The Berlin political scientist Gesine Schwan is the chairwoman of the SPD’s Basic Values Commission. On Wednesday, January 27th, her new book “Politics despite Globalization” will be published (wbg Theiss, Stuttgart, 224 pages, 25 €). The following essay is taken from him in abbreviated form.
In his book “The Great Transformation”, the long-time director of the Wuppertal Institute Uwe Schneidewind, who took up the post of Mayor of Wuppertal in 2020, describes strategies for the political implementation of sustainable policies. His main aim is to show that there must always be human impulses for change, and that this requires a change in consciousness.
At the same time, however, the question arises as to which places in the political and social space can provide impetus for global sustainable solutions. Schneidewind puts the sustainability goals at the center of the socio-ecological change and with them the necessary interaction between civil society, companies and politics. He emphasizes the need to coordinate decentralized sustainability initiatives in a comprehensive way.
The goals agreed globally at the climate conferences and the communal initiatives must be compatible. But as we keep seeing, it is difficult for national governments, left to their own devices, to put it into practice. That is why the political participation of citizens in municipalities and cities is an indispensable engine. It shows that where solutions are urgent and possible, it is easier for citizens to come to an agreement than national governments, which are, among other things, lobbying pressure and often submit to the party-political power competition.
Institutions need to become reflexive
Local citizen participation offers the chance to approach problems from diverse perspectives, to recognize systematic connections and thus to do justice to the necessary complexity of political strategies. Schneidewind emphasizes that the transformation must be “reflected”, that is, taking into account the “side effects”. He therefore speaks of necessarily “reflexive” institutions.
The municipal multi-stakeholder development councils that I advocate are such institutions because of their diverse internal composition. According to Maja Göpel, the great sustainable transformation is about a radical, but “incremental” change. Citizens must be able to check the implications of their actions and be able to agree on them. That speaks again for municipalities and cities as the engine of change.
They usually bring many different people together and encourage creative initiatives. What Uwe Schneidewind and Maja Göpel call the “Great Transformation” is the incessant effort to use and expand all the possibilities on site – in urban development, in residential construction, in mobility, in the generation of renewable energy, in the development of heat.
The closure of environmentally harmful industries, especially coal-fired power plants, and thus the loss of jobs is a particular challenge. Here it becomes clear again that environmental protection and social justice go hand in hand. Because the poor, especially in the global south, suffer more from global warming than the rich in the north.
Injustice in climate protection costs
The poor in the north, on the other hand, are more troubled by the costs of climate protection than the rich. The long-term advantages and short-term disadvantages of climate protection often do not coincide. Anyone who loses their job at home does not benefit from new jobs being created elsewhere. In its uninhibited logic, without political regulation, capitalism demands that people follow production and move with it to another place. That’s what happened most of the time in history. Whole stretches of land were deserted, others flourished.
In Chinese state capitalism, too, there are therefore hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have to live apart from their families. What doesn’t touch you from a distance destroys biographies and human lives when viewed up close. In any case, it is not in keeping with human dignity if they become appendages to economic development. At the moment they often react to this with protest, resentment or violence in elections, vote for right-wing extremist parties and thus express their disappointment. For democracies this has become a danger that is visible everywhere. It is therefore extremely urgent to shape socio-ecological change fairly. Internationally, the demand is called Just Transition.
The urgently needed change comes into a situation in which the differences between rich and poor have grown incredibly worldwide over the past forty years. This has led to bitterness, damage to self-esteem and resentment. Above all, however, many people have become suspicious of “politics”, but also of their fellow human beings and of their own effectiveness.
Distrust in politicians
Building a new economic structure therefore primarily needs ways in which people can develop new trust. Many people, especially democratic politicians at the national level, no longer believe a word, even if they try to be honest. In addition, citizens usually lack the political experience and the knowledge to understand and classify decisions. New trust can only arise when people can have new, better experiences of their own.
In her research on the commons, Elinor Ostrom has shown that the common use of property works where the participants can experience and check their behavior among one another. Since many citizens who are facing a structural change in the economy have not yet accepted the need for change, their own participation in the assessment of the current situation and the requirements of socio-ecological change – especially in its larger context of climate change – is urgently required. What seemed arbitrary and pointless then becomes more plausible.
These connections almost inevitably come on the agenda in joint municipal development councils. In the municipalities of Lusatia and the surrounding area, in Görlitz or in Augustusburg, active mayors have had good experiences in building such trust. If the opportunity is offered not only to complain or to withdraw worryingly into your own four walls, but to put forward ideas and then implement them, then a positive dynamic arises.
Knowledge of your own resources
As a rule, you know your own resources better on site. Synergies and investments can be used in a more targeted manner. In a development advisory board, representatives from local government, companies and organized civil society – from trade unions to Caritas to local citizens’ groups – can give each other clever ideas. That doesn’t mean that national governments and parliaments can put their hands on their laps and just wait for the mayors.
You have e.g. B. in the “Coal Commission” (Commission for Growth, Structural Change and Employment) successfully advised the long lines on the exit from lignite and the subsequent legislation as legitimate parliamentarians and determined the possibilities of the budget – together with representatives of organized civil society and with company. But without regaining trust on site, without the initiative of citizens to design new productions, workplace ideas or activities themselves, to implement them in practice and to identify with them, financing alone cannot achieve much.
There is another reason why socio-ecological change should be approached in the context of a broader development perspective. Because the work that ends up – coal or steel production, previously also textile production or shipyards – has always been an indispensable part of self-image, one’s own cultural identity and the self-esteem associated with it. Social and economic upheavals always take place in a cultural, judgmental and emotional context.
People are proud of their work not only in Germany. The Lusatians were proud that they provided a large part of the energy for Germany. The miners in northern France felt the same way about their country. If their work loses its value in the changed market, the whole person may perceive themselves as devalued. Then depression, isolation and emigration arise. Humans are not machines, but beings who feel and consciously perceive themselves. Building a new context that strengthens one’s self-esteem is therefore part of the process if the socio-ecological change is to succeed.
Culture and education are essential
Technocratic measures are not enough for this. This has tangible consequences for a return policy. B. in Lusatia there will be a lack of workers for new economic activities. This includes attractive cultural and educational institutions, an interesting local architecture that conveys a sense of belonging. Choirs, theater workshops, football clubs, sport in general: all these aspects are brought together in a development advisory board that covers the entire horizon of the world.
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Joint communal development in communal development councils can gradually encourage disappointed citizens to join forces, network with other communes, learn from them and spark their own pioneering spirit. In this way it can be possible to accept the socio-ecological change, which is initially experienced as excessive demands, as an incentive for a better future. The question of justice in the Just Transition can also be dealt with better this way. Because if you have a better understanding of the distribution of goods and finances in the case of your own municipality, there is a good chance of applying the most important pragmatic principle of justice, namely to take the place of others.
That doesn’t mean you’ll be happy with everything. On the contrary, you get to know the political conflict of interests first hand. But it doesn’t disappear into a thicket that leads to conspiracy theories and encourages self-pity and passivity. You can intervene with a feeling of self-efficacy and act politically. Politics makes sense after all! It has an impact and it makes life meaningful in dealing with others.