To Have or to Be? A Conversation with Christian Berg

The philosopher, physicist and sustainability expert Christian Berg is a member of the German steering committee of the Club of Rome and has long been thinking about how as many people as possible can live well without putting the future at risk. In an interview with ramp editor-in-chief Michael Köckritz, he reveals how exactly this can work.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Jens Schulze

Professor Berg, who is Christian Berg?
Well, that’s the most difficult question right at the beginning. I’ve been trying to answer that question for fifty years now. Christian Berg is a human being who loves his life and family and our beautiful planet. Someone who finds our world extremely fascinating, who can get excited about almost anything, who very much likes to get others enthusiastic about things and contexts which he considers interesting, important or worth protecting himself.

The Club of Rome published its famous report, The Limits to Growth, almost fifty years ago. By now we should really all know what it is that we have to do. Why does it still not work?
I’ve been dealing with the topic of sustainability for twenty years, and my conclusion is that there are many different reasons. In the public dialog, we tend to always prioritize only one single topic, for example. But many things have a connection to political framework conditions and prices. Prices do not reflect the true ecological costs – in many cases, they do not reflect the social costs, either. And, of course, there’s our inherent reluctance when it comes to getting things done. Questions of identity also play a role: Who am I? Do I define myself by the things that I consume? Or by what I am? Erich Fromm asked this question fifty years ago: to have or to be? We should start to use things instead of consuming them. A consumer will take his share that will then then no longer be available to others. A user, however, will say: I’ll use it in a way that others can use it, too. This could give rise to a new culture.

"Who am I? Do I define myself by the things that I consume? Or by what I am? Erich Fromm asked this question fifty years ago: to have or to be?"



Christian Berg

A new type of sustainability?
I’ve written a book on this topic in which I tried to answer the question: Is sustainability a utopian ideal? The title is perhaps not very sexy, but it can be understood in a double sense. Firstly: We have known for decades what we have to do, but we still aren’t doing it – or only insufficiently. You could really lose your mind, throw in the towel and ask: Are we ever going to be able to achieve sustainability? And ­secondly: In the past, we committed a blunder more than once when we thought that we had finally understood it all. In the 1930s, we introduced a species of toad from Latin America to Australia because we thought it was a good way to fight an insect plague. Unfortunately, the cane toad doesn’t have any natural enemies in Australia and has spread to a territory of 600,000 square kilometers. On top of it all, the toads produce a toxin that kills other predators. This idea was well intentioned, but it went completely sideways. This means we should work to minimize those things that we know are bad for the climate. One example is decarbonization: removing fossil-based energies from our processes and activities.

In your book, you also mention sustainability barriers. What is that?
We, the human species, have a really bad understanding of exponential relationships. That has also become very clear during the Covid pandemic. There were a lot of people who said that the situation was not that dramatic, looking at the number of patients in intensive care. After all, some beds were still available. What they did not understand was the relationship between high numbers of new infections and the situation in the intensive care units some weeks later. That’s what I refer to as a “cognitive barrier”. Humans don’t understand complex interconnections. Another barrier is of a moral nature: we often tend to think only of ourselves. Our reluctance to change is such a barrier. We know that we should stop smoking, do more sports . . .

. . . but still, we don’t do it.
Right. There are also social barriers. Inequalities across our societies have been increasing for the last decades, for example. There’s a connection between the inequalities within a society and the problems it’s faced with. British scientists studied this connection about ten years ago. Surprisingly, they found that wealth hardly plays a role in connection with the problems prevailing within a society. This means that there are poor countries in which conditions are relatively equal and which have significantly fewer problems than richer countries.

"Humans don’t understand complex interconnections. Another barrier is of a moral nature: we often tend to think only of ourselves. Our reluctance to change is such a barrier."

Christian Berg

Just look at the US.
The US is a particularly good example: a rich country, a lot of inequalities and massive social problems. What has that got to do with sustainability? We need to understand the context in which things happen. When we’re talking about climate problems, we’re also talking about social justice. If we fail to understand these interconnections, our societies will drift apart, resulting in a rise of populist parties.

Are there barriers that we, as human beings, have created ourselves?
Of course. The big institutions – market, law, politics and technology, of course – constitute barriers. We’re talking about a carbon tax these days, but that’s only an attempt at compensating the failure of the market. Another problem in the political field. We’re faced with global challenges, but we don’t have any effective global institutions. The UN are sometimes like a toothless tiger. We need geopolitics. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and the Trump thing have made very clear how difficult that is. How can anyone ever succeed in making all these countries with their diverging interests pull together?

"The collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and the Trump thing have made very clear how difficult that is. How can anyone ever succeed in making all these countries with their diverging interests pull together? "

Christian Berg

So, what can we do?
There’s no easy answer to this question. I think we will definitely need reliable international cooperation. We need multilateral agreements and international treaties, even though negotiations tend to be difficult and the results are often not perfect. We have to act faster. Let me give you an example. The Paris Climate Agreement is an agreement which is binding under international law and which almost all states have signed. But it won’t work. So we’ll have to find other alliances to make progress.

Lesen Sie das gesamte Interview mit Christian Berg in der rampstyle #23.

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