On Occupying Wall Street, Metal Recycling and “De-bubbling”: Conversation With Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker

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In the background, teenagers are sorting out their drawing equipment. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, the prominent German scientist and politician, has just been talking to this group of rather quiet young people and waves away the offer of a coffee break before the interview, asking, “Why not do it right now?” It is hard to believe that this kind and approachable gentleman, who has just explained the advantages of his energy-efficient home in detail to a bunch of kids, is indeed the “Resources Guru,” as well as co-president of the Club of Rome, a global think tank. 

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker in 2010.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker in 2010.

Student Reporter: You mentioned two new important pillars for the Club of Rome: “de-bubbling” and “de-coupling.” What do these terms mean?

Weizsäcker: De-coupling is not a new concept. It describes the de-coupling of economic growth from resource consumption and thus from environmental damage. “De-bubbling” is a term I coined in the context of a Factor 10 meeting and describes the need to be wary of bubbles in the resource sector as well. The global financial crisis has highlighted the dangers of bubbles, and currently there are many such bubbles in the resource sector. For example, there is 20 times more copper traded than we currently actually have.

You write that we have 50 years to change our way of consuming resources. Which trends are you currently observing?

Sadly, the trend of consumption and emissions has gone into the completely wrong direction in the last decade. People are consuming more and emitting more C02. Only 1 percent of metal is currently recycled. That is a catastrophe!

What will happen if we don’t change the trend?

This is hard to say and predict. There are studies showing that the Arctic ice will melt more rapidly than anticipated. This would cause sea levels to rise by up to 20 meters, flooding crucial areas. Apart from that, there will be more droughts, more floods and more extreme climate events.

Who should take the lead in this situation?

One is tempted to say the states. They would be the natural actors to reach agreements and formulate regulation, but states are at the mercy of big investors. They cannot act against them. So the challenge is to convince the large investors to change their resource-consumption patterns.

What is the role of young people in this?

Well, they can change their own habits: take the bicycle more often, consume less beef, consume more sustainably.

Is this enough?

No. We need much more to change the pattern. Young people can also exert pressure on politicians and take action. Occupy Wall Street is an example here. Of course, Occupy might not be successful … after all, you cannot occupy Wall Street forever, but it’s perfectly legitimate.

What is your favorite initiative at the moment?

The fact that the EU is considering the Tobin tax is very encouraging. The tax is meant to discourage extremely fast transactions which by their very nature are speculative and can destabilize the world economy.

What took you so long understanding the dangers?

I am not an economist. It took me some time to understand the mutual dynamics of financial markets and the control deficits. The arrogance of the financial sector has especially grown after 1990, after the collapse of communism. After 1990, the state lost much of its leverage over the private sector. Before, billionaires and businesses needed the state as the only realistic bulwark against communism. Of course, nobody wants communism back. But we should work on other ways of telling the financial sector that arrogance against the public sector is destructive. I suggest to build an alliance between parliamentary democracy and civil society. Democratically legitimated states can set the rules of the game, and civil society can help naming and shaming those who want to get away with greedy and destructive habits.

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