One of my long-time companions, Helge Wendenburg, is retiring. Most recently, he was the director of the Department of Water Resource Protection at the German Federal Environment Ministry. His deputies organised a wonderful symposium in his honour in early February. It was a wonderful event in general because the agenda featured many pressing issues of the present. But it was also wonderful for me personally because I met a number of people who have supported me in my various political offices.
No more free-flowing rivers
The symposium was entitled “Implementation of the sustainability goals in Germany”, and once more it made clear how and where exactly this effort is hampered. Georg Rast of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for example, drew the attention of the audience to naturally flowing waters in Germany. Only one-third of all rivers in the world remained free flowing, he said. In Europe, not a single free-flowing river was left – on average there was a transept every two kilometres hindering the permeability to water organisms. These, for example, can be small dams on historic mills or major hydroelectric power plants and bridges. These structures significantly affect biodiversity and life on the edges of the rivers. “One third of all species lives in or by rivers,” the speaker said. “This means that these regions are our rainforests.”
As an explicitly positive example of how the harmful influence of power plants on the river Elbe can be reduced Rast cited the fish ladder at the Geesthacht pump storage plant, which was built a few years ago after decades in which the turbines killed countless fish. However, he added, the large-scale installation was built, among others, for sturgeon, a species that can reach a body length of up to three metres, but which is already extinct in Europe.
Conflicting objectives in sustainable behaviour
The scientist and politician Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker raised an uncomfortable topic, namely the conflicting objectives in sustainable behavior. The United Nations Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) would “partly gloss over” these trade-offs, he said. But how can poverty be eliminated without driving up the use of resources? More wealth, he said, still went hand in hand with higher consumption. Simply regarding resource efficiency as sustainable behaviour led to ever larger rebound effects, von Weizsäcker said. His example: In the 1990s, only police cars had mobile phones. At first they weighed ten kilograms. Now they only weigh a few hundred grams, there are tens of millions of them in Germany alone. As a result rare earths and other nonferrous metals are lost forever because the phones weren’t designed with recyclability in mind.
I can also contribute numerous examples as proof: a town in the Lueneburg Heath area of Germany has equipped its street lights with economical LED technology, and then extended their lighting hours. In this case there’s a conflict between efficiency on the one hand and the safety of citizens as a social component of sustainability on the other. Household appliances are becoming more and more energy efficient, but at the same time people buy ever more electrical appliances.
A new definition of prosperity
For von Weizsäcker the conclusion was obvious: prosperity must be disconnected from resource consumption and needs to be redefined. We share this idea: to implement it, sharing and service concepts are important (use instead of ownership), but we also have to redefine what constitutes good design. In any case a comprehensive recycling economy is required that is coupled with materials and designs that can be well integrated into cycles. But will we be able to take this approach and keep up with the markets, where too many designers and companies focus too little on circular economy concepts? It will remain a struggle.
In any case, von Weizsäcker is wary of a scenario in which everyone manufactures their own supplies on 3D printers in their homes. In Germany alone there are around 20 million households, every single one of which would have to stock up on the necessary raw materials. How is that supposed to be compatible with resource protection, resource efficiency and the Sustainable Development Goals? For me the highlight of the evening was Helge Wendenburg himself: he praised the Cradle to Cradle concept in his speech. This gives me hope that politicians will make prudent use of their ability to change the course. My only hope now is that Wendenburg will be able to convince everyone in his department of the approach including his successor before his last day of work at the the Ministry!