The German political economist Maja Göpel’s new book is currently Germany’s No. 1 bestselling work of non-fiction. It reaches back to the beginnings of capitalism to understand how we’ve landed in our present overlapping crises of environmental degradation, economic disparity, and illiberal democracy. In order to confront them, we have to first change the way we think about the big-ticket issues of our day, she argues, all of them. Paul Hockenos reviews the book for us.
At first, I was quite surprised that in the depths of our global pandemic a wide-ranging intellectual history of industrial society and its critique would find the way to top of Germany’s bestseller list. Maja Göpel’s Thinking the World Anew: An Invitation (Unsere Welt Neu Denken: Eine Einladung) was penned before COVID-19 broke out. But its analyses shed light on the coronavirus crisis, too, as our modern systems, argues Göpel, are fundamentally incapable of serving the needs of the lion’s share of the population. And to rectify this fundamentally skewed state of affairs we first have to grasp the underlying assumptions of the path we’re on – which must then be reconfigured in a way that secures a decent living standard for the many with the lowest possible carbon footprint.
Göpel is a scholar, founder of the World Future Council and Scientists for Future, and currently Secretary General of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), an independent, scientific advisory body to the German government, established in 1992 in the run-up to the Rio Earth Summit. One saw a lot of her last year when she spoke at the Fridays for Future demonstrations and appeared regularly in television talk shows.
The book she’s written was obviously conceived with a broad audience in mind – and thus absolutely no mention of gigajoules or sector coupling, nor even of political parties. It’s a thought exercise in which she walks the reader through the way our industrial societies have developed, the big ideas and thinkers behind them, and their fallout today. She emphasizes the connections between global heating, oceans packed with plastic, burning rain forests, exploding urban rents, and the yawning gap between rich and poor, developing and developed nations. We’re dealing with one huge crisis – rooted in the way we treat nature and one another.
Her thesis is that “we’ve refused to recognize the new reality. For the last 50 years we’ve lived under a delusion in which instead of physical and biological indicators we’ve followed monetary indicators.” If we want to avoid planetary collapse, Göpel argues, we have to learn how to radically restructure our economy and society, understanding that our resources are finite. She is not a believer in green growth: simply transitioning to green energy but refusing to part with neo-liberal economics won’t stave off the downfall of our civilization.
The theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Charles Darwin, for example, set us on the road to where we are today, although she argues their ideas were, until today, both misunderstood and applied in contexts very different than the ones in which they were conceived and intended for. She underscores the concept of value, which in capitalism is defined in purely quantitative terms: in financial measurements resulting from the forces of supply and demand in a society of self-interested pleasure seekers that prizes above all the accumulation of wealth. The value of a thing is its price, she criticizes, not its worth to society. Growth, productivity, and cost competitiveness are the guiding, almost sacred principles, none of which take either our environment or human wellbeing into account.
Homo oeconomicus, as she labels the purest representative of this system, “recognizes no qualitative difference between resources, no difference between genders, no cooperation, no compassion, no responsibility, whether at the level of the individual or society. He doesn’t even recognize society as such.”
As for green growth, technological progress alone, such as e-cars and ever more efficient refrigerators, will not alter the bigger picture of a global society that has undermined its very basis for existence, Göpel argues. “The new new is simply more from less, so that it’s possible to secure and raise economic growth without destroying the environment.” This is a step forward, she writes, but the obsession with ever more is unbroken and the faults of neo-liberalism obscured with green wrapping paper. “The security of supply on a limited planet with an ever growing population cannot withstand an ever greater volume of consumption,” Göpel argues. It is an illusion, she argues, that we can simply continue to live the way we always have by replacing our gas guzzlers with BMWi3s.
“Yields, profits, turnover, and economic growth remain the central indicators for successful innovations,” Göpel writes. This has to change: the value of technological progress must be measured in terms of its contribution to society.
Göpel thus sees the global Energiewende as one aspect of a sustainable economy in which decarbonized energy systems reflect climatic limitations, human needs, and contribute to the social fabric rather than ripping it apart. The Energiewende is thus part of a much bigger puzzle.
However, the book could have said more about collective and cooperative models of renewable energy generation, especially as there are abundant examples in Europe. On a micro level, the citizen energy projects from northernmost Scotland to Italy – and in Africa and Asia these days, too –embody what Göpel aspires to across sectors and on a global scale: valuable production the goal of which is not ever more profit for a handful of owners but wellbeing for communities and their environs. They’re an example of enterprises that buck the status quo without overthrowing the state. The DIY clean energy producers undermine the system from below – and provide examples for others to imitate – which is exactly why the energy multinationals and their representatives in the halls of power energetically try to block them out of the market.
The proliferation of such collectives is evidence that we can, on different levels, do radical transformation ourselves simply by doing it ourselves. Yes, the system has to change, but this can start from below, at the system’s lifeblood, its energy supply.