Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Harald Welzer is a leading German social scientist and one of two keynote speakers at the Smart CSOs event in Cologne which I attended in October and outlined in my last blog. I found Welzer’s talk intriguing and affirming as he ended up describing some of the thinking which underlies our Postcards from Scotland series.
Weltzer began his talk by reiterating his critique of the German Green Party namely that since the Greens have become successful there they have joined the mainstream. So instead of critiquing capitalism and pointing out how destructive its growth ethic is, they are keen to promote the idea of ‘green growth’. However, Welzer argues that growth is never green. Indeed he argues that renewables only make sense if we have a vision of a different culture – a culture which is about less, not more. Indeed in a growth economy renewables simply become additional to fossil fuels and not a substitution for them.
Welzer admits that capitalism has delivered tangible benefits for people citing freedom, health, social security, education and increases in material wealth. However, he also argues that democratic capitalism lost its normative claim when it became Neoliberalism.
Welzer points out that when Limits to Growth appeared in the early 1970s there was lots of talk about creating different types of society, not simply different types of technology (for example, Ivan Illich). But in the ensuing decades much of this talk evaporated and now there is very little intellectual challenge to the system and little idealism. Indeed everywhere we look the prevailing view is that economic growth and rising material standards are good for us. This isn’t just about words and slogans as these ideas are actually embedded in our infrastructure, Indeed Welzer claims that every ‘autobahn tells a story about mobility’ and every shopping mall a story about how we should live and consume.
We generally believe that people are influenced by reason and logic, yet most of what people think does not go through cognitive processes. What’s more we think what we think because we live in a society which has provided us with a certain perspective and this is why people tend to think what everyone else thinks. The prevailing notion that we can change people’s minds if we give them information and provide diagrams only works, according to Welzer, with scientists and academics because of the context of their working lives. With ordinary people this logical approach doesn’t work because they experience their lived reality in a different way.
In our type of society based on the division of labour people learn how to be contradictory as they generally don’t mix up the different roles they play. So someone can know something in one role and make no transfer of it to another. For example, people can know a lot about climate change but they don’t then apply this knowledge when they buy an SUV to transport their family. Indeed there in no requirement for people to bring these thoughts into action: it is sufficient for them to be ‘concerned’.
Welzer argues that in Western societies there is an impressive number of people who are ‘concerned’ about the planet and the climate but this concern doesn’t affect their everyday practice. This is why we have had a huge growth in people attending climate conferences - a development which has been very good for the airline and hotel business but has done nothing for the planet.
It is for these types of reasons that Welzer and colleagues have turned ‘the communicative mode’ in a totally different direction. He now argues that we should not talk about the destructive strategies of companies, the terrible state of the planet or climate change as everyone - at least in Germany Austria and Switzerland - knows these arguments and is already aware of the problems. Instead we need to start talking about what can be done ‘to change the society without a negative reasoning for this change’. In other words, we shouldn’t draw on negative arguments about climate change as this doesn’t change anything. It was different in the past but now everyone knows these arguments.
For example, it would be great to have a modern city without cars and to make the case for this you don’t need to refer to the environment: you just have to appeal to people’s sense of public space.
To get away from negative, apocalyptic arguments which have become normalized and ignored, we need to tell a ‘counter narrative’. We need to give people the chance to develop ideas of what can be done in any given context. This is why Welzer has set up the Future Perfect Foundation (Futurzwei Stiftung Zukunftsfahigkeit). They search for projects and initiatives which demonstrate that people have already started to develop a different type of economy and different ways of living. These innovative projects help us to envisage what a modern, sustainable society looks like.
The projects Future Perfect are looking to feature are like ‘real life experiments’ in what can be done in terms of transition, transformation of lifestyles and productive styles, and consumerism. When people hear about these stories they learn that there is room in our society for manoeuvre; that people can do something different. What’s more these experiences are not just about changing society but changing people.
Welzer argues that we can use elements from these stories to compose a bigger, counter narrative of a sustainable, modern society. This then liberates us from the necessity to come up with a master plan or blue print of the ideal society – something that has not been shown to be positive in the past. The message from these stories is that there is not one transition to a new society but many transitions.
The Future Perfect foundation opened in March 2012 and now has 80 stories on its website. The foundation has also published a book on these stories, written by journalists. These stories have had a great deal of publicity in the mainstream press and also had documentaries on them on public tv. As yet they have only focused on stories from Germany, Austria and Switzerland but they are now trying to make their project more international.
At the event Welzer and colleagues were interested in hearing about the third book in our Postcards from Scotland series – The New Road: Charting Scotland’s inspirational Communities. It is certainly in the same territory as Future Perfect and is even written by a journalist (and his son).
I am not exclusively interested in climate change and am not sure that Welzer’s analysis works beyond environmental issues. On social justice, inequality and social mobility, for example, people don’t know all the arguments. What’s more, while I was very impressed by Welzer I have an instinctive wariness about thinkers who go from one extreme to another, disowning the previous approach in the process. I don’t see it as either/or: I firmly believe we need critique as well as inspiring stories of change.
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