Peter Michael Lingens – honest or merely respectable?

In Germany, at most a few insiders know Peter Michael Lingens or the Viennese weekly magazine “Der Falter,” where he publishes his weekly articles. But the problem of seriousness and respectability is no less pertinent north of the Alps. It seems to me, that we should regard it as one of the main problems of our time. From this point of view, it is more than mere coincidence that I choose the Falter and one of its authors to highlight a fundamental problem.

Without exaggeration, it may be said

that the Viennese Falter fulfills a vital task for Austrian democracy – it is fighting with all its might against the Orban-ization of the country. Sebastian Kurz, the current chancellor, is distinguished by superior intelligence, confident demeanor, and even personal charisma. This imparts a special poignancy to his politics, as he has never made a secret of his admiration for Orban, the Hungarian potentate on the other side of the border. Of course, Mr. Kurz is far too intelligent to openly advocate an “illiberal democracy,” but in practice he is proceeding along precisely these lines. While his government promotes all print media that follow its line with generous advertisements, one can also say bribes and makes them compliant through bribery (a scandal, because of course it does so at the expense of the taxpayers), the Falter is dependent on the income from sold copies. One can imagine how precarious in this case too the position of the critical mind must be.

I always read the articles of Peter Michael Lingens

with special attention and often with admiration, because he belongs to the endangered species of those journalists who, apart from the two colors black and white, still recognize the shades of gray in between. The great passion of our time is to praise the like-minded and insult all those who think differently. But that is not what Peter Lingens does. He strives for justice – that’s what makes him so endearing in my eyes. In this endeavor, he sometimes even goes to the limits of what seems reasonable. In several of his articles, he explicitly praised the economic policies of Donald Trump. Those who do not know that he condemns the pathological liar just as much as any clear-sighted person might have misunderstood his remarks as an expression of sympathy. Even when commenting on the policies of the Turquoise-Blacks in the current Austrian government, he doesn’t let protest obscure his sense of justice. Lingens reminds his readers that the Social Democrats, too, were by no means squeamish when they held power. Lingens is credible because he is not a simple partisan. His sense of justice, fostered by long experience, prevents him from concealing the weaknesses of those to whom his true sympathies belong.

But his honesty has definite limits

and these are circumscribed by respectability. The Falter is committed to the fight for democracy and democratic institutions. Its best journalists, Florian Klenk and Arnim Thurnherr, are out like sniffer dogs to show how, at the instigation of the current government, the independence of the judiciary is undermined, post racketeering is practiced, and media are bribed. In autocracies like Russia or China, all this has long since happened: Opposition media are shut down, the judiciary is controlled by the government, and the most important posts are awarded on orders from above. From a global perspective, democracy is currently under threat almost everywhere – even and especially in some of the states that until recently represented it in a classical way. In the United States, the supposed model and defender of democratic institutions, it almost fell victim to an ambush: the storming of the Capitol.

Peter Lingens is unfortunately in the right,

when he compares the actions of the right-wing part of the current government with similar power-seeking under social democratic governments. These actions do not represent a historically unique case. In democracies too, those in power, whether they belong to the left or the right, have always sought to expand their power and, if possible, to maintain it permanently. Unlike today, however, most of the population and the most important institutions, such as the judiciary, the press, etc., strongly supported adherence to the democratic rules of the game. It is this support that seems to have been eroding for some time. A charismatic, highly intelligent, and talented young “leader” like the current Austrian chancellor could very well challenge it and introduce Hungarian conditions in Austria as well.  This is precisely why magazines like the Wiener Falter are vital to democracy.

At this point, respectability comes into play

Magazines critical of the government only have a chance if they are absolutely respectable. Any obvious error would be welcome food for their opponents. A magazine that opposes the government, that is, the ruling power including most other media, must be unassailable. But it remains unassailable only if it confines itself to the one topic where its position is difficult to attack, namely the defense of democracy and its institutions. That means, it should, as far as possible, avoid all topics where fierce and well-founded attacks could damage it to such an extent that its main concern is no longer taken seriously. One such issue is the climate crisis.

The climate crisis represents a neuralgic topic

because it is here that the question of honesty versus respectability is likely to arise. What is Mr. Lingens allowed to say and what not if the respectability of the “Falter” is to be maintained?

Some people may think this question to be preposterous. “In this country, we don’t have censorship,” they will say. “An intellectual journal like the Falter fiercely defends itself against all its possible forms.” These people are right. I am perfectly convinced that none of the star journalists, neither Florian Klenk nor Armin Thurnherr, prescribe thought contents to any journalist of their paper. Censorship just takes another shape. They will not allow an article to appear that could put their newspaper in danger, even if it tells the truth and nothing but the truth. This internalized imperative is enough to explain what a Peter Michael Lingens may and may not say on a hotly contested issue like the climate crisis. Or – let’s put it more sharply – what forces this otherwise so honest man to obscure the truth and instead tell us half-truths.

Untruths – that would be nothing special; in the tabloid press, lies are too commonplace to get particularly worked up about them. But if even the Falter and such an outstanding journalist as Mr. Lingens cannot be acquitted of this accusation, then the case takes on a paradigmatic significance. We are indeed facing a profound crisis that affects not only the climate, but at least as much the way we talk and are allowed to talk about it.

The assertion of falsehood would be outrageous

without the corresponding justification, which I would like to keep concrete and general at the same time, because it concerns untruths, to which even the Falter feel compelled – not to mention publications of lesser rank. Mr. Lingens would have had three possibilities to talk about climate crisis. Two of them are respectable in the sense that they do not damage the paper; the third alternative is honest, but far from respectable. It would get the paper into serious trouble.

Let’s start with alternative one,

which Mr. Lingens did not choose. He could have quoted almost any number of experts to tell his readers which strategy against the climate crisis remains definitely out of the question: switching to nuclear power plants in order to replace fossil fuels. Since Chernobyl, we know what a worst-case scenario looks like. Since Fukushima, we have learned that even a leading high-tech country like Japan is powerless against the consequences of nuclear contamination. Radiating material from damaged reactors is currently being discharged into the Pacific Ocean – with unforeseeable consequences. Nowhere on earth is there a safe place to store radiating residues. If all fossil-fueled power plants were replaced by nuclear ones, this would be the worst policy we can imagine as it leads to a multiplication of residues and nuclear pollution. Austria and Germany have done well to get out of nuclear energy. Moreover, few people know – apparently not even Mr. Lingens – that in the coming decades this path will also be forced on those states that continue to adhere to the nuclear production of electricity. This is because the stockpiles of uranium have been largely exhausted; today’s demand is fed primarily by dismantled nuclear warheads. The moment this supply is also depleted, uranium will have to be mined again, but natural mining has become so expensive that it will eventually consume as much energy as will subsequently be extracted from the uranium itself (Ugo Bardi, 2013, p. 94ff).

So Lingens could have argued, relying on internationally recognized expertise. He would then have placated his readers with the perspective that the green camp – to which, after all, his sympathies belong – has been proclaiming the right solution for quite a time already. Renewable energies should be expanded rapidly, and the electric car take the place of fossil-fueled diesel and gasoline engines. Most readers of the Falters would have considered this answer to be respectable. The paper would have benefitted. Even in business circles, the nuclear lobby is not strong enough to discredit the Falter as an anti-business publication.

Mr. Lingens has chosen alternative two,

which is riskier for the Falter since it must irritate a not insignificant part of its regular readers. As mentioned before, anyone carefully reading his articles knows that Mr. Lingens has much sympathy for the Green Party. Perhaps it is precisely this preference from which he derives the right to criticize them without much ado. In his latest article, for example, he takes aim at the Greens’ credo that the conversion of transport to electric cars will open up the hoped-for future of sustainability. He refers to an expertise conclusively proving that for the next few decades the supply of green electricity will not even remotely suffice to supply all electric cars with sufficient energy after the complete abandonment of fossil sources. However, if we continue to run the fleet on fossil fuel electricity, then CO2 emissions will, of course, not decrease.

Considering that for the Greens

the transition to electric mobility is one of the ten commandments you absolutely must believe in if you want to be one of their fold, this article represents nothing less than a frontal attack. Lingens is, of course, no expert in this field; like any of us, he must rely on the available expertise. He bases his judgment on a book by the technician and blogger Kai Ruhsert. But he could as well have cited an internationally respected authority such as the former president of the Munich-based Ifo Institute, Hans-Werner Sinn, who has gone much further in his criticism of the Greens’ promises. In a particular study, the renowned economist proved that green energies cannot sustain the German economy in its current form. As solar power is provided only intermittently, it must be stored, but the costs for doing so are simply unaffordable even for a rich country like Germany. To put it in his own words, “the green turnaround is leading us nowhere.” In fact, Germany must operate a parallel structure of largely gas-fired caloric power plants to compensate for solar power outages. No wonder that the withdrawal from coal and nuclear power has not yet brought about a reduction in CO2 pollution.

Mr. Lingens represents a point of view

Well established by science. Contrary to what the Greens would like us to believe, the climate crisis will not be overcome by simply switching to electric cars – and hence we will be living in a much better world. But it is not enough to expose an illusion for what it is. After this harsh criticism of a basic green credo, the reader is unsettled and wants to know what Mr. Lingens has to offer instead: after all, we must do something! This question is unavoidable, regardless of whether we are talking about a tabloid or an intellectual medium like the Falter. So, Mr. Lingens is forced to give an answer. People simply expect it from him. Supposed he were unable to give it, he should have remained silent on the subject. I think silence would have been the better choice for himself and the Falter.

Mr. Lingens speaks out in favor of nuclear power

He does so with great ease as he simply overlooks all available counter-expertise. It is simply of no interest to him – it cannot interest him, because after rejecting the proposals by the green camp he is forced to offer his readers a positive perspective. Indeed, the wish to do so immediately turns into the father of his thoughts – as proved by previous article, where Mr. Lingens does not shy away from endowing the nuclear solution with miraculous powers that are hitherto only known to himself. He pretends to know that “low-cost small nuclear power plants are not only very safe, but also do not need a “final repository” because they use their waste for continued operation.”

Using nuclear waste for continual operation? Lingens declares the new reactors to be a kind of perpetuum mobile, where eternal operation feeds on its excrements. Who whispered this silly nonsense into his ears? Is he confusing small-scale reactors with fast breeders, the most dangerous nuclear reactors of all? And where did he get the aberrant assertion that mere downsizing makes nuclear plants safer? The opposite is true. Just as a new generation of mini nuclear warheads has lowered the threshold for a nuclear war, small nuclear plants multiply the risk of terrorist attacks. And they do not reduce nuclear waste in any way; ten small reactors produce as much of it as one large one. They only accelerate the depletion of the remaining uranium reserves.

With this second alternative

Mr. Lingens has done no service to the “Falter”. By simply disregarding the overwhelming evidence against nuclear power and clinging to ridiculous assertions in the process, he has alarmingly lowered the level of the discussion about what to do about the climate crisis. His contribution is dishonest, but it is still respectable as it cannot cause serious harm the Viennese periodical. After all, the nuclear lobby will be pleased. And for a magazine critical of the government, it is of vital importance that it has at least part of the business community on its side.

Let’s now move on to alternative three,

which differs fundamentally from the previous two in that it would do great damage to the Falter. Its thesis is radical, and it is well known that neither Germans nor Austrians love radicalism, even if perfectly true.  What this alternative says, the attentive reader will already suspect. On the one hand, scientific evidence tells us that the strategy proposed by the Greens will not save us from climate disaster. On the other hand, equally well-established evidence proves that a renaissance of nuclear power plants cannot be the solution. And this is where matters really get complicated, because readers want to know what can be done if the Greens spread illusions instead of hope and the seemingly simplest solution, the “clean” supply of nuclear power, is totally out of the question. Alternatives one and two are dishonest because they deliberately conceal part of the truth. But they are respectable because business, politics, and most of the population are willing to believe them even against the evidence. Alternative three is honest in the sense that it does not conceal any of the present scientific knowledge. I would like to illustrate what I mean with a side glance at a great German intellectual.

Hoimar von Ditfurth

published a book in 1985 that would never have gone into print had its author not enjoyed such great authority and popularity with a broad public. This man of science combined an encyclopedic knowledge with the rare ability to explain the most difficult problems in such a way that they became comprehensible even to laymen. However, in contrast to countries with a long democratic tradition, Germany rather tends to devalue this particular skill. An incomprehensible language was and is the prerogative of experts, just as the use of Latin was the prerogative of the priesthood in the Middle Ages. Moreover, von Ditfurth spoke and wrote a beautiful German. In any case, his book “Es ist so weit – so lasst uns denn ein Apfelbäumchen pflanzen” /The apocalypse has come – let’s plant an apple tree/ was printed and became a bestseller, which for a short moment made Germans freeze in terror, as its message was outrageous. It was a fundamentally honest book, which – 35 years ago and in a manner unsurpassed to this day – listed all the existential dangers threatening humanity. Von Ditfurth considered the situation to be hopeless.

I can still remember how a flabbergasted radio reporter asked von Ditfurth whether he could justify taking away all hope from the young generation with his apocalyptic vision? The question was meant to include the answer – this book was too radical and therefore not really respectable, thoughts like these should not be spread. Of course, this book like all others of this great intellectual was the fruit of painstaking research. As far as I know, it has not been refuted on any point to this day, but its radicalism soon proved to be its undoing. The public, including most experts, did not accept or even want to know such a devastating vision. All were in a hurry to forget the book and its author. It provided no answer to the readers’ justified question: But what can and should we do?

No situation is ever hopeless,

on this point I wish to contradict Hoimar von Ditfurth. It is part of man’s freedom to be able to choose a path other than the usual one in any situation. But von Ditfurth was right in saying that our situation is historically unique, and that all the usual recipes fail in this totally new situation. In a huge feast, a potlatch – that’s how I would like to put the issue – man has burned up most of the fossil energy reservoir of millions of years within only three centuries and in the process poisoned the air (CO2), the water (plastic waste in the oceans) and the soil (with artificial fertilizers and pesticides) to such an extent that is now taking revenge on him. It is true that by the end of the twentieth century a large proportion of people had achieved a material standard of living never before attained in its long history. But now we realize the price we must pay for this unbelievable feast. At least since the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are living in a “repair society”. Even if not condemned to certain doom, as von Ditfurth said, we are certainly faced with a probable one if we fail in turning the tide. And today that will only happen in a radical way. The end of the great potlatch means renunciation, and radical renunciation at that. This is the third alternative, which Peter Lingens does not mention – and for good reason. Just dare to mention the word “renunciation” and you will be bombarded with indignant protests from all sides. The Greens don’t even mouth the hot potato; instead, they prefer to make illusory promises so dear to their voters. It makes sense why a journalist like Peter Michael Lingens would rather dishonestly make himself a propagandist for nuclear power instead of mouthing the word renunciation. And we understand why an article that tells us the bitter, radical truth cannot – yet – be printed in Falter. There is an unspoken censorship preventing such an event.

But the truth cannot be permanently suppressed

Lingens should know this. He is an authority when he relies on his psychological intuition, matured in long experience. Here he certainly knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff, i.e. the political jugglers from those who think of more than just their own ego and career. We even forgive him the occasional tendency to speak pontificatingly ex cattedra, as if he had already transformed himself into his own statue. Lingens is a great observer of people, a man of practice – and of courage too. Coming from a family of resistance fighters, he did not even shy away from standing up to the great Kreisky when defending his friend Simon Wiesenthal.

As a theorist

he is much less fortunate. When a man doesn’t care about attacks in the fight for moral values, one admires such an attitude as a strength of character. It is quite different when a man theorizes and does not care about arguments that question his position. Then we do not call this character strength but dogmatism. Lingens’ statements on economic theory are often dogmatic in a way that is hard to bear. As we have seen, his recommendations for overcoming the climate crisis are far from honest. When he talks about politics, Lingens is knowledgeable and has no need to appear with aplomb. When he presents himself as a theoretician, he compensates his shortcomings with the appearance of infallibility.*1*

1: Mr. Lingens is a bad theorist – if this is a personal attack, he must condone it, as he often dismisses the opinions of others as ignorant and stupid. Just as the defense of nuclear energy now threatens to become his intellectual “trademark,” Lingens enthusiastically champions national debt when arguing as an economist. He even goes so far as to recommend digging and filling in holes as a political means to stimulate economic activity (but in the meantime he seems to have deleted that passage). Just as Mr. Lingens invented perpetual motion in the case of atomic energy, in this case he uses a mysterious “balance mechanics” to attribute miraculous powers to debt as well.

Dear Mr. Lingens, if your panacea did really exist, then every “failed state” could pull itself out of the swamp by its own hair. It would only have to print money and distribute it. Even economic laymen know that debts only make sense if they lead to investments, the future proceeds of which exceed those debts. Even companies do not always succeed in achieving this goal; states often fail because the money borrowed is mostly used to distribute election gifts that yield little or no return. In this case, future generations will suffer under the burden. But Mr. Lingens is right about one point. It was sound policy that the state did not hesitate to take a lot of money in hand to combat the Corona crisis. This debt does not generate a return, but it has averted a large part of the devastating consequences (i.e., the reduction in returns) that the economy would have suffered without it.