Yes, we can – No, we must! Build a better, sustainable World

When contemporaries talk about the dark years of Nazi rule, they want to make us believe, consciously or not, that they themselves would have been immune to the poison of inhuman propaganda. The fact is, however, that about 99 percent of Germans did not openly resist the regime, and a large part of them were eager to clap their hands at the big parades. Only a few took refuge in a kind of internal emigration offering invisible and silent resistance. Those, who today pretend to know precisely how they would have acted in those somber times, can muster hardly even one percent probability that they would have actually put their own lives at risk through open resistance.

When people have the bad luck

to live in a dictatorship which nips in the bud any open resistance, they have no choice but to close their mouths if they do not want to expose themselves and their relatives to immediate danger. Only uncritical later born ones imagine that they would have been the exceptions, that is the few opponents or even resistance fighters. They behave like people believing in former lives. When asked what they figure out to have represented in earlier times, they invariably assume the roles of the greats: Napoleons, Caesars, or Alexander, although the probability that they were merely part of the overwhelming majority of poor servants, slaves, or peasants is immensely greater.

Meanwhile, few people doubt

that we humans are social beings, who find it infinitely painful not to belong to some group of like-minded fellows. In the long run, we cannot stand to being looked down upon by others or being cut off as outsiders. It is not only external pressure that causes us to adapt to others, but the same pressure also comes from within each of us. Without a common language and common convictions, that is, some common identity, people find it hard to live. This is precisely why it is such a terrible misfortune when a criminal regime abuses this basic need for common language, convictions and identity for its own purposes.

To avoid being seen as eccentrics by their peers, many then adopt opinions and actions they would previously have vigorously rejected. The hatred that Hitler stirred up against the Jews had appeared offensive to many people, so they looked all the more for reasons to justify their silence. Did Germany not regain much prestige abroad? And had the regime not succeeded in ending the terrible unemployment within the country in a very short time? Very few understood that in order to pay off the resulting debts, the regime expropriated the Jews then robbed in merciless wars all of Europe.

Even regimes that, in comparison to Hitler’s thousand-year Reich

cause infinitely less suffering and harm, can count on our social needs as long as they are able to produce some undeniable achievements. Vladimir Putin successfully ended the chaos of the 1990s (partly promoted by the West); he has given his country’s economy a remarkable boost despite Western sanctions, and with a surprisingly effective armament has turned Russia into a superpower again – a power that has nothing to fear from anyone but terrifies the rest of the world with its latest nine-times supersonic nuclear missiles that no existing ballistic defense is able to intercept. For these achievements Russians are very grateful and willing to accept the crimes of their leadership: the occupation of Crimea in violation of international law and the unbroken chain of murders and assassinations of resistant opposition members.

It is no different with China

Anyone who believes that the one-party system there is built on shaky foundations is completely mistaken about this rapidly rising country. In reality, American democracy is currently much more at risk of imminent collapse than the regime in Beijing. While a civil war and final transition of the greatest Western democracy to an authoritarian system under presidents like Donald Trump now seems entirely possible, China is showing the world a model of stability. The Muslim minorities in Xin Jiang and the people of Tibet are ruthlessly oppressed, but this is accepted by the majority, because the government can justly claim that no other regime ever brought material prosperity in so short a time to a people bitterly poor still half a century ago. It now seems likely that the billion-strong nation will reach 75 percent of the American gross national product as early as next year.

Everything in China is new, monumental and nowhere else do people believe so unconditionally in the blessings of science. In the fight against Covid-19, the country strictly followed the recommendations of its expert epidemiologists and achieved a resounding success, while Western countries, above all the USA, are completely incapable of decisive action due to rampant internal dissent. Nothing is new in the US, far from it: the infrastructure is crumbling and is threatened by decay, much like in Third World countries. Only American science still remains a leader in many fields, but it must increasingly assert itself against a superiority of medieval creationists and fake news propagandists. Meanwhile, China’s government rides on a wave of success, it is silencing the opposition with an argument that is hard to contradict. We will make you rich and admired all over the world – what more do you want? What has the American one percent plutocracy to offer? It has made itself rich above all others while a majority got relatively poorer. No wonder, then, that democracy is losing more and more credibility in its oldest homeland.

Dictatorships remain in power for so long,

as a majority believes their promises. The later born ones should therefore be honest and not contradict probability. 99 percent will always shrink back from any statement or action that a resolute regime punishes with labor camps or death: they prefer to cooperate and will rather behave as opportunists. We may count those among the chosen few who at least do not take part in the general adulation and keep an inner distance – in dictatorships this is the only kind of resistance that does not endanger their lives.

Accordingly, there are situations in which people are almost powerless

This is an important lesson, because today you cannot talk about any topic without being confronted with an immediate objection: “But what can we do?” During most epochs of human history, 95% of all human beings could do little or nothing, if one understands by that the change of a given political and social order. At best, they could – even under the Nazis – preserve their inner freedom. During the thirteen years of the Third Reich, was there the slightest possibility for individuals to create another better world? Certainly not! There was only the possibility to keep a consciousness of decency and truth in one’s head and to preserve this ideal for future times.

What does this look into the past have to do with our present situation?

At first glance very little, but at second glance very much. Nobody has to fear for his life, even if he represents the most adventurous or even downright insane views, as for example the proselytes of the QAnon movement. In Western countries this freedom even extends to the president of a world power, who may openly disregard and discredit elementary truths of science. Not only ludicrous opinions, but obvious fakes have conquered the public life in the United States and elsewhere and are not only tolerated by disoriented masses but frenetically applauded when emanating from the very apex of political power.

This is the first thing in common with a dark past

In Germany we involuntarily think of the jeering crowds that cheered Goebbels or Hitler. But as a matter of fact, we gave a farewell to the freedom of thought just a decade ago. A striking break in Germany’s intellectual history was the way the country’s intelligentsia dealt with Thilo Sarrazin. Even those who did not agree with the opinions of the former social democratic senator, should have said with Voltaire that he not only had the right to express them, but that his fears should be taken seriously.

But there was no willingness to do so. It was considered unforgivable that he questioned the self-image of his compatriots, according to which they had thoroughly “overcome” their past and could not only boast of the greatest tolerance toward strangers, but even lived in the greatest harmony with them. Sarrazin denied this and insisted that cultural differences acquired in youth can be so persistent as to become a serious, insurmountable obstacle to a mutual beneficial coexistence. Self-righteous German intellectuals did not want to hear such admonitions. From the outset, a real intellectual confrontation with Sarrazin’s theses was therefore out of the question. What was to be heard instead was a goat’s song of indignation all over Germany and Austria, where the self-declared defenders of political correctness demonstrated their abysmal contempt for a man, who merely repeated what serious scientists had long before him said and proved with relevant numbers in lots of unheeded scientific articles. Sarrazin’s only scientifically untenable fault had been that at one point he confused culture with biology attributing a special gene to the Jews.

Only German Chancellor Merkel made a valid objection

The book was “not helpful,” she said. That’s right. In the scarcest conceivable formula, she touched upon the extremely difficult problem of uncomfortable, sometimes really destructive truth. As already mentioned, in his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab! (Germany abolishes itself) Sarrazin had only presented insights that were not at all controversial in professional circles. But it cannot be denied that his insights were in no way helpful if Germans wanted to successfully integrate strangers and win their confidence.

Does this constitute a valid argument to suppress all unhelpful truths? Certainly not. The great damage was not caused by the book but by the furious outcry of its enemies. Had it not been for the witch hunt that followed its publication, the book “Germany abolishes itself” would hardly have caused greater damage, but it would have saved the government from recklessly accepting more foreigners into the country than the population is ready to welcome with active help instead of being overpowered by distrust and finally xenophobia. I guess that the sober civil servant Sarrazin, so totally averse to fanaticism, never wanted to achieve more.

The nationwide outrage of the self-righteous,

which at that time included above all people who did not necessarily shine with more knowledge and argumentative intelligence, but who insisted all the more on their moral superiority, marks the beginning of an intellectual regression in Germany called “political correctness” elsewhere. The rapid progress of this new pressure for conformity is now everywhere to be seen. Especially in American politics under President Trump, who elevated lying and the whitewashing of problems to the rank of a working principle.

But we are hardly in a better position in view of those imminent challenges that currently worry us far more than immigration. As far as the latter is concerned, we did perhaps really manage – at least for the time being – to turn foreigners into good and equal citizens who enrich our societies. Provided, of course, that in the coming years there will not be millions of new asylum seekers who bring the specter of xenophobia back to life. But now there are other problems or rather crises that threaten us a lot more. “Yes, we can” has a much less convincing ring, though it is certainly true that “we must” overcome them.

Here, of course, I am thinking first and foremost of the great environmental and climate crisis,

which will remain with us even when there will be no more talk of Corona. But what does actually happen? In a grotesque way, discussions are dominated by taboos and bans on speaking and thinking. The freedom to openly speak ones mind is being deliberately destroyed by the outraged, the wishful thinkers, the populists, the hypocrites and the reptile conjurors of political correctness.

Bertrand Russell, at his time a globally respected mouthpiece of a left-wing world conscience, was still allowed to say what is anathema today, namely that humanity is destroying itself through uninhibited reproduction and that nature will take revenge if mankind were to prove unable to oppose this development with the means of intelligence, namely targeted family planning. In this case, nature, so Russell, would just mobilize its usual apocalyptic horsemen, namely wars, epidemics, etc. Nobody today is allowed to utter such an elementary truth. Such freedom has been destroyed, not least by a well-known Austrian writer who populistically distorted Russell’s warning by conjuring up the horror image of “superfluous human beings” – as if family planning meant that we wanted to eliminate our fellows.

Arnold Toynbee, one of the most renowned historians of modernity, could still maintain that the fossil-industrial revolution invented in Great Britain would probably be no more than an interlude in history, because in the future humanity must once again reduce its consumption of resources to an ecologically acceptable minimum while putting a definite end to the poisoning of nature produced by the remains of consumption.

But the most clear-sighted thinker, whose entire life’s work was to warn of and to avert the ecological catastrophe, is undoubtedly Herman Daly, who may therefore rightfully be considered the “pope” of ecological enlightenment. Daly never shied away from speaking the truth without any compromise. For example, he explained that none of the usual measures, such as taxes, help against the squandering of resources, but only definite upper limits on their consumption. But these could only be adhered to if states decoupled their economies from each other so that each of them was responsible for consumption and the poisons it produced. Daly also clearly recognized that Karl Marx’s definition of exploitation was too narrow. Exploitation also occurs when the wealthy classes encourage the proliferation of the poorer ones in order to secure a constant supply of cheap labor (it is no coincidence that the poor in ancient Rome were already called proletarians, that is child-makers). As a scientist of his time, he was still allowed to state such and similar unsavory truths. Today the hypocrites, trivializers, and beautifiers shiver with indignation when confronted with such insights.

But the resistance always gets really fierce when cherished illusions are frontally attacked. Under the prevailing political conditions, a green revolution is simply impossible. We are just as powerless as people were under the National Socialist regime. Admittedly, we can take all kinds of positive actions on a small scale – under National Socialism Germans were able to do so as well. Within their own families they could do a lot to ensure private peace. But it was, of course, an illusion to believe that in this way the crimes of the regime could be prevented.

With regard to the climate crisis, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation. We can certainly vote for the Greens, give up air travel, some may change the car for a bicycle and even deny themselves the pleasure of meat, but this will not avert the climate catastrophe. The reason is to be found in the dynamics of power.

The power spiral

The leading giants USA, Russia and China, but also some smaller states like India, Pakistan, Iran or North Korea, are so focused on each other that they constantly scan the strength of their rivals, i.e. their level of armament and economic power, in order either to catch up with them or at least not to lag behind them. It is completely unthinkable that any one of these states should voluntarily leave the arena of this race, unless a world power grants it protection or an economic collapse drags it down. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, but hardly ten years had passed when the new Russia re-entered the arena of the global arms race. True, Europe remained aloof as if it could change righteousness for armament. But it could do so only because until Obama it trusted that the US would never allow it to come under Russian rule.

The spiral of military and economic power makes it impossible for anyone to reduce the consumption of resources if that puts him at a disadvantage vis-a-vis his rivals. The American military alone, with its aircraft carriers and jets, is one of the main consumers of fossil fuels – not to mention all other resources. This should deliver us from the illusion that a serious reduction in the consumption of resources is possible as long as the global spiral of power continues to turn.

In the future – and under present political conditions -, it will only turn faster, since emerging giants like China are not at all willing to comply with the American demand to join the US and Russia on questions of disarmament. Not only does China first want to become as rich as the West, it also wants to become equally powerful by equipping its military with a nuclear arsenal at least as large as that of Russia and the US. The same rush for military strength is apparent in India and may in generally be observed in all states as soon as they get economically strong. Under these circumstances, a reduction in resource consumption and environmental poisoning is simply out of the question. Only Corona has brought about an involuntary break, but not in China, the country that causes the greatest environmental pollution.

For thirteen years, it would have been an illusion

if the Germans had believed that they could change the political or social situation in their country. They were de facto condemned to powerlessness. With the exception of Corona, our lives are infinitely easier today, but none of us can change the great environmental crisis now threatening the entire world. Again, it is a regime, this time the power spiral of global actors, that prevents effective resistance. Of course, a single state like Austria or even the whole of Europe could drop out of the race and ban all processes that demonstrably pollute nature. But the consequence would be that such an individual state or Europe as a whole would reduce its own competitiveness to such an extent that its exports collapse because its rivals displace its goods on the world market. That would be a solo run paid for with weakness. But weak states are – as we, the former colonial powers, do, of course, know very well – easy victims of the strong.

Is all that remains mere powerlessness and a sure the way

into catastrophe? No. Just as many Germans, after the thirteen dark years of their history, retained within themselves the image of another better world and translated this image – however imperfectly – into post-war reality, so the global community, which is more interwoven today than ever before, will have to take the final step towards global unity in order to become once again master of its destiny. Only after this terrible race, this final struggle of humanity against itself, is brought to an end, will men come to grips with the existential crisis of fossil-industrial civilization.

We know exactly what to do in order to make this happen. My book “Yes, we can – No, we must! Build a better, sustainable World!” says as little really new about measures we have to take as do most of the books written after Herman Daly’s fundamental work. But one thing it does illuminate in a completely new way and in all its facets: The book shows in detail why we – i.e. every state on earth, no matter how green it pretends to be – are completely incapable of putting this program into practice under the prevailing political conditions.

Nobody likes to hear this bitter truth,

because, even when we are powerless, we like to placate our conscience with comforting illusions. But it is precisely this self-deception which makes us run blindly towards disaster. “Yes, we can – No, we must! Build a better, sustainable World!” is an illusion-free call for honesty and a sharpened conscience. That one of the most honest and illusion resistant of all warners, Herman Daly, gave it his special praise is certainly a recommendation: “Dear Dr Gero Jenner, Thanks for sending me your cogently reasoned, well informed, and clearly written book. I hope it is widely read. Best wishes, Herman Daly” (July 14, 2020). 

This may be an additional reason to overcome taboos, mental prohibitions and political correctness, for that is what the book is all about.

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