Monika Griefahn, Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages a. D.

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On this website you find information about my work as member of parliament (1998 - Oct. 2009)

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    15.10.2007

    The cultural dimension of environmentalism

    Talk delivered at Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA


    ++ check against delivery ++

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    ‘History shows us that nature has to be seen not only as a commodity but especially as enrichment for human culture. Rather than regarding nature as our enemy, something which has to be mastered and overcome, we should learn again how to cooperate with nature. Nature looks back on four-and-a-half billion years of experience. Ours is considerably shorter.’

    Here I’m quoting Hans-Peter Drr (*1929), the German physicist and Alternative Nobel Prize winner. I would like to base my talk on his creed, because in my opinion Hans-Peter Drr has put his finger on something that is crucial to the discussion on sustainability and environmental protection: it is a question of learning from one another and understanding the unfamiliar, the different, as enrichment. This is complemented by sensibly linking the themes of environment, environmental protection and sustainability with the idea of culture. In my presentation, I would like to expand these ideas in more detail.

    With this in mind, I have structured the talk as follows: to begin with I would like to provide an insight into concepts of environmental protection and sustainability, and then look into their connection with culture and cultural policy.

    Environmental protection and sustainability are not new themes, but they have gained increased public interest in recent years. Expectancies and interests are growing with the debate on climate changes - in the USA Al Gore’s film and now the Nobel Price play an important role in the discussion. The idea of sustainability is no longer the exclusive domain of international experts. Quite the opposite: it has become an internationally widespread catchword, now commonly used in politics, economics and the media. This goes hand-in-hand with a higher level of commitment by people who are increasingly concerning themselves with the protection of natural resources and sustainable development. This applies to Europe as well as here, across the Atlantic, in the USA, but unfortunately the cooperation is more with countries and companies than with the US government.

    In Europe, active environmental protection is back in fashion again. More and more people are willing to stand up for environmental issues in everyday life. Once again people are eating bio-foods and wearing bio-textiles and invest in solar panels to save energy and money. The German government has lanced a solar initiative to encourage investments on solar programs. I see this as a welcome trend, but I still warn against falling into the trap of the current media buzzword ‘ecologism’.

    Hardly a day passes in the media without a report or a programme about the effects of climate change and the resulting hazards for humans and the environment. This is a good thing, because it makes people think about what they can do for environmental protection as individuals. The downside is that themes, such as environmental protection and sustainability, are being instrumentalized by some of the players. Promising initiatives often turn out to be simply the actionist strategies of commercial or media enterprises. We saw this recently at the International Automobile Exhibition in Frankfurt am Main. Environmental protection played an unprecedented role at the world’s largest automobile trade fair. We have to be honest with ourselves: on the one hand, it’s good and welcome when the automobile industry develops economical cars, for instance with hybrid technology. On the other hand it’s hypocritical, when automobile companies simultaneously launch ‘gas guzzlers’ in the luxury or SUV range and lobby for more cars operated with bio diesel instead of developing efficient technologies as that destroys our rainforests! This can’t seriously be the great ecological change that the automobile sector has been touting so loudly in recent months.

    My impression is that too little attention is being paid to a very essential aspect in the discussion surrounding sustainability and environmental protection, namely the role of culture in environmental protection and sustainable development. You might ask yourselves: what do sustainability and environmental protection have to do with culture? And at first only a few common denominators may occur to you. But on a closer look we’ll find numerous common denominators, and even mutual dependencies.

    I go even further in saying: culture, environmental protection and sustainability are horizontal issues with mutual influences and dependencies. There can be no environmental protection without cultural knowledge, and no sustainable development without culture.

    Culture has a major influence on environmental protection and the definition of sustainability. Whenever we talk about the environment, environmental protection and sustainability, we automatically convey an image of our culture at the same time. And since cultures differ from country to country, environmental protection is lived and experienced in very different ways. Additionally, cultural development has made us creative to develop solutions!

    Let me give you an example. In Germany, environmental protection and sustainability are always associated with ecology. In other European countries, environmental protection and sustainability are seen as a development theme. People there think in cycles, whereas Germans tend to think more in linear structures. A good illustration of this is waste separation and the recycling issue.

    For years people laughed at the Germans with their four or five different waste containers which we use to carefully separate our unneeded paper, glass, plastic and organic waste. Translated into practical terms this means: I’m separating my waste, because I’m taking on responsibility for myself and my actions, and I’m considering nature as well. Nowadays this model can be found in many other European countries. So, cultural consciousness has modified towards a ‘culture of sustainability’ and reusing materials. In the States this idea is difficult to develop as people talk about virgin materials. Nobody wants to “reuse” other people’s waste. So recycling is unpopular.

    Environmental protection is different in the different cultures. It depends whether you have a Christian approach (human beings control the world) or the Indian/Aboriginal approach (human beings are part of the world). This concept has its roots in culture, because it reflects a cultural view of the world, nature and the relationships between humans and nature. Thus, the way we perceive nature is first and foremost a question of our culture. In our culture and especially in Western Europe, the wild and untamed aspect of nature scares people; on the other hand we are fascinated by nature’s great diversity. And this is the notion underlying the first environmental movements. They were intent on preserving natural wealth after becoming aware of its existence. And so, the founding of the first national parks in the 19th century, for instance, was a logical consequence of human culture and the desire to protect and preserve nature.

    In the United States, the poet and writer Henry David Thoreau has gone down in history as a pioneer of environmental protection ideas. You probably know of his work Walden, published in 1848. There he describes his idea of wilderness, of nature in its original, untouched state. For two years Thoreau lived in Walden Pond/Massachusetts and devoted his time entirely to nature. In his book Thoreau refers to a unity between man and nature which he gradually grew to value. He describes the harmony that people feel when they live with nature. To this day, Thoreau’s accounts form the bedrock in consciousness of the environment and nature in the USA.

    It will hardly surprise you that Thoreau’s writings about the cultural interplay between humans and nature won him not only friends but enemies as well. He met with harsh criticism, especially in political and economic circles. Today, the conflict between economic interests and environmentally friendly methods is still very much part of our lives. Even in those, days economic interests already enjoyed priority while natural resources were thoughtlessly exploited. Environmental protectionists, such as Thoreau, regarded the short-term commercial exploitation of nature as a long-term spiritual and cultural loss for humanity. He called for the careful handling of resources, rather than simply generating larger profits for the timber and oil industries. The concept of protecting forests in Europe and the idea of sustainability was build up in the 18th century. So, environmental protection is not a new idea dreamed up by fanatical activists who chain themselves to trees, join in sit-down demonstrations or, like myself in the early days, take to sea in Greenpeace boats to stop ships from dumping waste and toxic substances in the ocean. No, environmental protection is a fundamental feature of human culture.

    I would like to remind you what culture really means. Culture is the conscious contemplation of our basis of livelihood. From this perspective, it has nothing to do with the concept of art. Culture is a combination of our language, our rituals and customs, our beliefs - in other words: our weltanschauung. The cultural dimension of environmental protection is not a superficial idea. Culture is an indispensible medium for environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources. It is the more of human nature! We need to have the possibility to see that we are useful, that we can foresee our future instead of destroying it!

    This brings us to the next main point: the concept of sustainability. Today, when we think about culture and the environment, we automatically think about sustainability as well. That’s because a great deal revolves around this question, in both environmental protection and in culture. What use is environmental protection to us? What value does culture have for our descendents?

    Before I continue, I’d like to clarify the definition of sustainability. It happens to be a word used far too often without any concrete associations. We see this in both politics and economics: many people like to dress up their language with this word, but it remains an empty shell.

    Let’s take a look at the basic meaning of the word ‘sustainability’. The concept describes processes of all kinds that take place over a longer period. But what does this mean in practical terms? The German adjective ‘nachhaltig’ (sustainable) was first used at the beginning of the 18th century in forestry management. After trees had been cut in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, Hans Carl von Carlowitz described in his treaties ‘Sylvicultura Oeconomic’ of 1713 the management of a forest in which the amount of timber harvested did not exceed the amount that could grow again. So the forest was supposed to be able to regenerate itself and serve human needs on a long-term basis.

    Today, sustainability is increasingly used in connection with the concept of "future viability". In my opinion this is the most successful interpretation of sustainability, since it clearly identifies the idea of what we want to achieve with environmental protection: we want to make our Earth fit for the future and leave coming generations adequate natural resources. But in a cultural context it is quiet a boring word. If you ask yourself whether you want to have a sustainable relationship, I suppose that you would not automatically say “Yes, I want to”!

    Let me give you a brief chronology to illustrate the roots of the sustainability concept, and show how this concept has changed in recent decades.
    Sustainability first came into use at the beginning of the 1970s. The new discussion at that time was partly triggered by the ‘oil crisis’ which made the finite aspect of natural resources clear to us all. At that time, sustainability was seen exclusively in an economic context. The idea that the sustainability concept is decisively shaped by human culture was still beyond the scope of vision.

    In his report ‘The Limits of Growth’ of 1971 Dennis L. Meadows draws attention to economic and population growth and the dangers to natural resources. One thing was clear to Meadows: if we fail to use our natural resources prudently, we will be unable to meet the needs of the growing world population. In this respect, Meadows was expressing nothing less than the sustainability concept. At the same time Meadows also conveyed his perception of the world and the treatment of natural resources, which in turn was shaped by his culture. What nobody had thought of at that time was: environmental policy makes no sense if social and cultural components are simply ignored.

    The sustainability concept did not experience its breakthrough until 1987, when the Brundtland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development first mentioned the connection between economic, ecological and social development. The report clearly rejected the idea of producing regardless of the coming generations’ interests, and presented instead the concept of durable, forward-looking and sustainable development.

    So it was not just a question of how we use natural resources whilst endeavouring to preserve them for coming generations. No, the Brundtland Report first addressed the question: how can we ensure that all people have access to the resources and that they are fairly distributed?

    We can appreciate the additional impact of the Brundtland Report on sustainability policy, since the Brundtland Commission recommendation led to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

    During this conference in Rio de Janeiro Agenda 21 laid the foundation stone of a worldwide action programme for sustainable development. This was the first international conference where environmental protection, participation of woman and young people, development and cultural background played a significant role.

    I recall the Rio conference debate which resulted in the magic triangle, the so-called ‘three pillar model’ of sustainable development. It was an invigorating discussion, and exciting to see the different cultures and their sustainability concepts meeting in this common encounter. Under the ‘three pillar model’ it was agreed that sustainable development should combine economic, ecological and social aspects. Sustainability was made a key concept of international politics. This was new, and the goal now was to find a harmonious balance between the needs of the present population and the life perspectives of future generations.

    This was accompanied by the cultural concept. In the Rio declaration it says that sustainable development forms the foundation for the preservation and global protection of cultural diversity. So, culture had made its way into sustainability policy. And this is why I think that cultural and biological diversity have the same roots: If you agree that you have to protect the different species of the world, no matter if it’s whales or insects, you understand as well that you have to protect different languages - even German, Sanskrit or the French “Breton”.

    In the years following Rio, Europe has concerned itself mainly with the pillars of economy and ecology. But themes of heated debate also included the participation of women and young people, and the role of democracy. I vividly recall how difficult it was in the beginning trying to anchor Agenda 21 at local level. The main reason was that decision makers thought it would cost more money and would give up their power.

    Later, in 1998, another important stage was reached with the UNESCO Conference on Culture and Development. This conference represented a quantum leap for sustainability and cultural policy. It actually recognised sustainable development as the basis for the preservation and the worldwide promotion of cultural diversity.

    The issue has forfeited none of its topicality in the years following the UNESCO conference. On the contrary: this was clearly visible ten years after Rio de Janeiro at the 2002 ‘World Summit on Sustainable Development’ in Johannesburg. The aim there was to check to what extent the decisions and programmes of Agenda 21 had been implemented. It was obvious that Agenda 21 still lacked a broad social and cultural base. As a result a fourth, cultural, pillar was added to the ‘three pillar model’ with its economic, environmental and social aspects.

    I am convinced that the inclusion of culture marked a significant step in the sustainability debate. Until then the discussion had been restricted to technological and environmental policy issues. Apart from this, only a small number of experts knew what sustainable development really involves. Fortunately, the situation has changed since then.

    I’m pleased that a public discussion has taken off over the past few years, and that links are being created between sustainable development and its cultural preconditions. A multitude of initiatives have now emerged pressing for the further development of Agenda 21 and the cultural dimension of the debate.

    In this context, I consider the ‘Tutzinger Manifesto’ of 2002 to be especially important. It is a direct reaction to the World Summit in Johannesburg, and among other things states: ‘[]The concept of sustainable development can and must be strengthened and advanced to a point where culture is afforded an importance equivalent to economy, ecology and the social framework. [] Perspectives for the future can only be jointly secured in a closely interwoven world. Globalisation needs intercultural skills in the dialogue between cultures. []’.

    This brings us to the heart of the current discussion determining today’s agenda. In a globalised world we need intercultural dialogue in order to make headway with the sustainability concept. We should see globalisation as a chance for sustainable development. Where else would we find the opportunity to make comparisons, to be able to understand the positive and negative aspects of different cultures and make a critical appraisal? (Example: G8 Summit in Germany) As I see it, the challenge to sustainable development lies in bringing these different cultures together, highlighting the common and dividing factors and constantly addressing the rapid changes in societies and their cultures and the main issue is that we came to a dialogue and not to a “clash of civilizations”.

    We need cultural diversity, the exchange between cultures, in order to further develop the sustainability concept as well as ourselves. Culture and sustainability thrive on the additional, the new, which helps us to move forward. After all, we don’t want to limit our activities to repairing Cologne Cathedral in Germany, or Boston Cathedral here in the USA, although this is in fact sustaining in the sense of preservation. But does this mean we are creating something new? We need more tolerance, more knowledge, more diversity, and especially more joint activities. In my opinion, this is where we need to apply our efforts.

    Our upbringing and our experiences decisively influence our environmental consciousness. That’s why I consider it a fallacy to imagine you can create a different environmental consciousness in people simply by imposing an idea on them. We see how hard it is to prepare for the Bali conference to come to an agreement on Kyoto because of the different backgrounds! But it is not only during governmental conferences where things changed. There are a lot of steps which have been taken so far!

    Have you ever been to a Tupperware Party? In Germany we’re experiencing a new trend: so-called "ecotricity switch parties" are simply booming. At these parties, experts provide information about eco-friendly electricity, regenerative wind and sun power and they answer questions about the changeover. They started at home in their living room, but now the so-called ‘World rescue team’ is on tour in other German cities. In Leipzig the fourth "switch party" was accompanied by children’s festivities and music.

    I’m happy to see that more and more people, but also companies and local authorities, are reading the signs of the times. The initiative "Citizens’ solar power installations" is one example: such groups want to speed up the use of solar energy. Local authorities are switching to eco-friendly electricity and are even prepared to spend a bit more on their ‘clean energy’. But as I see it, there’s another component involved: all this shows that environmental protection can be fun and bring people together.

    ‘Doing something together’ plays a very important role in a world where people are more en more singled out! I think that upbringing and experiences form the key to greater environmental awareness. But it’s not always easy. How can we help children learn that trees and plants are essential for our existence when more and more children and young people spend the whole day in front of the computer or television?

    I’d like to give you a very practical example from my own constituency. It lies in a rural region to the south of Hamburg. We have a number of nature kindergartens where children playfully learn how to treat nature and the environment. The children develop sensitivity towards ecological complexes and learn how to value the woods as the habitat of plants and animals. I find initiatives like this simply marvellous, because they are laying the foundations of environmental awareness. And that’s why I’m wholeheartedly involved in ensuring that especially projects for children are supported. But a lot of parents say that children are getting dirty! I am so happy that there is a washing machine, this is their normal answer!

    Initiatives like this can be easily continued at school. For instance, classes can draw up their own Agenda 21 and start up concrete environmental projects together with the local authorities. Such projects help children to assume responsibility and think about the consequences of their actions. The same naturally applies to adults, who can increase their awareness of environmental protection through initiatives.

    Sustainable environmental protection is always coupled with changes in behaviour and cultural changes. But this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term learning process. Once we have recognised this, we will understand that diversity is not only sustainable, but that it also guarantees stability. Let me give you an example from nature. At the present time, only four remaining kinds of wheat are being cultivated throughout the world. If any one of these experiences any sort of defect, a huge section of the supply system will collapse. So, the stability of systems can only be sustained through diversity and genetic engineering is not the answer!

    Getting to know and value biological and cultural diversity is the keynote of current debates about sustainability and globalisation. And we can see that these discussions always go hand-in-hand with cultural conflicts. The question whether, for instance, ecological and social aspects should be included in international agreements at all, is always a question of cultural differences.

    In Europe we attach great importance to the cultural diversity of individual countries and regions. Cultural diversity and difference are included on principle in the debates within and outside the European Union. In France people actually refer to the ‘exception culturelle’, which means that culture is not treated the same as all other saleable goods when it comes to integrating specific cultural features into the globalisation debates.

    This consideration also plays an important role on the world stage. For instance, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions is of great importance within the context of the GATS agreement. All member states - sadly, with the exception of the USA - voted in favour of this agreement in October 2006. They indicated clearly, that culture is not an economic commodity, but first and foremost a cultural asset which, as such, needs special protection. This was a major success about which I am very happy. But we see that companies and states in the US do the same.

    These are all important beginnings, and they are also of significance in the environmental and sustainability debate. But what do we actually associate with the notion of sustainability? We want lively, diverse and exciting relationships, in the same way as cultural and environmental projects stimulate us to engage in mutual exchange and launch things together.

    Germany’s cultural and educational policy abroad is precisely aimed to promote this exchange. This is a fundamental part of the foreign policy pursued by our Minister of Foreign Affaires, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. We want to help people to engage in dialogue in order to achieve better mutual understanding. We want to transport our peaceful values, such as democracy and human rights, and learn something from other cultures at the same time. If we are acquainted with the cultural backgrounds, we will find it easier, for instance, to discuss the idea of sustainability as the search for greater ‘quality of life for all’.

    Our new initiative ‘weltwrts’, which we started in September 2007, aims in this direction. This new sponsorship programme is designed to make it easier for young people aged between 18 and 28 to work on projects in developing countries for 6 to 24 months, following their education or vocational training. Young people are really needed there, and they can cultivate in their daily lives the cultural dialogue so often talked of. They gain important and invaluable experiences: they learn foreign languages, improve communication skills and develop social and ecological competence.

    We are funding the project with up to 100 million US dollars per year. As soon as it was announced earlier this year, over 2,000 young people put in their applications. Needless to say, I am really pleased about the young people’s positive response to this programme. And, incidentally, 70 per cent of the applicants were women. The Federal Government reacted to meet a growing demand for voluntary services. As globalisation progresses, more and more young people are becoming interested in voluntary service in developing countries. What can they do there? For instance, care for children suffering from AIDS in South Africa, help to set up solar systems in Tanzania, or assist at a primary school in India. The young people want to become involved and get things going. To me this indicates that the debate surrounding sustainability, environmental protection and cultural exchange has already influenced our awareness of life.

    In my view, fostering this sensitivity and an awareness of the environment and culture is a very important task of cultural policy. Culture is not a panacea. But it expands consciousness and is a foundation for happiness, for further development and for peaceful coexistence. This is why we need more cultural activities, so that young people can share values together instead of stuffing their heads with trivial things, such as soap operas or a litany of brand names.

    Ghandi once said: ‘There’s enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.’ I feel this sentence perfectly captures the essence of sustainability and cultural policy. The purpose of life is not to consume as much as possible, but to treat oneself and one’s environment with conscious care and responsibility. Joy of life is not only consumption but also being together!

    Culture is a means to an end: it is a matter of promoting dialogue between cultures and pursuing international sustainability policy at the same time. Culture is not passive. It can help to survive and there is even more: creativity and genius are going with it! Culture is something we humans create and not something we consume. It lives, moves and evolves in its diversity. And this is where I see the interface with sustainable development and environmental protection.

    We have to succeed in raising people's awareness further. We must learn more about ourselves, our environment and about other cultures. And now, I look forward to your questions and the discussion, and thank you most warmly for your attention.