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Do we have to change ourselves, Maja Göpel?

Author: Myrto-Christina Athanassiou |
Photo: Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek
Our fixation with money and prices belongs in a museum, the transformation researcher Maja Göpel believes. If we want to turn the utopia of a happy, environmentally balanced and good life into reality, we must learn to love change

Maja Göpel, you say that we need a new enlightenment in order to create a world that is truly fit for people and the environment. Please, do enlighten us!

For 40 years sustainability, and there are more and more players demanding radical change. However, it is completely unclear how this great transformation is going to happen. This is partly because, so far, we have focused too much on technologies and economic incentives without replicating the deeper logic in which they are embedded. Therefore, I advocate placing greater emphasis on people’s attitudes: what preferences, convictions and stories drive us? Many of the deep-rooted beliefs by which we live are no longer suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

But hardly anybody, at least in Europe, now disputes the fact that we have to do more to protect the planet.

Is that really true? There may be agreement on theoretical goals, but there is no serious questioning of the growth paradigm, for example. The belief that the good life can continue only if gross domestic product is growing is one of the most powerful obstacles standing in the way of a society that respects the planet’s limits. As long as that view persists, there will always be consequences. In other words, although there are more products that are efficient and environmentally friendly, their positive effects are cancelled out by the rising demand for them. Overall, more and more is consumed, because we are not allowed to slaughter the sacred cow of GDP growth.

The desire for growth has brought about many corporate, technological and social advances. It is hard to imagine the social market economy without that.

This belief worked wonderfully for a long time, because it fitted the context. The idea that there should be more and more of everything for everybody, and not just the nobility and the clergy, can of course be seen as fighting for freedom when viewed from a 17th century perspective. That era saw not only the discovery of the force multiplier that is fossil fuel, but also the emergence of our nation states, our monetary and credit systems, capitalism and democracy. However, at that time there were only one billion people on Earth, surrounded by seemingly endless nature. Now, there are almost eight billion of us, constantly producing and consuming more – and actually expected to do so for the stability of the economic system. This is placing our Earth and its social system under huge stress, with consequences that, in some cases, are irreversible. A struggle for freedom today should be directed against these pressures, which are sabotaging the prospect of a good, meaningful life with fulfilling tasks and a small environmental footprint.


Maja Göpel at the Wiesbaden Sustainability Dialogue: 17 goals for a better world (Video in German)


You identify “futures literacy” as one of the key skills required here. What is that?

We need more people who are in a position to systematically question dominant thought patterns, to work out completely new solutions and to experiment with them. I mean, specifically, those thought patterns that are ingrained in everyday activities but are not laws of nature. The more players there are who can develop critical and constructive “futures literacy”, the better equipped we will be to respond quickly to crisis developments and to keep the realm of possibility for potential solutions wide open.

That sounds good – but abstract, too. How does it work in practice?

Look at movements such as the Economy for the Common Good1, which brings together many German entrepreneurs, or the Transition Towns2, which first emerged in Britain. Changes of paradigm are even taking place at national level – for example, in the index for “Gross National Happiness”, which launched the Kingdom of Bhutan into the headlines a few years ago. This inspired the OECD to create its Better Life Index3. All over the world, there have long been people doing pioneering work. Even the alliance of banks and investors wanting to encourage long-term impact investments rather than just short-term financial returns is growing.

This may flourish in specific niches, but can a whole economic system be flipped like this?

If we think systematically, we can see that policymakers, technologies, markets and individual actions influence each other again and again. They encourage one another to make changes, and over time, this results in changes to the architecture of the whole system. As a result, we get what I call radical, incremental change: many small steps, undertaken locally by a variety of players, often acting independently of each other, create a momentum that results in a fundamental realignment of society. As a rule, the political framework changes only when enough people have become established who deviate from the status quo and no longer believe the legitimising stories behind political decisions. Who really still believes that all societies can peacefully continue increasing their production and consumption indefinitely? Genuinely?

I fear that a great many people still believe that. What can you put forward to counter it?

For example, the goal of an economic system that is much more resistant to crises. Our globalised economy is geared towards efficiency, speed and financial returns on investment. Therefore, functions are centralised, and many markets have a concentration of providers offering similar products and extending their production chains across the entire globe in search of the cheapest solution. As a result, our companies are increasingly reactive in their development, and national economies are fragile – as well as being sluggish in responding flexibly to climate change, for example.

Do you think perhaps it goes against human nature to give up the idea of constantly having “more and more”?

That is the stance of traditional economics. Even there, however, the concept of “homo oeconomicus”, who always wants to maximise only his individual, short-term gains, has now been discredited. Neuroscience, psychology, sociology and happiness research, for example, found valid evidence long ago that we humans feel more secure and comfortable when we are not in constant competition. Health, fairness – meaning the sense of not missing out in comparison to others – and the ability to shape one’s own life and have a stake in society form the foundations of this. Moreover, human nature is an evolutive construct that adapts itself to circumstances. If we take this seriously, we should now be beginning an age of heroic humility.

What do you mean by that?

Taking a radical view, I mean that we need to construct and maintain a secure environmental space for good human development. This leads to the question of what innovations can be made widely available incrementally but quickly to contribute to this transformation, and what parameters we can use to measure this. Our fixation with money and prices as the all-encompassing expression of value, for example, belongs in a museum. We can all work on this in our own individual settings. The more people that take part, the more likely it is that we shall get there!


Facts & Figures

1Economy for the Common Good
A movement that emerged in the 1990s. Its representatives advocate an economic system where values such as cooperation and community predominate. More than 2,000 companies have now joined the initiative, including many organic labels, as well as management consultancies, banks and handicraft businesses.
2Transition Towns
Initiatives that test out sustainable economic and energy supply models at a local level. The academic and environmental activist Rob Hopkins is regarded as the head of the movement. The first official Transition Town was Totnes in the south of England in 2007. Worldwide, there are about 4,000 projects, around 120 of them in Germany.
3Better Life Index
Introduced by the OECD in 2011. The index combines statistical data and subjective assessments under eleven headings. The index looks into topics such as how people live, whether they work and for how long, and what social contacts they rely on. Different countries come out on top, depending on the heading. For general satisfaction with life, for instance, Norway is currently best, while for the topic of work-life balance it is the Netherlands.

Maja Göpel is Secretary-General of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, lives in Berlin and has two young daughters. In her everyday life, she tries to practise what she preaches in her work: for example, she is a vegetarian, and she does not travel by air within Germany. A qualified political economist, she seeks to buy only sustainably-produced clothing and furniture. However, the mahogany table that she h most recently was extremely beautiful to look at, she says.