The Limits to Growth: Interview with Professor Mojib Latif

A better world? Always a nice idea. For starters, perhaps we could agree on a blueprint for a sustainably livable life. That alone is worth saving the world for. Eagerly we inquire about the state of the world during our meeting with Mojib Latif, President of the German Association for the Club of Rome.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Markus Wendler

If you like, at the end of the 1960s, all sorts of things revolved around the theme of "love" once again. There were the hippies, for example, a cheerful youth movement of flower children who had first found each other in Haight-Ashbury, a lively scene and artists' quarter in San Francisco, to pull off a complete "Summer of Love". And then in the 1960s there was this pronounced love of the car. The idea of the car lured one into a relationship as an ideal freedom tool, with which one opened up the world, amplifying oneself. Especially, of course, when you could dive into this world openly in a convertible. Open in a sports car - all the better! Open in a Porsche - super perfect.

Now we are in the present and first of all it is raining. That's right. As predicted by the weather forecast for Hamburg today. So take a waterproof jacket with you to stay dry in any weather, the weather man recommended. In general, the weather is supposed to go crazy this July. Enormous storms have been announced for Germany, extreme heat for other parts of Europe.

I really have to ask Professor Latif whether a Porsche that is over fifty years old is not extremely sustainable. After all, according to Google, something is sustainable if it is "durable, preserving, enduring, long-lasting or possibly even symbiotic". And to the long-lasting effect of such a Targa classic is added the good mood it spreads. For me and for everyone else. Something like that can also make a world wonderfully worth living in the long term.

Dr. Latif, how do you see the future of mankind and the world?
Not very rosy. There have already been several wake-up calls. The first was from the Club of Rome in 1972 with its report The Limits to Growth. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary, and exactly the opposite of what should have happened has happened. We are about to saw off the branch we are sitting on. But I remain optimistic that we can somehow still get it right. Though things would have to happen relatively quickly, because we are seeing several symptoms indicating that we are “overusing” the earth.

Which symptoms are those?
One is climate change. The loss of biodiversity is another, and it is really quite serious. Then there’s the pollution of the oceans, I’m talking about plastic waste. Meanwhile, the destruction of the planet’s forests, especially rainforests, is proceeding apace. The warning signs are unmistakable.

The Limits to Growth was a bestseller, yet no one seemed to feel like it addressed them personally.
That is precisely the problem we are struggling with when it comes to climate communication. For most people, climate change is still a very abstract topic. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere today is higher than it has been for millions of years. Our collective alarm bells should be ringing, but most of us are not really aware of the problem. Carbon dioxide is a gas that you cannot see, taste, smell, hear or touch. Yet its effects are becoming increasingly evident.

How do you get people to see sustainability as an issue that affects them personally?
We need to get away from talking about this in terms of sacrifice or having to give things up and focus on all the things we stand to gain. Personally, I would have liked to see some sort of carbon dividend included in Germany’s new climate protection law. A dividend would allow everyone to decide for themselves whether or not they have something left over at the end of the year.

“We need to get away from talking about this in terms of sacrifice or having to give things up and focus on all the things we stand to gain.”

Professor Mojib Latif

So financial incentives and nothing else?
We are going to need more than just financial rewards. I am thinking of the poor commuters stuck in traffic almost every day. If people had access to good public transportation in suburban and rural areas, no one would drive to work. Right now, things are going exactly the wrong way. You have to extend the public transit services first and then raise the carbon tax.

When the Club of Rome was founded, its focus was not just on sustainable development, but also on a livable future. In the current debate, this aspect has increasingly been neglected.
I agree. I see that in Hamburg in the debate surrounding a car-free city center. Just imagine how beautiful a city center without cars could be. When we’re on vacation in Italy, for example, we enjoy the giant squares where people can walk and stroll about. Here in Germany, we could also have more green, less noise and cleaner air in our cities. In Hamburg, we have a fantastic public transport system as an alternative to the car.

Hamburg is becoming a bicycle city.
Well, yes. But at the moment we still have the problem of trying to please everyone, and that’s just not possible.

What role does the car actually play with regard to environmental pollution?
That is difficult to say. Traffic as a whole accounts for about twenty percent of Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions. But that also includes heavy goods traffic, rail and airplanes. In the current debate, cars serve a sort of proxy role. Even if you don’t drive a car, you still wouldn’t be able to bring your personal carbon footprint down to the level of someone from India, for example.

Is there anything we can do that’s simple and quick to put into action?
We need to focus on how we generate energy. We need more electricity, we need heat – and that’s where the bulk of carbon emissions comes from. The transition to a low-carbon energy future involves three main areas. First there’s electricity, where Germany is actually doing quite well, with renewables accounting for around fifty percent of the energy mix. In the heating sector, on the other hand, we’re still not making much progress. And then there’s transportation. Gasoline is a fossil fuel, and burning it produces carbon dioxide. That’s why we have to work on cars. Making a car emission-free is not the problem. Many other countries have already announced an end date for the internal combustion engine. The German automotive industry would be very well advised to lead this movement. Life punishes those who come late, and this will certainly be the case here as well.

Are electric vehicles the answer for now or for the future?
They’re the answer at least for the moment. Everything we are discussing – from electric cars to the development of hydrogen technology – requires an incredible increase in renewable sources of energy. And currently there’s little progress being made in this field. What’s happening right now is far too slow. The speed has to increase by a factor of six or seven, otherwise we will very quickly end up with a clean power gap. After all, it makes no sense to drive an electric car while burning coal to generate the electricity to recharge the battery. It seems like many of our politicians have not yet realized this dilemma.

Educating the public is what you and the Club of Rome do . . .
I have my part to play, but we really need to consider (…)

Read the entire interview with Mojib Latif and more about the Club of Rome in the current ramp #54.

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