavilion showcased an exhibition of all forms of renewable energy, from wind, water and solar to geothermal power and biomass. (Interestingly, nuclear power is absent although it is also considered a form of renewable energy in Kazakhstan). Among the countless other pavilions there was also one featuring „best practices worldwide“ as well as an interactive German one that has been very well frequented. A lively cultural program completed the show and attracted visitors to the EXPO campus. It includes the popular DJ David Guetta, who brought out many young families with his trademark mix of electronic beats and pop music.

In addition the EXPO organisers had initiated a series of twelve conferences featuring international experts to look at topics including „energy for all“, „renewable energies and quality of life“, „technologies for de-carbonisation“ or even „international business and environmental policies“.

Those topics are no coincidence. After all, Kazakhstan has pledged to meet half of its energy demand from renewables by the year 2050. This in the face of unusual challenges – for example, it is hard to imagine that electric cars will become very popular in a region with temperatures ranging from minus 40 degrees centigrade in the wintertime to plus 40 degrees in the summer. Just think of how quickly batteries deplete in extreme temperature conditions.

I was invited to speak at one of the conferences. The idea that turned out to be the most popular – and that was even taken on by Kazakhstan’s biggest construction company for further investigation – was the concept of renting solar panels instead of buying them.

So far the solar revolution seems to stagnate because the necessary systems are too pricey for most people. With an average monthly income of the middle class – teachers, doctors and engineers – of roughly 500 US dollars the initial investment necessary for a solar energy plant is prohibitively expensive. The idea that an investor builds the systems and then rents them out is of course based on the Cradle to Cradle world of ideas and is intended to ensure that

–    the best materials are used
–    the systems do indeed last as long as the manufacturers promise
–    the raw materials can be re-purposed

After all, if the panels are returned to the manufacturers after the lease has ended, they themselves have a vested interest in using only the best materials.

A further discussion panel focused on the role that NGOs play in attempting to change politics and society. There are a number of NGOs active in Kazakhstan, and some of them have been very successful. One of the best-known groups is probably Nevada-Semipalatinsk, which brought an end to nuclear weapons testing in Semipalatinsk. However, the discussion was rendered a little theoretical by the fact that no NGOs were in attendance at the conference.

What I personally took away from my trip was the realisation that Kazakh people, and especially Kazakh women, are very inquisitive, open-minded, well educated and friendly and that they have a genuine interest in positively shaping the future. I am curious to see how the political situation will develop. Already the president’s daughter has called for the transformation of the presidential democracy into a parliamentary one.

Private or public – how should international aid be organised?

By Monika Griefahn / Picture: Mercy Ships

The Africa Mercy as the sun sets over the port of Cotonou, Benin 2017.

The main headlines about the G20 summit in the German city of Hamburg in June were about the heavy and destructive violence that was perpetrated by protesters. The fact that actual political agreements were made under the protection of a substantial security operation largely fell by the wayside. All the more reason to focus on what was actually achieved.

One example is Africa: in order to reduce social inequalities and differences in standards of living around the world the G20 member states founded an Africa partnership with the aim of enabling „sustainable and inclusive economic growth“ on the continent. The initiative is especially keen on creating humane income opportunities for women and young people. At the same time the group wants to combat poverty and inequality as the main causes behind migration. The final communiqué made reference to a „partnership at eye level“ as well as the private sector, improved opportunities for investments, sustainable infrastructure and even support in the educational sector.

So the discussion is focusing more or less on economic topics – and if one believes that investments and support for private enterprises does indeed contribute to wealth creation, that may be understandable. However, experience teaches that too often only few people benefit. The hope remains that the „sustainable economic growth“ mentioned in the final communiqué actually does refer to a form of growth that’s ecologically sound while at the same time respecting social issues such as fair wages, humane working hours and employee participation.

One issue that the final document does not mention at all is healthcare. In many African countries the provision of medical services to the population is generally of a comparably low standard – apparently the G20 intends to leave this aspect to NGOs, charities and volunteers. We can bemoan that fact, or we can act ourselves.

One project that I find remarkable in this context is Mercy Ships, an NGO that aims to improve access to basic medical care in developing countries. The Africa Mercy is a non-military hospital ship. The entire crew of over 400 people consists of volunteers. Doctors and dentists aboard the ship are able to help in emergency situations. They are also able to perform surgical procedures that aren’t available locally in the country where the ship is moored. An additional important aspect is the fact that the crew takes on volunteers with other qualifications – recently, a nautical engineer from the Costa cruise group joined up. The NGO also co-operates with government agencies in order to improve local medical systems. All this work depends on donations.

What both kinds of development aid – private as well as public – should feature in practice is the approach at eye’s level. I suppose that many developmental measures have failed in the past because they didn’t take into account local cultures, special traditions or specific behaviours. If there’s one thing we should have learned during decades of international development aid it should be to not repeat those mistakes. Every culture requires its own individual approach.

More Information about Mercy Ships

Final communiqué of the G20 summit

Study: can conservation and the energy transition co-exist?

By Petra Reinken

Windräder an der Nordseeküste
Here’s the good news: yes, we can! Christina von Haaren of the Institute of Environmental Planning at the University of Hanover and her team are currently preparing a study for the Federal Ministry of the Environment in Germany to find out whether Germany can achieve its energy transition by 2050 in a fashion that is environmentally sound. The key question is whether the goals of the electricity revolution in Germany and the principles of environmental protection can be streamlined. And indeed: shortly before the completion of the research scientists say that yes, it is possible.

However, Fritz Brickwedde from the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE), sitting next to von Haaren during the recent presentation of the study’s preliminary results in Berlin, shook his head. Germany had long lost its status as a trailblazer in the field of renewable energies, the former secretary general of the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) said. „We are missing our goals every day because we have the wrong tax incentives.“ As an example Brickwedde cited a tax incentive the Federal government has created for oil-fired heating systems, saying: „When it comes to the energy transition, we are acting counterproductively and inconsistently.“

The general reaction from the podium to Brickwedde’s arguments was that the regulatory framework could after all be changed. Christina von Haaren for one wasn’t ready to have her optimism taken away from her. Her study features three scenarios under which Germany’s electricity needs can be fully covered through renewable energy sources by the year 2050 without any harm to the environment. What’s remarkable: all three scenarios in the study are based on the assumption that solar energy will make up significantly more than half of Germany’s future electricity mix and that all eligible roofs in residential areas will feature photovoltaic cells. Land-based wind energy would become the other main pillar of the energy transition – depending on the scenario it would cover between 19 and 32 per cent of Germany’s electricity needs. However, von Haaren does acknowledge that “political frameworks and a social awakening are necessary in order to make the energy transition sustainable and achievable by 2050.”

The largest portion of the discussion between the five panellists focused on the topic of wind energy, and specifically on the availability of eligible space and distance rules. The important issue of “power to gas”, which relates to the storing of excess wind energy was not addressed even though the technology could make the construction of further long distance electricity links obsolete.

Another issue that wasn’t mentioned was the question of why high energy savings are being factored into many projections regardless of the fact that in the past expected savings have almost always been neutralised by rebound effects and the introduction of new energy intensive equipment. Furthermore, nobody challenged the twice-mentioned sentiment that the energy transition in the automotive world was almost entirely unconnected to environmental issues. In reality, an electric car requires just as much traffic space as a conventional car does – every bridge and every bypass road has a negative impact on nature.

But maybe in the end it’s simply about this clear statement: yes, we can! If that is the case then what are we waiting for?

An abriged version of the preliminary study results in German is available here.

Emotion Award – A Prize for women who inspire

By Monika Griefahn  (photographs: Franziska Krug/Getty Images for Emotion.award)

Dr. Alexandra Widmer? Heike Langguth? Annette Pascoe? None of them are names necessarily known to everyone. And yet all of these women have recently received the Emotion Award in Germany. It’s an award that recognised women who inspire others. For instance, the category „Women in Leadership“ is given to women who „promote a special corporate culture and redefine employee development as well as to women who managed to made a name for themselves in a male domain, thereby paving the way for other women.“ In general, any female company director is eligible, and it is for this reason that I am especially happy for the lesser known laureates. For the award means that they are being creative and achieve a lot in their respective areas of responsibility without being the subject of much publicity.

However, the special award was given to a woman whose name has been known for decades in German politics: Rita Süssmuth. I worked with her for years in the Interparliamentary Union and therefore I know that she has always lobbied for equality. In her party, the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she fought for a women’s quota, which for the longest time must have been a rather frustrating debate within the party. In the 1980s she was the Federal Minister for Family Affairs and the President of the Bundestag for ten years. Now she is 80 years old and she is as committed as ever.

And there is another beautiful aspect to the award: while it’s all about women it’s not a purely female event. Around one fifth of the audience consisted of men, and men also were part of the jury deciding whom to honour with the awards. The presenters of the awards included GErman television personalies Johannes B. Kerner and Jörg Thadeusz. It’s great because it illustrates that more and more men are ready to honour the lifetime achievements of women and that individual and strong women’s biographies are becoming more and more mainstream. The fact that the magazine „emotion“ is keeping women’s issues at the forefront of the public debate, even though it currently may not be in very great demand, is very important.

Apart from the „Women in Leadership“ category – which, among others, was given to Heike Langguth, director of the riot police of the federal state of Thuringia – the Emotion Award is also awarded in the categories „Social Values“, „Special Team Award Hand in Hand“, „Entrepreneurs/Founders“, „Woman of the Hour“ and „Lifetime Achievement“ (Rita Süssmuth). It’s a worthwhile endeavour to read up on the 19 laureates, which anyone can do on the Emotion Award’s web site (in German).

Utopian ideas and clear outlines against political disillusionment

By Monika Griefahn

Already, the campaign for this year’s parliamentary elections in Germany is looming. In order to inspire citizens, and especially young people, to get involved with politics (again) the Friedrich Ebert foundation and our local Member of Parliament, Svenja Stadler from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), decided to organize an alternative talk show. The subject: “Talking to each other instead of complaining about one another – an alternative talk show on political disillusionment.“

Both the headline and the question of what exactly would be alternative about the event made me curious, so I decided to attend. The concept, as it turned out, was similar to that of the popular German television chat show “Hard But Fair”. The discussion, in the northern German town of Buchholz, was streamed live to the Internet, with viewers being able to contribute to the debate. However, the interconnection between the actual live debate and the online chat didn’t work out very well – the high number of verbal contributions on stage almost drowned out the live chat, all but turning the two into separate events.

Nevertheless, the discussion itself proved informative: Dr Matthias Micus of the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research took the disillusionment of many citizens with politics, parties or politicians seriously. The dynamic, he said, had hollowed out the political parties as the most important pillar of the political system in Germany. As a result fewer and fewer eligible voters decided to lend their electoral support to the major people’s parties.

“Participation”, Micus said, “depends on interest, which in turn depends on the perceived effectiveness of one’s own actions.” Whenever people lost the belief that they could change or influence things, he added, participation waned. Although the overall level of voluntary engagement was on the rise, those who had already been sidelined could no longer be reached, even through new and unconventional instruments of participation. The resulting gap, Micus warned, was widening. On those occasions where people did end their personal passivity and were politically reactivated, they tended to do so in a pessimistic and distrustful manner. Micus then formulated a demand: “The established forces must better defend the political parties because they are filters against populism.”

In order to inspire people to become invested in politics again, Micus believes, political parties have to reach out to them and initially kindle their interest with non-political offerings and without any self-interest, thereby lowering psychological barriers. This, he said, could eventually pave the way towards more political engagement. At the same time Micus called on the major people’s parties to offer more utopias and visions: “Mobilisation is a result of clear political profiles and distinctiveness.”

So, how disillusioned is the population with regard to politics? The youngest member of the panel, Sophie Röhse from Buchholz youth council, said: “I do believe that there’s an interest in politics. But although it is very relevant to young people, they don’t tend to feel represented.” Even if this is the case, it means that there must be young people who actively get involved – otherwise, who will represent young people?

Indeed some participants of the discussion were not perceived as much as they could have been and also didn’t take part much in the debate – which, after all, is exactly what we don’t want. Young Sophie Röhse for example was hardly included in the conversation, and local politician Martin Gerdau also didn’t get the opportunity to contribute much. As mentioned above, the online chat also didn’t figure very prominently, and didn’t remain accessible for later reference.

The idea of an alternative chat show is a good one, and the concept may indeed become highly participative. However, the actual realisation is something that requires some more work.