ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

Thoughts from Erich Fromm Price Ceremony

without comments

On thursday Jakob von Uexküll was awarded the Georg Fromm Preis 2008. The ceremonies, including a speech given by Uexküll took place in Stuttgart, and I had the opportunity to take part. Last year the price was awarded to Eugen Drewermann and Konstantin Wecker, which was very inspiring, so I was looking forward to the ceremony this year. You will hopefully see after you’re done reading that there is a link to planetwater!

It seems to me that Uexküll did two important things in his life:

Inspiring people:

Uexküll accomplished neither of the two things because of traits he learned at a school or at an university. But he had enough charisma, nuts, stamina, and he could convince enough people of the importance of these two organizations, so that he realized them. This fact alone is fascinating.

He is not a scientist by trait, but he deals a lot with science, recently with the science of global and climate change. Not so much because he is interested in the underlying processes of climate change, but because he sees that things are changing, and lead to a negative impact and hence he is alert and want to change things, so that future generations do not have to suffer because of his actions.

Things Can Change Quickly

Uexküll explained by example how quickly the climate changes. One of the first recipients of the Right Livelihood Award in the early 1980s was a member of a first nation in Australia who described how species that inhabited his homeland changed due to changing climate, and how he experiences that on a daily basis. Uexküll pointed out that back then nobody cared too much about this, and especially nobody really saw the global aspect of this problem. He also gave other examples for how quickly things can change: – It was a matter of a few months only after which the “iron curtain” broke down. Some people couldn’t adapt fast enough, and their leaders were no leaders anymore within a few days. – Environmental Change: There is evidence that icebergs melt way faster than we think.

The issue that anything can move forward into any direction after a certain threshold is exceeded is described in great fascinating detail in a book by Malcom Gladwell entitled “The Tipping Point“.

Society needs to change

The bigger picture is, that society needs to change in order for climate change not to occur in a destructive way. Uexküll has a rather philosophical approach to ideas how society can change. For me as an engineer this seems like a very interesting approach — I would rather look into technologies that can improve things.

According to Uexküll there are two main philosophical and ethical problems. One is that more consumption is not a good strategy: A city in Sweden decided that there should be no advertisement in public transport. And, another major city in the world, Sao Paolo, decided last fall that public advertisement is a form of pollution. For me, this seems dramatic! It goes back to Erich Fromm, his view on the importance on media, and how he described in his view of the 1950s general public in the US, that they take-in media, that any person, with the slightest degree of thought in it, would not be willing to accept. And where are we today… Anyways. The second problem is that there is a major rift between the values that our society still has and the way of life of most of society, especially western society.

Why is the general public not (yet) willing to change things dramatically? There is no more doubt in the scientific community that the climate is changing. How do you get society to change? Scientific proof obviously is not enough. Tradition very obviously is not enough, because in the last few generations so many things changed, and not in an environmentally friendly way. Religion… well, Religion has been a driver for societal change in the past. The Vatican has recently created a new sin, environmental pollution, but is that going to change anything? The Media? Is is a fact that US newspapers publish about 1/3 the amount of European newspapers on environmental issues in the broadest sense. So how is this going to change? How is any media that lives on the number of viewers or papers sold going to change a society towards a better and more environmentally friendly way? Politics? There are some good paths being walked along, some laws implemented in Germany for supporting energy efficiency in houses is one example. There are also bad examples, for example the endless discussion in Germany if we really should shut down atomic energy power plants after we had decided to do so… Markets? This is rather interesting too, and I’m not an economist. My feeling and observation in Germany over the last year or so is, that the less oil there is, the more expensive it gets. At least it seems as if oil is getting scarce… as a geologist I’m sure there’s more places that we could mine for more oil… right now a huge part of Alberta, Canada is being destroyed for that, and it seems as if Alaska is next. Right now the price increase in gas is also not enough yet to change any of my personal habits. And as long as national flights within Germany are cheaper than the railway, why would I use the slower railway?

One problem why change is not occurring is that there need to be real options (“alternatives” sounds in german a bit like tree-huggers). What other options do I have to go skiing than using a car? Not many… Now you might say, skiing might be over in the Alps in a couple of years, because winters will be too warm for snow. So what other option do I have than to drive to my hockey rink? What, do you say, you play hockey, and waste all that energy to make ice? Well, the option right now is that I go swimming and running. Well, maybe this is true, but then my argument is, that our society got so used to skiing, icehockey, associated with a lot of nature-destruction and car-usage, that we can’t stop really quickly… I guess not until we reach the tipping-point.

All speeches from the ceremony can be downloaded (pdfs, in German):

Written by Claus

March 25th, 2008 at 4:14 am

Posted in

Tagged with ,

Leave a Reply