Lifestyle: Hour of the hypocrites
4 April 2011
Can we reconcile a Western lifestyle with respecting the environment? Hardly, says the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung". Voting for Green parties is not enough to resolve the contradictions faced by a growing number of Europeans, as evidenced by the Green surge in Germany.
A Porsche Cayenne is good enough, for sure, to haul old bottles to the recycling depot. But in order to get there, a Porsche Cayenne runs the environment into the ground. The standard model comes with 290 horsepower. This is pure madness. And yet this lunacy, manufactured by Porsche AG based in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, provides about 7,500 full-time workers in Germany with a secure job. Will the new Green Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg, who called for a greener auto industry during the campaign, now go and shut down the Porsche? That would at least be consistent.
If the Greens win over the hearts of the bourgeoisie in southwestern Germany, as has just happened – in the small towns it gets over twenty percent and in the big cities and university towns forty percent of the vote – then the green of the countryside has definitively become a expression of the contradictions in which the reasonably enlightened strata of the Western world find themselves today. One could even say it’s party hour for hypocrites.
The global spread of the urban lifestyle is deeply at odds with our ecology: the mobility that comes with education, commuting and air travel, the sheer welter of stuff churned out by capitalism, heated dwellings and hot showers – all this is at risk, or would have to be severely cut back, if society were actually to take a radical new approach to sustainability.
All those who have figured this out to some degree but, at the same time, aren’t too eager to give up the best of modern Western lifestyles vote green. This historic upheaval in the political landscape is not just about the controversial rail project through Stuttgart or an arrogant CDU; it's not even just about nuclear energy. It's about the mendacity built into the very political structure when an “organically correct” lifestyle within the existing social system is sold as a tipping point for general change. When the more affluent, more educated, more liberal circles seek in a small way to make everything a little cleaner and more proper – and at the same time, to unburden their consciences – they delegate the major structural issues to the Green Party. The Greens are not anarchists and dropouts anymore. Today, we’re all Greens together.
In Baden-Württemberg the dilemma is more apparent than ever. Many want the dangerous dynamic of modernity to be held back by the Greens, and their motives are decent enough. But they are the same people who, while they do indeed want to take to heart the limits to growth in their daily lives, are extremely relieved that the financial crisis is slowly giving way to economic recovery. Baden-Württemberg owes its remarkable prosperity to its industries. Its chemical industry alone – not exactly a friend to the environment – employs nearly 100,000 and brings in 28 billion euros in annual sales.
If the Greens become a majority party, the exemplary lifestyle is this: the husband, who works at Bosch, makes a few things that are harmful to the climate (Bosch is, for example, the world's largest manufacturer of packaging machinery for consumer goods) while his wife, who opposes Stuttgart 21 (the rail project), shops in the organic grocery for delicious organic cheese from the local area and full-bodied organic wine from Apulia in Italy, avoiding as much packaging as possible.
Just how much sustainable lifestyles are grounded in the gains in freedom afforded by prosperity can be observed at any organic market in the Western world, but especially prettily in the Vauban district of Freiburg. The neighbourhood is named after a French marshal, and after the French troops left in 1992 their barracks were converted into a kind of model settlement for ecologically minded townspeople. In the regional elections on Sunday the Greens in Vauban won 72.2 per cent of the vote. These are all very nice, friendly people in Jack Wolfskin jackets; but anyone who has ever strolled through Vauban knows what the gentle “virtue terrorism” of our time looks like.
Now, one could say, “Wouldn’t it just be wonderful if everywhere else was just like Vauban?” Well, this won’t happen – not even if the Greens get an absolute majority. The “good ecological life” fulfils for society as a whole the same function as journalists’ forays into “Six months of a climate-friendly lifestyle” experiments, or actions like switching off the lights for an hour – and then back on again.
Of course, one can speak benevolently about all this. Democracy consists of compromises, after all, and inconsistent Greens can nevertheless serve as a corrective to the capitalist land grab. Besides, enduring contradictions are well and truly the sign of our times. That may be true – so far, the expansion of the party has been wholly contemporary. But no-one is saying that the new green bourgeoisie is the triumph of a new sincerity.